Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King in 430 B.C. Aristotle cited it as being in many ways the perfect model of a tragedy.
The play unfolds with great power as the hero’s flaw exposes his fate, even though his motive is pure: to save his city from a rampant disease. At the same time, the play has a flaw. And while far from ruinous, it shows just how difficult structure is in writing.
The idea of structure is that all the parts of a work should fit together; nothing should be extraneous. This provides the reader with a sense of order.
But in Oedipus the King, it is the pursuit or order that unleashes chaos. Clues keep piling up that Oedipus has unknowingly fulfilled a prophecy, made when he was a baby, that he would kill his father and mate with his mother. Upon hearing this prophecy his horrified parents, rulers of the city of Thebes, gave him to a shepherd to be left in the woods to die. But the shepherd took pity and handed Oedipus to an intermediary who brought him to the ruling couple of Corinth, who were childless and who raised Oedipus as their own.
Years later, an oracle conveys the prophecy to Oedipus anew. Not knowing he was adopted, he flees Corinth in order to avoid his prescribed fate. In a rash and sudden highway quarrel he kills a stranger who unbeknownst to him is in fact his natural father, Laius. Later Oedipus saves Thebes from the Sphinx and becomes king, marrying Jocasta, his father’s widow.
That’s quite the backstory. All of it happens before the start of the play and is explained as events proceed. The play begins with Thebes having fallen prey to an outbreak of plague. To save the city, someone must appease the gods by uncovering Laius’s killer. Oedipus steps up to the task and stubbornly persists even as others around him realize the peril and warn him to stop.
This is a tricky plot, because it must be credible that the truth about Oedipus dawns on others before it dawns on him. But here is where the flaw creeps in. As the clues accumulate, Oedipus’s last hope is that someone else killed Laius. That would clear him from the prophecy. As Jocasta remembers it, a herdsman travelling with the king said Laius was beset by several men; but Oedipus knows that he was alone when he had his highway quarrel. So the herdsman must be heard anew.
OEDIPUS: Yes, all my hope upon a herdsman now, and I must wait until he comes.
JOCASTA: But when he comes, what is it you want to hear?
OEDIPUS: Just this: if his account is yours, I’m clear.
JOCASTA: But what was my account? What did I say?
OEDIPUS: Why, several bandits in your account, he claimed, cut down the king.
If he will keep to several, I, as only one, am not the killer, not the same.
But if he says it was a lone man journeying — ah, then! — the verdict tilts too heavily to me.
(translation by Paul Roche)
And then, when the herdsman arrives, they don’t even ask him about this. Seriously. It turns out that this is the same herdsman who handed baby Oedipus to the intermediary who forwarded him to the Corinthian couple. Oedipus, in squeezing this information out of the herdsman, realizes that his parentage is not what he thought and that he must have fulfilled the prophecy. He forgets entirely about the question of how many men fell upon Laius and rushes off to poke out his eyeballs.
So, why did the herdsman say several men originally? Was it a misunderstanding, did someone mishear him, was he ashamed of the defeat?
We don’t know. The thread stays loose. That is a flaw, and it shows that even for a great writer, structure is a difficult puzzle (on the other hand, it is fitting that a play about an imperfect man should contain an imperfection). For normal writers the lesson is: Remove bits that don’t support the whole. And when you can’t figure out a way to do that, keep the story moving so quickly that people don’t notice. It worked for Sophocles, and, in modern times, it worked for every season of 24 and every Avengers movie. If you can’t be perfect, be fast.
LEARN: Read Oedipus the King — it’s a great work.
USE: Figure out a way the herdsman could have weighed in on the number-of-bandits controversy without hampering the story.
Answers from N: holocaust; splash; vexes/vexed.