As in the previous section, the teacher tells a story. This time it is the story of Oedipus, and it is introduced as—”one of the first murder mysteries ever written, by a fellow named Sophocles over two thousand years ago.” The story will be relayed in a colloquial manner such as that of The Star Chamber scenario. Students will be provided with the text to read along as the teacher reads aloud. The text I have developed is largely based on Edith Hamilton’s rendition, which appears in her book, “Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes,” and which she took almost entirely from Sophocles’ play, amplifying the role of the Sphinx.
Students will be apprised of basic storytelling techniques as described by Aristotle with regard to plot as well as thematic content as they listen to the story. Greek mythology will be addressed by reviewing some of the gods and goddesses and their epithets, and how the myth, in part, was a way to explain nature. Seeing sticks of jagged white light that cracked the sky open, hearing a monstrous boom overhead, followed by a downpour of water to nurture the fields or a blast of fire to destroy them—meant power to early man. If he was to survive this great and terrible force, he would have to understand it. Having no words or technology at hand for the experiences he was witnessing around him, he personified the forces of nature. Thunder became Zeus; lightning, his instrument. Man paid homage to his gods for their power could be beneficent or fierce. And while Greek mythology was man’s early religion, it was also his early science.
In the story of Oedipus another kind of force is represented by a god—Apollo, the God of Truth. Not only did early man have to survive the forces of nature, he was also driven to comprehend the meaning of life—the inner life of thought and emotion. Today we know the loud noise is called “thunder,” and the sticks of jagged white light are called “lightning.” But most of us are still searching for truth and the meaning of life. Truth, represented in the story of Oedipus, is the divine province of Apollo. In “The Star Chamber,” however, truth is less tangible because it has become the province of the judicial system which is man-made. Because man, unlike the gods, is not infallible, justice cannot be rendered absolute.
In reviewing the plot lines of both stories, students will be shown various contrasts and similarities that occur. There are several objectives in doing this: 1) to define structure in storytelling, i.e., exposition, complication, peripeteia, dénouement; 2) to explore the similarities in both protagonists’ motivations as they search for truth and justice; 3) to show the contrast of power and impotence concerning the forces represented in both stories—the law in “The Star Chamber,” and the gods in the story of Oedipus.
At the beginning of the film, “The Star Chamber,” the murderers are known and the law is powerless to do anything about them. Oedipus, on the other hand, is the unknown murderer, but the gods have absolute power, and Oedipus dedicates himself to their command and proclaims that the murderer of Laius (his true father, unbeknownst to him) be brought to justice. Both stories put the ethical paradigms of their respective eras to task as their protagonists run the risk of selling their souls by taking matters into their own hands. Judge Hardin winds up joining a clandestine group of judges who, like himself, have become disenchanted with legal loopholing defense tactics in their courtrooms; Oedipus flees from Apollo’s prophesy (that he would kill his father and marry his mother) by leaving his home in Corinth. Therefore, in “The Star Chamber” scenario, the seemingly impotent law is empowered, while in the story of Oedipus, the powerful gods are seemingly made impotent.
Both protagonists, however, are standing on shaky ground ethically and emotionally. Hardin, after participating as judge and juror with the maverick group of justices he has joined (the star chamber), gets to present one of his own cases—the series of murders involving boys—the case that sent him over the edge. The “murderers” are found guilty, and a hitman is hired to execute the sentence, quite literally. Although Hardin believes that justice will now finally be served, his nights are sleepless, and his days are wrought with worry. Similarly, Oedipus’ resolve begins to waver when Jocasta (his wife, and unbeknownst to him, his mother) tells him how Laius was murdered. She offers this story to show that the gods are fallible. They had prophesied her husband’s death at the hand of his son, but Laius had had the boy killed; Laius had died at the hands of robbers on the way to Delphi shortly before Oedipus arrived in Thebes. Oedipus, recalling his journey to Thebes (and the man and four attendants he killed when he was forced from his path), wonders if the man who tried to hit him with a stick—the one who provoked his rage—was, in fact, Laius. As Jocasta tries to assure him that it was not her husband that he killed, a messenger from Corinth arrives to tell Oedipus that his father, Polybus, has died. There is momentary relief for Oedipus (who is unaware that Polybus is his adoptive father), as once again it would appear that the gods were fallible; his father did not die at his hand.
The peripeteia in both stories presents another contrast between the two plots: The chief detective (on the case of the serial murders) discovers that the accused are, in fact, innocent. The real killers had stolen their van for a couple of hours and had returned it without their knowledge. When Hardin finds out that the defendants were innocent all along, he tries in vain to get the group to call off the hitman. They claim they can’t do it and warn him not to interfere—mistakes happen, and the defendants, though not guilty of this particular crime, are probably guilty of many others. But Hardin knows—the “murderers” are innocent. Conversely, when the truth is revealed to Oedipus, he knows—the “innocent” is a murderer. The messenger from Corinth reveals to Oedipus that Polybus was his adoptive father. When the surviving member of Laius’ party arrives, the messenger recognizes him as the shepherd who gave him the orphaned child. The man is reluctant to acknowledge the messenger, but under much duress, admits that he disobeyed Laius and Jocasta’s orders to abandon the child on a mountain. The revelations for both Hardin and Oedipus have enormous impact.
The destruction of integrity is illustrated in both plots as we follow the characters’ decent through righteousness, denial, shock, recognition, shame and despair. The climaxes are similar in that both characters seek redemption. Hardin tries to save the falsely accused at risk to his own life, but is unsuccessful. Oedipus, although innocent of any intentional wrong doing, cannot endure the moral stigma of his actions, and blinds himself.
In the end, Hardin, unwilling to compromise his integrity any further, turns in his star chamber associates and justice prevails. Oedipus becomes a willing outcast, and thus is humbled by the gods. In both stories, good men had compromised their integrity by denying what was intrinsically true for them: the law for Hardin; Apollo (the God of Truth) for Oedipus. Hardin could only reclaim the truth by admitting his own guilt and putting himself in the hands of justice. Perhaps Oedipus’ act of blinding himself was also an attempt to seek his inner truth, and put himself in the hands of the gods.