Oedipus, The King


by Sophocles
Sophocles' "Oedipus the King" is a tragic play which
discusses the tragic discovery of Oedipus that he has
killed his father and married his mother. The story of
Oedipus was well known to the Athenians. Oedipus is the
embodiment of the perfect Athenian. He is self-confident,
intelligent, and strong willed. Ironically these are the
very traits which bring about his tragic discovery. Oedipus
gained the rule of Thebes by answering the riddle of the
Sphinx. Sophocles used the riddle of the sphinx as a
metaphor for the 3 phases of Oedipus' life and to further
characterize him as a tragic man.
The Sphinx posed the following riddle to all who came to
obtain the rule of Thebes: "What is it that walks on four
feet and two feet and three feet and has only one voice.
When it walks on most feet it is the weakest?" Oedipus
correctly answered "Man" and became the king of Thebes.
This riddle is a metaphor for the life of Oedipus. As a
child man crawls on his hands and knees; this is the four
feet to which the Sphinx refers. Also man is at his weakest
as a small child. He depends solely on others for his
nourishment and well being. Oedipus was the child of
Jocasta and King Laius who was taken to the mountains by a
shepherd to be killed so the omen of the god Apollo that
Laius' son would kill him and wed Jocasta would not come
true. Oedipus was at the weakest point of his life at this
time. If it had not been for the shepherd sparing his life
and giving him to Polybus to raise as his own, Oedipus
would have died. 

Man walks on two feet when he has matured. This is a
metaphor for Oedipus when he reaches adulthood and leaves
Corinth to escape the oracle. Oedipus meets up with a band
of travelers and in a rage kills them. Inadvertently
Oedipus has killed his own father. Oedipus then answers the
riddle of the sphinx and becomes king of Thebes. By
becoming king of Thebes he marries Jocasta the Queen of
Thebes who unbeknown to him is his mother. Many years later
after bearing children with Jocasta, a plague kills many of
the inhabitants of Thebes. Oedipus is told by the gods to
find the killer of Laius. He is very diligent in the
inquiry and finally comes to the horrible truth that he
himself is the murderer. Jocasta kills herself at the
horrible realization that she has married her son and
Oedipus puts out his eyes at finally seeing the truth. This
fulfills the final part of the Sphinx's riddle for Oedipus
will have to walk with a cane for the rest of his life
because of his blindness. This will give him the three feet
with which man walks at the end of his years. 

Oedipus used his intellect and diligence to answer the
riddle of the Sphinx. Many of the most intelligent young
men of Thebes had been killed attempting to answer the
riddle but Oedipus proved that his intelligence was
superior. Oedipus uses the same intelligence and
perseverance to find the killer of Laius. He does not give
up his search even when Jocasta warns him to stop and let
the matter rest. He calls the shepherd and interrogates him
until he discovers the horrifying truth that he is the
killer. Oedipus' intelligence was ultimately his downfall..
Also, if Oedipus had not been as courageous he would have
never ventured to answer the riddle of the Sphinx. Thus,
even though he had killed his father he would have never
become king of Thebes and married his mother. In addition,
if Oedipus had had the courage but not the intelligence,
the Sphinx would have killed him for answering the riddle

Sophocles used this to characterize Oedipus as a tragic man
for he came about his tragic discovery not because of an
evil act or an evil trait but because of his personality.
Oedipus' traits which gave him riches and power ultimately
led to his tragic ending. Also, the god Apollo did not
predestine that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his
mother by the oracle, he only stated what he knew was
inevitable because of who Oedipus was. 

The sphinx's riddle was used by Sophocles to characterize
Oedipus as a tragic man and as a parallel to his life. The
riddle describes the three stages which Oedipus went
through in his life. Also in answering the riddle Oedipus
inevitable brought about his own tragic ending. 


Quotes: Search by Author