“Oedipus Rex” or “Oedipus the King” is a tragedy by Sophocles, one of the greatest ancient Greek (Athenian) tragedians. It is part of a trilogy and was first performed around 429 BC. In ancient Greece, it was known as “Oedipus Tyrannus” (Ancient Greek: Οἰδίπους Τύραννος) or simply Oedipus (Οἰδίπους), as Aristotle referred to it in the “Poetics”. Many academics consider “Oedipus Tyrannus” to be the pinnacle of ancient Greek tragedy. In his “Poetics”, Aristotle cites “Oedipus Tyrannus” as the greatest tragedy of all time and a perfect example of the genre.
While reading the Sophocles’ “Oedipus Tyrannus” many themes common to Greek tragedies are presented, such as fate versus free will, blindness and ignorance of truth, and hubris and pride. Sophocles masterfully explores these themes throughout “Oedipus Tyrannus” and the other plays in the trilogy. Out of the three plays by Sophocles that have survived, “Oedipus Tyrannus” was the second to be written. If the events were to be arranged in chronological order, “Oedipus Tyrannus” is followed by “Oedipus at Colonus” and then “Antigone”.
Before the start of the story Sophocles penned in the “Oedipus Tyrannus”, Oedipus became the King of Thebes while unintentionally fulfilling a prophecy that has him killing his father, King Laius, who was the King of Thebes before Oedipus, and marrying his mother Jocasta, who was King Laius’ wife and the Queen of Thebes. As the play begins, the city of Thebes is suffering unimaginably. The plague has devastated the city, people are dying, crops are failing, women are dying while giving birth and their babies are born dead.
He prompts the high priest who came to ask for his help in stopping the plague as to what he can do. The priest proposes that Oedipus send someone to the oracle of the god Apollo to find out what can be done and Oedipus says that he has already sent Creon, his brother-in-law, to see the oracle. When Creon returns, he advises Oedipus that he must find King Laius’ killer and avenge his death in order to end the plague and save the people of Thebes. Most of the story in the play revolves around Oedipus searching for the murderer of King Laius in order to end the plague, unaware that the killer he is looking for is himself. The truth is revealed at the play’s end, as Jocasta commits suicide by hanging herself while Oedipus is so horrified and scarred, as the realization of killing his father and marrying his mother sets in, that he gouges his eyes out of their sockets and is then exiled from the city.
The theme that underpins the entire play, in my opinion, is the struggle between fate and free will. The idea that the gods, not human beings, determine the fate of an individual was a major theme in Sophocles’ plays. Like most of his contemporaries, Sophocles was religious and had no doubts as to who was in control of his and everybody else’s lives. No one can escape their fate, regardless of what the characters do or say to themselves or others. Trying to avoid your fate instead of accepting it will only lead to more suffering and, no matter what you do, you will always end up fulfilling the fate assigned to you by the Gods. Anything you say, any action that is taken to avoid your fate, no matter how terrible it may be, will only ensure its fulfilment. In “Oedipus Tyrannus” Sophocles demonstrates the futility of trying to cheat your fate by showing how King Laius’, Queen Jocasta’s and Oedipus’ actions, ostensibly taken to prevent their respective prophecies from becoming true, actually led to the prophecies fulfilled. Laius and Jocasta tried to subvert the prophecy by crippling their own son by putting a pin through his ankles and making him lame and scarred for life and then ordering a shepherd to leave him in the mountains to die.
For Jocasta even that was not enough as she tells the shepherd to kill the baby outright. Instead of killing the baby, the shepherd hands the baby over to a messenger to be given to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth. Oedipus also tries to control his fate and leaves Corinth once he learns that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, as he says, “I heard and fled henceforth to share with Corinth only the stars, where I would never see completed the disgrace of those evil oracles of mine” (Sophocles, 822-825). In his travels he kills a stranger during a scuffle at a crossing not knowing that it was his real father. Sometime later he ends up in Thebes and saves the city by defeating the Sphinx. The city’s king, King Laius, was recently killed under mysterious circumstances and Oedipus became the king and married Queen Jocasta as a reward, thus fulfilling the prophecy.
Another important theme expressed by Sophocles throughout the play is the willingness to ignore the truth. In the midst of getting to the truth regarding Laius’ murder, Oedipus eagerly latches onto anything that would exonerate himself. Trying to convince Oedipus that he is not the one who killed Laius, Jocasta tells him that a group of “strangers” killed Laius. Knowing that he was alone when he was attacked and was forced to kill those attacking him, Oedipus is relieved and believes that he is not the one who killed King Laius. This is a very revealing moment in the play because it undermines the whole truth-seeking process Oedipus insists that he is undertaking. Both Oedipus and Jocasta act as though the story about Laius’ murder the servant has told them was impossible to disprove. Neither Jocasta nor Oedipus can face the reality of what it would mean if the servant was wrong. This is most probably the reason why Jocasta feels she can tell Oedipus about the prophecy that stated Laius would be killed by their son while Oedipus can tell Jocasta about the eerily similar prophecy given to him by the oracle of Delphi (Sophocles, 867-875), and neither of them feels the need to comment on the remarkable similarity of the two prophecies.
This also allows Oedipus to ignore his own crippled feet when Jocasta tells him how she broke her son’s ankles (Sophocles, 780-781) before sending him to die into the mountains. Oedipus’ ignorance is not just self-inflicted. Though Jocasta begins to suspect that Oedipus is her son after learning that the infant was given to the Corinthian messenger, she still refuses to face the facts and begs Oedipus to stop his search for the truth. Jocasta was not alone in trying to sustain Oedipus’ ignorance of truth. The shepherd who was supposed to leave Jocasta and Laius’ baby to die only tells the truth once he is threatened with death. King Polybus and Queen Merope, Oedipus’s adoptive parents, also kept the truth of his adoption from Oedipus. While the main reason for the information in the speeches is to make the reader and audience aware of the tragic irony, it also emphasizes how badly Oedipus and Jocasta refuse to speak the honest and inescapable truth.
Pride and hubris also play a major role in the play. Hubris is a characteristic that prompts a person to dismiss and ignore the limits to a human’s potential that has been predetermined by the Gods. Oedipus’ pride is an important characteristic throughout the play. Even before coming into power as the King of Thebes, Oedipus allowed his arrogance to control his judgements and reign over his actions. Oedipus is very bright, but his pride and ego undermine him. Therefore, it is fitting that his hubris would ultimately lead to his demise. It is Oedipus’ tragic flaw. Although not quite arrogant and conceited enough to believe himself to be equal to the gods, he, nonetheless, is clear in holding himself above everyone else “One of you summon the city here before us, tell them I’ll do everything. God help us, we will see our triumph-or our fall” (Sophocles, 163-165). He is narcissistic to a high enough degree that he presumes to think that he can avoid his fate and write his own story and is punished accordingly by the gods for this arrogance. By foolishly thinking he can subvert his fate and trying to escape the prophecy written by the Gods, he ultimately ends up fulfilling it.
In fulfilling the prophecy, Oedipus becomes guilty of hubris as he attempts to defy his limitations as a human being and rescind the prophecy. Oedipus’ hubris influences him to fulfill the oracle’s prophecy and further intensify his punishment from the Gods. Like Oedipus, Jocasta is also guilty of pride and hubris because of her attempt to change her fate and afterward deny it numerous times. Jocasta sent Oedipus to die when he was an infant as an attempt to escape the prophecy. Many years later, when Oedipus reveals to Jocasta his own prophecy, Jocasta denies it, yet she continues to pray at Apollo’s altar. Later, upon the realization that the prophecy has been fulfilled, Jocasta tries to protect Oedipus from the truth. Failing to do so and as a result of not being able to cope with the fact that the prophecy had been fulfilled, she commits suicide.
Sophocles did not incorporate these and other themes and ideas into his tragedies by chance or on a whim. They all reflect the ancient Greek society and its values at the time of his tragedy’s writing. They demonstrate its religious foundation as well as the ideals of the Greeks concerning government and society. The Greek culture at the time was highly religious and superstitious in nature. Gods were revered above all else. Contemporary tragedies, including Sophocles’ own Oedipus trilogy, were written to be performed at religious events where the Gods were to be pleased. Thus, the fate, as determined by the Gods, was assigned to men, and any effort to circumvent it would be fruitless and rife with danger and disappointment. The idea of fate is so important and integral to the Greek culture and is so prominent in Oedipus’ saga that it virtually seems to become a real character in the play. It thwarts any attempt by Oedipus or Jocasta and Laius to escape it by subverting their actions into actually furthering the inevitable.
No matter what Oedipus or others do to escape their fate predetermined by the Gods, they all ultimately fail, proving the one overriding theme and moral of the tragedy: Man is ruled by his fate and there is no escape. The topic of governance and the wise and judicial rule is also very important to the story, owing largely to the fact that the main character of the play is a king. Greeks believed that reason and wisdom, and not necessarily blood lineage, ancestry or pedigree, should be the determining characteristics of a great ruler. That is why the citizens of Thebes, after seeing Oedipus save the city by solving the Sphinx’s riddle, asked Oedipus to become their king.
Reason mattered as much as wisdom, and in situations when Oedipus gave in to fear and anger and became unreasonable, his friends and family reminded him of it. This is brilliantly demonstrated when Creon responds to accusations by Oedipus of being part of a conspiracy against him and points to his irrational behavior “If you think that stubbornness is of value apart from reason, you are a madman” (Sophocles, 574-575). By saying that Oedipus is acting irrationally, Creon emphasizes that he is not behaving as a proper ruler should. Greeks believed in reason over emotions, so follows that he should govern and be guided by reason and not fear or anger.