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Free Study Guide for Oedipus the King by Sophocles

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OVERALL ANALYSIS


CHARACTER ANALYSIS


Major Characters


Oedipus

Oedipus, the protagonist of this classical tragedy, is a character ruled by fate and conflict. Oedipus is destined to kill his father and marry his own mother. As this fact comes to light, his father Laius, the king of Thebes, orders a shepherd to kill the infant. The shepherd instead hands him over to the shepherd of the neighboring kingdom of Corinth. The Corinthian shepherd gives the child to his childless king. The queen and king of Corinth raise Oedipus as their own child.

A young Oedipus hears about his dreadful fate from the Delphic oracle and flees from Corinth. But instead of fleeing from his fate he runs into it when he kills Laius in an altercation at a crossroads. Later he saves Thebes from the riddle of the Sphinx and marries the widowed queen Jocasta who in reality is his own mother.

Oedipus’ character is controlled by his fate yet at the same time his impetuous and short-tempered nature contributes to his fate. Oedipus possesses the impulse and intelligence to unravel and solve every mystery. It is this very impulse which takes him to Delphi to seek the truth about his parentage yet rather than face his fate, he attempts to run from it, thereby defying the Gods. It is also his impetuous and short-tempered nature that lands him in a fight with Laius at the crossroads. The consequence is that he kills Laius. Oedipus has killed his father and the first part of the oracle is fulfilled. Fate has played its trick assisted by the very nature of Oedipus.

The impulse to solve the riddle of Sphinx brings him to Thebes where he ends up marrying the widow queen Jocasta. By marrying his own mother, the second part of the oracle is also fulfilled, aided by Oedipus’ nature.

Apart from his eagerness to solve riddles, Oedipus makes some grave judgmental errors. He very quickly blames Creon for conspiring against him and does not even hesitate in calling the great prophet Tiresias, a traitor. As a result, he fails to heed Tiresias’ advice and warning (Tiresias warns him against the consequences of the investigation.) Oedipus is obsessed with solving this particular riddle, it his nature and he cannot go against it.

Finally, it is the same impulse to solve the mystery of Laius’ death and his own birth which makes Oedipus continue the investigations despite advice from both Tiresias and Jocasta to stop. The result is the ultimate tragedy as Oedipus realizes the truth of his wretched existence.

Oedipus is an intelligent man, an ideal king and a genuinely good human being. He has all the qualities of a great man, but he carries the seeds of his destruction within himself. His impulsive and short-tempered nature along with fate determines his downfall.

Oedipus’ character is typical of the protagonists of Greek tragedies. In Greek tragedies the protagonist was supposed to be a royal person, almost perfect, but the perfection was restricted by hamartia, a character flaw in the protagonist, which determined his downfall. Oedipus is a proud figure who does not take advice well. He is arrogant as when denouncing Tiresias’ prophetic capabilities, but he is also fearless as he does not back down from his quest although he fears the worst. Despite his flaws, Oedipus is a good person who seeks the truth no matter how devastating. With the realization of who he is also comes a newfound acceptance of being fallible and accepting responsibility for his actions. At the end of the play, Oedipus accepts his fate as well as the punishment meted out to him and thereby becomes a greater hero.

Jocasta

Jocasta is the queen of Thebes and wife of Oedipus. She is also Oedipus’ mother but in her ignorance of this fact she marries him and even bears four children.

Jocasta’s character is introduced in the play when there is a confrontation between Oedipus and Creon in the second episode. She rebukes both men for fighting in public and persuades them to act rationally. Thus, from the beginning she comes across as a strong woman. She is a woman who is ready to speak out her mind and attempts to pacify conflict.

Her character is presented as that of a person who does not hesitate to shake off the hold of traditional beliefs. She very openly expresses her disbelief in prophecies and divine oracles. She says that she has not seen any of them fulfilled, therefore she does not trust them. She is the skeptic who brings in a sense of suspicion of the divine oracles. Her character is used by Sophocles to explore the theme of the power of the oracles. Sophocles thought that the cosmos was ruled by a divine order and those who defied its order were condemned to be struck down. In defying the oracles, Jocasta is contributing to the downfall of the ruling family of Thebes. Her actions therefore are partly responsible for Oedipus’ fall.

Jocasta is not as impetuous as Oedipus is. Oedipus lets every situation control him. Jocasta, on the other hand, appears as a person who would rather control the situation. She reveals that she is more mature than Oedipus and even reveals a maternal side towards him. This is evident in the way she tries to stop Oedipus from investigating further into the mystery of his birth. At this point, she has realized the possibility that Oedipus may be her son. She would rather let the dreadful fact remain a mystery then let it ruin their lives.

Jocasta is presented as a good queen, a loving wife and a highly individualistic person yet she too has her flaws. She becomes the victim of a terrible duality. She is a ‘mother-wife’ to Oedipus. This very duality of her situation is the cause of her death. The entwined sheets with which she hangs herself symbolize the double life she has led.

This character, marked by conflict and ultimate tragedy, evokes a deep sympathy from the audience.

Creon

Creon is Jocasta’s brother and a loyal Theban citizen. His character epitomizes the nationalistic and patriotic sentiments of the ancient Greek society. Creon is completely dedicated to his city-state and also to his king Oedipus. He is rational, honest, and logical. These aspects of his character come to light when he has a confrontation with Oedipus. Oedipus blames him on conspiracy to gain kingship and Creon replies,

“A man of sense was never yet a traitor, I have no taste for that, nor could I force Myself to aid another’s treachery.”

This reply also highlights the integrity of his character. In this scene he demonstrates his rational nature. It also depicts his brilliant ability to persuade, which is in sharp contrast to Oedipus’ impulsive and stubborn nature. Thus, Creon serves as an effective foil to the protagonist.

Creon’s profound understanding of statehood and his ideals about a good leadership are revealed in the second section. This lends more credibility to his character as a learned nobleman of Thebes.

He is a fearless citizen, who does not hesitate to question the king’s impulsive allegations. He stands up for himself and argues for it even with the king. He treasures his integrity of character and his loyalty above everything else.

Another important aspect of Creon’s personality is revealed in the last scene of the final episode. He forgives Oedipus, the man who has censured him. When Oedipus pleads that Creon should banish him from Thebes, Creon exhibits his prudence. He says that he is not the type to act on impulse and without the advice of gods. He shows his faith and respect for divine laws. He is kind to Oedipus and thoughtful enough to bring his daughters to him. He is obviously aware of the fact that Oedipus loves them very much and needs them in his hour of extreme distress. Oedipus is touched by Creon’s supreme nature. He trusts him enough to leave his daughters in his charge when he will leave Thebes.

Finally, Creon emerges as a wiser man who has learnt much from the tragedy of Oedipus.


Tiresias

Tiresias is a major character in many of Sophocles’ tragedies. He is the old seer of Thebes who has been given immortality. In Oedipus, he is the only man who is aware of the fact that Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother. He is a man of great learning and self-respect. He retorts back in anger when Oedipus calls him a traitor and a villain. He warns Oedipus to be careful, as he himself will be responsible for his own ruin.

In Sophoclean tragedies, Tiresias represents ancient wisdom and knowledge. He is endowed with immortality that symbolizes the eternal nature of wisdom and knowledge. Through him, Sophocles states the point that the individual who fails to recognize this knowledge and respect the wisdom will ultimately come to a tragic end like Oedipus.

Tiresias also represents the people’s faith in divine laws. He is the seer and like the Delphic oracle is viewed skeptically by Jocasta. But ultimately, the faith in him and the oracle is reaffirmed as the tragedy reaches its conclusion.

Tiresias is more than human as he can look into the future. Sophocles uses this character to explore Oedipus’ character flaws. In the dialogue between Tiresias and Oedipus, Oedipus is revealed to be obstinate, short-tempered and impervious to the truth as when Tiresias tells him that “you blame my temper but you do not see that which lives within you.” Throughout this scene, Tiresias reveals the truth of what’s causing the plague and Oedipus refuses to listen. He is only enamored with his own perceptions.


Minor Characters

The Corinthian shepherd and the Theban shepherd are two important minor characters in the play. Both these shepherds are presented as being kindhearted in attempting to shield Oedipus from the truth. Although they save Oedipus in infancy, they also aid in helping bring his fate into being.

Later in the play these very people hold the key to the mystery of Oedipus’ birth and they help the tragedy reach its climax. They are important symbols of Oedipus’ origins and it is through them and not family members that he understands where he has come from.


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