As seen in the Chorus
In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, the Chorus illustrates Kenneth Burke's idea of a "tragic rhythm of action" from "Purpose, to Passion, to Perception" (Ferguson 13). Moreover, Aristotle felt that "the Chorus… most directly represents the action of the play" (24) and emphasizes the tragic nature of Oedipus' downfall. Sophocles evokes the tragedy of Oedipus through the Chorus as their pathos over the play's action leads them to question and examine their king. Ultimately, the Chorus concludes that the idea of an absolute within one's character is false - no person is categorically "good" or "bad." Additionally, Sophocles suggests that until the point of death there is a hole in humanity's capability to define itself, leading the Chorus and the audience to see the pathos and tragedy of their own lives.
Burke proposes that many types of literature, such as Oedipus Rex, develop through a process which begins with a stage of "purpose." This progression can be seen in the evolution of the Chorus in the play (Ferguson 13). The Párodos serves as an important introduction to the Chorus as they state the purpose of the play, illustrating Aristotle's idea of "a complete action" (Ferguson 12). The central idea is essentially to cure Thebes through an invocation of the gods to "send the besieger plunging from our homes" (12). At this time, the Chorus has a definite goal in mind: in its call to action to the gods, it possesses "praxis" or the "motivation from which deeds spring" (Ferguson 8). The exclamation "let me pray to Athené" and call, "O gods, descend!" (11) embody a mindset of desire for action to cure Thebes. This stage of purpose comes before Oedipus entangles himself in the search for Laïos' murderer and represents the beginning of the Chorus' movement to passion.
The Chorus' shift away from purpose to passion or "pathos" (Ferguson 11) is evident in the first Ode when Teiresias introduces the possibility of Oedipus' guilt. This sentiment of the Chorus is epitomized in the impassioned ponderings at the end of the first Ode. The phrase that captures the Chorus' emotions comes with the question "shall I believe my great lord criminal?" (26). These words strike precisely at the heart of the Chorus' dilemma, especially in its use of the word "lord." Before Oedipus was indicted for the murder of Laïos, Chorogus, an extension of the Chorus, addresses Oedipus by using the word "lord" with respect in the phrase "my lord, I swear I did not do the murder" (15). After doubt has been cast upon Oedipus, the Chorus plays upon Chorogus' use of the word "lord" in examining Oedipus. When placed between the positive word "great" and the negative word "criminal," the word "lord" becomes ambiguous. If only paired with the word great then the phrase takes on a positive light, upholding the deeds of Oedipus. If taken only with the word criminal, then the word "lord" implies villainy. However, the placement of "lord" between the words encapsulates the two ideas and creates a phrase which suggests the inner strife of the Chorus as it confronts the question as to whether its ruler is great, criminal, or both.
Although still within Burke's passion stage, the second Ode attempts to eliminate the ambiguity from Oedipus' character. The Chorus admonishes Oedipus' irreverence for the gods while praying to these gods to liberate Thebes from the plague. The Ode exclaims, "Our masters call the oracle / Words on the wind, and the Delphic vision blind!" (47). Conversely, the Chorus heeds to "the laws of the pure universe… never of mortal kind were they begot, / nor are they slaves of memory" (46). The Chorus' piety, first seen in the invocation in the Párodos, places the Law of the gods above all else. More importantly, within the framework of Burke's transition, the second Ode, still firmly within the realm of passion or pathos, represents the attempt by the Chorus to define Oedipus. The Chorus' passion is exhibited in its desire to place Oedipus in a purely "bad" category and eradicate the ambiguity of the first Ode. The third Ode takes a similar approach, but the Chorus now ardently hopes for the exoneration of Oedipus by asking, "Great Dionysos, roamer of mountains, / He - was it he who found you there?" (59). If it was indeed Dionysos who saved Oedipus instead of a shepherd, then Oedipus must no longer be guilty. While both Odes are a part of Burke's idea of a stage of passion, the third Ode is in direct opposition to the second as it hopes that Oedipus will be absolved and returned to his stature as a venerated king. The two odes represent the human emotion of the desire to have a definite answer to every dilemma. Just like the Chorus, the reader strives to be able to call Oedipus evil, guilty of regicide, parricide, and incest or a savior, the one who brought salvation to the oppressed Thebans under the Sphinx.
The Chorus' movement to perception and understanding comes in the fourth Ode which begins with the question "what measure shall I give these generations/ That breathe on the void and are void/ and exist and do not exist?" (65). In a direct reference to Oedipus and his family tree-disrupting parricide and incest, the Chorus begins to come to a conclusion about the dualities of Oedipus, moving toward a perception and an understanding - Is he good? Is he bad? Or is he both? After a stage of purpose and a call to action and then one of passion and introspective thought, the Chorus finally reaches an understanding about Oedipus. This new perception is characterized in the phrase, "No prince in Thebes had ever such renown" (65). The use of the word "prince" to describe Oedipus suggests an intrinsic naïveté and an air of fallibility. Yet at the same time, it has implications of nobility and regality. The shift from the word "lord" to "prince" in order to describe Oedipus represents the understanding reached by the Chorus. The Chorus pities Oedipus as it says "his fortunes are most changed, his state/ Fallen to a low slave's/ Ground under bitter fate" (66). It comes to the understanding that heroics and villainy are not mutually exclusive.
Through the Chorus' course from purpose to passion, and to perception, Sophocles leads the Chorus to "see in self-blinded Oedipus a general truth of the human condition" (Ferguson 12). The Chorus finds that the complexity of a person's character precludes a definition based on absolutes. In the extreme example of Oedipus, not only is it impossible to give a simplified characterization of him through his deeds but also because of his status both as husband and son, and as brother and father. After a "contemplation of the truth" (Ferguson 13) surrounding Oedipus' actions, Choragos closes the play with the words: "Let every man in mankind's fraility /Consider his last day; and let none/Presume on his good fortune until he find/ Life at his death, a memory without pain" (81). Choragus' words at the end of the play present the perception that only "at the end [death], in the light of hindsight, [do] we see the truth of what we have been doing [in life]" (Ferguson 13). The Chorus and the audience's search for catharsis leads them to this understanding in which they know that they do not know. This perception is a product of the pathos created by the inability to define Oedipus' mingling absolutes in light of the facts of his life. Also, by the end of the play, the Chorus and the audience realize that this inability is a limitation of human understanding. Their realization evokes the pathos and tragedy of the play and of their own finite existence.
Aristotle. Aristotle's Poetics. Trans. Francis Ferguson. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961.
Sophocles. The Oedipus Cycle: An English Version. Dudley Fitts and Robert
Fitzgerald (trans.). London: Harcourt, Inc, 1977.