Oedipus the King by Sophocles

Each literary work is a reflection of the epoch’s ideals and beliefs, besides being a product of a particular author’s work. Speaking about Ancient Greek society, it is worth saying that religion and mythology paid an extremely important role in those days, which of course could not help affecting literature and philosophy. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is an exquisite link between mythology and art of the author’s epoch. In conveys the picture of the world, which gave much space to fate and gods who ought to decide upon a person’s life. When telling the tragic story of Oedipus, the author exposes an idea that he was just a toy in the hands of deities, so his free will was confined to little scope, which his life was prescribed by gods.

Oedipus the King was written by Sophocles as a play, which had to be and was actually staged for a large audience. As a play, it was naturally subject to certain rules, according to which the traditional Greek theatre worked. Speaking about the plot, it was familiar to all spectators, because it was interpreted not once by different authors. Besides, it is based on a piece of mythology, which was known to every person in Ancient Greek. So, while analyzing the play, it is worth understanding that an original plot was not something which might surprise the intended audience. In fact, it is the message and the author’s attitude that mattered most. And of course, the staging and performance, which would evoke deep emotions and lead to catharsis. So, speaking about the author’s point of view and the bias of the play, it would be true to say that he intended to convey an idea that despite all humans’ trying, they can do nothing about their fate, which is destined by gods. The tools, which Sophocles uses to expose this message, are worth special attention. He deliberately exaggerates the horrible events, which are seemingly based on coincidence. However, because these events are so fatal, it is impossible for the audience to treat them as pure coincidence. Thus, the unbelievable prophecy about killing his father and marrying his mother, which comes true, emphasizes how powerful fate can be. As researchers put it, “In Sophokles' time the Greeks believed that the fate of an individual was bound up with one's daimon, a divinity who presides over the happiness or misery of that person's life. The Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia, literally meaning “well daimoned, ” suggests that a person so blessed is divinely and perhaps permanently protected. But a daimon could just as often devastate an individual or an entire family. In Oedipus the King the intimate and personal divinity who strikes Oedipus blow after deadly blow is a daimon—a kind of executioner who does Fate's bidding”. (Sophocles 21)

The plot of play

The plot is based on a popular myth, reveals the place of a human in a universal picture of the world. The newly born Oedipus was destined to die because his father found out a horrible prophecy from the Oracle, which told that he would be killed by his own son who would later marry his own mother. However, Oedipus was destined to die by a man, not by gods, whose plans were completely different. It  is remarkable, that Laius was not hesitant about letting his son die not because of his evil nature but because of his utter belief that the prophecy is real. However, Oedipus is saved and raised by other people, and besides he is eager to see his real father when he is adult. So, on his way home he kills Laius accidentally, and then marries Jocasta, his biological mother. The final of the play is tragic because of the revelation of the truth, which was hard to bear.

The concept of prophecy is really significantfor the play,

The concept of prophecy contains a number of them throughout the plot unfolding. Virtually all characters address oracles, and all oracles foresee the terrifying future, but the people do not believe them at first. This detail is important because the terrible outcome of the play is in a way revenge of gods to people who think of them as omnipotent and believe that they can rule their own lives. However, this pride is condemned by gods, and causes punishment. The author reminds the audience about the fact that they should not be too self-confident about their life plans, as it is not they who write them. So, speaking of oracles’ significance, it is worth mentioning that when Oedipus starts his rule in Thebes, he always gets information and news from the oracle, because he is unable to understand why there is a plague in town. He receives a message as a prophecy that gods has cursed the town because of the murderer who is present there. Until he leaves, the plague will not go away. As Creon says “Then let me report what I heard from the god/  Lord Phoebus clearly orders us to drive away/the polluting stain this land has harboured—/  which will not be healed if we keep nursing it.” (112-115). This message suggests two important aspects that are related to the theme of the book.

Firstly, it implies that complete knowledge about a certain situation is not possible unless people choose to have relations with gods and worship them. Secondly, it is implied that even if gods provide some information to people through prophecies, most of relevant circumstances are never disclosed by them, and it is not worth hoping for that.  There is bitter irony about the fact that no one in the whole kingdom has a slight idea that the curse caused by Oedipus, who is a murderer of his father. Moreover, Oedipus is honest and ardent in searching the truth because he cares about his people. So, the author emphasizes that people are blind in fact and they have so little influence upon their lives. Even though they might think that they have some freedom of choice, this is nothing more than an illusion.

To speak more of prophecies, it us remarkable that both Oedipus and Jocasta have certain information about their future future. However, they refuse to trust it and believe that they can avoid the fatum. Yet, Oedipus gets anxious when receiving the information about Laius’ murder which Jocasta gives him in order to demonstrate that the prophesy did not come true.  Laius is informed by Apollo oracle that  his son is going to kill him, so he orders to throw him off the cliff. So, when hearing the news, Oedipus starts to think that he might be the one who murdered Laius.  Jocasta does not suspect this and tries to sooth him: “So don’t concern yourself with prophecies./ Whatever gods intend to bring about/ they themselves make known quite easily”( Sophocles).

Later, when Oedipus tells his life to Jocasta, the link between all events and people gets clear. People can observe these events but they cannot actually affect them. The gradual truth revelation looks like punishment to them from gods who disapprove their vanity. When Oedipus hears the story from his wife, he sees the roots of his prophecy about plague:  “But when he spoke he uttered monstrous things, strange terrors and horrific miseries— /  it was my fate to defile my mother’s bed,/to bring forth to men a human family/  that people could not bear to look upon,/  to murder the father who engendered men”. (Sophocles). In order to run away from his destiny, he leaves Corinth but it appears that his efforts are in vain. The tragic irony is visible again, marking an uncertain position of humans in the world, even though they can be kings and queens of their kingdoms, but they cannot rule their own destiny. So, Sophocles is clearly fatalist in his philosophy, and this is the message that he reveals to his audience. He means that the fate can be unbearable but people have no choice. When people run from the destiny, they attract it even more, and this is what happens to Oedipus after his attempt to escape.

A remarkable theme to discuss is a class between freedom and destiny, as far as the character of Oedipus is concerned. Oedipus realizes that the world is ruled by fate:

TEIRESIAS

Well, it will come what will, though I be mute.

OEDIPUS

Since come it must, thy duty is to tell me.

TEIRESIAS

I have no more to say; storm as thou willst,

And give the rein to all thy pent-up rage  ( Sophocles).


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It is true that he looks as a positive hero who wants to make his people happy and to be a wise ruler. While being good, he still ruins other people’s lives, which is a horrible paradox of the story. First he murders his father, than becomes a lover to his own mother, and in the end Jocasta commits suicide when the truth is revealed.  Throughout the play, Oedipus tries hard to demonstrate his own right for free will. He feels relief when Polybus is dead because he sees that the prophecy is not confirmed. So, gods punish him for being rebellious in the way that he believes in his own power to rule his life.

The story ends in a symbolic way, though it has a tragic tone. Oedipus makes himself blind, he is unable to see the truth and the sorrow that he brought to many people. He is driven away from town in order to stop plague. His blindness is a symbol of his desire to take his fate. When a person is blind, he accepts whatever comes and does not want to see the future. “But wherever my fate leads, just let it go”( Sophocles). So, being blind means looking inside and changing priorities. This means refusal from his ambitions and devoting himself to close relationship with gods. Researcher have multiple visions of Oedipus, contemplating on his role and motivation: “Is Oedipus a coward? Does he not show that impetuous, arrogant bravery which may seem the cause of his downfall? Yes, and many times. But his prideful drive, facing up to enemies and obstacles in his way, is no more than a shell, a shield covering what all the while moves him and shapes his character: the choice of fearful flight with no expected refuge, the choice to sever himself off from the inseparable, to run away from that which in running is still carried along -- his self to be, his own future”. (Adamczewski 44). However, this is an interpretation of contemporary world, while ancient Greeks were more in line with Sophocles.

When analyzing the play, it is worth paying attention to symbolism, which is abundant in it. First of all, it is worth mentioning vision and blindness as the core symbols, which determine the meaning of the play. According to Sophocles, seeing means having knowledge about one’s life, including knowledge about the future. Physically, Oedipus is able to see throughout the play, but in fact he is symbolically blind. All characters seem to have a blindfold on their eyes, while having oracles to lead the way. However, even oracles are not able to help, because people cannot understand the prophecies, which is another sign of blindness. Thus, Oedipus is not aware of his origin, he does not suspect that he has killed his father and is married to his mother. Even when fate gives hint, he remains blind to what is going on. It takes tragedy to happen for Oedipus to be able to see, and seeing is unbearable in this situation.

So, the author questions the necessity to see because the fruit of knowledge is bitter. Because the truth is so hard to bear, Oedipus prefers to become blind, which signifies that he gives in, that he recognizes the gods’ right to rule human life. Moreover, it is made clear that being blind means seeing less of the world but seeing more of divine reality. This statement is confirmed through the character of Teiresias, an oracle who can see what has happened before and what is going to happen in future. It is remarkable that the man is blind, and this is a sacrifice that he gives to gods to have supernatural abilities. So, this character is necessary to reveal an ironic contrast between him and Oedipus, who is physically fine but is unable to see the truth. Moreover, it is made clear that even the wisest and smartest people are blind about their own lives, although they might have knowledge of the whole universe. Thus, Oedipus is glorified for solving the riddle of Sphynx but is absolutely helpless about his own life. When he blinds himself physically, this is just a reflection of his inner blindness that he has had for all his life. So, in this sense, Oedipus is a demonstration of the philosophical concept about human overall blindness to the world. He is desperate when discovering the truth but he blames no one but himself:

OEDIPUS

Let the storm burst, my fixed resolve still holds,

To learn my lineage, be it ne'er so low.

It may be she with all a woman's pride

Thinks scorn of my base parentage. But I

Who rank myself as Fortune's favorite child,

The giver of good gifts, shall not be shamed.

She is my mother and the changing moons

My brethren, and with them I wax and wane.

Thus sprung why should I fear to trace my birth?

Nothing can make me other than I am. ( Sophocles)

Another interesting theme, which has been partially covered above, is that of freedom and fate. Based on the plot, a conclusion can be made that humans should not expect justice on behalf of fate. Sometimes gods punish people, when they are angry about their self-confidence, so they want to demonstrate their superiority. However, in most cases human fate is not determined by any sense. Oedipus has a horrible fate not because he deserves it but just because gods decide so. This impossibility to morally guarantee good life is distressing for a modern reader who has Christian culture background. With Christianity, it is much easier to understand why it is necessary to lead a virtuous life. Besides, there is a chance for a person to contribute to having a better fate at least in afterlife. This is not the case with ancient Greek beliefs, where fate is considered to be absolutely irrational. It is outside morals and cannot be explained, so a person just needed to accept it humbly. To a large extent, this explains the concept of Greek theatre, with its love for tragedies. Its aim was to lead the audience through the deepest experience of tragedy and end up with catharsis, which helped to release the emotions and let them go. So, such extensive emphasis on horror in Oedipus plays is not at all determined by the desire to thrill and entertain the audience, as it is the case in modern culture. On the contrary, it is aimed at revelation of inner horrors and clearing from them, which was a kind of group therapy.

Still, suffering is one of the most important motifs of the play, which gives meaning to characters’ lives. Thus, some symbolism is related to suffering, except explicit expression of the hero’s feelings. So, for example, it was Oedipus’ fate to suffer from early childhood, as he was just three year old when his father ordered to kill him. His feet were pinned, in order to prevent him from crawling, so this is a symbolic physical mark of suffering, which predicts that the whole life will be related to it. In the same way, blindness can be alternatively interpreted as a symbol of suffering too, especially taking into account that Oedipus physically blinds himself on his own.

All things considered, it can be concludes that a contrast between destiny and free will is a key element of the book. Sophocles suggests that it is not worth questioning the power of gods and believe that one is equal to gods. Oedipus horrible fate demonstrates that rebellion is punished and that people cannot be free from deities influence.  Moreover, even if people are not rebellious and live a virtuous life, this does not guarantee that gods will be merciful. Destiny is fatal, it chooses at random or uses some reasons that human mind is unable to understand. The symbols of blindness and vision are important because they reveal the concept of people’s ignorance about their lives, although they can physically see.  So, in the book, the idea of human helplessness is emphasized and the necessity to accept the fate in the humble way, whatever it takes.

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