Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge

By Charles Segal | Go to book overview

8
Discovery and Reversal

The tale of Jocasta comes at approximately the halfway point of the play and is a turning point in the action. It creates an abrupt shift in Oedipus, from power, confidence, and control, to uncertainty and fear. He continues to act rapidly and efficiently, but he is now on the defensive. More important, the direction of his search is completely changed, for he now begins to investigate not just who killed Laius but also who is Oedipus.

Creon's exit at line 677 encourages the one-on-one dialogue between the king and queen, although the chorus, in accordance with the conventions of Greek tragedy, remains on stage and even participates in the discussion (834–35). The scene is long (634–862) and is carefully balanced between the two crucial narratives about the past, first Jocasta's, then Oedipus’. Jocasta's story is the first of her attempts to allay Oedipus’ anxiety, which troubles her.

Sophocles, unlike Euripides, is not concerned with domestic realism, and the dialogue between Oedipus and Jocasta remains formal and severe. She speaks with the dignity of her position. She repeatedly addresses him as “lord” (697, 770, 852). Although there is nothing particularly domestic in their talk, this serious, more or less private exchange between husband and wife evokes the marital bond between them and contrasts markedly with the more public, heated exchanges that Oedipus has just had with Teiresias and Creon. This quieter setting also helps refocus the action on Oedipus’ recollection of his past.1

By using Jocasta as the means to Oedipus’ discovery of the truth, Sophocles gains the effect of a double tragedy, for Jocasta's denial and recognition begin to parallel those of Oedipus himself. As we shall see, Sophocles also creates a double climax as the two protagonists come to their respective recognitions at different times. There is a tragic irony in the way in which Jocasta directs the action from human to divine knowledge. She cites Laius’ oracle to disprove the validity of prophecy, and her skepticism about oracles continues into the next scene (see 977–83). But her story about the oracle only sharpens the question of

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