Oedipus the King: A Model Reflection of Classical Ideology

Chanchal Chauhan

Every work of art and literature reflects the ideas of a dominant class prevalent in the time and place of an era. The classical literature reflects the ideology of the ruling classes of the age in which these were created. The social system of the age was known as the master-slave society. The world-view reflected in all the works of those days may be termed as classical ideology. The essence of this ideology can be understood by comparing ‘Classicism’ and ‘Romanticism’ as done by T E Hulme who explained the difference between the two by saying that classicism teaches us, ‘man cannot transcend his limitations’ while romanticism revolts against this ideology of the ruling classes who try to keep the slaves under their control by teaching them the philosophy of ‘fate’ and determinism that form the core of this ideology. Romanticism liberates mankind from from all kinds of shackles created by rulers in a class society. We see that Prometheus is bound in Aeschylus's play while he is liberated in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound Any hero or heroine of the classical literature who attempts to transcend the given destiny or role assigned by fate ultimately falls. All the plots of that age were woven round this message, be it the story of Icarus, Prometheus or Oedipus. Later, we find the same ideology was adopted by ruling classes during the Christian era too. It gradually took the shape of the theory of ‘the chain of being’ by the time of Bolingbroke and given a crude poetic form by a neo-classical English poet, Alexander Pope in the 18th century The writers of English creativity such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and even Milton based their works on this philosophy of classicism that man cannot transcend his limitations. All the tragic figures of these writers fall because they try to transcend their limitations, be it Dr. Faustus, Hamlet or Adam and Eve of the Paradise Lost

However, the uniqueness of the story of Oedipus the King lies in the fact that it is not narrated in a straightforward or linear manner, but revealed as a riddle. The classical ideology is woven within the workings of fate, which ultimately propel the uncovering of the story. The unknown past of the hero is created as a mystery and that is revealed in a gradual process. The message is conveyed by various means that what was destined to happen in the life of the hero could not be undone by the actions taken by human beings. 

The superstructure created by the ruling classes of the Greek civilisation instilled fear in the minds of their subjects that every body has a predetermined role to play in the universe. Any person who tries to violate that established system has to suffer and meet a tragic end. Sophocles is not above this ideology of his age and creates a plot asserting the ethos set up by the rulers of the civilisation. Other critics treat this social aspect as ‘the work of fate’. Every thread of the story is woven in such a way as reinforces the message of the classical ideology that man cannot transcend his limitations. The oracle had told Oedipus's parents early of their son's fate. The parents tried their best to transcend those limitations that their son carried since his birth. To save themselves from the ignominy and their subjects from any miasma they planned to do away with the child so that the oracle may not prove to be right. They do not know that their plan would fail and all that would happen which was destined to be. The first attempt of the parents failed. When Oedipus later heard of his fate, he too decided to transcend his limitations and ran away only to return to the clutches of his predetermined destiny at Thebes, his birth town. Oedipus finds out later that his actions only pushed him to commit the same sins that were bound to happen. So there was no escape. It is reflective of the norms of a slave society of Sophocles’s age when a slave had no way out to escape the clutches of his masters.

The technique adopted by the playwright to uncover the story resembles the modern method of flashback. The story that has a beginning in the present when Oedipus tries to find out the cause of miasma (plague, in this case) takes us back to the past; this is the key to the mystery. But the artistic talent of the playwright interweaves the past into the present and thus creates an attractive texture. The time and place are segregated by human attempts, but the working of the fate creates a unity of them, and so happens with the past and present. The past proposes, present disposes. 

Some critics hold the view that the story; however ultimately has no moral lesson. Those who look at the text from formalist angle may find that the working of fate restores order. It is, in fact, an assertion of classical ideology as we see that human beings tried to change the fate of Oedipus, but failed. Oedipus failed in the same way as Icarus failed and fell. Prometheus tried to transcend the limitations, he too invites the wrath of the masters of his destiny.. The classical literature needs be explained from this angle too.

The Question of Justice in Oedipus the King

If we look at the story of the play, Oedipus the King, we may rightly think that there was no justice done and man is treated just a tool in the hands of some invisible force known as fate.  King Laius and Queen Jocasta, shudder to hear the prophecy of the Delphic oracle, so they had the young Oedipus left on Mount Cithaeron to die. In Greek society, killing a blood relation and committing incest were the most heinous sins that, according to a common belief, could lead to some kind of horrifying miasma such as the darkening of the sun or fall of stars or any other kind of such disaster affecting the well-being of the whole population. The parents of the child, therefore, try to save themselves and their subjects from this future disaster that was destined to happen if the child lives and grows in the family. From modern outlook, this was but natural to avoid a disastrous consequence. However, the classical ideology was given the artistic form to justify the ways of gods to men. In reality, the attempt of the writers of the classical age was to justify the class rule of masters over the slaves.

 A dramatist like Sophocles too gives atavistic form to a folk tale that preaches the philosophy of the rulers in the name of fat, an idea of predetermined destiny. The classical ideology in essence finds place not only in ancient Greek classics, it can be seen as a foundation of all great epics of the world literature such as plays and epics of ancient literature of India, and China.

The fate in Sophocles’s play leads Oedipus to the destiny carved out by his fate. He was destined to kill his father and thus the sin is committed without knowing what he did and then without knowing the reality he marries his own mother. Oedipus, seemingly a good person, thus, commits the sins as were told by Delphic oracles and he is not aware of those sins. The original sin was committed by King Laius and Jocasta who deliberately attempted to let their child Oedipus die. It was, of course, done to save the whole community from any future catastrophe in the form of any miasma, but the sin, however, was committed. If Thebes suffers, it may equally be because of the sins committed by King Laius. But Sophocles does not employ ambiguity; classical ideology forces him to lead Oedipus the king to the tragic end. If he does any wrong, it is his attempt to escape the destiny predetermined by fate. In the slavery system one is supposed to surrender to the will of masters. It is during the Elizabethan period, the era of rising capitalism that this type of justice was lamented upon, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,/They kill us for their sport.(Shakespeare, King Lear Act 4, scene 1, 36–37) or in 19th century by Thomas Hardy at the end of his famous novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.)  

Some critics labour hard to prove Oedipus's guilt.  According to them Oedipus was the most guilty of them all.  They find in him a tendency of considering himself as almost a god, assuming that since he alone had solved the sphinx's riddle, he was the one of the gods' favorites.  He was all the time impetuous to judge, and be judged on his own terms.  They allege that he calls on Tiresias to tell him what he should do, and when he doesn't like what he hears, Oedipus says, ‘Your words are nothing – futile’, and accuses Creon of plotting with Tiresias to hatch a plan to overthrow him. These accusations go against Aristotle’s theory of tragic hero who has to be noble one and only then he can arouse pity and fear leading to catharsis. Aristotle based his theory on the elements of this very play and treated it as a model.