Pages 44-45


Summary

Oedipus, finally starting to realize the connections between Jocasta’s narrative of Laius’s murder and his own killing of a man, questions his wife about who had informed her of the circumstances surrounding Laius’s murder. Jocasta answers her informant had been the only surviving witness of the incident, one of Laius’s servants. Strangely enough, the informant had asked for Jocasta’s permission to leave the city and retire to become her shepherd once he had realized Oedipus had succeeded as king.

Oedipus expresses his wish to see this man immediately, and Jocasta is curious of Oedipus's apparent anxiety. Oedipus reveals his fear that he has already “spoken far too much” (768), but Jocasta presses Oedipus, reminding him she is worthy enough to know the source of Oedipus's grief. Oedipus acknowledges her importance to him and confides in her a story from his past.

When Oedipus had been living with Polybus and Merope, the king and queen of Corinth (who Oedipus still believes are his real parents), something strange had happened. A drunken man at a dinner banquet had unexpectedly accused Oedipus of being a bastard. Oedipus became furious and questioned his parents, who took the accusation as an outrageous insult. Oedipus was comforted by their reaction temporarily, but the drunken man’s words continued to haunt him. And so one day, without notifying his parents, Oedipus left Corinth, seeking the help of Phoebus (Apollo). However, Phoebus refused to answer Oedipus’s burning question about his lineage, and instead foretold that Oedipus was fated to sleep with his mother and commit parricide. Horrified at this prophecy, Oedipus fled from Corinth away from his parents in the hopes of evading the fulfillment of Apollo’s oracle, journeying to Thebes instead.

Oedipus then starts to tell Jocasta the story of how he had encountered a herald and a carriage carrying a man fitting Jocasta’s description of Laius while approaching the crossroads on his way to Thebes...


Analysis

This section contains a major turning point that is highly significant to the plot of the play. It is in this section that it finally dawns on Oedipus for the first time that the murderer of Laius, the villain culpable for the plague that has besieged Thebes, may in fact be himself. The play’s central theme of knowledge is especially key here, as Oedipus becomes exposed to the tragedy of enlightenment. Despite the urgent necessity in learning the name of Laius’s killer, the inkling that Oedipus himself may be that man is a horrific idea that awakens Oedipus from his state of ignorant bliss. A parallel can be drawn here between Teiresias, who previously exclaimed “Alas, how terrible is wisdom/when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise!” (216-317), and Oedipus, as both men are tormented and burdened by their knowledge. Oedipus’ evidently growing fear and anxiety as he becomes “full of tears” (767) at this realization evokes a sympathetic response from the readers, and redeems his reputation somewhat from the last scene, in which he wrongly and obstinately accuses Creon and Teiresias of plotting against him.

Jocasta’s ambiguous relation to Oedipus as both wife and mother is also hinted at in this section of the play. Jocasta, without ever hesitating, assures Oedipus more than once that the one servant who survived the murder incident could be easily summoned to the palace, once she perceives that Oedipus’ “heart [is] so set” (766) on seeing this servant. Jocasta’s wish to comfort and alleviate Oedipus from his pain is suggestive of any mother’s wish to protect her child from any source of grief. There is also a certain degree of irony in Oedipus’ saying to Jocasta, “Whom should I confide in rather than you, who is there/of more importance to me who have passed through such a fortune” (773-774), before enlightening her on Apollo’s prophecy of his fate to lie with his mother and kill his father. Although it is yet unknown to Oedipus, such information should only rightfully be shared with Jocasta, not just because Oedipus indeed deems her an important figure, but also because she is a large part of that very prophecy herself.

Oedipus’ unfolding of the story on how he learned the prophecy of his fate highlights his apparent blindness. Despite his pompous attitude in regarding himself as a great puzzle-solver and claiming he was held the “greatest of the citizens in Corinth” (776) even in his past, his true blindness manifests itself as Oedipus still does not at this point seem to doubt that Merope and Polybus are his real parents or that Jocasta is his wife and nothing more. Similarly, Oedipus' decision that simply fleeing Corinth, without further pursuing the truth behind his parentage, demonstrates his shortsightedness. The reader may even begin to question why Oedipus, having heard of "the infamies told in that dreadful oracle" (797), could not have just vowed to kill no man, or even lie with any woman older than himself in his lifetime. Oedipus' lack of precaution is partially to blame for his downfall, thus befitting his identity as a tragic hero.