An Ultimate Guide to Oedipus The King

Published on
February 8, 2024
An Ultimate Guide to Oedipus The King

Sophocles’ tragic play, Oedipus the King, depicts a spectacular deterioration of its titular protagonist as he realises the truth of his own past: that he has killed his own father, and committed incest with his mother. Resisting reality at every point, Oedipus tirelessly drives an investigation into who killed the previous king, Laius, undoing himself and his family in the process. The initial stakes of the play – the plague wracking Thebes – fade into insignificance, overtaken by the psychological ruin of Oedipus which culminates in his striking, climactic self-punishment: the gouging out of his own eyes. Yet it is abnormally unclear exactly what the fatal flaw (hamartia) of the protagonist actually is, and that muddies the thematic or moral messages of the play. What – if anything – did Oedipus do wrong? 

Perception: sight, blindness, light and introspection

“You with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life, to the house you live in, those you live with— who are your parents? Do you know? All unknowing you are the scourge of your own flesh and blood,  the dead below the earth and the living here above, and the double lash of your mother and your father’s curse will whip you from this land one day, their footfall treading you down in terror, darkness shrouding your eyes that now can see the light! ”

Oedipus is characterised by a fundamental blindness to himself and his surroundings. Unaware of his heritage, and unthinking of his own past, Oedipus consistently makes incorrect assumptions. His instinct in response to Tiresias’ message is to accuse Creon of unfounded conspiracy; he presumes that Jocasta is terrified of him being born to a slave. These assumptions not only ignore the evidence unfolding around Oedipus, but also contradict the personalities of characters who are supposed to be his dearest friends and family, displaying the monarch’s willingness to controvert reality, bending it to his warped, convenient perception. These misconceptions are amplified by the audience’s contrasting understanding; we, from Tiresias’ initial revelations, are able to understand what Oedipus cannot. 

However, Oedipus’ blindness is more than plain ignorance: it is the active repression of a subconscious recognition of the truth. Oedipus’ frantic response is more than just a worried leader, as superfluous self-descriptions like “I say, as one that is a stranger to the story, as a stranger to the deed” defensively emphasise his distance from the crime of Laius’ murder. This language to disassociate himself is unwarranted and repeated, thus conveying a compulsion to compensate for a likely unconscious guilt. Oedipus also reveals his subconscious knowledge through his use of singular language; the story, as given to Oedipus, is of a “a whole band, not single-handed”, yet in multiple instances he refers to the single man, a “thief” who he imagines is responsible. 

The implications of this resistance to recognising the truth reveal either Oedipus’ unwillingness or inability to confront what he should have been seeing:the links to his past prophecies, the incident at the three-ways crossroads,  all the other hints and connections which suggest the reality of his origins. This weakness, cowardice in the face of psychological struggle, is the foundation of the tragedy. Hence, Oedipus’ choice of self-inflicted punishment aligns precisely with his inability to ‘see’,  taking away the eyes which were so useless to him physically manifests his subconscious flaw. 

Sophocles’ play reinvents a myth which would have already been well-known to his classical Athenian audience. The story of Oedipus is not an original one, but Sophocles’ choices make this rendition of the tragedy its most memorable. In this play, the height of the drama is not the scandalous acts of parricide or incest, but rather the gradual narrative by which Oedipus is forced to perceive. Thus, Sophocles chooses his central focus to be on resistance to the truth, and amplifies this through the dichotomous motifs of sight/blindness, and the language of light/darkness. Thus, the full discovery of reality by all characters, and the eradication of metaphorical blindness and ignorance, resolves the narrative in a manner which, though tragic, is innately satisfying. 

Punishment 

“The pains we inflict upon ourselves hurt most of all.”

The purpose of Oedipus the King is punishment, immediately foregrounded by the oracle’s declaration that the murderer of Laius must be exiled from Thebes. This killer, described as a plague, is the target of a premise of revenge satisfied only once the criminal is blinded and exiled. But the punishments Oedipus endures are multifaceted and harsh, and although it seems intuitive at the play’s beginning that one who has so callously broken society’s rules should be punished, Sophocles subverts those initial assumptions to engender sympathy for his broken, defeated protagonist.

Oedipus’ downfall is comprehensive; the gouging out of his own eyes, arguably the most proportionate, operates asa penalty for his lack of introspection and understanding. Even here, in a self-inflicted punishment relating to his mistakes, the audience naturally understands some level of unfairness; Oedipus was lied to by the Corinthian monarchs,  kept in the dark by the prophet and the herdsman, and most importantly didn’t know they were his real parents. To lose his eyes in an excruciatingly gruesome act of violence is harrowing for character and audience. The loss of his wife/mother, Jocasta, represents the consequences of corrupting his family; not only does Oedipus lose his adopted parents by  fleeing, he uncovers and loses his own mother in one scene, an extreme loss which strips him of the only support he had left. Finally, exile from Thebes represents the final death for Oedipus: the loss of his reputation and legacy. Born and raised in two different monarchies, the champion of the Sphinx, the saviour of Thebes, Oedipus was a beloved leader renowned for his intelligence and glory. Answering the oracle’s demands takes the last shred of himself. 

Notably, these punishments are carried out not because of their proportionality, or deservedness, but rather as reactions by the characters themselves to frenzied emotions and unfathomable guilt. Oedipus may not deserve to lose his eyes, his family, and his identity, but he believes he does, and that is why he allows them to be taken from him. Similarly, Jocasta would not have been punished with death, even by the state, but this is of no consequence; her destroyed sense of self drives the outcome. In these actions Sophocles reveals the extent of traumatic emotion Oedipus feels, and in the face of these cruel and excessive punishments, the audience is left with nothing but a deep sympathy for Oedipus.

The fulfilment of Apollo’s demand of exile from Thebes is an expectation of all the characters, including Oedipus, once the truth has been accepted. While Sophocles does not portray Oedipus as deserving of this punishment, there is also no suggestion that it not be carried out. This underlying, unquestionable acceptance of divine demands demonstrates how little weight is given to human fallibility, to their emotions, relationships and choices. This final punishment encapsulates the narrative of Oedipus’ discovery, diminishing the distinct focus on psychology, emotion and flaw, and belittles the importance of these human details as ultimately immaterial. 

Terror of the everyday tragedy

“Listen to me and learn some peace of mind: no skill in the world, nothing human can penetrate the future.” 

The frightening reality of Sophocles’ play is that what happens to Oedipus could happen to anyone. He is a representation of every person, and this is driven home in the final lines, where the chorus likens Oedipus’ fate to that of everyone: ““Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.” Additionally, Oedipus is a human, realistic character, one who the audience witnesses in the full spectrum of human emotion – he is strong and vulnerable, clear-headed and hysterical, good and bad. The idea, then, that all people could suffer such a dramatic reversal of fortune, despite any prior success, reputation, family and personal character, creates a striking and universal fear. 

The other facet of this fear plays out in the delineation of ignorance and knowledge. Sophocles aligns these concepts with mortality and divinity respectively; from the beginning, it is the gods, and their oracles and prophets, who possess full knowledge of all events, while the human characters must scramble to piece together the limited pieces of memory and fact they have. The only character whose knowledge is not predicated on the knowledge of another – that is, ignorant of one part of the narrative – is Tiresias, the only divine representation who appears onstage. Thus, Sophocles implies ignorance to be an inherently human trait. Oedipus the King consequently condemns its protagonist for his humanity, revealing a terrifying possibility for all its audience: you may be fated to downfall by your ignorance, and if you are, there is nothing you can do. 

This understanding of Oedipus as a frightening representative of all of us is substantiated in a different way by Freud, who coined the Oedipus Complex from Sophocles’ title. This reading suggests that Oedipus’ prophecy and actions reveal tendencies which exist in all young children, particularly males, where they exhibit sexual desires for their parent of the opposite sex, and consequent resentment towards the parent of the same sex. According to Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, these desires, which emerge in children aged three-five, are then repressed and thus kept out of conscious awareness. However, he argues they still have some influence over psychosexual development, and thus these remnants of childhood instincts forge some connection between the play’s audience and its protagonist:  “[Oedipus’] destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so.” Therefore, this reading provides a different understanding as to why the tragedy of Oedipus is capable of universal relatability, and therefore how it engenders such sympathy and fear. 

In addition to representing all people, another way that Oedipus’ demise is deeply tragic is that it is caused, perversely, by his good qualities. Oedipus’ relentless pursuit of the truth is, at first, motivated by a sympathy for the suffering of his people during a plague. Oedipus is a proactive leader, who sends for the oracle’s advice, and displaying a virtuous piety, he obeys the instructions of Apollo to investigate the murder of Laius, the previous king. Oedipus is morally outraged that no one has investigated this crime before, and he is personally invested in not only the discovery of the truth, and the justice for a man he believed a stranger, but also because of his commitment to his people – a population to whom he (seems to) have no connection or debt. The background of his cleverness in solving the Sphinx’s riddle shows him to be wise, and perhaps most flatteringly, the Chorus – representative, as typical in Greek tragedy, of the citizenry – have an unrelenting admiration for their leader. All of these positive qualities furnish a commendable individual, in all realms of his life – private, his family, and his leadership – and not only do they not save him, but they actively contribute to his destruction. 

The truth, prophecy, fate & free will

The power of the truth 

​​“O god— all come true, all burst to light! ”

Oedipus is an ode to the remarkable ability of  truth to prevail. For the development of Sophocles’ narrative, the truth must overcome incredible obstacles in order to make itself known. It relies on the evidence of so many individuals and their fragments of the story; not only this, but individuals who are unrelated to the royal families involved, nameless individuals like the herdsman at Cithaeron, the messenger from Corinth. The plot also must be pieced together across decades, beginning before Oedipus’ birth and traversing his whole life. It must reconstruct scenes in two different city-states, in fields by a mountain, in one fateful meeting at a three-way crossroads in the middle of the Greek countryside. At times Oedipus resorts to violence in order to extract testimony. Despite all this, from the very beginning, the truth crosses narrative boundaries, revealing itself to the audience long before it is accepted in Thebes; this imbues faith in the audience that such barriers are immaterial, and therefore that the truth will eventually be uncovered. 

Additionally, the nature of the story is that the evidence of the truth appears to surround the characters at every turn. Oedipus’ limp, the tie between his identity and the baby whose ankles Jocasta bound, is recalled in every uttering of his name, which literally means “swollen-foot” in Attic Greek. There are seemingly random citizens in each kingdom that know crucial information – even one drunk man at a gathering that features only in Oedipus’ memory. The prophet always knew, and it was a matter of time before he was summoned. The way information is sprinkled throughout the narrative, seemingly disparate or difficult to find, but in fact pouring from every outlet of the play, creates a sense of the truth waiting to be discovered. 

The truth also displays itself as a force which is outside of the control of Sophocles’ cast. Characters at times reveal truth in their speech without meaning to; when Jocasta tries to comfort Oedipus with her stories, she unveils even more unsettling details that link Oedipus to the crime. There is also a metatextual understanding that the truth simply must be discovered. 

The play, like the story of the sphinx, is set up as a riddle, and there is a sense of obligation that it must be solved, as well as an insinuation that, as last time, Oedipus will be the one to find the answers. For Oedipus, the riddle gave him everything and then took it all away; framed as a force for both good and bad, Sophocles offers no moral judgement, but rather firmly portrays it as a force of life changing power. This is supplemented by the nature of the story as one already well-known to its audience, furthering the demand that the truth reach its predestined revelation – regardless of Sophocles’ drawing of these characters, the imposition of the existing story is one that cannot be escaped by the people in it. 

The other factor which lends power to the truth in Oedipus the King is its intertwining with divine forces. Divinity as it exists in the play – the gods, especially Apollo, his Sanctuary at Delphi, the oracle there and his prophets – serves only the purpose of further exposing the truth. The only divinely associated character, Tiresias, is present only to have the truth forced out of him, setting in motion the narrative of Oedipus recognising all that which he did not know. Moreover, lies and deceit are a trait of only mortals, from Polybus and Merope who disguise their son’s biological heritage, to the reluctance of Tiresias, Jocasta and the messenger to reveal their knowledge. Despite Jocasta’s protests that the prophecies are worthless, and the Chorus’ waning faith, the divine truth is faultlessly consistent, in a way the mortal, presumption-filled concept of the truth is not. 

Divination & agency: the question of fate 

“he saved him for this, this fate. If you are the man he says you are, believe me, you were born for pain.”

While infusing the truth with great power, Sophocles nevertheless demonstrates a degree of human agency. Despite the imposing sense of the truth as needing to be discovered, it is Oedipus who drives the plot, and fulfils that tension. It is Oedipus who sends Creon to the oracle before he is asked, who aggressively questions character after character. Despite Tiresias’ reluctance, Jocasta’s begging, and the reluctance of so many, Oedipus tirelessly excavates. Tragically, Oedipus is more than complicit in constructing his own undoing. Furthermore, the persistence of other characters in resisting revealing the truth, and dissuading Oedipus from doing so, incessantly – and to the very end – insists, and reminds the audience, that he has a choice. Additionally, the divine intervention in the play is incredibly weak, and generally consists of stating facts which depend on the decisions of others, but do not force them to be true; it was, of course, still the choice of Oedipus to kill a stranger on the road. Sophocles’ play is, fundamentally, about humans, their psychologies and their choices, and as much as the truth or the gods are powerful forces, they are only impactful because of the human interactions with them. 

As the play begins after Oedipus has already committed his crimes, it is easy to view his destruction as fated. However, if Oedipus is only condemned to doom after he makes those mistakes, this is not a question of fate but an explanation of actions having consequences. The question of fate, then, plays out in two areas: Jocasta’s reception of the prophecy before Laius dies, and Oedipus’ reception of the same prophecy before he leaves Corinth. Both mother and son respond in a way which does not give a satisfactory answer: they do not declare prophecy to be indisputable fact, nor do they declare it to be useless. Jocasta is so fearful of the prophecy that she at least complies in the murder of her only child; Oedipus is so fearful that he abandons his parents, royal future and home without a word. However, neither of them truly, entirely believe that prophecy is inescapable, or else it is illogical that they would try to escape. It appears that the consensus on prophecy is a half-agency: a combination of acknowledging human agency with a profound fear that it will not be enough. This small gap where human choice is permitted is crucial in interpreting the play; Oedipus the King is intensely tragic, not as a story of a man fated to doom, but of a catastrophe that could have been avoided, if not for the very qualities which make us human. 

Sources

Coughanowr, Effie, and E. Coughanor. “Philosophic Meaning in Sophocles’ Œdipus Rex.” L’Antiquité Classique 66 (1997): 55–74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41659299.

Dodds, E. R. (1966). On Misunderstanding the “Oedipus Rex.” Greece & Rome, 13(1), 37–49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/642354

Faber, M. D. “Self-Destruction in ‘Oedipus Rex.’” American Imago 27, no. 1 (1970): 41–51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26302607.

Lesser, Simon O. (1967) “Oedipus the King: The Two Dramas, the Two Conflicts.” College English, 29(3), 175-97. https://doi.org/10.2307/374681.

Kane, T. S. (1975). Human Suffering and the Divine Justice in “Oedipus Rex”.” CEA Critic, 37(2), 16–20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44378073

Koper, P. T. (2006). Myth and Investigation in “Oedipus Rex.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, 12/13, 87–98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41925284 (nyu)

Miller, W. J. (1928). Universality in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The Classical Journal, 24(3), 214–216. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3289660

Reid, Stephen A. “Teaching Oedipus Rex.” College English 29, no. 8 (1968): 615–19. https://doi.org/10.2307/374565.

Vernant, J.-P., & duBois, P. (1978). Ambiguity and Reversal: On the Enigmatic Structure of Oedipus Rex. New Literary History, 9(3), 475–501. https://doi.org/10.2307/468451 

Versényi, L. (1962). Oedipus: Tragedy of Self-Knowledge. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 1(3), 20–30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20162791