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Issues Explored in Oedipus Rex

How generic conventions assist the reader to become awareaware of social, political and moral aspects of Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex, written by the Poet Sophocles in the Golden Age of Greek Theatre, was described by Aristotle to be the greatest tragedy of all time. It encapsulates the very essence of the Greek cultural milieu, and it is these ideologies which are translated into the play. The very essence of Greek society; the political democracy, a moral belief in the power of the Gods and social recognition of hierarchy, are portrayed when the society is pictured in a state of chaos.

The Ancient Greeks formulated what they believed to be a true democracy. Everyone was to have a say in the political scene, every man had a vote and no one should be disadvantaged. At the same time, however, the society was very much a patriarchal one. Power resided with the male; the leader, the logical and strong enforcer. Women, viewed as emotionally erratic, illogical and weak, were marginalised. Men were given the most noble of duties surrounding the glory of war; women were faced with trying to raise a household.

This conflict is clearly portrayed in the text. In the opening scene all are equal. Servants, peasants and royals alike proclaim, "We are your suppliants." All have an equal interest in the state of Thebes and the actions Oedipus must take. After this, however, the females of Thebes are represented in the characterization of Jocasta. It is here that the chorus, the most important element of Greek tragedy, comes to the fore. As the Theban elders they portray the views of the greater society. Jocasta's actions characterize her as the stereotypical female. By ordering the death of her son, blaspheming the Gods and eventually killing herself, she shows the essential perceived frailty of women. Her confusion is epitomised when she states that the Oracles and Gods are liars, while then immediately leaving to pray to them to "save us."

The chorus denounces Jocasta's suicide, with the essential links being with pride and inevitably hubris. While they respect that she can quell the conflict between Creon and Oedipus, the eventually condone the disrespect Oedipus shows to her. She constantly pleads him to "leave well enough alone". However, little attention is paid to her at the time.

Another essential facet of Greek culture was its religious and superstitious nature. Oedipus Rex and the other Greek tragedies were written for the purpose of performing at a religious event, where the Gods were to be pleased. It follows, therefore, that the generic conventions would be aimed at constructing a meaning related to a pre-determined fate; often viewed as the cornerstone of the Greek religion. The prologue and the retelling of myths were essential to the construction of this meaning. As the audience already had an understanding of what was going to happen to the characters, they could see that any effort to change fate was futile and fraught with danger.

Furthermore, the understanding of the characters was used. In a dialectical argument, Jocasta implores that "no man possesses the secret of divination" and Oedipus challenges by saying that the Oracles words are "unfulfilled and lies." As both reach a higher understanding however, they realise that the Gods do indeed control their lives. As Oedipus and Jocasta represent the (albeit frail) society as a whole, it is expected that the audience will share this view.

Once again the chorus ,using rhetoric, plays a vital role as a generic convention. By marginalising Oedipus' flaws, due to their loyalty, they seek to blame the Gods for all of the hardships endured. The final words of the play, the Exodus, belong to the chorus and show just how dangerous fate can be:

"and let no man be called happy
until the day he carries his happiness
to the grave in peace."

Recognition of the social hierarchy, or 'chain of command,' helps to bring together the essential values portrayed. Although a democracy, the King ruled as a mortal, while men ruled women and masters ruled servants and messengers. In relation to the underlying moral values, the Gods and Fates ruled all. This hierarchy is shown through the anangorisis of Oedipus. He wishes to speak to the shepherd, who can confirm his worst fears. In order to see him, however, he must ask Jocasta who must then send for him. This is further exemplified through Oedipus' knowledge of Polybus' death. To begin with, the messenger must talk to Oedipus through Jocasta. Eventually, Oedipus shows his respect that that this order exists by imploring him to 'tell me yourself!'

A play represents society. By upsetting the societal order, the basic fundamentals of the societal group can be examined. In the case of Oedipus Rex, Sophocles portrays the basics of the Ancient Greek culture, the culture which existed in his time. He exposes a patriarchal society, one attempting to come to grips with democracy while at the mercy of the Gods. The social hierarchy is respect but forced to crumble, while the Gods rule it absolutely. All of this is exposed through the underlying conventions, mainly the chorus, dramatic action, dialogue, characterization and methods of social construction. It forms an in-depth exposition of the group and its formation of the beliefs and values.

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