Oedipus the King: A Theme Analysis

Oedipus the King is one of the group of 3 plays by Sophocles known as the Theban plays given that they all relate to the destinies of the Theban household of the Oedipus and his kids. The other two plays of this group are Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus the King relates the story of Oedipus who reached Thebes, having killed on the way an old guy with whom he picked a quarrel.

The city of Thebes was then suffering awfully because of the beast, the Sphinx. He resolved her riddle and citizens of Thebes provided him the kingdom as city is afflicted with the loss of their king, who had actually been murdered while on a pilgrimage.

So he assumed the power and married the widowed queen. Here the tragedy of Oedipus takes its last course. As city was affected with famine, so Delphic oracles were consulted who divulged that difficulties of the city occurred from the truth that it is harboring a dirty individual, the murderer of late king Laius. Oedipus solved to get to the bottom of this mystery and punish the crook. Nevertheless, he ultimately discovered that the perpetrator he was seeking was none besides he himself. He blinded himself and went on exile. There are different viewpoints for taking a look at the style of the play.

It may be considered as a play enacting the style of insecurity and illusoriness of human joy. Or the theme might be that of the inadequacy of human intelligence in fixing the riddles of fate. The recognition of styles in Oedipus varies from reader to reader and from critic to critic. I believe that Sophocles wished to convey that a male is plunged from prosperity and power to destroy ands ignominy due to his own human failings. It was something [1] in his character that brought his catastrophe. Anything foreign to his own character only augmented the terrible procedures but it was just his own personality that made him a victim to disgrace. Dodds is of the view, “If Oedipus is the innocent victim of a doom which he can not avoid, does this not minimize him to a mere defect puppet?” Whereas Knox (1984) is of the view that Oedipus’ catastrophe occurs due to tragic defect [s] and fate as no part to play in Oedious Rex.

Distinguished Professor Butcher has identified four possible varieties of human failings in Oedipus. The primary of these connotations is an error due to unavoidable lack of knowledge of circumstances whereas a mistake caused by unawareness of conditions that might have been identified and for that reason to some degree morally blameworthy The 3rd range is “A fault or error where the act is mindful and intentional, however not deliberate. Such acts are committed in anger or enthusiasm.” (313) Where as fourth one is “A fault of character distinct, on the one hand, from an isolated mistake, and, on the other, from the vice which has its seat in the depraved will … a flaw of character that is not polluted with a vicious function.” (315 )

The crucial point is that whether Sophocles wants us to think that Oedipus has basically unsound character. One way of deciding this concern is to examine what other characters in the play state about Oedipus. The only outcome that we can get to in this way is that Sophocles intends us to think about Oedipus an essentially honorable person. In the opening scene of the play, the priest of Zeus refers to him as the greatest and noblest of men and the divinely motivated hero who conserved Thebes from being destroyed by the Sphinx. The Chorus also considers him to be honorable and virtuous. They refuse to think in Tireseas allegations of him. When catastrophe befalls Oedipus, not a single character in the play validates it as a doom which has deservedly overtaken Oedipus. (Dodds, p. 39) So there were specific other tragic flaws that were acting behind the curtain to bring about Oedipus disaster. Let us take a look at those.

Oedipus appears to be obsessed with his own intelligence and this leads him to extremely regrettable and uncomfortable scenarios. This human weakness [2] of Oedipus laps over with his pride as he is exceptionally proud of the fact that he had the ability to resolve the riddle of the Sphinx which had actually shown too much for any other individual. He thinks that Gods has actually capacitated him with intelligence and knowledge to resolve riddle that the Thebes is affected with. Oedipus even teases Tireseas on his failure in resolving the Sphinx’s riddle. He states;

And where were you, when the Dog-faced Witch was here?

Have you any word of deliverance then for our individuals?

There was a riddle too deep for common wits;

A seer must have answered it, but answer there came none

From you … (12-16)

After calling the soothsayer incorrect prophet, Oedipus takes pride in his own ability in having resolved the puzzled which showed excessive for the blind seer;

Until I came– I, oblivious Oedipus, came– And

stopped the riddler’s mouth, guessing he truth

By mother-wit, not bird-lore. (17-19)

So he explains Tireseas predictive warns as the impulses of a fanatic and opposes the seer’s prophecy with arguments of his own. Self-esteem and pride in his own knowledge is an outstanding feature of his character that likewise brings his tragedy. Here Oedipus likewise fulfills the traits of Aristotelian tragic hero as he has an honorable tragic flaw. The guy who sets out on his new job by sending out initially for the age-old seer is not lacking in pious reverence; but we likewise observe that Oedipus manifests unrestrained arrogance in his own intellectual achievement. No seer discovered the solution, this is Oedipus boast; no bird, no god exposed it to him, he “the absolutely oblivious” had to come on his own and hit the mark by his own wit. This is a justified pride however it amounts excessive. This pride and self-esteem induce Oedipus to despise prophecy and feel nearly exceptional to the gods. He inform the people who wish deliverance from pathos and sufferings they are afflicted with if they listen to and follow his guidance in order to get a remedy.

Finally his relentless pursuit of the reality is demonstrated when he believes he is the killer and that Polybus was not his dad, yet he continues with his search with the statement, “I should pursue this trail to the end,”(p. 55). These characteristics were only fuel to the fire and added to the pride developed a blaze that consumed him. Bernard Knox eulogizes Oedipus’ “devotion to reality, whatever the expense” (p. 117)

Another qualities of his character that contributes toward his tragedy is Oedipus’ longing for thoroughness. His curious nature is not content with anything which is either half-hearted or insufficient. Nor can he brook any delay. He damns that the instructions of the oracle ought to be given effect simultaneously. As previously, Oedipus speaks on the basis of the workings of his own psychological faculties that has actually been tested time and again and have shown their intelligence.

It can be said that the catastrophe of Oedipus is the outcome more of his excellent qualities than his bad ones. It is his love for Thebes which makes him send Creon to Delphi to consult the Oracles. It is the same take care of his subjects who make him proclaim a ban and a curse on the murderer of Laius. It is his outright sincerity that makes him consist of even himself within menstruation and the penalty. He replies by stating “Sick as you are, not one is sick as I, each of you suffers in himself … however my spirit Groans for the city, for myself, for you”. (62-62)

He is upset with Tireseas due to the fact that he is not able to tolerate the reality that although the prophet states that he understand who the killer of Laius is, he declines top give the info to the king. His rage and rashness is due to the reality that the masses are suffering and Tireseas does not offer the murderer’s name. Oedipus can not but concern this as a clear manifestation of the seer’s disloyalty to his city.

To Oedipus the discovery of truth is more important than his own great and security. Even when it appears that the investigation that he is carrying on will not produce any result which will be him, he chooses to carry on with it. He is so sincere with himself that he inflicts the penalty of self-blinding and banishment from the city of Thebes.

So his ethical goodness also appears as a human failing that brings his destroy.

There is another crucial human stopping working that contribute towards his tragedy i.e. his intellectual myopia. He has a limited vision and is not able to evaluate the situations in a right point of view. Robert L. Kane (1975) puts this preposition in this method; “He [Oedipus] was the victim of a visual fallacy”. (p. 196) The juxtaposition between “outward magnificence and inward blindness of Oedipus and the outward blindness and inward sight of the prophet” (Kirkwood, p. 130) depicts 2 kinds of loss of sight i.e. physical and intellectual. One relates to physical sight whereas the other, the most pernicious type of loss of sight, refers to insight. Tiresias is physically blind but whereas Oedipus is blind intellectually. This intellectual loss of sight of Oedipus likewise contributes significantly to lead him to his terrible location.

Oedipus has faultless physical vision throughout play other than in the end but he stays blind to the reality regarding himself. At one point in the play, he has the ability to see but he is not willing to do so. He intellectual vision includes his physical loss of sight but he is not able to cast away the mental “slings and arrows” and psychological sufferings that intellectual blindness has affected on him. So his loss of sight, both intellectual at the start of the play and physical at the end of the day, is the worst.

Blindness interweaves with the primary plot from the extremely start of the play when Oedipus states, “I would be blind to anguish not to pity my people kneeling at my feet. (14 )” It manifest that he refers to blindness that if h will not acknowledge the distress of his people. This shows his physical sight however intellectual loss of sight as he himself was the cause of those afflictions. Later on he acknowledges that although Tiresias is physically blind however has prophetic power when he states, “Blind as you are, you can feel all the more what illness haunts our city. (344 )”. Tiresias action refers to the gravity of Oedipus’ inability to see his future. He says, “How horrible– to see the fact when the truth is only pain to him who sees! (359 )”

Later on Oedipus denounces his own recognition of Tiresias as a seer and abuses him by stating, “You have actually lost your power, stone-blind, stone-deaf– senses, eyes blind as stone!( 423 )” and “Blind, lost in the night, limitless night that nursed you! You can’t hurt me or anybody else who sees the light– you can never touch me. (425 )”. It is illustrated that it is Oedipus who is blind intellectually as he is not willing to comprehend the scenario and to comprehend the fact. In retort to his slur, Tiresias refers to worst kind of blindness that Oedipus is suffering. He states, “You with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life, to your house you reside in, those who cope with– who are your moms and dads? (470 )” and predict, “Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich, he will grope his way towards a foreign soil, a stick tapping before him step by step. (517 )”.

These encouraging texts clearly manifest that Oedipus was affected with serious intellectual myopia as he was unable t see the fact that was pervasive all around him. Really he hesitated to see fact around him, prior to his physical loss of sight and later on as he blinds himself not to observe the important things around him. His is the most insidious kind of loss of sight.

Oedipus can be held guilty due to another human flaw– his failure to take proper preventive procedures. It is stated that he stops working to take rational actions and precaution s which would have saved him from dedicating the crimes.

“Could not Oedipus … have left his doom if he had been more cautious? Understanding that he was in danger of committing parricide and incest, would not really a sensible man have prevented quarrelling, even in self-defense and also love-relations with ladies older than himself? … real life I expect he might. But we not entitled to blame Oedipus either for negligence failing to assemble a hand list or lack of self-control in failing to follow its injunctions.” ( Dodds, p. 40)

Oedipus has essential human failings of anger and rashness. He rashly jumps into conclusions. Choragos points this out in scene II after a long speech by Creon who attempts o eliminate the ill-fed and hastily formed suspicions of Oedipus about Creon. They say, “Judgments too quickly formed threaten” (II, 101)

However Oedipus validates this, arguing that ruler have to take quick decision. He states in the future, “But is he not quick in his duplicity?/ And shall I not fast to parry him?” (II, 102-103) Later on at the conclusion of scene II, Creon shows the very same fault in his character by saying, “Ugly in yielding, as you were ugly in rage!/ Nature like yours mainly torments themselves.” (II, 151-152) It is this rashness that makes to not simply suspect Creon but implicate him and even states that he is worthy of the sentence of death. The rashness can be observed in his treatment of Tireseas. Oedipus does not lack analytical thinking however his rashness does permit him to weigh up the scenario rightly and he makes rash decision. In retrospect we see that rashness of Oedipus has something to do with the murder Laius at the hands of Oedipus. The self-blinding also is an act of rashness although Oedipus tries to offer numerous arguments in favor of it.

His bad character is shown in the squabble in between Teiresias and himself, where Teiresias utter the prophetic truth and Oedipus retorts, “Do you believe you can say such things with impunity?” and afterward attributes him as a “Shameless and brainless, sightless, senseless sot!”(p. 36). His character is additional significant with suspicion about Creon to whom he thinks about as a conspirator. Kirkwood is of the view that “The Creon he [Oedipus] is battling is an invention of his imagination” (Kirkwood, 1958. p. 132) and nothing else. He says with recommendation his tête-à-tête with Tiresaeas, “Creon! Was this trick his, then, if not yours?” So here his imagination works together with anger and rashness.

All those manifestations of tragic defect, their supported arguments and views of the critics plainly shows the thesis that Oedipus unavoidable ignorance was the significant element of his catastrophe due to the fact that he was not able to find that the guy whom he attacked on the crossroads to Thebes was his dad. Secondly, if he would not have actually been inhabited by his aspirations, he would have perhaps explored the horror of his deed and could have avoided the extra predicaments by not weding his mother. Thirdly, his “conscious and deliberate” act includes his decision to “bring what is dark to light” (133 ).

Additionally, as outcome to revelation of Tireseas, he charges Creon with conspiracy and murder and knocks Tireases as an accessory. Although these actions were deliberate and bring Oedipus to tragic end but have a clear background that highlight that these actions were not “purposeful”. Furthermore, all these errors stem from a hasty and obstinate personality, unjustified anger and excessive pride that compel him to an energized inquisitiveness. With the advancement of the plot, all these ascriptions of his character jumps back with enhanced force on his head that lastly culminates at his disaster. Knox (1957) summarize in this method;

“the actions of Oedipus that produce the disaster come from all sides of his character; nobody particular action is more necessary than any other; they are all necessary and they involve not any one characteristic of character which might be designated a hamartia but the character of Oedipus as a whole” (31 ).

Here I want to point out that all these human failings were not innate or innate but he developed these as his habitual formations. It was inculcated in his spirit so that it became a part of his natural disposition. If it were natural then he might not be blamed for his failure. It was human failings rather than the destiny that brought his tragedy. So Sophocles has effectively put across that a guy is plunged from success and power to destroy ands ignominy due to his own human failings.


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[1] Ethical defect, regular formations, behavioral defect etc.
. [2] in any other context, pride in one’s intelligence can not a human weakness however course of the play illustrates clearly that in Oedipus the King it was a human weak point.

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