Oedipus the King: Theme Analysis
Ancient Greeks cared deeply about the pursuit of knowledge. Although the truth was often a terrifying concept, they still saw it as a critical virtue. The theater was one way in which the ideas of knowledge and truth were examined.
Many Greek dramatists use the self-realizations of their characters to underscore the themes of their tragedies. Sophocles, for one, uses the character transformation of Oedipus, in tandem with the plot, to highlight the theme of his famous work, Oedipus the King. As Oedipus grows in terrifying self-knowledge, he changes from a prideful, heroic king at the beginning of the play, to a tyrant in denial toward the middle, to a fearful, condemned man, humbled by his tragic fate by the end.
At first, Oedipus appears to be a confident, valiant hero. This is especially true during the situation alluded to at the beginning of the drama, when he solves the Sphinx's riddle. Although Oedipus is not a native Theban, he still chooses to answer the riddle of the Sphinx despite her threat of death to anyone who fails to answer correctly. Only a man like Oedipus, a man possessing tremendous self-confidence, could have such courage. When Oedipus succeeds, freeing the city from the Sphinx's evil reign, he becomes instantly famous and known for his bravery and intelligence. A temple priest reveals the respect the Thebans have for their king when he tells Oedipus, "You freed us from the Sphinx, you came to Thebes and cut us loose from the bloody tribute we had paid that harsh, brutal singer. We taught you nothing, no skill, no extra knowledge, still you triumphed" (44-47). Here, Oedipus' bold actions seem to be a blessing, a special gift from the gods used to benefit the city as a whole. Indeed Oedipus is idealized by the Thebans, yet at times he seems to spite the gods, assuming authority that normally belongs to them. For example, he pompously tells the Chorus, which implores the gods for deliverance from the city plague, "You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers" (245). Yet the people accept, even long for, this language from their king. Since the gods don't seem to give them aid, they place their hopes in Oedipus, this noble hero who has saved Thebes in the past and pledges to save it again.
Soon, however, Oedipus' character changes to a man in denial-a man more like a tyrant than a king-as he begins to solve the new riddle of Laius' death. A growing paranoia grips Oedipus when Jocasta recounts the story of her husband's murder, leading the king to suspect his own past actions. He remarks, absentmindedly, "Strange, hearing you just now . . . my mind wandered, my thoughts racing back and forth" (800-02). Yet Oedipus is not quick to blame himself for the plague of the city-indeed he tries to place the burden onto others as he continues his investigation, blindly trusting his own superior ability while ignoring the damaging evidence that surrounds him. For example, when Tiresias accuses Oedipus of being the murderer, the king takes the counter-offensive, actually accusing Tiresias of the murder when he asserts, "You helped hatch the plot, you did the work, yes, short of killing him with your own hands . . ." (394-96). Similarly, he blames Creon for conspiracy and treason, charging, "I see it all, the marauding thief himself scheming to steal my crown and power!" (597-98). In this way, Oedipus chooses to attack the messenger while disregarding the message. Besides spiting the prophet, Oedipus also fuels the wrath of the gods, who vest their divine wisdom in Tiresias. The Chorus underscores the vengeance of the gods when it warns, "But if any man comes striding, high and mighty, in all he says and does, no fear of justice, no reverence for the temples of the gods-let a rough doom tear him down, repay his pride, breakneck, ruinous pride!" (972-77). Here, Sophocles portrays Oedipus as a tyrant of sorts; indeed the peoples' greatest blessing has become their worst curse.
Lastly, Oedipus becomes a man humbled with the pain and dejection of knowing the truth of reality as the overwhelming evidence forces him to admit his tragic destiny. Sophocles shows the sudden change in his protagonist's persona when Oedipus condemns himself, saying, "I stand revealed at last-cursed in my birth, cursed in marriage, cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands!" (1309-11). Yet the transformation of Oedipus' character is most clearly demonstrated when he chooses to gouge out his eyes. Now, finally seeing his horrible fate, he makes himself physically blind like Tiresias, the true seer told he was blind to the truth. Oedipus furthers Sophocles' sight metaphor when he defends his decision to humble himself through blindness: "What good were eyes to me? Nothing I could see could bring me joy" (1473-74). Consequently, Oedipus can no longer be called a tyrant, let alone a king, after being humiliated in this way, unable to see or even walk without assistance. His attitude toward Creon also seems dramatically altered when the new king approaches Oedipus, who implores the audience: "Oh no, what can I say to him? How can I ever hope to win his trust? I wronged him so, just now, in every way. You must see that-I was so wrong, so wrong" (1554-57). In this way, Oedipus, who greatly humbles himself before Creon and the rest of Thebes, completely changes his demeanor for the third time in the play.
This character transformation coincides with several other key themes of the work. First, as the play progresses, Oedipus gradually leaves his ignorant bliss, eventually learning his awful fate. Here, Sophocles raises the question, is the painful knowledge of truth more important than the happiness of naivete? He seems to say yes. Yet Sophocles is not simply referring to the fictional character of Oedipus; Oedipus the King was intended to reflect the nature of the Athenian rulers of the time. Like Oedipus, these rulers were bold and daring, known for their intelligence and heroism. But they were also known for their arrogance and their "risk it all" attitudes. On one hand, they saw themselves as protectors of the city, while at the same time they were unable to defend themselves as individuals.
Similarly, fifth century Athenians struggled over many religious issues. As humanism grew in Athens, many citizens, particularly those in leadership positions, saw themselves as increasingly independent of the gods. They questioned whether their lives were results of fate or free will. Though Jocasta initially believes that fate-namely, oracles and prophecies-means nothing, she later changes her tune when she realizes that her divine prophecy has come true. Oedipus, the epitome of human intellect, also challenges the gods; yet by the play's conclusion it is clear that the gods have won out. In this way, Sophocles asserts that the gods are more powerful than man, that there's a limit to human ability and reason.
Lastly, Oedipus the King serves to explain the causes of human suffering. Though Oedipus' fate is determined, the reader still feels sympathy for the tragic hero, believing that somehow he doesn't deserve what ultimately comes to him. Here, Sophocles attributes, at least partially, human suffering to the mere will of the gods.
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