Oedipus the King: A Theme Analysis

Oedipus the King is one of the group of three plays by Sophocles known as the Theban plays since they all relate to the destinies of the Theban family of the Oedipus and his children.  The other two plays of this group are Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus the King relates the story of Oedipus who reached Thebes, having killed on the way an old man with whom he picked a quarrel. The city of Thebes was then suffering terribly because of the monster, the Sphinx. He solved her riddle and citizens of Thebes offered him the kingdom as city is afflicted with the loss of their king, who had been murdered while on a pilgrimage.

So he assumed the power and married the widowed queen. Here the tragedy of Oedipus takes its final course. As city was afflicted with famine, so Delphic oracles were consulted who disclosed that troubles of the city arose from the fact that it is harboring an unclean person, the murderer of late king Laius. Oedipus resolved to get to the bottom of this mystery and punish the wrongdoer. However, he ultimately discovered that the culprit he was seeking was none other than he himself. He blinded himself and went on exile. There are various standpoints for looking at the theme of the play.

It may be considered as a play enacting the theme of insecurity and illusoriness of human happiness. Or the theme may be that of the inadequacy of human intelligence in resolving the riddles of destiny. The identification of themes in Oedipus differs from reader to reader and from critic to critic. I think that Sophocles wanted to convey that a man is plunged from prosperity and power to ruin ands ignominy due to his own human failings.  It was something[1] in his character that brought his tragedy. Anything foreign to his own character only augmented the tragic proceedings but it was only his own disposition that made him a prey to disgrace. Dodds is of the view, “If Oedipus is the innocent victim of a doom which he cannot avoid, does this not reduce him to a mere flaw puppet?” Whereas Knox (1984) is of the view that Oedipus’ tragedy takes place due to tragic flaw[s] and fate as no part to play in Oedious Rex.

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The crucial point is that whether Sophocles wants us to think that Oedipus has basically unsound character. One way of deciding this question is to examine what other characters in the play say about Oedipus. The only result that we can arrive at in this way is that Sophocles intends us to consider Oedipus an essentially noble person. In the opening scene of the play, the priest of Zeus refers to him as the greatest and noblest of men and the divinely inspired savior who saved Thebes from being destroyed by the Sphinx. The Chorus also considers him to be noble and virtuous. They refuse to believe in Tireseas accusations of him. When catastrophe befalls Oedipus, not a single character in the play justifies it as a doom which has deservedly overtaken Oedipus. (Dodds, p.39) So there were certain other tragic flaws that were acting behind the curtain to bring about Oedipus tragedy. Let us examine those.

Oedipus seems to be obsessed with his own intelligence and this leads him to very unfortunate and uncomfortable situations. This human weakness[2] of Oedipus laps over with his pride as he is extremely proud of the fact that he was able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx which had proved too much for any other person. He thinks that Gods has capacitated him with intelligence and wisdom to solve riddle that the Thebes is afflicted with. Oedipus even taunts Tireseas on his inability in solving the Sphinx’s riddle. He says;

And where were you, when the Dog-faced Witch was here?

Have you any word of deliverance then for our people?

There was a riddle too deep for common wits;

A seer should have answered it, but answer there came none

From you…..   (12-16)

After calling the soothsayer false prophet, Oedipus boasts of his own skill in having solved the puzzled which proved too much for the blind seer;

Until I came—I, ignorant Oedipus, came—

And stopped the riddler’s mouth, guessing he truth

By mother-wit, not bird-lore.   (17-19)

So he describes Tireseas predictive cautions as the whims of a fanatic and opposes the seer’s prophecy with arguments of his own. Self-confidence and pride in his own wisdom is an outstanding feature of his character that also brings his tragedy. Here Oedipus also fulfills the traits of Aristotelian tragic hero as he possesses a noble tragic flaw. The man who sets out on his new task by sending first for the venerable seer is not lacking in pious reverence; but we also observe that Oedipus manifests unrestrained arrogance in his own intellectual achievement. No seer found the solution, this is Oedipus boast; no bird, no god revealed it to him, he “the utterly ignorant” had to come on his own and hit the mark by his own wit. This is a justified pride but it amounts too much. This pride and self-confidence induce Oedipus to despise prophecy and feel almost superior to the gods. He tell the people who pray for deliverance from pathos and miseries they are afflicted with if they listen to and follow his advice in order to get a remedy.

Lastly his unrelenting pursuit of the truth is demonstrated when he believes he is the murderer and that Polybus was not his father, yet he continues with his search with the statement, “I must pursue this trail to the end,”(p.55).  These characteristics were only fuel to the fire and added to the pride created a blaze that consumed him. Bernard Knox eulogizes Oedipus’ “dedication to truth, whatever the cost” (p.117)

Another characteristics of his character that contributes toward his tragedy is Oedipus’ longing for thoroughness. His inquisitive nature is not content with anything which is either half-hearted or incomplete. Nor can he brook any delay. He damns that the direction of the oracle should be given effect at once. As before, Oedipus speaks on the basis of the workings of his own mental faculties that has been tested time and again and have proved their intelligence.

It can be said that the tragedy of Oedipus is the result more of his good qualities than his bad ones. It is his love for Thebes which makes him send Creon to Delphi to consult the Oracles. It is the same care for his subjects who make him proclaim a ban and a curse on the murderer of Laius. It is his absolute honesty which makes him include even himself within the curse and the punishment. He replies by saying “Sick as you are, not one is sick as I, each of you suffers in himself…but my spirit Groans for the city, for myself, for you”. (62-62)

He is angry with Tireseas because he is unable to tolerate the fact that  although the prophet says that he know who the murderer of Laius is , he refuses top give the information to the king. His rage and rashness is due to the fact that the masses are suffering and Tireseas does not provide the murderer’s name. Oedipus cannot but regard this as a clear manifestation of the seer’s disloyalty to his city.

To Oedipus the discovery of truth is more important than his own good and safety. Even when it seems that the investigation that he is carrying on will not produce any result which will be him, he decides to carry on with it. He is so honest with himself that he inflicts the punishment of self-blinding and banishment from the city of Thebes.

So his moral goodness also seems as a human failing that brings his ruin.

There is another important human failing that contribute toward his tragedy i.e. his intellectual myopia. He has a limited vision and is unable to assess the situations in a right perspective. Robert L. Kane (1975) puts this preposition in this way; “He[Oedipus] was the victim of an optical illusion”. (p. 196) The juxtaposition between “outward magnificence and inward blindness of Oedipus and the outward blindness and inward sight of the prophet” (Kirkwood, p. 130) depicts two types of blindness i.e. physical and intellectual. One is related to physical sight whereas the other, the most pernicious type of blindness, pertains to insight. Tiresias is physically blind but whereas Oedipus is blind intellectually. This intellectual blindness of Oedipus also contributes greatly to lead him to his tragic destination.

Oedipus possesses faultless physical vision throughout play except in the end but he remains blind to the reality regarding himself. At one point in the play, he has the ability to see but he is not willing to do so. He intellectual vision comes with his physical loss of sight but he is unable to cast away the psychological “slings and arrows” and mental sufferings that intellectual blindness has afflicted on him. So his blindness, both intellectual at the start of the play and physical at the end of the day, is the worst.

Blindness interweaves with the main plot from the very start of the play when Oedipus says, “I would be blind to misery not to pity my people kneeling at my feet. (14)” It manifest that he refers to blindness that if h will not recognize the distress of his people. This shows his physical sight but intellectual blindness as he himself was the cause of those afflictions.  Later he acknowledges that although Tiresias is physically blind but has prophetic power when he says, “Blind as you are, you can feel all the more what sickness haunts our city. (344)”. Tiresias response refers to the gravity of Oedipus’ inability to see his future. He says, “How terrible – to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees! (359)”

Later on Oedipus denounces his own acknowledgement of Tiresias as a seer and abuses him by saying, “You’ve lost your power, stone-blind, stone-deaf – senses, eyes blind as stone!(423)” and “Blind, lost in the night, endless night that nursed you! You can’t hurt me or anyone else who sees the light – you can never touch me. (425)”. It is illustrated that it is Oedipus who is blind intellectually as he is not willing to comprehend the situation and to understand the truth. In retort to his slur, Tiresias refers to worst form of blindness that Oedipus is suffering. He says, “You with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life, to the house you live in, those who live with – who are your parents? (470)” and foretell, “Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich, he will grope his way toward a foreign soil, a stick tapping before him step by step. (517)”.

These supportive texts clearly manifest that Oedipus was afflicted with severe intellectual myopia as he was unable t see the truth that was pervasive all around him. Actually he was unwilling to see truth around him, prior to his physical blindness and afterwards as he blinds himself not to observe the things around him. His is the most insidious form of blindness.

Oedipus can be held guilty due to another human flaw—his inability to take appropriate preventive measures. It is said that he fails to take logical steps and precaution s which would have saved him from committing the crimes.

 “Could not Oedipus…have escaped his doom if he had been more careful? Knowing that he was in danger of committing parricide and incest, would not really a prudent man have avoided quarrelling, even in self-defense and also love-relations with women older than himself?… real life I suppose he might. But we not entitled to blame Oedipus either for carelessness failing to compile a hand list or lack of self-control in failing to obey its injunctions.”   (Dodds, p.40)

Oedipus has necessary human failings of anger and rashness. He rashly jumps into conclusions. Choragos points this out in scene II after a long speech by Creon who tries o remove the ill-fed and hastily formed suspicions of Oedipus about Creon. They say, “Judgments too quickly formed are dangerous” (II, 101)

But Oedipus justifies this, arguing that ruler have to take quick decision. He says later on, “But is he not quick in his duplicity? / And shall I not be quick to parry him?” (II, 102-103) Later at the conclusion of scene II, Creon indicates the same fault in his character by saying, “Ugly in yielding, as you were ugly in rage! / Nature like yours chiefly torments themselves.” (II, 151-152) It is this rashness that makes to not merely suspect Creon but accuse him and even declares that he deserves the sentence of death. The rashness can be observed in his treatment of Tireseas. Oedipus does not lack analytical thinking but his rashness does permit him to weigh up the situation rightly and he makes hasty decision. In retrospect we see that rashness of Oedipus has something to do with the murder Laius at the hands of Oedipus. The self-blinding also is an act of rashness although Oedipus tries to give several arguments in favor of it.

His bad temperament is demonstrated in the squabble between Teiresias and himself, where Teiresias utter the prophetic truth and Oedipus retorts, “Do you think you can say such things with impunity?” and afterward attributes him as a “Shameless and brainless, sightless, senseless sot!”(p.36). His character is further marked with suspicion about Creon to whom he considers as a conspirator. Kirkwood is of the view that “The Creon he [Oedipus] is battling is a figment of his imagination” (Kirkwood, 1958. p. 132) and nothing else. He says with reference his tête-à-tête with Tiresaeas, “Creon! Was this trick his, then, if not yours?” So here his imagination works together with anger and rashness.

All the above-mentioned manifestations of tragic flaw, their supported arguments and views of the critics clearly proves the thesis that Oedipus unavoidable ignorance was the major factor of his tragedy because he was unable to locate that the man whom he assaulted on the crossroads to Thebes was his father. Secondly, if he would not have been occupied by his aspirations, he would have possibly explored the horror of his deed and could have avoided the additional tricky situations by not marrying his mother. Thirdly, his “conscious and intentional” act includes his decision to “bring what is dark to light” (133).

Furthermore, as result to revelation of Tireseas, he charges Creon with conspiracy and murder and denounces Tireases as an accessory. Although these actions were intentional and bring Oedipus to tragic end but have a clear background that illustrate that these actions were not “deliberate”. Fourthly, all these errors originate from a hasty and obstinate temperament, unjustified anger and excessive pride that compel him to an energized inquisitiveness. With the development of the plot, all these ascriptions of his character jumps back with amplified force on his head that finally culminates at his tragedy. Knox (1957) sums up in this way;

“the actions of Oedipus that produce the catastrophe stem from all sides of his character; no one particular action is more essential than any other; they are all essential and they involve not any one trait of character which might be designated a hamartia but the character of Oedipus as a whole” (31).

Here I want to point out that all these human failings were not innate or inborn but he developed these as his habitual formations. It was inculcated in his spirit so that it became a part of his natural disposition. If it were innate then he could not be blamed for his downfall. It was human failings rather than the destiny that brought his tragedy. So Sophocles has successfully put across that a man is plunged from prosperity and power to ruin ands ignominy due to his own human failings.


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[1] Moral flaw, habitual formations, behavioral defect etc.
[2] in any other context, pride in one’s intelligence cannot not a human weakness but course of the play depicts clearly that in Oedipus the King it was a human weakness.

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