"Oedipus the King," Vocabulary from the play

June 10, 2013
"Oedipus the King" by Sophocles recounts the mythic tale of a man who, regardless of how powerful he is, cannot escape the fate that has been decided for him.

As you read the Theban plays of Sophocles (etext found here), learn these word lists for the plays: Oedipus the King and Antigone.
My children, latest born to Cadmus old,
Why sit ye here as suppliants, in your hands
Branches of olive filleted with wool?
Another definition of "venerable" is "profoundly honored"--this would also be a fitting description of the priest's status among everyone praying, but Oedipus picks the priest out of the crowd because of his age and white hair, which are assumed to be connected to wisdom and worthy of respect.
Ho! aged sire, whose venerable locks
Proclaim thee spokesman of this company,
Explain your mood and purport.
Ruthless indeed were I and obdurate
If such petitioners as you I spurned.
The priest uses the image of a sinking ship to describe the state of the kingdom--it is "sore buffeted" (pounded repeatedly by storms) and foundering beneath wild waves of blood (from plague and hunger).
For, as thou seest thyself, our ship of State,
Sore buffeted, can no more lift her head,
Foundered beneath a weltering surge of blood.
The kingdom is in serious trouble because the list of blights includes not only the devastation of the food supply but also the deaths of women and babies during childbirth.
A blight is on our harvest in the ear,
A blight upon the grazing flocks and herds,
A blight on wives in travail;
All we thy votaries beseech thee, find
Some succor, whether by a voice from heaven
Whispered, or haply known by human wit.
Therefore ye rouse no sluggard from day-dreams.
Many, my children, are the tears I've wept,
And threaded many a maze of weary thought.
Creon uses agricultural images to describe what must be done to save the kingdom--the deeply-rooted sore that must be extirpated because it's polluting the land is the unpunished murderer of the rightful king.
King Phoebus bids us straitly extirpate
A fell pollution that infests the land,
And no more harbor an inveterate sore.
At this point in the play, Oedipus does not know all the details of the sins that need to be expiated, but once he does, he recognizes that "no gallows could atone."
What expiation means he? What's amiss?
Did any bandit dare so bold a stroke,
Unless indeed he were suborned from Thebes?
And if he shrinks, let him reflect that thus
Confessing he shall 'scape the capital charge;
For the worst penalty that shall befall him
Is banishment— unscathed he shall depart.
But if an alien from a foreign land
Be known to any as the murderer,
Let him who knows speak out, and he shall have
Due recompense from me and thanks to boot.
And for the disobedient thus I pray:
May the gods send them neither timely fruits
Of earth, nor teeming increase of the womb,
But may they waste and pine, as now they waste,
Aye and worse stricken;
"Blench" is an alternate version of "blanch"--Oedipus is responding to the chorus of old men's suggestion that the murderer of Laius might have run away because of the curse.
Words scare not him who blenches not at deeds.
"Adjure" also means "command solemnly"--both definitions seem to fit the situation because Oedipus is the king, but Teiresias is a respected prophet. Thus Oedipus starts his speech with two commands "Speak" and "Withhold not" but he ends with the acknowledgement that he and the rest of the kingdom are all praying for Teiresias to save them with his knowledge.
Oh speak,
Withhold not, I adjure thee, if thou know'st,
Thy knowledge. We are all thy suppliants.
Monster! thy silence would incense a flint.
Will nothing loose thy tongue? Can nothing melt thee,
Or shake thy dogged taciturnity?
And who could stay his choler when he heard
How insolently thou dost flout the State?
Teiresias's status in Thebes gives him some freedom in his speech (and silence). But Oedipus's wrath and choler are getting the better of him (this same angry nature is what led him to murder the travelers). No longer able to stint his words, Oedipus accuses Teiresias of being the mastermind behind the murder of Laius. This actually succeeds in provoking Teiresias to throw the truthful accusation back at Oedipus.
Yea, I am wroth, and will not stint my words,
but speak my whole mind.
Thou shalt rue it
Twice to repeat so gross a calumny.
"Charlatan," "mountebank," and "tricksy beggar-priest" are all the same insult. Angry that Teiresias should dare accuse him of being the cause of the kingdom's troubles, Oedipus accuses Teiresias not only of being a false prophet for profit, but also of conspiring with Creon to take his throne.
for this crown
The trusty Creon, my familiar friend,
Hath lain in wait to oust me and suborned
This mountebank, this juggling charlatan,
This tricksy beggar-priest, for gain alone
Keen-eyed, but in his proper art stone-blind.
Oedipus gets a huge hint here that there's something seriously wrong with his marriage (a hymeneal is a wedding march) that would make his cries reverberate off mountains. But he is so angry that he does not see the truth and believes instead that Teiresias is just being foolishly rude.
Ah whither shall thy bitter cry not reach,
What crag in all Cithaeron but shall then
Reverberate thy wail, when thou hast found
With what a hymeneal thou wast borne
Home, but to no fair haven, on the gale!
This taunt, it well may be, was blurted out
In petulance, not spoken advisedly.
Thou art glib of tongue, but I am slow to learn
Of thee; I know too well thy venomous hate.
First, I bid thee think,
Would any mortal choose a troubled reign
Of terrors rather than secure repose,
If the same power were given him?
When with swift strides the stealthy plotter stalks
I must be quick too with my counterplot.
To wait his onset passively, for him
Is sure success, for me assured defeat.
Respect a man whose probity and troth
Are known to all and now confirmed by oath.
Thou art as sullen in thy yielding mood
As in thine anger thou wast truculent.
Strange counsel, friend! I know thou mean'st me well,
And yet would'st mitigate and blunt my zeal.
Let me too, I adjure thee, know, O king,
What cause has stirred this unrelenting wrath.
A roisterer at some banquet, flown with wine,
Shouted "Thou art not true son of thy sire."
Yet was I quits with him and more; one stroke
Of my good staff sufficed to fling him clean
Out of the chariot seat and laid him prone.
And so I slew them every one.
My lot be still to lead
The life of innocence and fly
Irreverence in word or deed,
To follow still those laws ordained on high
Whose birthplace is the bright ethereal sky
But O may Heaven the true patriot keep
Who burns with emulous zeal to serve the State.
Perdition seize his vain imaginings,
If, urged by greed profane,
He grasps at ill-got gain,
And lays an impious hand on holiest things.
I had a mind to visit the high shrines,
For Oedipus is overwrought, alarmed
With terrors manifold.
"Rebuke" and "chastise" are synonyms that Oedipus is using to shame the herdsman into speaking the truth. The herdsman doesn't want to reveal the truth because he knows it would hurt Oedipus (and would also hurt himself, since he'd played a role in fulfilling the prophecy), so when the messenger blurts it out, he yells at him for having a "wanton tongue," which prompts Oedipus's rebuke.
Softly, old man, rebuke him not; thy words
Are more deserving chastisement than his.
The knave methinks will still prevaricate.
Not Ister nor all Phasis' flood, I ween,
Could wash away the blood-stains from this house,
The ills it shrouds or soon will bring to light,
Ills wrought of malice, not unwittingly.
Such was the burden of his moan, whereto,
Not once but oft, he struck with his hand uplift
His eyes, and at each stroke the ensanguined orbs
Bedewed his beard, not oozing drop by drop,
But one black gory downpour, thick as hail.
Another definition of "respite" is "postponing punishment"--in that sense, Oedipus enjoyed years of respite for the murders of Laius and his traveling party, during which time he became a king and fathered four children. But the question is coming from a concerned Chorus, who just heard that Oedipus, on discovering what his murderous acts led to, was so emotionally pained that he poked his own eyes into a bloody, blind mess.
But hath he still no respite from his pain?
My curse on him whoe'er unrived
The waif's fell fetters and my life revived!
He meant me well, yet had he left me there,
He had saved my friends and me a world of care.
The monstrous offspring of a womb defiled,
Co-mate of him who gendered me, and child.
Was ever man before afflicted thus,
Like Oedipus.
"Abject" also means "of the most contemptible kind" (Oedipus killed his father, married his mother, and fathered his own brothers and sisters), "showing utter resignation or hopelessness" (he begs to be exiled or killed), and "showing humiliation or submissiveness" (he recognizes that both Apollo and he are responsible for his miseries).
Come hither, deign to touch an abject wretch;
Draw near and fear not; I myself must bear
The load of guilt that none but I can share.
Ah me! what words to accost him can I find?
What cause has he to trust me? In the past
I have been proved his rancorous enemy.
Not in derision, Oedipus, I come
Nor to upbraid thee with thy past misdeeds.
Although this play takes place chronologically before Antigone, Sophocles wrote it about fifteen years later. Thus, the Greek audiences who knew the myths and had seen the production of Antigone would know that Oedipus's wish does not come true: Creon, because of his pride, anger, and disrespect to the gods, also brings on the destruction of his family.
May Providence deal with thee kindlier
Than it has dealt with me!
Where'er ye go to feast or festival,
No merrymaking will it prove for you,
But oft abashed in tears ye will return.
And when ye come to marriageable years,
Where's the bold wooers who will jeopardize
To take unto himself such disrepute
As to my children's children still must cling,
For what of infamy is lacking here?
O leave them not to wander poor, unwed,
Thy kin, nor let them share my low estate.
O pity them so young, and but for thee
All destitute.
The superior force that overwhelmed Oedipus is Fate. Upon discovering that he actually did fulfill the oracle's predictions (which he thought had been carefully avoided), Oedipus is overwhelmed by grief, shame, and horror.
Look ye, countrymen and Thebans, this is Oedipus the great,
He who knew the Sphinx's riddle and was mightiest in our state.
Who of all our townsmen gazed not on his fame with envious eyes?
Now, in what a sea of troubles sunk and overwhelmed he lies!

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