Introduction of Oedipus The King
A dramatic masterpiece, Oedipus The King by Sophocles, has also been popular with the title of Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannus. This Grecian tragedy was first performed during the Grecian around 429BC. It is stated that its initial title was just Oedipus as Aristotle, too, has referenced it in his Poetics. However, it was later changed to Oedipus Tyrannus after Oedipus at Colonus appeared. Sophocles has presented the ruler, Oedipus, as a tyrant, to demonstrate the Grecian model of the king, who if does not comply with the Grecian standards, is doomed to fail. However, his mastery lies in weaving various thematic strands in this royal story.
Summary of Oedipus The King
The story of the play starts with Oedipus, who is ruling Thebes. He sends his brother-in-law, Creon, to Delphi to seek assistance from the oracle about the plague ravaging the city. The Thebans have been gathering at the gate of the palace to make the king aware of his responsibility. Creon, however, soon returns with the riddle that there is some religious pollution in the city cleansing of which can make the city rid of this plague which is linked to the murder of the former king, Laius. Upon knowing this Oedipus vows to fulfill his duty and exact the revenge and end the plague. Before searching for the answers to end the plague, the story goes on like this: when Oedipus enters the city Thebes and saves everyone from sphinx. To that, the people request him to take over the crown and marry their queen Jocasta. The reason Oedipus left his hometown and came to Thebes because in search of answers regarding his birth parents and the ill prophecy associated with this leading to the abandonment of him while he was still an infant.
While looking for the truth about the person associated with King Laius’s murder, soon Oedipus faces Tiresias, the blind prophet to whom he has called for assistance to find out the murderer. When Tiresias sees Oedipus, he refuses to answer his questions and advises him to break his vow about his responsibility. Cocksure about his sincerity and loyalty to the city and the public, Oedipus fumes and berates Tiresias for his being cruel and senseless and further goes on to insult that he was talentless too. However, when the situation spirals out of control, Tiresias still refuses to respond to his fury and finally breaks his silence saying Oedipus is the filth that the city needs to cleanse, which means that Oedipus has killed King Laius. Seeing himself coming clean of this accusation, Oedipus accuses Tiresias of plotting with Creon to orchestrate his overthrow.
However, the arguments become too hot to be cooled down by Jocasta, who immediately appears on the scene and advises patience to Oedipus. Yet, Oedipus makes fun of the blindness of the soothsayer, saying he is a fake prophet at which he alleges that Oedipus is blind rather than he. Tiresias, however, does not leave Oedipus until he has disclosed everything about him that he is the native of Thebes, the murderer of his father, and the husband of his mother and brother to her children.
As soon as Creon approaches the king, Oedipus alleges his treachery and demands his removal from the scene at which the chorus appears to advise him restraint. Jocasta, the wife of Oedipus and also the wife of the previous King Laius, also intervenes to save Creon, alleging that the prophets do not predict things accurately. She relates the story of her former husband, King Laius, and states that the robbers rather than his son killed him on the crossroads when coming from Delphi.
When Oedipus hears about this murder at the crossroads, he senses something suspicious and asks Jocasta about the surviving servant who is immediately called to verify the claim. Jocasta becomes much more flabbergasted at this haste of Oedipus to find the truth after he relates his own story of hearing somebody calling him not the son of his father King Polybus and Queen Merope, at which he leaves for Delphi to know the truth and kills an old man on the way. He, then, tells her that the person was similar to what Jocasta tells him, though, the discrepancy lies in the one or several robbers which only the witness could verify.
Meanwhile, a messenger arrives from Corinth with the news about the demise of his father and the revelation that he has not been his real son. However, he also discloses that he got him from another shepherd on Mount Cithaeron at which Oedipus falls upon the bait of seeking that shepherd to know his reality. The shepherd’s man was one of the workers of King Laius who received the baby Oedipus from Jocasta since he’d bring threat to the life of his father and bears children with his own mother. Disgusted with this prophecy Jocasta wanted the child killed. But the shepherd felt that if the baby grew in a different city wouldn’t bring any threat to his parent’s hands over the baby to the messenger. Sensing the issue complicating further, Jocasta tries to put a stop on that but Oedipus does not stop and moves. When that shepherd arrives, Oedipus falls upon him with his questions and threatens him with life if he does not disclose the reality at which he tells him the secret of that child.
When Jocasta flees from the scene and hangs herself, Oedipus, seeing reality staring in his face. He curses himself and his fate and then blinds himself with the pins on her dress, while the chorus finds itself at crossroads, expressing the only lamentation at his fall. After this tragic incident, Oedipus begs his brother-in-law to exile him and hands over the responsibility of his two daughters on him to Creon. The chorus then laments and states that nobody should be considered lucky or happy unless he is dead. The story ends with a moral that no matter how happy and successful one could look in one’s life, they will always be played by fate. At the beginning of the story, everyone wants to be like Oedipus and he is the man of everyone’s dreams but eventually, no one would even dare to trade places with him in spite of how successful he is.
Major Themes in Oedipus The King
- Free Will: Free will is the major theme of the play and dominates when Oedipus claims to have the knowledge of solving riddles and vows to end the plague. Several avenues available to Oedipus in the early part of the play demonstrate that he might have covered or kept in secret or avoided what he has invited through his free will, though, he has tried his best to avoid everything; first, he flees Cornith so that he could avoid it yet some of his actions bring him to the point where he is trapped in the web of fate instead of being independent in exercising his free will.
- Fate: Fate is the second significant theme of the play too. It appears in the course of the play as if Oedipus is fated to do so. However, in certain respects, it seems that Oedipus has excessive pride of his knowledge. For example, the pride displays his rashness which invites his fate to deal a heavy blow to him. He could have avoided it but then he recalls and says that Appollo has told him once that it is his fate and is pre-ordained that he would commit these acts.
- Self-Discovery: Self-discovery or learning about ourselves is another major theme of the play. Oedipus takes up this path to know himself better but is caught in the web of fate. He boasts that only he has solved the riddle of the Sphinx and that he has responded to its question. However, when he comes to know his real self, he feels cursed and let down by the gods.
- Pride: Despite demonstrating humility before the Thebans, Oedipus becomes boastful thus showing excessive pride. When he comes across the Sphinx, he proclaims that nobody was able to resolve that riddle. He, on the source of his past, boasts that he would again rise up to the expectations of the people but falls into disgrace despite the fact that what happened was none of his mistakes.
- Ignorance/Blindness: The play shows the theme of blindness and ignorance in a metaphorical sense. Tiresias is blind whom Oedipus mocks but when he alleges that Oedipus is blind, it indicates metaphorical blindness in that he does not know what he has committed, though, Tiresias, the blind seer, knows it despite being a blind one.
- Guilt and Shame: The theme of guilt and shame is tied to the character of Oedipus as he does not think that he is guilty of any wrongdoing, the reason that he is quite boastful. However, when he comes to know that he has committed the guilt, he feels ashamed at himself. That is why he blinds himself at the end.
- Search for Truth: In a metaphorical sense, the theme of the search for truth is also tied with Oedipus, for the Sphinx riddle is about a human being, while the truth that Oedipus discovers is that a man cannot escape fate.
- Hubris: Hubris or defiance to god is another thematic strand tied with Oedipus and his acts. As both husband and wife, who is also his mother, become sanctimonious and berate gods, it becomes their hubris which cost both of them their honor, their positions, and their worldly wealth.
- Power: Oedipus demonstrates the theme of power as he can accuse his brother-in-law, can speak against the gods, and can coerce anyone to speak the truth. This power costs him his own position when it comes to his end.
- Justice: The theme of justice is apparent when Oedipus becomes obsessed with the idea that Creon is plotting against him with Tiresias and he accuses both of them of this. However, Creon alleges that perfect justice is that obsessed people like Oedipus become tough against themselves and not against others.
Major Characters in Oedipus Rex
- Oedipus: Oedipus, the King of Thebes, is the major character of the play. He leaves his hometown for the fear of the fulfillment of the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Unfortunately, his efforts to avoid the prophecy prove futile and he meets his woeful fate predicted by the gods. When the play begins, Oedipus has already married Jocasta and is proud and confident. He addresses his people gently and promises to provide justice. He is unaware at the start that he is the root cause of all the problems; he does not know that he has murdered his biological father and has shared his mother’s bed. As the story develops and mysteries reveal, he discovers that he has brought ruination to his family and the people, too. Thus, unable to see the damage he has caused, he blinds himself and departs, leaving his daughters in Creon’s custody.
- Jocasta: Jocasta is another major character of the play. She is Oedipus’ mother and also his wife. Thus, she is Queen of Thebes. First, she was the wife of King Laius, whom Oedipus murdered. Oedipus was not aware of his lineage at that point. As a mother, she is a cruel lady as she leaves her son to die helplessly to escape the binding prophecy. However, as a wife, she acts as an advisor and faithful companion as she cautions Oedipus. She asks him not to pay attention to the prophecies and pretends to be skeptical of the prophets. However, when all her tactics fail, and Oedipus reaches the truth of his identity, she fails to digest the harsh reality and commits suicide at the end of the play.
- Creon: Creon is another important character in the play. He is Oedipus’s brother-in-law and an influential man of Thebes. Oedipus sends him to Delphi to find a solution to the problem his state is facing. He takes his responsibility and follows the command, however, when he returns with a solution, instead of believing, Oedipus curses him for plotting against him in collaboration with the blind prophet, Teiresias. Creon does not react negatively to the false accusation, but he does not accept Oedipus’s words either. Once the truth about Oedipus’s identity appears, he shows kindness and offers him to stay in the palace, but Oedipus rejects the offer and leaves.
- Teiresias: Teiresias is the blind prophet who interprets the prophecies. He curses Oedipus for causing trouble to Thebes. He also intentionally tells Oedipus about his past revealing that Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother. Thus telling him the main reason for the plague in the city. Instead of believing Teiresias’ words, Oedipus takes it as an insult and accuses him, too. However, he does not take his words back and remains honest.
- Corinthian Messenger: There are two messengers spotted in the play. The first arrives from Corinth with two surprising news that ultimately connects Oedipus with his quest. He tells him about the death of his father, Polybus, and the news that the state is waiting for him to take the throne. This news brings solace to him because it seems that the first part of the prophecy has proved wrong, yet he feels the danger that the second part that predicts his marriage with his biological mother may prove true. The messenger also tells him that he should not worry about this either as he is not Polybus or Merope’s real son.
- Shepherd: The shepherd is called in front of the king and the queen to verify the news the Corinthian messenger brings to them. First, he hesitates to answer, but after facing Oedipus’s wrath, he tells him that Oedipus is the man abandoned by his parents in childhood. Also, he verifies the death scene of King Laius. Thus, his verification makes the story clear to everyone.
- Second Messenger: The second messenger appears for a short time. He only announces the death of the queen, Jocasta. The guilt-ridden queen could not face the tragic turn of life and hangs herself in the castle.
- Antigone and Ismene: Ismene and Antigone are the unfortunate daughters of Oedipus. They appear at the end of the play as Oedipus leaves them in the custody of Creon. Also, he laments that his daughters will not be able to find suitable companions due to their father’s crime.
- Priest: The priest appears in the prologue and asks Oedipus that as a king, he is responsible for the good and bad of his people. Being a ruler, it is Oedipus’s responsibility to find a solution to this plague, He asks him to find the person whose immorality has brought this disaster to the people.
Writing Style of Oedipus Rex
The writing style of the play, Oedipus Rex, follows strict structure and form that not only communicates the story to the audience but also makes the existing Grecian ethical framework clear to the readers. The dramatic structure, somber tone, tragic flaws of the characters successfully play with the emotions of pity and fear of the audiences. Although the diction used in the dialogues is quite simple, it is seductive as it plays with the readers’ emotions, making them see the events shown through the use of the device of foreshadowing. The use of strophe, antistrophe, and chorus has, somewhat, made the tone quite less cumbersome at times when it seems to become too tragic for the readers.
Analysis of Literary Devices in Oedipus Rex
- Action: The main action in the play occurs when Oedipus reaches Thebes after killing his father at the crossroads and solves the riddle posed by the Sphinx. The rising action occurs at the beginning of the play when Oedipus asserts that only he can solve the problem of the plague. It reaches its climax when he starts unraveling his own birth and starts following down when he finds out his reality after the shepherd identifies him as the child he threw on the mountain.
- Anagnorisis: It refers to the moment in a story or plot when the lead character identifies his or other characters’ true identity in the below example,
I felt so sorry for him, master, and thought
he would take the child away to his own land.
But instead, he saved him for an awful fate.
For if you are who he says you are, you were doomed from birth. (1179-1181)
- Apostrophe:Apostrophe is used to call something from far. Sophocles has used this device at various places in this play. For example,
O lord Apollo, let it be your favored blessing on us 80
that shines from his eyes. (81-81)
ii. O Zeus, what are your plans for me? (738)
iii. O mortal generations,
lives passing so quickly and
equaling nothing. (1186-1189)
In the above examples, two are used by Oedipus and third by Chorus show that they are calling who are not present or do not need to be present.
- Characters: The play features static as well as dynamic characters. Oedipus is a dynamic character, as he undergoes various changes and endures various pains. At the same time, Creon is presented as a static character in that he does not show any change in his thinking and behavior, including Jocasta, the Second Messenger, and the Chorus.
- Climax: The climax in the novel arrives when Oedipus comes to know that he is the son of the late King Laius and Jocasta, who is now his wife. He realizes that his whole life has passed in vain as he tried to run away from his fate but could not succeed.
- Conflict:Two major conflicts run parallel in the text. The first one is Oedipus versus himself, as the text revolves around his mysterious identity. The second is Oedipus versus fate as he tries his best to avoid the disastrous future but fails.
- Dialogue: The play shows the use of dialogue as shown in the example below,
If he knows what fear is, that man,
he will not linger, after your curses.
If he did not fear murder, he will not fear curses. (294-296)
This conversation takes place between Oedipus and the Chorus.
- Dramatic Irony: Dramatic Irony is when the audience is aware of the situation, but the characters are unable to comprehend until they reach the climax.
Whatever may come, let it burst forth! Even
if I spring from lowly stock, I must know. (105-1076)
Here the dramatic irony is that he wants to know even if he is from a lowly race or tribe, but the audience has already become aware of his lineage.
- Foreshadowing: There are several instances of foreshadowing in the play as given in the below examples,
i. My children, new stock of old Cadmus,
why are you seated here before me
crowned by suppliants’ wreaths,
and the air of the city dense with incense,
groans, paeans, and prayers? (1-5)
ii. Pitiful children, you come to me
wanting answers I cannot always give. (58-59)
iii. Where can they be? Where
can we find the traces of this ancient crime? (108-109)
iv. Alas, our troubles are endless.
All the people are sick—
no one knows how we can defend ourselves. (168-169)
All the given examples of foreshadows point out that something sinister has happened and its consequences are going to be equally evil. While Oedipus speaks the first three, the fourth has been spoken by the Chorus.
- Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example,
Our richest fields are sterile now.
Our women labor in stillbirth.
Wherever you look, like winged birds
or forest fire, crowds flee toward
the darkening west, to Hades’ land. (172-178)
ii. O Teiresias, you who know and teach 300
Olympian secrets and mysteries here on the earth!
Though sightless, you perceive everything.
You know what sickness gnaws at the city.
Like a soldier in the front row of the phalanx
who takes the first onslaught, you alone can save us. (300-305)
iii. Every cave and shelter in Cithaeron will echo 420
with your cries, when you realize
the full meaning of the marriage
you thought would be your safe harbor. (420-424)
The above examples of imagery show the use of images that appeal to the senses of touch, the sense of sight, the sense of sound as well as the sense of smell.
- In Medias Res: This happens as the story starts from the middle when most of the events have already taken place and Oedipus cannot escape from fate now.
- Hamartia: Oedipus is the best example of hamartia as he intends to find the murderer of Laius to regain the prosperity of his city, but ultimately turns the table on him after exposing his unintentional wrongdoings and impending exile.
- Mood: The play, Oedipus Rex, shows a serious mood of horror and grief in the beginning that turns into bantering when Oedipus comes face to face with Tiresias but ultimately becomes somber, ironic, and highly lugubrious at the end.
- Peripeteia: Peripeteia or reversal in fortune occurs in the play when the Corinthian messenger arrives with the purpose to gladden Oedipus but leaves him in utter horror after the unraveling of his sins.
- Plot: The plot of the play involves the story of Oedipus but it has been taken in medias res in that when the play opens, most of the events such as the murder of Laius and marrying Oedipus with Jocasta have already taken place.
- Rhetorical Question: The play shows several instances of rhetorical questions. For example,
But too much time has passed, and now
I wonder, what is he doing?— (73-74)
ii. Is that the sweet-sounding voice of Zeus
from the gold-decked Pythian shrine
come to glorious Thebes? (151-154)
iii. who can see nothing but his own gain,
being blind in his supposed art?
Give me an example of your vision. 390
How is it that when the dog-haunched singer squatted here
you said nothing to save the city and its people? (388-392)
The above excerpts are perfect examples of rhetorical questions posed by Oedipus and the Chorus. They are not intended to elicit answers but to stress upon the point.
- Setting: The entire action of the play takes place in the ancient city of Thebes yet some of its events seem as if they have taken place in Delphi, a place located at some distance from Thebes and some at Corinth, another Grecian city.
- Simile: The play shows various similes as given in the examples below,
i. Bloody plague
crashes over our heads like a tide of death. (23-24)
ii. Banishment or death for death—blood unavenged
menaces the city like a storm. (100-101)
iii. Wherever you look, like winged birds
or forest fire, crowds flee toward
the darkening west, to Hades’ land. (176-179)
iv. And you, shining wolf-god Apollo,
let the adamantine shafts, our defenders,
fly from your plaited golden bowstring
like Artemis’ fiery torches
when she hunts on the Lycian hills. (203-207)
v. Like a soldier in the front row of the phalanx
who takes the first onslaught, you alone can save us. (304-305)
The first example shows a comparison of plague with the tide of death, the second of the death with a storm, the third of birds with the people, the fourth shows Apollo with Artemis, and the last Oedipus with a soldier.
- Symbolism: Oedipus The King shows the symbols of the swollen foot, oracle, the crossroads, eyes, blindness, and prophecy.
- Theme: The play, Oedipus The King, not only shows the theme of an inescapable fate, but also various other themes such as self-discovery, mystery, the quest for truth, and pride hath a fall.
- Tone: The play demonstrates a serious and grave tone throughout the text which at times becomes too tragic to bear.
- Tragedy: The play shows the tragedy of Oedipus as this story has been used as a canonical model in the literature to show elements of tragedies.