Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge

By Charles Segal | Go to book overview

11
“To Look upon the Light for the Last Time”:
The Place of Oedipus Tyrannus in
Sophocles' Work

Among Sophoclean protagonists, Oedipus has a special place. If the generally accepted chronology of Sophocles' early and middle plays is correct—that is, Ajax (460–450 B.C.E.), Antigone (442–441), Trachiniae (440–430), and Oedipus Tyrannus (429–425)—the Tyrannus is the first extant play at whose end the protagonist is not dead or about to die. Correspondingly, it is the first nondiptych play in the extant corpus, that is, the first play that is not bisected by the protagonist's death about two-thirds of the way through, and so it is the first of the extant plays in which the central protagonist holds and dominates his stage from the first scene to the last. With the exception of the first ode (the parodos) on the ravages of the plague, Oedipus is also the subject of every ode in the play.1 These facts have to be taken with a grain of salt given the small percentage of the surviving plays, but they do tell us something.

Of the three extant plays written after Oedipus Tyrannus, only Oedipus at Colonus has a protagonist who appears in the prologue and carries through to the end. The Electra (419–410 B.C.E.) comes closest, but Electra, like Philoctetes in the other late play (Philoctetes of 409 B.C.E.), is the victim of a plot and is cast into the role of one who has to react to and suffer from the deception practiced on her by other mortals. In the Tyrannus, however, the “plotting” against the hero (so to speak) comes directly from the gods rather than from mortals. In fact, a plot allegedly by a mortal (Creon) turns out to be a plot from the gods, mysterious though this is.

In the role of the gods in the plot, Oedipus Tyrannus resembles the two plays that were probably written in the previous decade, Antigone and Trachiniae. In Antigone the vindication of Antigone against Creon comes from the omens and oracles announced by Teiresias, and these force Creon to reverse his decision to leave Polyneices unburied and to punish Antigone with death. But the news comes too late, and disaster envelops his house. In Trachiniae the life of the wandering hero, Heracles, is surrounded by several oracles, given at different periods of his life. These finally come together in a moment of illumination in which Heracles recognizes the divine pattern in his existence and also sees that his death is imminent.2 Like Oedipus, he remains a heroic figure to the end, but the

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