, Research Paper
Oedipus the King is perhaps one of the most famous and influential of Sophocles’ plays. It is a tragic play which focuses on the discovery by Oedipus that he has killed his father and married his mother. On the surface of this drama there is, without a doubt, a tone of disillusionment.
Throughout the play we find that Oedipus, the protagonist of this Greek tragedy, is tested by life in a number of ways. To those in Athens who watched the performance of Oedipus the King, Oedipus appeared to be the embodiment of a perfect Athenian. He is self-confident, intelligent, and strong-willed. Ironically, these are the very traits which bring about his tragic discovery. He is portrayed as a character of social conscience whose tragedy stresses the vulnerability of human beings whose suffering is brought on by a combination of human and divine actions.
Oedipus was often looked upon as exceptional rather than typical; a prominent man brought from happiness to misery. His character’s stature is important because it makes his fall all the more horrific. In today’s world, newscasts are filled with daily reports of tragedies, such as a child being struck and killed by a car; an airplane crash; or a devastating fire. A literary tragedy presents courageous individuals who confront powerful forces within or outside themselves with a dignity that reveals the depth of the human spirit in the face of failure, defeat, and even death.
It is said that a man should never consider himself fortunate unless he can look back on his life and remember that life without pain. For Oedipus, looking back is impossible to do without pain. This pain stems from his prideful life. Oedipus is aware that he alone is responsible for his actions. Oedipus freely chooses to pursue and accept his own life’s destruction. Even though fate victimizes Oedipus, he is a tragic figure since his own heroic qualities, his loyalty to Thebes, and his fidelity to the truth ruin him. Oedipus’ pride derives from his own heroic qualities and, ironically, ruins him.
A hero prizes above all else his honor and the excellence of his life. When his honor is at stake, all other considerations become irrelevant. A hero values strength and skill, courage and determination, for these attributes enable the person who possesses them to achieve glory and honor, both in his lifetime and after he dies. Oedipus was certainly a hero who was exceptionally intelligent though one can argue that killing four men single-handedly, on his way to Delphi, more than qualified him as a physical force of reckoning.
He obviously knew his heroic status when he greeted the citizens of Thebes before the palace doors saying, “I thought it wrong, my children, to hear the truth / from others, messengers. Here I am myself- / you all know me, the world knows of my fame: / I am Oedipus.” (ll. 6-9) In this such passage, Oedipus proves that he is guilty of hubris, being too sure of himself, too confident in his own powers, and a little under mindful of the gods.
If we examine his quest for identity, it becomes quite apparent that the sequence of events are quite coincidental. First, he summons Tiresias to name the killer, whom Oedipus does not at the time believe to be himself. Second, the tragic hero emerges as anything but a social person. He may begin motivated by a genuine desire to help the people, but what emerges throughout is different. “But not to assist some distant kinsman, no, / for my own sake I’ll rid us of this corruption. / Whoever killed the king may decide to kill me too, / with the same violent hand – by avenging Laius / I defend myself.” (ll. 156 – 160). Here, it becomes plain to see that Oedipus is actually far more concerned with his own sense of self and demands for justice on his terms, than in compromising his desires like any other true leader would.
Oedipus, a hero of superior intelligence, also displays an uncompromising attitude in his loyalty to Thebes. This is another factor that led to the tragic figure’s ruin. The story of Oedipus fascinates us because of the spectacle of a man freely choosing, from the highest motives, a series of actions which lead to his ruin. Oedipus could leave the city of Thebes and let the plague take its course, but pity for the sufferings of his people and the fear for his own life compelled him to consult Delphi.
When Creon returns and bring back Apollo’s word, he could leave the murder of Laius uninvestigated, but pride and justice cause him to act. Oedipus cannot let a murder investigation go by without solving the riddle of who killed King Laius because his pride overpowers him. Oedipus’ pride reveals itself again in his loyalty to the truth. Oedipus’ constant struggle to discover the truth ruined him most in the end. Even though he is warned many times to stop seeking the truth, he continues his search.
Oedipus has to choose between his doom and an alternative, which if accepted would betray the hero’s own conception of himself, his rights, his duties. In the end, the hero refused to yield. He remains true to himself. Therefore, one can see Oedipus’ need to uncover the truth about Laius and then about himself as proof of his commitment to uphold his own nature.
Oedipus’ quest for the truth fits his self image as a man of action, the revealer of truth, and the solver of riddles. He doesn’t seem to realize the personal consequences his hunt will have for him. It appears to me as though his loyalty to the truth is based upon his ignorance of it. He cannot live with a lie, and therefore must learn the truth behind the illusion he has lived for so long. Tiresias, Jocasta, and the herdsman all try to stop Oedipus, but he must reveal the answer to the last riddle, that of his own life. As the truth unfolds, the people of Thebes see Oedipus as prideful and arrogant, and they call on Zeus to correct his pride. The hero’s conscious choice to pursue and accept his doom makes him a tragic figure. Oedipus single-handedly ruined his own life through his overweening pride. He let his pride as a hero, a loyal King, and a truth seeker stand in the way of a life full of happiness. This turned him into a tragic figure. He is a victim of fate, but not a puppet because he freely sought his doom though warned not to pursue it. Fate may have determined his past actions, but what he did at Thebes he did as a free individual. It was his own choice to kill the men on his way to Delphi, his own choice to seek an answer to heal his people and save himself, and his own choice to learn the truth.
Oedipus claimed full responsibility, as any hero would, when the chorus asked, “What superhuman power drove you on?” (l. 1466). “…the hand that struck my eyes was mine, / mine alone – no one else – / I did it all myself!” (ll. 1469 – 1471) was his response.
Sophocles ends this tragic story by warning his audience not to take anything for granted or they will suffer like Oedipus, a lesson many should heed. In my own theory about Oedipus the King, I see a righteous man with a good heart and good intentions. However, by seeking justice in the truth, he faces devastation and is destroyed by his own pride. Therefore, it’s pity that is felt as a result, because at some level, his fate could be our own. This tragedy reminds us that even the bravest, those known throughout the world for their knowledge, are doomed if they set themselves up against the mystery of life itself, and if they try to force life to answer them, they may very well self-destruct as Oedipus had.