Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King

Themes and motifs

Fate, free will, or tragic flaw

At the beginning of the play Oedipus is portrayed as the hero, who delivered Thebes from the terror of the Sphinx.

You are the first of men both in the experiences of life and in dealing with unseen-powers,

exclaims the old priest in the first scene when another catastrophe, the plague, strikes the city. Yes, how come the great king of the first scene became the blind outcast wanderer when the curtain falls? Is it his fate, his free will or his tragic flaw that causes his downfall?

Fate is a theme that often occurs in Greek writing, tragedies in particular. The idea that attempting to avoid an oracle is the very thing which brings it about is a common motif in many Greek myths, and similarities to Oedipus can for example be seen in the myth of the birth of Perseus.

Two oracles in particular dominate the plot of Oedipus the King. In lines 711 to 714, Jocasta relates the prophecy that was told to Laius before the birth of Oedipus. Namely:

(The oracle) told him that it was his fate that he should die a victim at the hands of his own son, a son to be born of Laius and me.

The oracle told to Laius tells only of the patricide; the incest is missing. Prompted by Jocasta's recollection, Oedipus reveals the prophecy which caused him to leave Corinth (791-93):

that I was fated to lie with my mother, and show to daylight an accursed breed which men would not endure, and I was doomed to be murderer of the father that begot me.

The implication of Laius's oracle is ambiguous. A prominent school of thought argues that the presentation of Laius's oracle in this play differs from that found in (e.g.) Aeschylus's Oedipus trilogy produced in 467 BC. Helaine Smith argues:

Sophocles had the option of making the oracle to Laius conditional (if Laius has a son, that son will kill him) or unconditional (Laius will have a son who will kill him). Both Aeschylus and Euripides write plays in which the oracle is conditional; Sophocles... chooses to make Laius's oracle unconditional and thus removes culpability for his sins from Oedipus, for he could not have done other than what he did, no matter what action he took.

This interpretation has a long pedigree and several adherents.[14] It finds support in Jocasta's repetition of the oracle at lines 854–55: "Loxias declared that the king should be killed by/ his own son." In the Greek, Jocasta uses the verb chrênai: "to be fated, necessary." This iteration of the oracle seems to suggest that it was unconditional and inevitable. Other scholars have nonetheless argued that Sophocles follows tradition in making Laius's oracle conditional, and thus avoidable. They point to Jocasta's initial disclosure of the oracle at lines 711–14. In the Greek, the oracle cautions: hôs auton hexoi moira pros paidos thanein/ hostis genoit emou te kakeinou para. The two verbs in boldface indicate what is called a "future more vivid" condition: if a child is born to Laius, his fate to be killed by that child will overtake him.[15]

Whatever the meaning of Laius's oracle, the one delivered to Oedipus is clearly unconditional. Given our modern conception of fate and fatalism, readers of the play have a tendency to view Oedipus as a mere puppet controlled by greater forces, a man crushed by the gods and fate for no good reason. This, however, is not an entirely accurate reading. While it is a mythological truism that oracles exist to be fulfilled, oracles do not cause the events that lead up to the outcome. In his landmark essay "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex",[16] E.R. Dodds draws a comparison with Jesus's prophecy at the Last Supper that Peter would deny him three times. Jesus knows that Peter will do this, but readers would in no way suggest that Peter was a puppet of fate being forced to deny Christ. Free will and predestination are by no means mutually exclusive, and such is the case with Oedipus.

The oracle delivered to Oedipus what is often called a "self-fulfilling prophecy", in that the prophecy itself sets in motion events that conclude with its own fulfilment.[17] This, however, is not to say that Oedipus is a victim of fate and has no free will. The oracle inspires a series of specific choices, freely made by Oedipus, which lead him to kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus chooses not to return to Corinth after hearing the oracle, just as he chooses to head toward Thebes, to kill Laius, to marry and to take Jocasta specifically as his bride; in response to the plague at Thebes, he chooses to send Creon to the Oracle for advice and then to follow that advice, initiating the investigation into Laius's murder. None of these choices is predetermined.

Another characteristic of oracles in myth is that they are almost always misunderstood by those who hear them; hence Oedipus's misunderstanding the significance of the Delphic Oracle. He visits Delphi to find out who his real parents are and assumes that the Oracle refuses to answer that question, offering instead an unrelated prophecy which forecasts patricide and incest. Oedipus's assumption is incorrect, the Oracle does, in a way, answer his question:

"On closer analysis the oracle contains essential information which Oedipus seems to neglect." The wording of the Oracle: I was doomed to be murderer of the father that begot me refers to Oedipus' real, biological father. Likewise the mother with polluted children is defined as the biological one. The wording of the drunken guest on the other hand: you are not your father's son defines Polybus as only a foster father to Oedipus. The two wordings support each other and point to the "two set of parents" alternative. Thus the question of two set of parents, biological and foster, is raised. Oedipus’s reaction to the Oracle is irrational: he states he did not get any answer and he flees in a direction away from Corinth, showing that he firmly believed at the time that Polybus and Merope are his real parents.

"The scene with the drunken guest constitutes the end of Oedipus' childhood. … he can no longer ignore a feeling of uncertainty about his parentage. However, after consulting the Oracle this uncertainty disappears, strangely enough, and is replaced by a totally unjustified certainty that he is the son of Merope and Polybus. We have said that this irrational behaviour - his hamartia in Aristotle's sense - is due to the repression of a whole series of thoughts in his consciousness, in fact everything that referred to his earlier doubts about his parentage.[18]

State control

The exploration of this theme in Oedipus the King is paralleled by the examination of the conflict between the individual and the state in Antigone. The dilemma that Oedipus faces here is similar to that of the tyrannical Creon: each man has, as king, made a decision that his subjects question or disobey; each king also misconstrues both his own role as a sovereign and the role of the rebel. When informed by the blind prophet Tiresias that religious forces are against him, each king claims that the priest has been corrupted. It is here, however, that their similarities come to an end: while Creon, seeing the havoc he has wreaked, tries to amend his mistakes, Oedipus refuses to listen to anyone.[19]

Sight and blindness

Literal and metaphorical references to eyesight appear throughout Oedipus the King. Clear vision serves as a metaphor for insight and knowledge, but the clear-eyed Oedipus is blind to the truth about his origins and inadvertent crimes. The prophet Tiresias, on the other hand, although literally blind, "sees" the truth and relays what is revealed to him. “Though Oedipus' future is predicted by the gods, even after being warned by Tiresias, he cannot see the truth or reality beforehand because his excessive pride has blinded his vision…”[20] Only after Oedipus has physically blinded himself does he gain a limited prophetic ability, as seen in Oedipus at Colonus. It is deliberately ironic that the "seer" can "see" better than Oedipus, despite being blind. In one line (Oedipus the king, 469), Tiresias says:

"So, you mock my blindness? Let me tell you this. You [Oedipus] with your precious eyes, you're blind to the corruption of your life ..." (Robert Fagles 1984)


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