Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge

By Charles Segal | Go to book overview

9
Resolution: Tragic Suffering,
Heroic Endurance

EXODOS (CLOSING MOVEMENT)

After the great crisis of the recognition scene, the chorus' generalizations restore an atmosphere of calm and solemn expectation. Its concern also assures an attentive hearing for the Second Messenger, who now enters. His long speech holds a succession of horrors: first Jocasta's suicide, then Oedipus' frenzied entrance to her chamber to find the body, and finally his self-blinding.

The Second Messenger's introduction, though perhaps a little tendentious, raises two points important for Oedipus' appearance in the final scenes: purification and the distinction between involuntary and self-chosen suffering:

I tell you neither the waters of the Danube
nor the Nile can wash this palace clean.
Such things it hides, it soon will bring to light—
terrible things, and none done blindly now,
all done with a will. The pains
we inflict upon ourselves hurt most of all.

(Fagles' translation, 1227–31)

Greek tragedies tend to luxuriate in such accounts of physical suffering, generally narrated and rarely shown onstage—a tendency that they passed on to the Roman tragedian Seneca and thence to Elizabethan dramatists like Shakespeare and Webster.

The Messenger's abrupt-seeming announcement of Jocasta's death immediately after these lines contains a pathos and an extraordinary mixture of conversational dialogue and poetic phrasing typical of Sophocles' style. What the Messenger says in line 1235 is literally, “The divine head of Jocasta is dead.” This is fairly common Greek poetic idiom, however stilted it sounds in English, and it casts an aura of epic dignity, grandeur, and sorrow around the queen's death. But this idiom had an earlier occurrence in the play, namely at line 950, when Oedipus enters to hear the ostensibly good news of Polybus' death. “O

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