Significance of the Women in Oedipus Rex
Michael J. O’Brien in the Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex, maintains that there is “a good deal of evidence to support this view” that the fifth century playwright was the “educator of his people” and a “teacher”. Sophocles in his tragedy, Oedipus Rex, teaches about “morally desirable attitudes and behavior,” (4) and uses three women to help convey these principles of living. This essay will explore the role of women in the drama, the attitude toward women therein, the involvement of women in plot development, and other aspects of women in Oedipus Rex.
At the outset of Oedipus Rex no female characters are present; the reader sees a king who comes to the door full of curiosity: “Explain your mood and purport. Is it dread /Of ill that moves you or a boon ye crave?” When the priest has responded that the people are despairing from the effects of the plague, the king shows sympathy for his subjects: “Ye sicken all, well wot I, yet my pain, /How great soever yours, outtops it all.” Thomas Van Nortwick in Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life : “We see already the supreme self-confidence and ease of command in Oedipus. . . . exudes a godlike mastery in the eyes of his subjects. . . .”(21-22); such “godlike mastery” will be his undoing. The critic Ehrenberg warns that it “may lead to ‘hubris’” (74-75). Throughout the drama Sophocles draws out an ongoing contrast between the “godlike mastery” of the king and the softer, more balanced and selfless characteristics of Jocasta, his wife. She is a foil to Oedipus. Shortly thereafter Creon, Jocasta’s brother, is returning from the Delphic oracle with the fateful words of the god’s command: “He fell; and now the god's command is plain: /Punish his takers-off, whoe'er they be.” Immediately Oedipus boldly launches a campaign to do what is best for his people and for himself:
I also, as is meet, will lend my aid
To avenge this wrong to Thebes and to the god.
Not for some far-off kinsman, but myself,
Shall I expel this poison in the blood;
For whoso slew that king might have a mind
To strike me too with his assassin hand.
Oedipus, in his public proclamation regarding punishment for the killer of King Laius, shows more lenient treatment toward the guilty party if he confesses his crime: “I summon him to make clean shrift to me./And if he shrinks, let him reflect that thus /Confessing he shall 'scape the capital charge”. Oedipus, in his cross-examination of the holy man Teiresias, shows his mastery to be more human and less godlike: “Monster! thy silence would incense a flint. /Will nothing loose thy tongue? Can nothing melt thee, /Or shake thy dogged taciturnity?” The king is confronted with Teiresias’ accusation, “Thou art the man, /Thou the accursed polluter of this land,” and then another even more condemning accusation, “I say thou livest with thy nearest kin /In...