Major Themes in Oedipus Rex
Introduction and thesis statement
King cc, also referred with the Latin Oedipus Rex, is an Athenian tragedy where Sophocles gives the story of Oedipus, a king of Thebes who has a hereditary curse and who consequently has to suffer the terrible consequences of fate. At a time when Thebes is experiencing fires, plagues and other forms of decimation, King Oedipus decides to act in order to restore prosperity and life to Thebes, his kingdom. However, through his quest, he discovers that his identity is contrary to what he thought. He discovers that he is his own father’s killer and that he has married his mother with whom she has had four children. On discovering this, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself and goes to exile while Creon, Jocasta’s brother and therefore his uncle, succeeds him as King of Thebes.
Apparently, in this play, Sophocles has used irony to show the way Oedipus struggles battling with fate and free will.
From the play, it is evident that Oedipus has no control over his life – some divine power seems to control his destiny. From the very start, Oedipus was fated to fulfill Apollo’s hereditary prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother. Despite King Lauis’ attempts of killing Oedipus in order to prevent this shameful prophecy from being fulfilled, fate impels the Corinthian messenger to save him. The prophecy of the gods must come true and no human being, not even the kings, can prevent it from occurring. This same power controls Oedipus once more when he leaves Corinth, his childhood home, after hearing that he would kill his father and marry his mother. On his way, fate leads him to turn to the road where he meets and kills Laius, his biological father (Kaufmann, p111).
Finally, Oedipus fulfils the last part of the prophecy by marrying his mother. Fate causes him to free the people from the pestilence that the presence of the riddling Sphinx had brought on them by giving the correct the answer to the riddle and thereby receiving the honor of being Thebe’s king and of inheriting the late Laius’ wife, Jocasta, coincidentally his real mother (Sophocles, p2). This is a clear indication of the fact that Oedipus has no power over the outcome of his life. Were it not for the intervention of fate, there would have been small chances of marrying Jocasta because there are numerous places where he could have gone, with numerous women who he could have married. Further, fate leads Oedipus to wanting to find out Laius’ murderer following the plague that has befallen Thebes, pronouncing a curse upon the murderer not knowing that he is the murderer that he seeks (Sophocles, p5-6). Oedipus’ sense of dignity disappears on discovering that he is a murderer and that he had committed incest.
The plot of the play is largely based on dramatic irony. Beginning the second episode, we already know that the old prophecy has been fulfilled and that Oedipus is responsible for the plague in Thebes. The protagonists however do not know of this.
It is ironical that Jocasta thinks that she has discarded Oedipus at birth and killed him therefore destroying the chances of the fulfillment of the prophecy (Sophocles, p26). In the real sense, the baby survives and by a strange twist of fate, Oedipus’ life was spared as a shepherd finds and tends him and later hands him over to another shepherd who takes him to Polybus, the King of Corinth who adopts him. After growing up in a foreign land, he hears about the prophecy and ironically attempts to run away from it while in reality; he was walking right into it. He goes back to his native soil where he kills his father and marries his own mother.
Regarding killing his father and marrying his mother, Oedipus in the play talks about a sight he did not have at that point. He says that he would be blind to misery not to pity his people (Sophocles, P1).
Further, in an attempt to “drive the corruption from the land”, Oedipus ironically vows before the priests as well as the chorus, which represents all inhabitants of Thebes that Laius murderer would be exiled. He does this without realizing that he has just condemned himself. In this endeavor to find out Laius murderer and cast him away from the city in order to rescue his people from the raging deadly pestilence, King Oedipus sends Creon to call Tiresias, the seer who reveals that Oedipus is the criminal (Sophocles, p14). Evidently, the blind Tiresias is not in the dark – he knows/sees the truth. Although he has physical eyes, king Oedipus is the one who is blind to his own situation. Oedipus does not understand the difference between ignorance and physical blindness. Tiresias could more clearly see Oedipus’ life events than the sighted king could. By the time he emulates the seer, it is too late.
Angry at Tiresias’ accusation, Oedipus denounces it as Creon’s plot to overthrow him. He tells Tiresias that he cannot hurt him “or anyone else who sees the light” (Sophocles, Berg & Clay, p40). In an attempt to prevent the two from fighting, Jocasta comforts Oedipus and assures him that seers are not perfect. Ironically, she refers to the old prophecy that her son would kill his father and marry his mother confessing that she prevented this by discarding their baby boy on Mount Cithaeron. She also ironically asserts that robbers, and not their son, had killed Laius (Sophocles, Berg & Clay, p5 & 7).
Additionally, at some point, King Oedipus and his wife Jocasta discuss the oracle and dismiss it saying that the fulfillment of its prophecies has not happened (Sophocles, p26). The audience already understands Oedipus history well before he does.
It is also ironical that the life of the very Oedipus who solved the Sphinx’s riddle remained an inexplicable riddle, which he cannot solve – his riddle is solved all too late in the most awful manner and he irrecoverably loses everything. Ironically, King Oedipus who was formerly very self-confident and powerful finally becomes an outcast, blind and helpless.
The revelations of the fact that the old prophecy has come to be makes Oedipus to blind himself by gouging his eyes using Jocasta’s golden broach and leaves him a helpless old man ironically led around like Teiresias just in the style of the Sphinx’s riddle. In a way, King Oedipus eventually becomes free from blind youth to learn painful wisdom. Sophocles uses this this symbol of blindness versus sight to highlight Oedipus’ tragic self-discovery and tragic flaw.
Oedipus Rex is a tragic drama full of dramatic irony whereby the audience or other characters know more than the main characters do about their own circumstances. This irony shows the way Oedipus struggles battling with fate and free will. The theme of fate clearly indicates that everything that human beings do is futile and only results in loss. In this play, Sophocles develops the themes of sight and blindness, light and dark, in an attempt to clarify Oedipus’ tragic fate. However, there is great irony in these themes, as the protagonists do not see the truth until it is too late. It is evident that Oedipus’ sins were unintentional, that he is a poor victim of fate and therefore, we cannot hold him fully accountable for his sufferings. As he leaves the stage, he is an object of our sympathy and we cannot help branding him as a fit tragic hero for the play that renders poetic justice to him.
Kaufmann, W. (1992).Tragedy and philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sophocles, Berg, S., & Clay, D. (1988). Oedipus the King. United States: Oxford University Press.
Sophocles, (1991). Oedipus Rex. New York: Courier Dover Publications.