Analysis of “Oedipus the King”
A genius like Aristotle considers Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, a perfect tragedy. Sophocles (495-405 B. C), was born in 495 B. C. in Athens. This story is realistic and narrow in focus. It generates strong emotions in the viewers. The author creates a perfect tragic hero and his imperfection and his errors in judgment are supposed to go in tandem with his fate. He strongly believes that he can challenge fate, without the realization that the latent force of the fate can outsmart him. In Oedipus the King, fate exercises its power again and again. In this tragedy, the working of the fate is comparable to the subject of modern psycho-analysis, as he kills his father unwittingly and marries his mother. He did this to challenge the prophecy. In this play, the playwright deals with the subject Fate vs. Free Will elaborately. This goes with the Greek’s popular belief that fate will control the life of an individual despite his free will. The murder of his father and his marriage to his mother are part of his destiny. This was per the prophecy by the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. As for the vanity of Oedipus, Sophocles argues, “The murder of a great man and your king, Nor track it home. And now that I am lord, Successor to his throne, his bed, his wife,(And had he not been frustrate in the hope, Of issue, common children of one womb, Had forced a closer bond twixt him and me, But Fate swooped down upon him)….” (Sophocles) The killing of his father Laius by Oedipus and his marriage with Jocasta, his mother, is mind-boggling but that indicates the power of fate that holds sway over his actions. Whether an individual is the creator of one’s destiny or is he the victim, is an issue that remains unresolved even now. The playwright articulates, though fate and freewill are alternative beats of the same heart, fate always challenges freewill and emerges victorious.
Dramatic irony is interlinked to fate and free-will and this is an important aspect of this tragedy. The audience is aware of the outcome of the plot, but the hero does not, making him falter in his actions and he remains ignorant about things that are going to happen. The audience sympathizes with the reaction of the hero to the situation, his attempts to change the fate, this is ironic, and the final tragic outcome of the story cannot be avoided. The story relates to two attempts to change the course of fate, but in vain. The killing of Oedipus at birth by Jocasta and Laisus, and later on the flight of Oedipus from Corinth. The prophecy of Oracle holds good. Oedipus is restored to life and marries Jocasta. His leaving Corinth paves the way for Oedipus to locate his real parents and that happens as per Oracle’s prediction. The audience knows in advance what is going to happen with Oedipus and this creates a sense of irony. Notwithstanding the repeated assertions of Jocasta and Oedipus and their doubts about the power of Oracles, whether they are right and they have the capacity to guide the course of events related to the future, the audience knows well in time that they own such power.
The third aspect of Oedipus the King is the style in which the playwright highlights the dominance truth in the character of Oedipus. He discounts the power of Oracles but greatly values the power of truth. This indicates his scientific temperament. He challenges the predictions of the Oracles but the matter does not end there. He relentlessly pursues the root cause of the problems and succeeds in solving the riddle. His temperament is like that of the modern scientist, who seeks proof before coming to conclusions. He shows by practical examples how good he is in unraveling mysteries. This characteristic takes him to Thebes and he was the only one capable to find solution to the Sphinx’s riddle. His intellectual power makes him egoistic, fearless about gods, he challenges the destiny and finally these lead to tragic results. He solves the mystery of his birth through his intellectual prowess. The same prowess leads him to commit the murder of Laisus and to marry Jocasta. His pride and ego clubbed with determination becomes the dangerous weapons in his various pursuits. That black curtain of ego and pride blocks the light to enable him to judge the correct path and wrong choices are selected and followed. Pride and ego of an individual can never lead to success in life in true sense of the term, and this is the case with Oedipus. For such an individual getting wrong advisers is another misfortune. The role of priest employs flattery to further inflate the ego of Oedipus and Sophocles writes, “ So Oedipus, you most respected King, we plead with you to find for us a cure: Some answer breathed from heaven, perhaps, or even enlightenment from man, For still we see the prowess of your well-proved mind, is tested buoyancy.” (6) Erroneous thinking leads to wrong decisions which result in wrong actions and the fruits of such evil doings will produce calamitous results. Oedipus meets the same fate, and one calamity after another befalls on him.
Human reasoning has limitations and it can never succeed in challenging the fate, according to the message conveyed by Sophocles with the characterization of Oedipus and other supporting characters. The author has cleverly blended irony, which depicting the interplay of freewill and fate. The ablest of the men are humbled by the intervention of fate, and what is destined will happen and the fate will overpower the individual at its bidding.
Sophocles. The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus;
Antigone. Trans. Roche, Paul; Plume, May 1, 1996.