Themes are overarching ideas and beliefs that the writers express in their texts including poetry, fiction, and plays. Sophocles has presented several controversial and unconventional themes in Oedipus Rex for his audiences during his time. Some of these themes have been discussed below. The quotes given in the themes have been borrowed from the translation by Robert Fagles.
Themes in Oedipus Rex
Free will is one of the most controversial themes of Oedipus Rex. This philosophical thematic strand runs parallel to other ideas, but always dominates them. Whether a man is the master of his fate and fortune is still a debatable question. Sophocles has placed Oedipus in an uncertain situation where his fate lies in his hands, and he has free will to avoid any circumstances that arise against him. Oedipus has both character and opportunities, which could have saved him despite the prediction of the oracle. Therefore, the question of free will looms large in Oedipus Rex.
Fate, in a religious sense, is forced upon a person. If an individual is fated to do something, it means the divine forces have already determined that course of action for him. However, it leaves a controversial question of whether an individual has the freedom to act, or not, though from the first part of the play it seems that Oedipus has full freedom to take action. Jocasta too tries to take control of her fate to prove the oracle. However, when the truth is revealed during the plague, Oedipus accepts his fate saying, “Apollo told me once – it is my fate.”
“Count no man happy till he dies” is the central theme that leads to the self-discovery. The road to self-discovery adopted by Oedipus leads him to his downfall and tragic end. Oedipus knows the answers to the Sphinx riddles but does not know his past. Despite his popularity, knowledge and tireless efforts to make his kingdom safe, Oedipus, eventually fall in the pit of disgrace and discovers that he was just a pawn in the hands of nature or gods.
Pride Hath a Fall
Though Oedipus is not arrogant, he takes great pride in his past exploit of defeating the Sphinx. He brags it at the beginning “I am Oedipus,” and tells Priest of Zeus and people that he has solved the famous riddle. He further assures his people that he would again find the culprit living in Thebes, who is the cause of the plague. However, as the prophecy predicts that Oedipus is the culprit, he leaves the city as a blind man, after gouging his eyes out. That is why Chorus comments that no person should feel happy until his end.
Ignorance of heart as well as the mind. In other words, Oedipus stays blind to the consequences of his action. He does not know that the old man he killed on the highway could be his father, and the woman he is married to could be his mother. On the other hand, the blind prophet, Tiresias, can see things even though he is physically blind. He interprets the oracles of Delphi and tells the solutions. Creon does not want to run the government due to his ignorance.
Guilt and Shame
When the play opens, it becomes clear that guilt and sin existed in the city and there was a sinful person who needed to be banished in order to get rid of the plague. Oedipus, obsessed with the idea of punishing that person, finds himself guilty and is filled with shame because of his past.
Search for Truth
This is one of the crucial themes of Oedipus Rex. Oedipus, who sincerely and wholeheartedly, sets upon the adventure of finding the truth. He discovers the painful truth that he had murdered his own father, and his wife was his mother, leading him to punish himself.
Hubris is a Greek term used for excessive pride or over-confidence. This is another theme of the play, Oedipus Rex. Oedipus, from the very start of the play, shows hubris in his claim of knowing everything after defeating the Sphinx. He tells the people that he has solved the riddle in the past and that he would find the culprit and solve the plague too. However, when he discovers that he is the culprit his hubris or the extreme pride breaks him apart.
Power corrupts men. The play, Oedipus Rex, shows this through the character of Oedipus. His words express power over people like Creon and Delphi. He also uses his power by forcing Tiresias and the shepherd to speak the truth about the child that he was given to throw on the mountains. Therefore, power is another theme of the play.
Although Oedipus past, the curse, and the punishment remain a mystery, justice is an important theme. When the play opens, the Leader asks Oedipus to rule the city justly and end the plague, as it is his duty. While obsessed to discover his past, he is unable to dispense justice. He also accuses Creon of conspiring against him. Once the bitter truth is revealed, Oedipus takes the punishment upon himself. It seems like a harsh justice against Oedipus who was not aware of their parent’s truth or the curse.