Free Study Guide for Oedipus the King by Sophocles|
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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.
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 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 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
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.
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
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.
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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