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Oedipus Seeks Knowledge, but only up to a Point

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Oedipus Seeks Knowledge, but only up to a Point

Oedipus seeks knowledge, but only up to a point

Sophocles' classical Greek tragedy Oedipus the King is one of the centrepieces of Western literature. It also has a broader place in modern Western culture, courtesy of Dr Freud and his Oedipus complex, in which the process of growing up male is bound up with competition for the mother and the symbolic overthrow and supplanting, or ''killing'', of the father.

The play can be read as a traditional study of the "fatal flaw'' theory of tragedy, in which Oedipus is brought down by hubris. Or as an object lesson in cautious, wise, mindful living, playing with the imagery of light and sight. Or a statement about the nature of reality and truth, and the place of uncertainty and impermanence. Or even as the first detective story, complete with clues, red herrings, false leads and gradually mounting evidence. In this reading, Oedipus is not only the chief investigator and chief prosecutor, but the chief suspect as well.

A deep and consistent feature of the play is irony. If we compare the opening scene with the closing scene, the irony of Oedipus's experience is stark. At the beginning he is a powerful, commanding, regal figure with the interests of Thebes and its suffering citizens as his focus. By the end Oedipus is destitute, exiled by his own decree (''may he wear out his life in misery and miserable doom''), having promised to wipe out the source of the plague without realising he is the source, and that all the evidence will lead back to himself.

At so many key points there is a sharp interplay between public knowledge and private awareness, or unconscious knowledge, which sets up great tension. This is part of the larger revelatory process that structures the play as a whole. The unfolding evidence takes centre stage in the key sequences and confrontations, and amid repeated patterns of imagery to do with darkness and light, blindness and sight, the value of knowledge and the ''plague'' of ignorance and infamy.

The Chorus is the voice of the Theban citizens, fearful and confused by the unfolding events. Oedipus is a man of action who takes on the responsibility of rescuing the people by anticipating certain moves. He sends Creon to consult the oracle of Apollo before being advised to do so, and learns that the murderer of the former King Laius is the cause of the plague and is in Thebes. He decides to reopen the unsolved case and calls in the reluctant Teiresias. The blind seer reveals that Oedipus himself is the ''land's pollution'', but Oedipus dismisses his words.

Prophecy is a motivating force and Teiresias knows of the child prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother - a tale that unites Thebes and Corinth and motivates decisions both in the house of Laius and in the mind of Oedipus, as he flees the home of his supposed parents.

Oedipus's true identity is revealed bit

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