Sophocles devotion to his Athenian religion is reflected in the play Oedipus the King, illuminating the work’s overall meaning. Examining man’s responsibility for his own moral sanctity and his own sanity, Sophocles at the same time recognizes that in order to fulfill these responsibilities a man must have equal measures of piety and faith in and towards the Gods. In Oedipus, Sophocles uses the actions of the main characters and the underlying structure of the plot to portray these beliefs to a wide audience.
Sophocles was one of the many Greek ‘renaissance men’, with an influence that was not limited to the art of theatre, but was felt in the worlds of government, politics, and war as well. It should come as no surprise then that he was also very active in the arena of religion. According to Professor Robin Mitchell-Boyask of Temple University, Sophocles “…played a key role in Athenian religion. He is said to have introduced the cult of the healing god Asclepius into Athens…” This cult was introduced into Athenian society after a terrible plague had ravaged the city. Boyask suggests that it was this plague that created in Sophocles a fascination with the psychological effects of illness that we see in Oedipus the King, which was penned just after this deadly outbreak.
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The power of mankind is always central in Sophocles’ writings. The playwright himself said “that he wrote men as they ought to be” (Biography of Sophocles). Amongst his interests, he examined mankind’s tragedies, which, according to A.E. Haigh of Clarendon Press, held a special “spiritual significance” in all of Sophocles’ work. This interest undoubtedly resulted in the cultivation of certain religious beliefs, the evidence for which he might have drawn from the tragic stories surrounding him.
Sophocles’ religious stances are never clearly put down by himself or any other philosopher or historian of the time. However, through an examination of his plays, such as Oedipus the King, one can compile a fairly comprehensive view of his own religious philosophies. In looking through Sophocles work of tragedies, the torment of humanity is displayed not just in the context of mortal life, but in front of the backdrop of what Haigh calls “…the eternal laws of justice and divine government”.
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However, Sophocles stands out from other playwrights of the era by never allowing the pantheon of gods and goddesses to take an undue amount of attention, wishing to focus equally on the power of humanity. For example, after the title character Oedipus has gouged out his eyes, the chorus does not immediately speak of the glory of the gods, but wonders at Oedipus’ command of himself. “Dreadful, what you’ve done…/how could you bear it, gouging out your eyes?” (Sophocles). Sophocles recognizes that man is a powerful beast in his own right, even if not as potent as the gods. “The mysterious decrees of destiny are always visible in the background…and the actions of mortal men, when seen under this aspect, acquire unwonted grandeur and impressiveness” (Haigh). In reliving these acts on the stage, Sophocles trumpets them as glorious moments in human history, while, at the same time, showing the frailty of that triumph.
Along with this ability to perform great acts comes a moral responsibility to be a respectful servant to the gods and uphold the divine laws that they have set down. These laws have a “…duration [that is] everlasting.” The rules of set down by the gods are similar, Haigh tells us, to “…justice, and ordain ‘reverent purity in every word and deed’”. According to Professor Clifford Herschel Moore, a professor of Greek religion at Harvard, “Sophocles emphasized the divine source of the higher moral obligations which transcend all human laws”. The importance of these laws is evident in Oedipus the King, where the entire plot is the result of a prophecy made by “An oracle… (I won’t say from Apollo himself/but his underlings, his priests) and it said/that doom would strike him down at the hands of a son, our son…” as punishment for an infraction by a distant ancestor. Oedipus, acting as the instrument of this retribution, is himself tormented and punished for a crime he had nothing to do with. In this twist of plot, the audience is shown another of Sophocles religious beliefs. He, unlike many other Greek writers of the time, admits that, “…while crime is punished, innocence is not always protected, and suffering and misfortune often overtake the guiltless” (Haigh).
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Sophocles was devout in his belief in the Gods of his time. This commitment to his religion and the beliefs about mankind that he developed from his examination of his world are clearly displayed in one of his greatest works, Oedipus the King. The actions of the main characters and the aspects of the story that drive the plot, display his philosophies to his Greek peers and illuminate the overall meaning of the play: that man is a miraculous creature with powers and abilities that are awe-inspiring, but without the grace of the gods, we would be little more than dust. This message is still important today, especially to those who believe in forces such as destiny and fate.
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