Thebes’ Dystopian Aspects in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

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While the definition of dystopia is being debated by scholars to this day, Gregory Claeys provides a broad definition as to what the concept of dystopia is: something that showcases the “negative visions of humanity generally” (Vieira 3), is opposite to what is regarded as a prosperous utopia, as deduced from his quote “just as the Garden of Eden and Heaven remain prototypes of utopia, so hell performs the same role for dystopia” (Vieira 3), and a deficit in free thinkers able to create a “free and affluent society” (Vieira 3). As such, a prominent example of an anti-utopia is the setting of Sophocles’s work Oedipus Rex, ancient Thebes, which contains elements expressive of Claeys’ description of a cacotopia, which is opposite to what a utopia would have: a proficient leader, a free-thinking and intellectual society, and a shortage in cataclysms; Sophocles implements the opposite of these aspects, namely Oedipus’ inadequate and idealistic approach towards ruling the city-state, the blind following and trust that the people of Thebes had for him, and the anomalies and incidents that happen in Thebes, through the use of character dialogue, actions, juxtaposition, motifs, monologues, and other literary features and devices.

Through Oedipus’ actions and speech, Sophocles establishes Oedipus as an ineffective and idealistic ruler. At the beginning of the play, Oedipus showcases himself as a very idealistic person by ascribing to pure honesty and transparency, as shown by his ordering Creon to state the Oracle’s prophecy in front of all the onlookers: “Lord Creon, my good brother, / what is the word you bring us from God?” (Sophocles 96-97), after which Creon states: “If you will hear my news before these others/I am ready to speak, or else to go within.” (Sophocles 104-105). Through this, it can be seen that Sophocles implements Creon as a voice of reason in the play, by having the first thing he does on stage be him indirectly advising Oedipus to listen to the prophecy in private; Oedipus’ tells Creon to do the opposite: to “Speak it to all” (Sophocles 106). This evident juxtaposition of both personality and action bolsters and emphasizes Sophocles’ exhibition of Oedipus’ dystopian-leader qualities: rather than assembling a council to assess the situation, Oedipus puts a dramatic show right in front of his palace to emphasize on his heroic deeds and character to the people and have them retain their positive image about him. Sophocles further exhibits Oedipus’ inadequacy by having him allege that Creon, among other things, murdered Laius (Sophocles 614) and by extension, caused the plague, and assembled a plot to topple Oedipus from power and commit a “highway robbery of my [Oedipus’] crown” (Sophocles 615). Oedipus then threatens him with punishment, proclaiming: And you [Creon] are wrong if you believe that one, a criminal, will not be unpunished only because he is my kinsman. (Sophocles 635-637)

Creon then logically explains to Oedipus why he would not want to usurp the throne for himself: being Oedipus’ brother-in-law and Jocasta’s brother, he is “rated as the equal of you two [Oedipus and Jocasta]” (Sophocles 678). As such, Creon references Oedipus’ responsibilities and worries as a king, which Creon expresses is undesirable, stating that “the prizes are all mine [Creon’s]–and without fear” (Sophocles 689). Through this interaction, Creon again asserts his logical personality, in contrast to Oedipus’ throwing of random allegations towards the prior: a juxtaposition that showcases Oedipus’ inadequacy. Also, Oedipus proves to the bystanders watching that he is, despite being excessively prideful in ending the Sphinx (Sophocles 460-461), is extremely anxious and paranoid about people overthrowing him, and this is to cast a blow on this image of a noble hero that he is trying to project to the Thebans. By doing this, he risks an actual uprising against him, which would demolish the relatively-stable political structure of Thebes. This lack of risk-management proves the extent of ineffectiveness that Oedipus tends to project to both the citizens of Thebes and the reader, and by doing so, shows to what extent Thebes is a dystopia due to its ruler.

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Despite the multitude of flaws that Oedipus exhibits in his judgment, the people of Thebes have full trust and faith in Oedipus, a sure component of Claeys’ description of a dystopia; it is apparent that Sophocles indirectly characterizes Thebes’ population as a dystopian society by having the people support a leader that relies more on rhetoric and idealist values rather than the actual betterment of his people’s lives. This Orwellian structure in Oedipus’ people is exhibited in Act 1, when the Thebans come forth to ask Oedipus to help “restore/ Life to your [Oedipus’] city” (Sophocles 48-49). Sophocles uses this as a preliminary expression of Thebes’ totalitarian character: the citizens see Oedipus as a capable leader that is able to end all of their miseries, despite his flaws suggesting that he is nothing of the sort. Not only do the citizens have full faith in Oedipus, but the ruling class too: Jocasta’s quote, Do not concern yourself about this matter; Listen to me and learn that human beings

Have no part in the craft of this prophecy (Sophocles 813-815) indirectly shows how confident she is about her husband and son not being guilty for patricide, regicide, and incest. The only character in the play who shows contempt to the way Oedipus rules is Creon, who indirectly exhibits his disdain towards Oedipus through his reply to Oedipus’ claim that he must rule: “Not if you [Oedipus] rule badly” (Sophocles 734). However, the fact that the people did not rebel and revolt against the ruler of Thebes, despite multiple actions and decisions describing the inefficiency of Oedipus right in front of them, shows how much they value and trust their leader. This blind support of their leader inhibits any effort to improve the Theban people’s situation, but rather acts as a motivator for Oedipus to rule as he pleases, even if this goes against their interest, and that emphasizes Thebes’ dystopian nature.

However, while Thebes’ leader’s and people’s attitudes are fundamental to the dystopian image that Sophocles attempts to build in Oedipus Rex, the calamities that occur in the city-state are not to be ignored: rather, they are Sophocles’ most apparent, direct attempt to show the extent of how appalling the conditions of Thebes are. In his work, Sophocles has characters mention three catastrophes that occurred to the city-state: Oedipus references the “the dark singer, the sphinx” (Sophocles 453-455) harassing and attacking the citizens (Sophocles 453-455), Teiresias recounts the death of King Laius (Sophocles 416), and the priest speaks of “a deadly pestilence” (Sophocles 26-29) which devastated Thebes’ (Sophocles 26-29). In a pragmatic sense, these occurrences would have destructive effects on the city-state, which include the weakening of political structure, the tainting of Thebes’ image, which would drive trade and settlement away, and the wrecking of the economy, which has to deal with the burden of a decreased supply and demand, inhibiting any economic and social progress and acting as a catalyst to the backwards ways of the people.

This lack of progress is shown through the priest’s statements regarding what the plague is targeting:

  • A blight is on the fruitful plants of the earth.
  • A blight is on the cattle in the fields,
  • A blight is on our women that no children are born to them; (Sophocles 26-29)

By mentioning three afflicted aspects of the society, the priest highlights the importance of tradition in their society by explaining using three’s, just as the play maintains a tradition, or motif, of using three’s throughout the play; through this, Sophocles provides the reader with a hint at how backwards and traditionalist the citizens of Thebes are: a perfect showcase of what Claeys’ defined as a lack in open-minded freethinkers. Alternatively, these affected elements, on their own, are significant, since they show how backwards Thebes is by highlighting three core aspects in an agrarian community (agriculture, animals, and reproduction), rather than focusing on elements of more sophisticated communities, such as trade, business, or politics. The fact that this is indirectly shown, along with an indirect reference to all three calamities that occur to Thebes, shows the ruin caused by the calamities, which would have had an immensely detrimental effect on advancement and quality of life in Thebes, and through this Sophocles, once again, establish the idea that Thebes has a cacotopian society.

In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles portrays Thebes’ dystopian aspects, namely Oedipus’ deficient and non-pragmatic approach, the Theban’s unwavering support for him, and the problematic occurrences that wrecked the city-state, through the use of character discouse, actions, juxtaposition, motifs, monologues, and other literary devices. By doing so, Sophocles provides future generations a reference regarding how a state must not be like, in a bid to have humanity progress from such inadequacy to a prosperity and virtual perfection.

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