Free Study Guide for Oedipus the King by Sophocles

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Major Theme

The major theme explored in Oedipus Rex is that fate and character are intertwined. Oedipus is not only fated to perform such detestable acts but his very behavior (which leads him to doing these) determines his fate. The crimes that he committed against his father and mother were repugnant but not as detestable as that of ignoring the very signs, which could have averted the tragedy. By not paying heed to the oracle or following up on the rumors about his heritage, Oedipus set into motion the fate that was ordained him. His presumption and arrogance about who he was lead to his fall. Sophocles believed that humans have free will yet they are limited by a larger order that controls all things. By going against the larger cosmic order, Oedipus’ fate was determined. Ultimately, it is Oedipus who chooses his path, the one of ignorance rather than clarity, and in doing so, he must take responsibility for his actions.

Minor Theme

A minor theme is that of self-knowledge as being a key to understanding one’s place in the universe. It is only through Oedipus’ inquiry into his heritage that he discovers the painful truth of who he is and what it means to be human. Although he must abdicate the throne, abandon his family, and destroy his family as well as his sight, Oedipus is given the insight of self-knowledge. His blindness therefore becomes ironic as it is only when he loses his sight that he actually gains the insight into himself he did not have before.


The mood of the play from the beginning to the end is of devastation, destruction and gloom. The play opens with Thebes suffering from a severe plague due to an unresolved murder. This mood of suffering and pollution is emphasized as the play proceeds. That the whole kingdom must suffer for the sins of one man reveals how dynamic the universe in Greek tragedy is. Everything is interconnected and vindication must be sought in order for the kingdom to regain its normalcy. The suffering which begins as a phenomenon in the kingdom eventually concentrates on the pain and suffering of the royal family.

The Greeks did not permit comic interludes in tragedies, as they would dilute the effect of the tragedy. In such a case, the ultimate aim of a tragedy, that being catharsis, would become impossible. Therefore, even in Oedipus, there are no comic scenes. The somber, sad, and disturbed mood dominates the entire play.

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Oedipus Rex / Oedipus the King Free BookNotes Summary
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