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Sophocles' Tragedy "Oedipus the King"

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Introduction

Sophocles (ca. 496-406 BCE) is one of four ancient Greek tragedians (in addition to Aeschylus, Euripides, and Euphorion) whose plays have survived to this day. Among them, Sophocles is usually regarded as the most accomplished author of Greek tragedies. He is believed to have written up to 120 dramas in the course of his life, but only seven have survived in a complete form. First performed around 429 BCE, his famous play Oedipus the King is regarded by many modern scholars as the masterpiece of ancient Greek tragedy. The Athenian philosopher Aristotle's Poetics (ca. 335 BCE)—the first comprehensive treatise on Greek tragedy—singles out Oedipus the King as a model of what any theatrical tragedy should be like, which suggests in what extraordinary high esteem Sophocles' work must have been held by the ancient Greeks (Puchner, p. 89).

Like Susan Glaspell's early feminist play Trifles, Oedipus the King begins in medias res (“in the middle of things”)—that is, on the very day that Oedipus—for many years the wise, just, and noble king of the Greek city-state of Thebes (widely praised as “the man of experience” and “the best of men”)—learns the devastating truth about himself and his life, which leads to his disgrace, self-mutilation, and self-banishment. By the evening of that fateful day, Oedipus (meaning “swollen feet” in ancient Greek)—crushed by an overwhelming “anguish” and guilt over his horrendous past—has blinded himself and gone into voluntary exile abroad. Following the Aristotelian Poetics' well-known theatrical rules, character development is thus compressed into a single day, during which Oedipus' heroic virtues and exploits all turn out to be tragic flaws (hamartia in Old Greek) and terrible blunders.

At the beginning of the drama, Oedipus is presented as the smartest of all Greek heroes, being the only one to decipher “with his brilliance” the lethal riddle of the Sphinx (who devours anyone failing to give the correct answer to “What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?”). After her humiliating defeat at the hands of Oedipus, the Sphinx jumps off a cliff to her death. After he has thus liberated Thebes from this implacable monster, the grateful local citizenry proclaims Oedipus the new king and worships him as a demi-god (“we do rate you the first of men”) and the god-like “father” of their city (in the words of the chorus, “Who could behold his greatness without envy?”). So, when the city-state is beset by a deadly plague, the citizenry turns first to their sagacious and venerable monarch to rid Thebes of the “Black Death” pestilence. Unsure of his ability to produce another miracle, Oedipus has already sent his brother-in-law Kreon to consult the Delphic oracle. But the message that Kreon brings back from Delphi unleashes a chain of terrible revelations that lead to Oedipus' tragic ruin (“...what man alive more miserable than I?”).

Oedipus was quite reckless and impulsive in the life choices he made during his impetuous youth. First, he runs away from the royal palace of his adoptive parents, the king and queen of Corinth, on a mere superstitious hearsay—the nebulous prediction of the Delphic oracle that one day he will kill his father and marry his mother. Upon entering neighboring Boeotia, he rashly and unnecessarily kills the driver of a single wagon, who has run him off the road leading to Thebes. No less thoughtlessly and injudiciously, he also kills all but one of the traveling companions of the wagon driver, including an elderly passenger who has hit Oedipus with his “prod” (“I paid him back with interest”). But the dead “old man” happens to be his real father, king Laius of Thebes. Another highly unwise and direful act is marrying and having four kids with the widowed queen Jocasta, about whom he knows absolutely nothing but who turns out to be his real mother. On hearing the same dark Delphic prophecy, king Laius had once ordered a local shepherd to tie the feet of his new-born son Oedipus and leave him to die in the barren wilderness. But the kind-hearted shepherd takes pity on the crying infant and saves his life. Instead of participating in an infanticide, he lets the baby boy be adopted by a childless couple.

Oedipus is arrogant and stubborn (“unbending”), especially when confronted with the Delphic oracle's ominous prophecy that the plague will continue as long as the murderer of king Laius remains unpunished within the city walls (“Pay the killers back—whoever is responsible”). An overconfident Oedipus orders a thorough investigation (“I'll bring it all to light myself”) until the truth is revealed and the killer is punished (“I am the land's avenger by all rights”). He foolishly places a “curse on the murderer” and “on those who disobey these orders,” imprudently brushing aside the warnings of Kreon, Jocasta, the blind prophet Tiresias, and the surviving old shepherd, each of whom either suspects or already knows the ugly truth about the murderer's true identity. Blinded by hubris and “crude, mindless stubbornness,” Oedipus even accuses his brother-in-law Kreon (“my mortal enemy”) of having ordered king Laius killed and of conspiring, with the help of Tiresias, to steal his own “crown and power.”

But once the horrible “mystery of my birth” is uncovered, Oedipus is so overwhelmed by sorrow and guilt that he decides to take full responsibility for his fateful life choices and punishes himself for what he has done, after all, only unintentionally and unwittingly. (In this respect, Sophocles' Oedipus the King deviates significantly from the Oedipus myth's less catastrophic and cathartic ending, as originally told in Homer's Odyssey). Horrified at his patricide and incest, he blinds himself and flees into exile abroad. The grief-stricken Oedipus may have thought that he was acting in the end most nobly and honorably, when in fact he was being once again misguided, hasty, and irrational (which is what has brought about his tragic misfortune and downfall, in the first place). As Heraclitus of Ephesus, an ancient Greek philosopher who was born more than 40 years before Sophocles, wrote: “Character is destiny.”

“Self-fulfilling prophecy”

Queen Jocasta is far more complex and modern in her thinking than all the tradition-bound men in the drama, including Oedipus. She is suspicious of [Apollo's] “underlings, his priests” (line 786). But she is too obedient a wife and does not try to stop king Laius, when he had “a henchman fling him [their new-born son, Oedipus] on a barren, trackless mountain” (lines 792-793), even though she openly mistrusts Tiresias-like “seers and all their revelations” (797). She is also much smarter than Oedipus, realizing well before him what has happened and their tragic situation. She tries to stop her son from continuing his fateful investigation: “Stop—in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search! My suffering is enough” (1163-1164). She expresses a very modern, almost scientific view that is two millennia ahead of her time (as if she has heard of the uncertainty principle from quantum-mechanics theory): “What should a man fear? It's all chance, chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark. Better live at random, best we can” (1069-1072). She suggests what Oedipus, a pious Greek from the 5th century BCE, would not accept: “As for this marriage with your mother—have no fear. Many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother's bed. Take such things for shadows, nothing at all—Live, Oedipus, as if there is no tomorrow” (1073-1077). Nearly two millennia later, Vienna psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud would seize upon her modern ideas to come up with the so-called “Oedipus complex.”

The blind old prophet Tiresias and Oedipus are both stubborn and short-tempered men and they soon exchange very hostile and intemperate words. Only Tiresias knows the truth about who king Laius' murderer is, but he is reluctant to reveal it publicly, knowing well that this could only destroy Oedipus and his family. His understandable reluctance infuriates Oedipus, who insists that every citizen of Thebes is duty-bound to help with the murder investigation which might end the plague in the city-state, as predicted by the Delphic oracle: “You know and you won't tell? You're bent on betraying us, destroying Thebes?” (376-377). To which Tiresias defensively replies: “You criticize my temper...unaware of the one you live with, you revile me” (384-385). Enraged by the blind old man's disobedience, Oedipus accuses Tiresias of being complicit in the murder of king Laius: “You helped hatch the plot, you did the work, yes, short of killing him with your own hands...” (394-396). In his response, an equally angry Tiresias finally lets the cat out of the bag: “You are the curse, the corruption of the land!” (401). Famous for “his brilliance,” Oedipus has one more trick up his royal sleeve, as he denounces the blind prophet for being a “pious fraud”: “Tell me, when did you ever prove yourself a prophet? When the Sphinx, that chanting Fury kept her deathwatch here, why silent then, not a word to set our people free?” (443-446). In Sophocles' later tragedy Antigone, the old and blind Tiresias is once again a thorn in the side of Oedipus' former brother-in-law and successor on the throne in Thebes, the new king-tyrant Kreon.

The chorus' leader announces the arrival of Tiresias with some veneration: “Lord Tiresias sees with the eyes of Lord Apollo. Anyone searching for the truth, my king, might learn it from the prophet, clear as day” (323-324). Oedipus agrees that Tiresias is the “master of all the mysteries of our life, all you teach and all you dare not tell, signs in the heavens, signs that walk the earth!” (341-343). Both Oedipus and the chorus (symbolizing the community of Thebes) express the belief that Tiresias can see both into the past and into the future with help from the god Apollo. Thus, the blind old man (who does not even appear in the original Oedipus' myth, as told in Homer's Odyssey) is a symbol of the ancient Greeks' traditional belief in predestination—your life is predetermined by the Olympian gods, so there is absolutely nothing you can do to escape your allotted fate, as Oedipus finds out in his misfortune. Except for Jocasta, everyone in the tragedy accepts this idea—even Oedipus, who can only question Tiresias' credentials as an all-seeing prophet. (After all, it was he, Oedipus, who solved the Sphinx's riddle, not Tiresias).

Jocasta is in the end punished not because she does not follow the “law” or obey the Olympian gods. In fact, she appears to be engaged in religious rites and ceremonies more often than any of the other characters in Oedipus the King. But she obviously does not believe in prophets and prophecies (that is, predestination). She trusts only in “chance” (as in modern probability theory) and in free will: “Better live at random, best we can” (1072). But she does not want public disgrace for herself and Oedipus, not the shame and humiliation of having to confront their four children with the hideous truth. So, she proposes to him to keep the truth to themselves and continue their incestuous marriage. But her head-strong, irrational, and pious husband/son would have none of this. When Oedipus, sword in hand, breaks down the door to their marital chamber, he finds Jocasta hanged with their bed sheets. Grief- and guilt-stricken, he blinds himself and goes into voluntary exile. Their family is now completely disgraced and destroyed. In Sophocles' tragedy Antigone, three of their four kids are killed (their two sons slay each other fighting in a civil war in Thebes while Antigone is cruelly destroyed by the new king-tyrant Kreon for having openly disobeyed his orders).

Realizing what has taken place in their past, Jocasta is understandably angry with Oedipus' short-sighted and obdurate search for the “truth”: “Oh no, listen to me, I beg you, don’t do this” (1168), as much as she is astounded by his stubborn and stupid inability to see the horrendous truth staring them both in the face: “You’re doomed—you may never fathom who you are!” (1173). She believes that the whole prophecy is a strongly-held “delusion” on Oedipus' part which he (and king Laius before him) have turned into a reality by their pig-headed and irrational efforts to prevent it from ever happening. Seizing upon Jocasta's quite astute views on the role of “false prophecy” in the play, two millennia later sociologist Robert Merton came up with his idea of a “self-fulfilling prophecy”—that is, a vague prediction that causes itself to come true mainly through the efforts of the characters involved to avoid its fulfillment by all means. British philosopher Karl Popper used Sophocles' Oedipus the King to develop his own idea of an “Oedipus effect,” which is the causal effect of any prediction upon the event predicted. For example, Karl Marx's prophecy that the universally enslaved, economically exploited, and politically oppressed working class (the “world proletariat”) will one day revolt against and overthrow its oppressor, bourgeois capitalism, has resulted in an “Oedipus effect”—namely, the proletariat's belief in and support for socialism and communism, as a consequence of this far-reaching Marxist prediction.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is the contrast between a character’s limited understanding of his or her situation in some particular moment of the unfolding dramatic action and what the audience, at the same instant, understands the character’s situation actually to be. There is a lot of dramatic irony in Oedipus the King. To begin with, Oedipus is elated to learn that king Polybus has died of old age, which seems to disprove the Delphic oracle's prophecy that Oedipus would one day kill his father. The dramatic irony here is that Polybus was, in fact, not his real father, but only an adoptive one. Another instance of dramatic irony is how desperate and heartbroken Oedipus becomes when he learns the long-sought truth about himself and his birth from the old shepherd (this kind of theatrical convention is sometimes called “emotional recall”). Instead of setting Oedipus free, the proverbial truth actually destroys him.

Much of the dramatic irony stems from a unique situation described by sociologist Robert Merton as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”—that is, a prediction that causes itself to come true mainly through the actions of the characters involved, who strongly believe in its validity and are trying to prevent its fulfillment by all possible means. Queen Jocasta, who is suspicious of [Apollo's] “underlings, his priests” (786) and openly mistrusts Tiresias-like “seers and all their revelations” (797), is absolutely right to believe that the prophecy is a strongly-held “delusion” on the part of Oedipus and king Laius before him, both of whom have turned this false prediction into a reality by their stubborn and irrational efforts to prevent it from ever happening. This whole tragedy would have never happened, had king Laius not been told that “doom would strike him down at the hands of a son, our son, to be born of our own flesh and blood” (787-788). As a result of him believing this prediction, king Laius had “a henchman fling him [his new-born son, Oedipus] on a barren, trackless mountain” (792-793). Later, Oedipus runs away from the royal palace of his adoptive parents, king Polybus and queen Merope of Corinth—scared by the nightmarish prediction of the Delphic oracle that one day he will kill his father and marry his mother. In fact, he did not know that Polybus and Merope were not his real parents until some drunken reveler blurted it out to him during a palace feast.

As a result of all these rash preventative measures, Oedipus arrives in Boeotia as a stranger fleeing from the prophecy, kills an elderly gentleman (who turns out to be his real father, king Laius) after a fender-bender incident on the road to Thebes, and then marries the widowed queen Jocasta (who turns out to be his mother), and even has four kids with her. Human error and folly, resulting from the defensive, if mindless behaviors of both king Laius and Oedipus, make what Jocasta calls a “false prophecy” come true, convincing playwright Sophocles (and his ancient Greek contemporaries) that the Delphic oracle's fallacious prediction must have been true all along. It is interesting that in the original Oedipus myth as told in Homer's Odyssey, king Oedipus remains on the throne in Thebes and lives a long and peaceful life after Jocasta's suicide.

Conclusion

Did Tiresias really believe that it would be better for everyone if truth were to remain undisclosed? Was he right? Jocasta similarly asks Oedipus to stop investigating his lineage. Is it always best to know the truth? Is it always best to share it with others? Is it always best for guilt to be made public? In marriage? In government? Likewise, is ignorance bliss? Is bliss the greatest good? For example, Tiresias admits that he knows the identity of king Laius' murderer, but he is understandably reluctant to reveal it publicly, knowing well that such a revelation would destroy Oedipus: “How terrible—to see the truth is only pain to him who sees!” (359-360). Jocasta also tries to stop Oedipus from continuing the investigation of his past: “Stop—in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search! My suffering is enough” (1163-1164), because she does not want public disgrace for herself and Oedipus, nor the shame and humiliation of having to confront their four children with the horrible news. Rather than disclose in public all that he knows, Tiresias pleads with Oedipus to leave it alone: “Just send me home. You bear your burdens, I'll bear mine. It's better that way, please believe me” (364-366). The blind old prophet does not seem to believe that it is always better for truth to be known: “I'd rather not cause pain for you or me” (378). He prefers that his knowledge of the truth be kept secret and not be shared with others: “I knew it well, but I put it from my mind” (361).

Even Jocasta advises Oedipus to keep their guilt only to themselves and continue their incestuous marital union for the sake of their self-preservation: “As for this marriage with your mother—have no fear. Many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother's bed. Take such things for shadows, nothing at all—Live, Oedipus, as if there is no tomorrow” (1073-1077). Her advice for him to “take such things for shadows, nothing at all” (an allusion to the famous solipsistic metaphor of a cave fire's shadows playing on the cave wall in Plato's Allegory of the Cave) suggests giving up all illusions by accepting life's uncertainties, deceptiveness, and seeming unreality. It was irrational and self-destructive for Oedipus not to heed his mother's wise advice. Truth could be equally destructive in marriage, especially if it concerns extramarital infidelity.

On the other hand, truth is indispensable in government, because truth is always the first casualty not just in war, but in government as well. As the late American journalist I. F. Stone used to tell his readers: “All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.” But how do you know when the mendacious men and women running our country are lying? Well, look at their lips: if their lips are moving, it means they are lying.... According to English poet Thomas Gray, “Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise.” Unlike George Orwell's paradoxical saying “War is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength,” Gray was probably talking about children, not adults. When adults are as ignorant as children, they are not different from children—exactly the way our political “leaders” in Washington want all of us to be! Because if the citizens remain ignorant, they will not question the power of the government, thus supposedly making our country “stronger.”

 

Works Cited

Puchner, Martin. “Sophocles,” in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014. pp. 89-92. Print.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King, in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014. pp. 93-134. Print.