How Does Oedipus See Himself?
Oedipus is a prominent character in two of Sophocles’ three plays about him and his family.
The plays were written over a thirty-six-year span of the playwright’s career, and while they concern events surrounding Oedipus and his family, they are not truly chronological. Sophocles never intended the plays, known as the Theban Plays, to be taken as a package.
They were written at various times throughout his career and were, in fact, written out of chronological order. The plays were written as Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus, and Oedipus Rex. The plays’ chronological order is reversed, and they are most often read in order as Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.
Oedipus The King- A Heroic Beginning
Oedipus Rex opens with Thebes suffering terribly under a plague. Victims are dying. Crops are rotting in the fields. Even the cattle are succumbing to this terrible disease. It is as if the gods have cursed the land, and nothing can save Thebes. The people come to Oedipus, their heroic king, and beg him for his help. They beg him to intervene for them with the gods and stop the plague that is destroying their land.
Oedipus is sympathetic and assures his people that he will do all they can to rid them of this plague. In desperation, he sends his brother-in-law, Creon, to Delphi, to the oracle there, to seek answers for the cause of the plague that is decimating the land.
Creon returns with the news that a murderer is being harboured in Thebes, that Laius’ killer has not been brought to justice, and therefore the land is under the curse of the gods. Without knowing any details of how Laius’ died, Oedipus declares that the murderer will be found and punished. He is willing to pursue the truth to the very end to rescue his people from their fate. There is a mystery surrounding the former king’s death, and Oedipus vows to solve it.
Know Thyself- Advice and a Warning
Inscribed into the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is an admonition- “Know Thyself.” The innocuous warning seems quite tame until Oedipus begins searching for the truth surrounding Laius’ death. At the beginning of the play, when he is seeking a solution for his beleaguered people, Oedipus considers himself, as most do, a great Hero.
He came to Thebes to escape a prophecy that predicted he would murder his own father and take his own mother as his wife. Having heard the prophecy, he fled from Corinth to Thebes, considering if he was not living near his parents, he could never carry out the terrible prediction.
As Oedipus begins seeking answers, he learns things that begin to reveal a terrible truth. The first challenge comes in the form of the blind prophet, Tiresias. At first, the priest refuses to speak. When threatened and insulted, he tells Oedipus that he is seeking himself, a cryptic warning that Oedipus rejects. The king begins to believe that Tiresias is either addled with age, a fool, or is in cahoots with his brother-in-law, Creon, to take the throne. He confronts Creon upon his return to Thebes, and the men get into a shouting match loud enough to bring Oedipus’ wife, Jocasta, in to split it up.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Prophecy?
Upon hearing the words of the prophet and the news from Creon, Jocasta scoffs, saying that Oedipus should pay no mind. She uses Laius’s own death as an example, pointing out that he was meant to die at his own son’s hand. Since Laius died in a robbery along the road to the temple, she does not believe it possible that his own offspring killed him. She mentions that the robbers were “not even natives” but foreigners. The prophecy didn’t come true because Laius, in her mind, was murdered by strangers.
As she recounts some of the tragedy’s details, Oedipus grows quiet and grim, then begins to be panicked. He demands to know more detail surrounding Laius’ death and the infant son Jocasta and Laius abandoned to die.
He brought the servant to the castle when Laius died, but there is little more the man can tell him. He then calls for the shepherd that Jocastra gave the infant to. The man is reluctant to reveal what he knows, but under threat of torture and death, he reveals that he took pity on the child and delivered it away to Corinth, to be raised there by the King and Queen.
Oedipus, upon realizing the import of the shepherd’s words, recognizes the awful truth. He was the infant who was given to the king. At first, he seeks the truth, believing he must have been a slave’s child, given away as a foundling, but the shepherd confirms his worst fears- the child that was given to the King and Queen of Corinth was in fact the child of the palace, of Laius and Jocasta. He himself murdered Laius on the road and continued to Thebes to defeat the Sphinx and marry Jocasta, taking his father’s place as king. Oedipus’ view of himself takes such a drastic turn at this point that he flees from the throne room, intending perhaps to take his own life.
Jocasta put the pieces together before Oedipus, and while he was finding the last of the puzzle, she had fled to their bedroom and hung herself there. Upon finding his wife/mother dead, Oedipus takes the pins from her dress and blinds himself. He begs Creon to banish him, spare his children the shame of their father’s horror, but Creon refuses, sending to the oracle to learn his fate. The play ends with Oedipus left a broken man, handing his kingdom over to Creon.
Oedipus’ Tragic Redemption
In Oedipus at Colonus, Thebes is once more in chaos. Oedipus’ two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, are battling for the throne. Oedipus hopes to restore peace by fulfilling one final prophecy. Apollo has revealed to him that he will die in a place sacred to the Furies and be a blessing to the place where he is buried. Oedipus has traveled to Athens to appeal to the king Theseus to protect his daughters from their warring brothers’ foolishness and to allow him to be buried there. He informs Theseus that his burial ground will protect Athens in an upcoming war with Thebes.
At the end of his life, Oedipus finally recognizes that a selfless sacrifice can only redeem his tragedies. Everything else he has done has gone awry because he set himself against the gods and attempted to deflect the prophecies. In the final play, while he claims no moral responsibility for his crimes, he embraces the final prophecy and seeks to fulfill it in a way that will bring about peace and justice for his people.
While Colonus contains less action and drama than Oedipus Rex, the philosophy and discussion of how the events of Oedipus’ life came about are stronger and more detailed. Oedipus convinces Theseus to defend his loyal daughters against Creon, who tries to use them, and him to stop the fight between the brothers. In the end, Oedipus’ death is a near super-natural event, with him vanishing from the king and his attendants’ very sight. Though the daughters long to see the place their father is buried with him, but Theseus refuses, reminding them that Oedipus himself wished his burial place to be secret so that the gods would look with favor upon the people. The sisters return home to face Antigone’s events, as the final curses on Oedipus’ family are finally laid to rest.
Throughout the plays, Oedipus exhibits a strong moral sense. When told that he will murder his father and defile his mother, he does everything he can to escape the fate laid out before him. His fierce pride and sense of right and wrong drive him to try to defy the gods, who have appointed him as the instrument of punishment for his father, Laius. It is not until he has fulfilled the prophecy against him that Oedipus realizes he cannot circumvent the gods’ will, and in the end, he seeks a meaningful end to his life.
Even at the very end of his life, Oedipus can be said to suffer from hubris, though he is a much humbler man at the final hours of his life than he was as a young, brash Hero. He believed that he could save his people from the plague, having defeated the Sphinx and her riddle. The very victory that carried him to glory and earned him the title of king was his downfall. Becoming king, and taking the queen as his wife, fulfilled the prophecy. Even as a Hero, he couldn’t escape the will of the gods, and Oedipus died a sadder and humbler man.