Oedipus Rex – The Characterization
Sophocles’ tragic drama, Oedipus Rex, presents to the reader a full range of characters: static and dynamic, flat and round; they are protrayed mostly through the showing technique.
Thomas Van Nortwick in Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life describes Oedipus as he is seen at the opening of the drama, as a father to his Theban citizens:
In his opening words to the pathetic crowd of suppliants, Oedipus invokes images meant to reassure. As ruler, he is a father to Thebes and its citizens, and like a father he will take care of his “children.” We see already the supreme self-confidence and ease of command in Oedipus, who can address not only other people
’s children as his own, but also be a father to men older than he is (21-22).
As protagonist, Oedipus is at the center of the story. The dialogue, action and motivation revolve about the characters in the story (Abrams 32-33). Werner Jaeger in “Sophocles’ Mastery of Character Development
” pays the dramatist Sophocles the very highest compliment with regard to character development:
The ineffaceable impression which Sophocles makes on us today and his imperishable position in the literature of the world are both due to his character-drawing. If we ask which of the men and women ofGreek tragedy have an independent life in the imagination apart from the stage and from the actual plot in which they appear, we must answer, ‘those created by Sophocles, above all others’ (36).
Surely it can be said of Sophocles’ main characters that they grow beyond the two dimensional aspect into really rounded physical presences. This is done through mostly the showing technique, though the chorus at times is involved in telling the audience various pieces of information. At the outset of Oedipus Rex
the reader sees a king who comes to the door full of curiosity: “Explain your mood and purport. Is it dread /Of ill that moves you or a boon ye crave?” When the priest has responded that the people are despairing from the effects of the plague, the king shows another dimension to his character with his deep sympathy for his subjects: “Ye sicken all, well wot I, yet my pain, /How great soever yours, outtops it all.” Shortly thereafter a second round character makes his appearance on stage in the person of Oedipus’ brother-in-law, Creon. Creon begins as a errand-boy for Oedipus initially, returning from the Delphic oracle with the fateful words of the god’s command: “He fell; and now the god's command is plain: /Punish his takers-off, whoe'er they be.”
Oedipus boldly launches a campaign to do what is best for his people and for himself:
I also, as is meet, will lend my aid
To avenge this wrong to Thebes and to the god.
Not for some far-off kinsman, but myself,
Shall I expel this poison in the blood;
For whoso slew that king might have a mind
To strike me too with his assassin hand.
A touch of selfishness is revealed in the above passage, an element which a truly lifelike and rounded character cannot be without. As Jaeger says, there is no artificiality about Sophocles’ characters (37). Oedipus, in his public proclamation regarding punishment for the killer of King Laius, shows his compassion and mercy toward the guilty party if he confesses his crime:
Thebans, if any knows the man by whom
Laius, son of Labdacus, was slain,
I summon him to make clean shrift to me.
And if he shrinks, let him reflect that thus
Confessing he shall 'scape the capital charge;
For the worst penalty that shall befall him
Is banishment--unscathed he shall depart.
One virtue or passion at a time, the reader sees the character of Oedipus round out from flat to very three-dimensional. Seth Benardete in “Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus” portrays the protagonist in another dimension of his character, that of a suffering soul:
Everyone else is ill, but no one is as ill as Oedipus, for all the rest suffer individually, while he alone suffers collectively. He is a one like no other one. As ruler he is like the one that without being a number is the principle and measure of all numbers. Oedipus’ illness or disease is truly unequal to the citizens,’ for he is the source of theirs, but he regards himself as ill only because his grief is the sum of each partial grief. Oedipus always speaks for the city as a whole (109).
Displaying another quality to the reader/viewer, the king’s great gift of fluency is amply demonstrated in his cross-examination of the holy man Teiresias, “Monster! thy silence would incense a flint. /Will nothing loose thy tongue? Can nothing melt thee, /Or shake thy dogged taciturnity?” Next, the king is confronted with Teiresias’ accusation, “Thou art the man, /Thou the accursed polluter of this land.” Oedipus’ equanimity is felt in the moderation of his emotions in the answer. Teiresias pursues with another even more condemning accusation, “I say thou livest with thy nearest kin /In infamy, unwitting in thy shame.” Indeed, a less composed king would have succumbed to a fit of rage by this point; moderation is one aspect of the multi-faceted, well-rounded protagonist in this tragedy.
Oedipus, because of Teiresias’ strange behavior, suspects collusion between him and Creon, and publicly expresses his suspicions. Shortly, Creon, motivated by the rumors, emerges to defend himself, and thus presents to the audience a broader personality than before,
Friends, countrymen, I learn King Oedipus
Hath laid against me a most grievous charge,
And come to you protesting. If he deems
That I have harmed or injured him in aught
By word or deed in this our present trouble,
I care not to prolong the span of life. . . .
Creon expresses deep feelings of regret that he should be thought hurtful to his fellowmen – a most charitable notion. Following the king’s rather emotional charges against his brother-in-law, the latter responds in a cool-headed manner, “Attend me. Thou hast spoken, 'tis my turn
To make reply. Then having heard me, judge.” Gradually the reader comes to appreciate the qualities of a leader within Creon as he is rounded out by the author. Creon’s own words indicate his actual sharing in the ruling of Thebes: “And with you twain I share the triple rule?” Creon further disclaims all pretensions to the throne and demonstrates his utter unselfishness: “As for me, /I have no natural craving for the name /Of king, preferring to do kingly deeds. . . .”
As Creon grows in virtue, Oedipus seems to decline, as his deep suspicions and taste for blood are revealed: “I would not have thee banished, no, but dead, /That men may mark the wages envy reaps.” Just at this critical juncture when the king is calling for the death penalty, the third and last rounded character enters the picture – Jocasta. She immediately defuses the tense situation with her command to both parties in the argument:
Misguided princes, why have ye upraised
This wordy wrangle? Are ye not ashamed,
While the whole land lies striken, thus to voice
Your private injuries? Go in, my lord;
Go home, my brother, and forebear to make
A public scandal of a petty grief.
Jocasta and the Chorus unite to entreat the king to relent in his anger toward Creon, who is recognized as a good, not plotting, individual. And Oedipus demonstrates his flexibility in agreeing to the proposal, although it may be costly to him: “Well, let him go, no matter what it cost me, /Or certain death or shameful banishment, /For your sake I relent, not his. . . .” Jocasta, as peacemaker, seeks to get to the bottom of the quarrel, “But what provoked the quarrel? make this clear.” After hearing patiently the facts in the case, Jocasta drops what will be proven a bombshell in the narrative:
Once came to Laius (I will not say
'Twas from the Delphic god himself, but from
His ministers) declaring he was doomed
To perish by the hand of his own son,
A child that should be born to him by me.
Jocasta, as the sole survivor of Laius’ royal household, is the only one knowledgeable of the intimate details of the oracle’s prediction regarding Laius’ death at the hands of his own son. Meanwhile Oedipus’ doggedness as an investigator is highlighted, “Where did this happen? Dost thou know the place?” He is adamant in getting all the facts investigated thoroughly. He pummels Jocasta with questions, and she patiently answers everything with a clear-headedness that further describes her character as she becomes more and more rounded. Her recall spurs on the king’s mind to remember a long-past incident, “A roisterer at some banquet, flown with wine, /Shouted ‘Thou art not true son of thy sire.’" Jocasta’s recall of the circumstances of Laius’ death ring a bell in Oedipus’ head; he then recalls a remote episode in his life which turned deadly:
The man in front and the old man himself
Threatened to thrust me rudely from the path,
Then jostled by the charioteer in wrath
I struck him, and the old man, seeing this,
Watched till I passed and from his car brought down
Full on my head the double-pointed goad.
Yet was I quits with him and more; one stroke
Of my good staff sufficed to fling him clean
Out of the chariot seat and laid him prone.
And so I slew them every one.
The depth of Oedipus’ anger is clearly presented in this incident. Suspense is mounting as the story progresses, along with the character development. Let it be pointed out here that certain characters remain two-dimensional or type, for example, the priest, the messenger, the shepherd, the 15 elder Thebans who constitute the chorus, and Teiresias.
Everyone gets a brief respite from the suspense when news of Polybus’ death reaches Thebes. But the relief is brief because the Messenger shortly thereafter says, “Since Polybus was naught to thee in blood.” These words cause a big shift in the direction of the main characters, who now must trace a different lineage for Oedipus. The Messenger’s followup statement, “I found thee in Cithaeron's wooded glens,” redirects the action to include another flat character, the king’s herdsman who delivered Laius’ son with bound ankles to the mountainside. As the evidence mounts, Jocasta sees the handwriting on the wall and pleads with Oedipus to stop the investigation: “Oh, as thou carest for thy life, give o'er /This quest. Enough the anguish I endure.” The kng’s stubbornness spells his doom, however; he cannot be dissuaded from the course. Jocasta’s selflessness, a characteristic she shares with her brother Creon, is another facet of her character: “Tis for thy sake I advise thee for the best.” With a final wish for the best for her husband (“Ah mayst thou ne'er discover who thou art!”), Jocasta retires to her room where she, with the complete knowledge of everything weighing heavily on her conscience, hangs herself ( a courageous act in ancient Greece), unbeknownst to anyone. It is ironic that Jocasta, peacemaker among warring family, cannot find peace within her own self. This action makes her a non-static, a rather dynamic, character.
Meanwhile, Oedipus with firm resolution plods on in the investigation: “Let the storm burst, my fixed resolve still holds,/To learn my lineage, be it ne'er so low.” This leads to the herdsman and messenger facing each other in dialogue and the latter’s meaningful observation to the former: “Friend, he that stands before thee was that child,” indicating Oedipus’ true lineage. These two flat characters provide key information in the narrative so that Oedipus realizes that Jocasta is his own mother and that he killed his own father: “I stand a wretch, in birth, in wedlock cursed, /A parricide, incestuously, triply cursed!”
The character of the protagonist sees further enrichment in his final actions – removing the golden brooches from Jocasta’s corpse and plunging the pins into his eyeballs to render himself sightless, and simultaneously expressing is deepest anguish:
Say, friends, can any look or voice
Or touch of love henceforth my heart rejoice?
Haste, friends, no fond delay,
Take the twice cursed away
Far from all ken,
The man abhorred of gods, accursed of men.
Even in Pedipus’ seeming madness there is cold logic. The protagonist explains the rationale behind his self-inflicted maiming with these words:
What's done was well done. Thou canst never shake
My firm belief. A truce to argument.
For, had I sight, I know not with what eyes
I could have met my father in the shades,
Or my poor mother, since against the twain
I sinned, a sin no gallows could atone.
After a period of dormancy the third main character of the drama reemerges – Creon, who, as a static character, has remained his same good self:
Leave not thus nakedly for all to gaze at
A horror neither earth nor rain from heaven
Nor light will suffer. Lead him straight within,
For it is seemly that a kinsman's woes
Be heard by kin and seen by kin alone.
Till the end Oedipus remains consistent with his initial desire to remove the “dark stain” from Thebes: “O never let my Thebes, /The city of my sires, be doomed to bear /The burden of my presence while I live.” Looking back over the character development of the protagonist in the play, it is said by Victor Ehrenberg in “Sophoclean Rulers: Oedipus” that:
Oedipus is a ‘good king,’ a father of his people, an honest and great ruler, while at the same time an outstanding intellect. . . . He even shares the throne, not only with his wife who had been his predecessor’s wife, and in her quality as queen and co-regent merely adds to his own dignity and greatness. . . . He describes his position in . . . words which show that in his heart he wants full and absolute authority. . . . The suppliant people approach him almost as a god, and he is honored as a saviour. . . . Such honours, as every Greek knew, are dangerous, for they may lead to “hybris” (74-75).
And Creon, now the sole surviving royalty, begins to assume kingly powers in his new role, as he mildly chastises his brother-in-law for continuing to be masterly even in his blinded state: “Crave not mastery in all, /For the mastery that raised thee was thy bane and wrought thy fall.”
In summary, Sophocles three main characters in Oedipus Rex are all rounded, and the peripheral characters flat and static. The protagonist is dynamic from the beginning, and Jocasta and Creon become so later in the tragedy. Rarely does the dramatist use the chorus to convey information; most of this comes from exchanges of dialogue, which would be the showing technique.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.
Benardete, Seth. “Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.” In Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Woodard. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Ehrenberg, Victor. “Sophoclean Rulers: Oedipus.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex, edited by Michael J. O’Brien. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Jaeger, Werner. “Sophocles’ Mastery of Character Development.” In Readings on Sophocles, edited by Don Nardo. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1997.
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Transl. by F. Storr. no pag.
Van Nortwick, Thomas. Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.