Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge

By Charles Segal | Go to book overview

7
The Crisis of the City and the King

PROLOGUE AND PARODE (1–215)

The opening scene or prologue (i.e., everything before the entrance of the chorus at 151) is brilliantly constructed. Quickly and economically, Sophocles leads us into the city's crisis, provides the essential details to orient us in the present, and lets us see the chief protagonist in action. Nothing seems superfluous. The background emerges from the situation itself. But behind the clarity of exposition lie many unknowns: the remote death of Laius, the Sphinx, Apollo, and of course the awful truth that is hinted at in the ironies and the double meanings, as when Oedipus pledges that he will be “removing the pollution not on behalf of remoter kin but for my very self” (137–38).

The play opens with Oedipus standing before a group of citizens who carry the insignia of ritual supplication. They have come to him, their ruler and protector, for help against the ravages of the plague. The visual configuration shows him in his role as king, the protector of his people.1 His brief speech of comfort, the first words of the play (1–13), establishes quickly and specifically some basic traits of his character: his concern for the city and its inhabitants, his reverence for the marks of supplication, his compassion for the young and helpless, his energy and good will. These impressions are confirmed by the Priest, the spokesman for the suppliants, who addresses the king with hope and confidence in his power, recalling his previous successes, particularly in defeating the Sphinx. The people regard him as their savior, almost as a god (48), and Oedipus responds to the challenge with compassion, commitment, and energy.

This is the only surviving play of Sophocles that begins with such a mass scene—an effect more common in Aeschylus and Euripides. Generally Sophocles begins with a quieter, more private setting, a monologue or a close conversation between two characters (as in Antigone, Electra,or Oedipus at Colonus). The public nature of the opening of Oedipus, with its ritual acts of supplicatory prayers, offerings, and laments, calls attention both to the danger facing the entire city and to Oedipus' responsibility as the leader who confronts that danger and takes it upon himself.

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