Realism in Oedipus Rex
This essay will examine a feature of Sophocles’ tragedy which causes the reader to doubt the realism underlying the literary work. Specifically, the essay will consider the feasability of the belief at that time – that the Delphi oracle possessed credibility with the people.
At the outset of the drama the priest of Zeus and the crowd of citizens of Thebes are gathered before the royal palace of Thebes talking to King Oedipus about the plague which is ravaging the city. The king is sorely troubled and laments the sad situation. Then he says:
I have sent Menoeceus' son,
Creon, my consort's brother, to inquire
Of Pythian Phoebus at his Delphic shrine,
How I might save the State by act or word.
And now I reckon up the tale of days
Since he set forth, and marvel how he fares.
'Tis strange, this endless tarrying, passing strange.
But when he comes, then I were base indeed,
If I perform not all the god declares.
From this passage it would appear that the king has full faith in the awaited advice from the oracle at Delphi. Is this notion historicaly accurate? Did Sophocles’ contmeporaries actually put such trust in their pagan gods and goddesses? As Brian Wilkie and James Hurt state in “Sophocles”: “Humanity in his plays is an integral part of a world-order that can be only partially understood at best. The cosmic system includes, besides human beings and nature, those darkly inscrutable forces identified – inadequately – as the gods and fate” (718). When Creon returns, he gives his report publicly:
CREON Let me report then all the god declared.
King Phoebus bids us straitly extirpate
A fell pollution that infests the land,
And no more harbor an inveterate sore.
OEDIPUS What expiation means he? What's amiss?
CREON Banishment, or the shedding blood for blood.
This stain of blood makes shipwreck of our state.
And for the duration of the tragedy the characters explicitly or implicitly acknowledge their total belief in the directions of the Delphic oracle as the only means of ridding Thebes of the plague. Historically speaking, did the Delphic oracle have such credibility among the populace?
For an answer to this question we go to The Histories of Herodotus. Herodotus was called the “Father of History” by Cicero and others. He lived and wrote in the fifth century BC just like Sophocles. As a contemporary, Herodotus knew and wrote about the beliefs and customs of the ancient Greeks as an historian, not as a litterateur. Herodotus was therefore interested in a factual presentation, not in an imaginative presentation such as Sophocles sought for as a dramatist. Herodotus, therefore, can be relied upon to either substantiate or contradict the validity of the situation in Oedipus Rex where the realism of the drama rests considerably on the claimed belief in the infallibility of...