On Oedipus Rex Through Frye

Literary critic Northrop Frye stated in the “Third Essay: Archetypal Criticism,” of his book Anatomy of Criticism that tragic heroes are so much the highest points in their human landscape that they are the conductors of the power around them, much like trees in relation to grass during a lightning storm. Similar to this romantic mode of tragedy, specified in his first essay, “Historical Criticism: Theory of the Modes,” is his classification of high mimetic tragedy, in which a noble human hero’s, as opposed to the more romantic divine hero’s, death is presented. Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex is an example of Frye’s high mimetic tragedy, as King Oedipus, the noble human vessel of divine wrath, brings suffering upon his citizens and those around him, adding to the deeply tragic vision of the work, and meeting his eventual demise in the succeeding Theban play Oedipus Coloneus.

Oedipus, king of Thebes was a ruler acclaimed for his compassion, candor, and swift judgment. He had won the respect of his citizens for being a benevolent leader privy to the needs of his people. In his first speech in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus expresses his consideration for the well being of Thebes’ citizens to an old priest. He exemplifies his dedication to his people by preemptively sending his brother-in-law Creon to nearby Delphi to ask for help, as Thebes had been struck by plague.

Though these actions and behaviors may seem fit for a king, in Oedipus’ sad situation, they are but impediments that paved the way for his bloody deposition. Sophocles depicts Oedipus as representing all that could be desired from a king. He twists these traits in a highly exaggerated manner, to the point of ludicrousness, heightening both the dramatic irony in the play, and the fall of Oedipus. For instance, when hearing Creon’s story of Laius’ murder, Oedipus swiftly promises to discover the murderer and punish him to the fullest extent of the law, going as far as stating that the punishment would be upheld no matter how close the villain was to himself. In this ironic convolution, Oedipus unwittingly sentences himself to the full punishment through his typical swift judgment, as he does not yet know that he himself is the murderer of Laius.

Further on, Oedipus discovers the information linking himself to the murder of Laius. When his wife Jocasta finds out, however, she implores him to stop digging for information, as she suspects where it may lead. Unheeding to her warnings, Oedipus ignores all of her warnings, continuing with an absurd and regally arrogant determination to seek the truth. Rather than face the truth that Oedipus would inevitably uncover, Jocasta takes her life by the noose to escape the shame.

Because Oedipus was at the pinnacle of the social pyramid, he was able to easily order further information about his past. Likewise, he had a sense of pride to protect the image of his birth, and a responsibility to practice truth and justice as a king. In addition, Oedipus fancies himself a god, almost dismissing the higher beings in his arrogance, fueling the divine lightening that would strike upon him. These factors born of nobility and power led him to discover his true past, and drive his wife and mother to tragically kill herself, further contributing to the ironic tragedy of the play.

Oedipus Rex begins with the citizens of Thebes with offerings to please the gods, deploring their king to take action to stop the plague devastating the land. Because of the suffering of his people, Oedipus is in a position where, as king, he has the responsibility to make things right. This responsibility to represent the well being of the citizens makes Oedipus accountable for the divine happenings to the land. Oedipus had inadvertently killed his father in the past, fulfilling the prophecy. However, Thebes had a plague as the killer of Laius was still in the country. Oedipus, being king, had a responsibility to find the killer and exile him to save the land from the plague that was caused because of his murder of Laius. The entire land was in a plague for the crime that Oedipus had committed. This forced him to uncover his past, furthering the tragedy and suffering he had to endure, as he had murdered Laius himself.

The suffering brought upon his people from the murder of his father led Oedipus to uncover the dirty secrets of his dark past, resulting in the death of his mother and wife, and his exile, dethronement, and loss of sight. Oedipus attracted the wrath of the gods despite his good intentions because of his high seat of power. The height of his power would serve only to catalyze and magnify the scope of the tragedy he would both suffer and inflict on those around him.

Frye states that tragedy in the high mimetic sense precipitates the fall of a leader, mingling the heroic with the ironic. This is intrinsic in the fall of Oedipus the King. A heroic mortal in his land, the rightly respected and revered leader falls from his own statements and promises to protect his country. His desire to help his citizens only fuels the tragedy and suffering that occurs not only to him, but also to those around him as well, maximizing the suffering and despair in the play, truly making Sophocles the master tragedian.


~ by rupendajee on July 8, 2009.

4 Responses to “On Oedipus Rex Through Frye”

  1. So are you enjoying educating your imagination via Frye? Anatomy of Criticism is useful in many ways, but hie Educated Imagination is the real gold. Have you delved into it yet?

  2. Yes I am, although I’m not really educating my imagination as much as I am my analytical and comprehension skills. I haven’t gotten around to Educated Imagination yet, but I sure will pick it up.

  3. If/when you do read The Educated Imagination–do please, let me know what you make of it and it’s approach to problem solving. Have fun with Oedipus. I prefer Antigone..but that’s beside the point. ta ta

  4. The introduction definitely goes to a much greater extent than the prompt’s minimum requirements. As if it was to give the whole scope of what the question possibly could be and then narrows down on specifically Oedipus Rex for the remainder, which is always a good approach as you only have to give a small amount of detail to seem well versed AND you spur readers on to look into more than one read. Oh and as an essay it does prove its point- though I might suggest reviewing the middle of the 6th paragraph for clarity. BUT I got the point, at first I wasn’t quite sure where it was going, but you tied it in well. “He twists these traits in a highly exaggerated manner, to the point of ludicrousness, heightening both the dramatic irony in the play, and the fall of Oedipus”- this is a rather striking statement, memorable as I recalled it from like the 3rd paragraph ’til the end. OH! and strangely enough throughout the essay with slightly different rewording you could have pulled off the first prompt as well- as you point out his strong points as a leader and then how this high point topples him. but yah, a strong essay. so yah it took me so long to reply but I felt I had to read the book first so I did…and then I was at a lose for time for a few days.

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