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When reading the play Oedipus the King, a range of feelings and perspectives arise in the audience, making us unconsciously chose sides with Oedipus or with the ruthless prediction made by the gods. This is due to the fact that as the play develops, more and more is revealed about Oedipus making the audience not only a witness of his tragic story but also emotionally engaged to him. It can be said that Oedipus suffers deeply from his destiny, which he can not run away from.
Throughout the play the feeling of pity towards Oedipus builds up and we are each second sympathizing more and more with his suffering. The fact that the feeling we get is pity and not a feeling of accomplishment (that the right thing is being done by killing him) can’t stop us from asking ourselves: even though he is responsible for murders and misfortune in Thebes, why do we get a feeling of pity and not revenge when reading the play? Why do we sympathize with Oedipus?
Even though the initial impression we have on Oedipus is a negative one, since his constant arrogant tone towards others is shown, we end up getting sorry for him in the end of the play. This can be said in reference to his first speech to the citizens of Thebes, “I have not thought it fit to rely on my messengers, /But am here to learn for myself – I, Oedipus, /whose name is know afar.” The fact that Oedipus excessive pride stands out in such a large extent, we build up in our minds an idea that this hubris which is constantly shown is a major characteristic of his.
This makes us, as an audience feel repulsive to this vice and to this idea of superiority which lies inside him. Why should the audience feel pity for a person who is not only arrogant but also violent and careless with other people’s lives? When Oedipus kills not only Laius but other citizens the audience gets once more the impression that Oedipus deserves his tragic flaw, also known as hamartia. The truth is, the small part of us which is wishing for his prophecy to come true is growing more and more.
However, it seems that even though we are faced with these sickening of disappointing characteristics and attitudes taken by Oedipus, we are still putting these feelings aside and replacing them by a feeling of empathy towards him when we realize that every violent action or sign of fatal curiosity he demonstrates is a consequence of his misfortunous destiny which he is constantly trying to avoid. No matter what Oedipus does to avoid his fate or how he tries to run away from it, it is all predicted by the gods as part of his trajectory to reach his fate.
He does not know he has killed his own father, and sleeps with his mother. We feel sorry for him because he has no idea of the evil he has committed and even if he did, he wouldn’t have the power to control his actions. An example of when we empathize with his is when he says (in line 29), “”Apollo, friends, Apollo was he that brought these woes to pass, these my sore, sore woes: but the hand that struck the eyes was none save mine, wretched that I am! Why was I to see, when sight could show me nothing sweet.”
The answer to the initial question of why do we feel pity and empathy towards a man that has committed consecutive crimes (as murders and incest) can be answered after reflecting on the fact that the actions taken by Oedipus were a consequence of the prophecy created by the gods and not due to acting under a influence of a purely evil mind. The fact that he was not responsible for his tragic fate, on the contrary, he tried to avoid it as much as possible, proves that even though Oedipus is not that ordinary hero we originally know from novels or movies, due to his virtuous intentions we not only can relate to him, but also feel pity and compassion for him.