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Old Friday, June 08, 2007
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Default Oedipus Rex: Catharsis

According to Aristotle tragedy should arouse the feeling of pity and terror – pity for the hero’s tragic fate and terror at the sight of the dreadful suffering befalling particularly the hero. By arousing pity and terror, a tragedy aims at the catharsis of these and similar other emotions and cures these feelings which always exist in our hearts. A tragedy, hence, affords emotional relief and the spectators rise at its end with a feeling of pleasure. This, according to Aristotle, is the aesthetic function of tragedy. Through catharsis the emotions are reduced to a healthy and balanced proportion. Besides pity and fear an audience also experiences contempt, hatred, delight, indignation, and admiration. Still, these emotions are less important or less intense. Pity and fear are the dominant emotions and they are intensely produced.

Tragedy, by means of pity, fear and other emotions also provides exercise and nourishment for the emotional side of human nature. It also satisfies our love of beauty and of truth, of truth to life and truth about life. Experience, and more experience, is a natural human craving. Tragedy leads to an enrichment of our experience of human life. It may teach us to live more wisely and widen the boundaries of our experience of life. Tragedy shows the eternal contradiction between human weakness and human courage, human stupidity and human greatness, human frailty and human strength. Tragedy gives us pleasure by exhibiting human endurance and perseverance in the face of calamities and disasters.

Pity and fear are the dominating feelings produced by the play “Oedipus Rex”. Apart from catharsis of these feelings, the play deepens our experience of human life and enhances our understanding of human nature and human psychology. The prologue produces in us pity and fear, pity for the suffering population of Thebes and fear of future misfortunes which might befall the people. The Priest, describing the state of affairs, refers to a tide of death from which there is no escape, death in the fields and pastures, in the wombs of women, death caused by the plague which grips the city. Oedipus gives expression to his feeling of sympathy, telling the Priest that his heart is burdened by the suffering of all the people. The entry-song of the Chorus following the prologue heightens the feelings of pity and fear. The Chorus says:

“With fear my heart is riven, fear of what shall be told. Fear is upon us.”

Oedipus’ proclamation of his resolve to track down the murderer of Laius brings some relief to us. But the curse, which Oedipus utters upon the unknown criminal and upon those who may be sheltering him, also terrifies us by its fierceness. The scene in which Oedipus clashes with Teiresias contributes to the feelings of pity and terror, the prophecy of Teiresias is frightening because it relates to Oedipus. Teiresias speaks to Oedipus in alarming tones, describing him in a veiled manner as “husband of the woman who bore him, father-killer and father-supplanter” and accusing him openly of being a murderer.

In the scene with Creon, the feeling of terror is much less, arising mainly from Oedipus’ sentence of death against the innocent Creon which is soon withdrawn. The tension reappears with Oedipus’ suspicion on hearing from Jocasta that Laius was killed where three roads met. Oedipus’ account of his arrival at Thebes arouses the feeling of terror by its reference to the prophecy which he received from the oracle, but both terror and pity subside when Jocasta tries to assure Oedipus that prophecies deserve no attention. The song of the Chorus harshly rebuking the proud tyrant revives some of the terror in our minds, but it again subsides at the arrival of the Corinthian after hearing whom Jocasta mocks at the oracles. The drama now continues at a rather low key till first Jocasta and then Oedipus find themselves confronted with the true facts of the situations. With the discovery of true facts, both the feelings of pity and fear reach their climax, with Oedipus lamenting his sinful acts of killing his father and marrying his mother.

But the feelings of pity and fear do not end here. The song of the Chorus immediately following the discovery arouses our deepest sympathy at Oedipus’ sad fate. The Chorus extends the scope of its observations to include all mankind:

“All the generations of mortal man add up to nothing.”

Then comes the messenger from the palace and he gives a terrible account of the manner in which Jocasta hanged herself and Oedipus blinded himself. The messenger concluded his account with the remark that the royal household is today overwhelmed by “calamity, death, ruin, tears and shame”. The conversation of the Chorus with Oedipus who is not blind is also extremely moving. Oedipus speaks of his physical and mental agony and the Chorus tries to console him. Oedipus describes himself as:

“…… shedder of father’s blood, husband of mother, Godless and child of shame, begetter of brother-sons”.

The feeling of deep grief by Oedipus is experienced by the audience with an equal intensity. The scene of Oedipus’ meeting with his daughters is also very touching. His daughters, laments Oedipus, will have to wander homeless and husbandless. He appeals to Creon in moving words to look after them.

The feeling of pity and fear has been continuously experienced from the very opening scene of the play. Other feelings aroused in our hearts were irritation with Oedipus at his ill-treatment of Teiresias, anger against Teiresias for his obstinacy and insolence, admiration for Creon for his moderation and loyalty, liking for Jocasta for her devotion to Oedipus, admiration for Oedipus for his relentless pursuits of truth and so on. But the feelings of relief, delight and pleasure have also been aroused in us. These feelings are the result partly of the felicity of the language employed and the music of poetry, but mainly the result of the spectacle of human greatness which we have witnessed side by side with the spectacle of human misery. The sins of Oedipus were committed unknowingly; in fact Oedipus did his utmost to avert the disaster. Oedipus is, therefore, essentially an innocent man, despite his sin of pride and tyranny. Jocasta too is innocent, in spite of her sin of scepticism. There is no villainy to be condemned in the play. The essential goodness of Oedipus, Jocasta and Creon is highly pleasing to us. But even more pleasing though at the same time saddening is the spectacle of human endurance seen in Jocasta and Oedipus inflicting upon themselves a punishment that is awful and terrible. In the closing scene, the blind Oedipus rises truly to heroic heights, displaying an indomitable spirit. Blind and helpless though he now is, and extremely ashamed of his parricide and incestuous experience as he is, he yet shows an invulnerable mind and it is this which has a sustaining, cheering, uplifting and exhilarating effect upon us.

Jocasta’s fate underlines that of Oedipus. So does the great song of the Chorus on the laws which are “enthroned above”. The song and in particular the denunciation of the tyrant are relevant to Oedipus and Jocasta. The song begins with a prayer for purity and reverence, clearly an answer to Oedipus’ and Jocasta's doubts about the oracles. It ends with an even more emphatic expression of fear of what will happen if the truth of the divine oracles is denied. Between the first and the last stanzas the Chorus describes the man who is born of hybris, such hybris as is displayed by the King and the Queen. The description follows to a large extent the conventional picture of the tyrant, mentioning his pride, greed and irreverence. Not every feature fits the character of Oedipus, nor should we expect that. The Chorus fears that he who behaves with presumption, pride and self-confidence will turn tyrannical and impious, and they foresee that Zeus, the true King of the world will punish the sins of the mortal King. If he does not do so, all religion will become meaningless, and all will be lost.
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