13 minute read

The songs that compose Strophe 1 and Antistrophe 1 of Ode 2 of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex dramatize the conflict between the laws of the divine and the human. There are two groups of speakers, one that sings the Strophe and another that sings the Antistrophe. They do not represent specific characters such as Oedipus or a messenger, but rather the citizens of Thebes. These passages are a form of commentary on the events of the play, meant for the physical audience of the play. Using precise word choices and personification, Sophocles conveys the message that all humans must follow the righteous laws that come from the heavens or else they face consequences.

Strophe 1 of Ode 2 focuses on the laws that come from the gods. The chorus begins the section with the lines “Let me be reverent in the ways of right, / [l]owly the paths I journey on” (1-2). These two lines establish the beliefs of the speakers: they must respect and follow righteous paths. These sentences make use of the singular first-person pronouns “me” and “I”, and the action of following the ways of right is metaphorically described as a journey on a path. Paths work as a metaphor because while it is possible to choose the path you want to take, other paths may be less desirable due to safety, length, or other factors. In the next three lines, the chorus tells the audience to “[l]et all my words and actions keep / [t]he laws of the pure universe / [f]rom highest Heaven handed down” (3-5). This intentional word choice of “laws” conveys that they must be strictly adhered to and enforceable through some form of punishment. The usage of the words “pure universe” conveys that these laws should be applied to everybody in the world, perhaps including even the gods. The next two lines personify “Heaven” as the “bright nurse” of “those generations of the realms of light” (6-7). This uses the motif of light versus dark, which has repeatedly shown up throughout the whole play. By associating the place that these laws come from with brightness and light, which themselves are associated with goodness, Sophocles associates the laws with goodness. Furthermore, a nurse’s job is to care for sick patients, but also children. This reference to the nurturing aspect of medicine as well as the other reference to light and brightness invoke the image of Apollo, who is present in the story as the God whose prophecy brings upon Oedipus’s tragic downfall. The final three lines of this stanza use words such as “begot”, “slaves”, and “Father” to describe the laws, personifying them as though they are children, which allows the audience to understand an abstract concept as a law as though it was an entity. More specifically, these lines state that the laws are not “slaves of memory”. The word “slaves” has a negative connotation, and suggests that human laws, which are like slaves, are bound by the flaws of human nature like forgetfulness and are imperfect. In contrast, the heavenly laws do not suffer from the same problems and are infallible. It also specifies that they come not from “mortal kind”, but a “Father” that “ages not”, suggesting they come from a divine power.

Antistrophe 1 of Ode 2 shifts focus to the idea of a tyrant. The usage of the word “tyrant” specifically references the fact that the person that it is used in reference to is a ruler and is cruel and abusive. The tyrant most likely refers to Oedipus, who killed Laius to become King of Thebes. Describing the tyrant as a “child of Pride / Who drinks from his great sickening cup / Recklessness and vanity”, Sophocles contrasts his idea of a tyrant to the example that the speakers in Strophe 1 set (11-13). While the Strophe 1 chorus follows the path “lowly”, or humbly, the tyrant is prideful, reckless, and vain. The word “child” also mirrors the personification of the laws of the universe as children, which is particularly relevant to this story as Oedipus kills his own father and marries his mother. The speakers then describe how “from his high crest headlong / He plummets to the dust of hope” (14-15). His use of a “high crest” as a metaphor for Oedipus’s climb for power again contrasts with the “lowly paths” that the Strophe 1 speakers take, and the negative consequence from him doing so leads to his downfall. Using “dust”, which is immaterial and insignificant, as a metaphor for hope conveys that there is only a small amount of hope left, reflecting the position in which Oedipus is in currently where he can only hope that the shepherd could recount there being multiple highwaymen. This is followed by the line “That strong man is not strong” (16), which implies that although Oedipus is physically strong, he does not have the power to change his fate and his strength is insignificant in comparison to that of others, like fate and the gods. This paradox highlights the difference between what power appears to be physically, and what power truly is in comparison to the universe.

Finally, the rest of Antistrophe 1 of Ode 2 describes how a ruler can be granted the favor of the gods through obeying them. Sophocles suggests that ambition for power is not inherently bad in line 17, in which the speakers state “let no fair ambition be denied”. This uses a similar structure to the first sentences of Strophe 1 of Ode 2, with sentences that start with the word “let”, suggesting that the idea that fair ambition should not be denied is as similarly important as the idea that humans should follow laws. The word “fair” is positive and suggests that while there might be unfair ambition, like trying to surpass the gods, people who want to be the greatest version of themselves should not be restricted from doing so. This reflects the Greek ideal of areté, which describes reaching maximum human excellence. However, the speaker specifies that the ruler must “fear God and on his ordinance wait” (20). This establishes that while rulers can reach for power and not meet a terrible fate, they need to follow the same rules of the divine that the speakers of Strophe 1 do and be subservient to the gods.