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Throughout the history of literature, authors and playwrights have often employed a foil – a character whose purpose is to create a contrast with the main character that allows the latter’s attributes to cement their presence. Ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles, in his play Oedipus Rex, seamlessly weaves his foil character, Creon, into the tapestry of the intricate plot not only by allowing Creon’s character traits to stand against those of Oedipus, but also by giving him his own magnitude in the events and direction of the play. Though Creon – who is Oedipus’s uncle, brother-in-law, and right-hand man all at once – demonstrates many qualities that provide stark relief against the title character’s, the ones that perhaps form the best grounds for contrast are Creon’s reactions, his piety, and his priorities.
One of the most critical elements of the plot’s rising action is the ongoing conflict between Creon and Oedipus, in which the first of their differences truly comes to light. Where Oedipus is portrayed as a frantic, paranoid king, Creon’s mature reactions to Oedipus’s attempts at provocation could not be more different. When Oedipus accuses Creon of “highway robbery of [his] crown” (l. 615), Creon’s only response to such a far-fetched claim is to calmly request an explanation that is just-as-composedly dispelled by him. When Oedipus proceeds with his poorly-founded accusations, which often come dusted with ill-concealed insults, Creon fails to be provoked into any reaction beyond unruffled, logical responses, as demonstrated by his attempt to explain to the king that he would have no motivation to frame him, since he already enjoys all the benefits of a high-ranking position without being weighed down by the burden of its responsibilities. Oedipus, however, refuses to listen to the voice of reason: every following exchange between them stands to further emphasize just how illogical and volatile Oedipus can be.
Another key dissimilarity between the two characters is their drastically different views of divinity and their reverence – or lack thereof – of the gods. Creon, who from the very beginning of the play is established as a man of piety, often makes note of the gods in conversation, ever careful to remain within his mortal boundaries. He also mentions that he awaits “to learn from the God [Apollo] the course of action [he] should follow” (l. 1620) before coming to any decisions, thus exhibiting his belief in fate. Oedipus, on the other hand, becomes infamous for his hubris – his pride that is so excessive that he believes himself superior to the gods. In his initial conversation with the prophet Teiresias, Oedipus criticizes the power of the gods and their oracles:
“When the dark singer, the sphinx, was in your country, did you speak word of deliverance to its citizens? And yet the riddle’s answer was not the province of a chance comer. It was a prophet’s task and plainly you had no such gift of prophecy from birds nor otherwise from any God to glean a word of knowledge. But I came, Oedipus, who knew nothing, and I stopped her. I solved the riddle by my own wit alone. Mine was no knowledge got from birds.” (l. 455-463)
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In this extract, Oedipus’s true feelings regarding his rise to power and his general worthiness come to the attention of both the other characters and the audience. Oedipus, simply put, has been blinded by the single success that he had stumbled upon that skyrocketed him to wealth and power. By the end of the play, any remaining belief in the gods he may have had seems to have dissolved away, demonstrated by his self-dug abyss of self-pity.
Lastly, there is an unforgiving contrast between the priorities of the two gentlemen in question. One would expect that the king, so well-loved by his people, would instinctively put them first, surpassing the importance of his own needs, but that is far from the truth. When accusations are made against him, Oedipus is quick to discard the crisis of the plague that the people of Thebes are undergoing, and instead moves his own personal developments into the spotlight. Creon, meanwhile, prioritized the needs of Thebes all throughout the play. From the very beginning, when he went himself to fetch the prophet Teiresias to shed light on the suffering of the Thebans, Creon displays his willingness to make personal sacrifices for his people. This note is played to the very end of the play, when Creon easily steps into the role he never desired – that of king – and shoulders the worries of his people right alongside them.
Creon, a complex character in his own right, helped enrich audiences’ perception of Oedipus in a way that would have been impossible without his presence. Oedipus’s shortcomings in the fields detailed above may never have been seen so sharply without Creon’s additions. Indeed, the entire play would have been lacking had it not been for his contributions to audiences’ understanding and judgement. In this way, Sophocles’s decision to include the character of Creon as a foil to Oedipus allowed for the text to adopt an unprecedented depth, and for Oedipus’s brash character to be immortalized as the character all literature aficionados love to hate.
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