Sample essay analysis of minor characters in the Greek play Oedipus Tyrannus

9 Mar

Minor characters in Oedipus Tyrannus

There are three minor characters in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus: two messengers and a former palace servant. Each plays a pivotal role in the furthering the plot of the play, narrating events that happen offstage or before the action of the play itself. Through their interactions with Oedipus and Jocasta, they also develop character, key themes, and dramatic irony.

The entrance of the Corinthian messenger to tell Oedipus of Polybus’ death is dramatically powerful in terms of structure. Firstly, the messenger arrives just as Jocasta finishes praying to Apollo for deliverance. Her appeal emphasises her anguish and hope for relief, as she implores “Give us deliverance from this plague and cleanse us”. In a way, although ironically she does not know it at first, her prayer is answered by the messenger – he is the one who begins to reveal the awful truth.  Secondly, Jocasta and Oedipus are actually waiting for another minor character, a former palace servant who was the only surviving witness to Laius’ murder. The messenger’s entrance is deliberately coincidental, and of great significance to the plot, because he comes to tell Oedipus that Polybus is dead. Oedipus still believes that Polybus is his natural father, and still hopes that he has avoided the Oracle’s prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. By delaying the entrance of the palace servant, Sophocles further delays the moment of revelation, thus building up tension and dramatic irony.

The Corinthian messenger’s speech is imbued with reminders of Oedipus’ predicament. Seeing Jocasta, he says, “Here is his wife, the mother of his children”. In the original Greek, this would seem to mean “his wife and mother here” until the end of sentence is heard. The double meaning hints at the truth of Oedipus’ relation to Jocasta. The messenger also says to Oedipus that his message “will naturally please you, but perhaps upset you”. This is ironic because the messenger is talking about Polybus’ death, which is politically beneficial for Oedipus and seems to invalidate the oracular words. However, the forthcoming revelation that Polybus is not actually Oedipus’ father is more upsetting and powerful than the messenger knows.

At first, the messenger provides relaxation of tension. Hearing his news, Jocasta feels that her views about the fallibility of oracles have been vindicated by a second proof (the first being that Laius supposedly did not die at the hands of his own son). She asks, “Ah, oracles of the gods, /Where are you now?” In one sense, this rhetorical question is irreverent because Jocasta suggests that the oracles are fallible. This links to a continuing theme of the necessity of piety, because Sophocles uses Jocasta’s impious reaction to emphasise the subsequent dramatic reversal of Jocasta and Oedipus’ hopes. This would remind the audience of their place beneath the deities. In another sense, though, Jocasta is more relieved than irreverent. After all, the Oracle was given to equivocation, allowing Oedipus  to re-interpret how he might have ‘killed’ Polybus: “longing for me/ Killed him”. Arguably, the messenger is a device used to increase dramatic irony and to vary dramatic tension – here, Sophocles creates a moment of hope. This makes the play exciting and impacting for the original Athenian audience, who would have already known the story.

The messenger also represents an outsider’s view, and is bewildered by Oedipus’ fear because he does not know about the previous action. We can see this from his innocent questioning, when he is curious about why Oedipus fears meeting Merope: “what is it about her that makes you so afraid?”  His innocent  tone directly contrasts with the deep anxiety of Oedipus and Jocasta. Also, his apparent enjoyment of the conversation further delays the revelation of the truth. He speaks in riddles and gradually reveals his meaning: “My boy, it’s quite clear you don’t know what you’re doing-” The dash here shows how constant interruption delays his response. Also, his use of the diminutive “boy” prefigures another coincidence: the messenger is also the one who took Oedipus to Corinth as a baby. He says, “I freed you; you had your ankles pinned together.” There is an obvious parallel with Jocasta’s earlier description of the “pinned ankles” of her son. To emphasise that the truth is about to be fully revealed, Sophocles uses the messenger’s wordplay to draw attention to Oedipus’ name: “This mischance gave you your present name”. This means that ‘Oedipus’ came from ‘swollen foot’, oideo and pous, and not oida as Oedipus uses in a pun on his own name earlier on, when he comments he is “ignorant”. This creates further irony – not only does Oedipus not know his parents, he does not even know the meaning of his own name.

The Corinthian messenger thus long delays the servant’s entrance. Oedipus himself announces the servant’s arrival: “If I may guess, I think I can see the herdsman/ Whom we have long been seeking”.  This emphasises the dramatic importance of this minor character. That the only surviving witness of Laius’ death should also be the one who took Oedipus as a baby away from Thebes is another startling coincidence. The audience realises that powerful forces have been at work to fulfil the prophecy, and Oedipus, despite his apparent power, has never been in control of the process.

The servant also helps to develop Oedipus’ character. Oedipus makes constant use of interrogatives: “What man do you mean?” and, “Did you ever have dealings with him?” Some argue that Oedipus as a tragic hero has a fatal flaw of his need to learn the truth. Alternatively, his actions seem to indicate excessive impatience and hubris. He even physically threatens the servant, saying, “Quickly, someone, twist his hands behind him.” Nevertheless, Oedipus’ urgency has a reasonable source: the plague ravaging his city necessitates identifying the source of the miasma, pollution. This scene parallels the agōn with Tiresias, where Oedipus also becomes increasingly frustrated and violent. Both scenes deal with the continual conflict between ignorance and knowledge that frustrates and eventually defeats Oedipus.

The audience now waits for an eventual revelation of truth. Stichomythia shifts to antilabē, increasing the pace even more:

Oedipus:  “Did she give you the child?

Servant: “She did, my lord.”

Oedipus: “For what purpose?”

Through this quick exchange of questions and answers, the servant facilitates Oedipus’ shift from ignorance to knowledge, anagnorisis (recognition).

A third minor character is a second messenger, a palace servant. He brings news of action that takes place offstage – a common device in Greek theatre for events deemed too violent for performance. As the messenger describes Jocasta’s last moments when Oedipus bursts into the narrative, he even admits: “How, after this, she died is more than I know”. Through this, Sophocles builds an illusion of a genuine witness. The messenger is able to give a dramatic re-telling of Oedipus’ actions, enhanced by the use of dynamic verbs: Oedipus “broke in”, “hurled,” “forced,” “fell into”, “tore,” and “struck his eyeballs” with brooches. There is also a precise use of detail: the description of “a dark shower, a hailstorm of soaking blood” is violent and dark, but has connotations of sacrifice and fertility. This is in contrast to the messenger’s initial claim that “neither the Ister nor the Phasis/ could wash and cleanse this house of all its evils”. Great quantities of water from rivers could not remove miasma – it almost seems that only the blood of Oedipus and Jocasta will suffice for the gods.

The messenger also highlights the tragedy of Oedipus’ lamentable predicament. He brings out a contrast between Oedipus’ first and final appearance. Oedipus’ “prosperity” is replaced by “Lamentation, ruin, death, shame”, a list of nouns that emphasises the extent of the reversal of his fortunes. He also now “needs someone to guide/His steps”. In the first scene, he enters as the leader, and pronounces a curse. Now, he is the object of his curse and needs a guide. The reversal of Oedipus’ status develops the idea that judgement of a person’s life must be reserved until their death, because people are able to suffer great loss without warning. The more powerful a person is, the greater the loss they can suffer.



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