Oedipus the King Essay Sample
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Introduction of TOPIC
Sophocles wrote “Oedipus the King,” which is often given in its Latin translation Oedipus Rex rather than its original Greek Oedipus Tyranneus, between 441-427 B.C.E. He wrote it for the annual festival, one of the major civic occasions in Athens, where there is competition for prizes between playwrights (Myth Man’s Homework Help Center 2003). Sophocles won the second prize for this play.
The story was in the setting of Thebes and contains the famous riddle of Sphinx, and the tragic story of murder, incest and consequences. It also presents concepts of fate, hubris, and irony.
The main characters of Oedipus the King are: Oedipus, central figure and the tragic hero of the play; Creon, the brother of Jocasta; Jocasta, Oedipus wife but later realized was his mother; Tieresias, the blind respectable prophet who told Oedipus about his fate; Corinthian messenger, who came to Oedipus to tell him the death of his father Polybus; and the Thebian shepherd, who revealed the final truth.
The story show the challenge of seeking the truth as Ancient Greek valued a lot the pursuit of knowledge and drama is just one of their ways to test and determine the knowledge and the truth. There is also character transformation of Oedipus where he was introduced in the play as prideful, heroic king, to a tyrant in denial, to a condemned man, and a humbled man in the end (Novelguide 2007).
Many people considered Oedipus the King to be the finest tragedy ever written, exceptionally well-written. Every character is essential part of the play. Every line is important. Even minor characters have important roles played. Sophocles created the illusion in the story that what happened in the play is fated as every oracle has already happened. The play also shows how Oedipus reacted and chose his decisions about the revelations of truth of how he fulfilled the oracle and did things against the laws of both man and gods (Muswell 2004).
The First Oracle
The story revolves around the fate of Oedipus. The first oracle is that the Laius son will kill him and sleep with her wife Jocasta. To prevent the oracle to happen, Laius and Jocasta agreed to kill the baby. The baby’s feet were pinioned and was given to their shepherd with their order to bring him and be killed on Mt Cithaeron. However, the slave gave the baby instead to a shepherd of Corinth on the other side of the mountain out of pity. The King of Corinth, Polybus, accepted the baby when the Corinthian shepherd gave him the baby. Since the king is childless, he brings the baby as his own child and gave him the name Oedipus, which means swollen feet, because of his deformity (Wilson 2007 & Watchung Hills Regional High School).
The Second Oracle
Oedipus went to Delphi to confirm his own origin at the oracle of Apollo when someone at a party called him a bastard. He learned that the oracle said he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He headed to the opposite direction to Corinth, the Thebes because he was afraid the oracle will be fulfilled accidentally. It is where he met an aggressive and rude old man driving a wagon followed by a group of slaves in a place where three roads meet. This old man ordered him to get off the road and when Oedipus refused the old man whip him with his goad. Oedipus killed the man and all the guards, and so he thought, and continued to Thebes (Wilson 2007 & Watchung Hills Regional High School).
These parts of the play show that despite the truth that the oracle or gods’ prediction of the future rarely falsify, the characters still try to fight and prevent the fulfillment of the prophecy. However, it seems that fate really has come to its partial fulfillment when at this time the prophecy that he will kill his father has happened.
The Riddle of the Sphinx
When he arrive there, a Sphinx terrorized Thebes, a hybrid creature with the body of a lioness, head of a woman, and wings, and kills all who cannot solve her riddle. When Oedipus was able to solved the riddle, he was considered as the hero of Thebes, put him as the ruler, and Thebes gave him Jocasta as an extra reward (Wilson 2007).
Sophocles did not go into the detail of the Sphinx’s riddle but some writers say that the riddle is this: “Which animal has one voice, but two, three or four feet being slowest on three?” In which, Oedipus answered with “Man” (Wilson 2007).
This part of the play proves the greatness of Oedipus in solving riddles, but later made him ignorant when he can’t solve and understand the riddle about his own origin.
The Third Oracle
After years, when Oedipus already has four children with Jocasta, there was a disease called vile plague which killed animals, children, and crops, a disease caused by pollution with sin and only the god can reveal its cause. And so Oedipus sent Creon, his brother-in-law, to consult the oracle at Delphi. The third oracle is that the plague is caused by an unpunished murder of Laius. Oedipus terribly cursed the killer of Laius and ask Teiresias, a respected prophet, to help him. Teiresias told him he was the killer but Oedipus did not believe him. What he believes is that Teiresias and Creon planned it to get his throne and power. Teiresias left with the threat of Oedipus while Creon tried to explain that he is innocent of what Oedipus is accusing him. If it wasn’t for Jocasta’s intervention just in time to stop the fight between Oedipus and Creon, Oedipus might have executed Creon (Wilson 2007 & Watchung Hills Regional High School).
Oedipus refusal to the truth is like blindness, as he cannot see
The Place where Three Roads Meet
When Jocasta heard that the quarrel was about an oracle, he told Oedipus that oracles are nonsense. She told him about the oracle they were once told that their son will kill its father. However, her husband Laius was killed by robbers at the place where three roads meet and the son died when he was a baby. Oedipus then remembers he has killed a man in that place. He started to think and fear what if that man was Laius, and he would be the cursed polluter of Thebes. Jocasta tried to convince him that it is not, and mentioned about the witness of the murder, a man who managed to escape. His thoughts and fears will only rest if he will be able to talk with that witnessed of Laius murder (Wilson 2007 & Watchung Hills Regional High School).
The Corinthian Messenger
He sent for the witness but who came was the messenger from Corinth. The messenger told Oedipus about the death of his father Polybus and that he will also be the King of Corinth. Oedipus of course did not want to come back to Corinth while his mother is alive because of the oracle. But the messenger said that he has nothing to fear about since she wasn’t her mother and Polybus is neither his father. He explained that a shepherd from Thebes brought him. In here, Jocasta already realized the truth that Oedipus is her son, but she immediately went out of the scene. Oedipus, haven’t fully realize the truth, just thought that Jocasta was just ashamed that her husband was a bastard and may even be a slave (Wilson 2007 & Watchung Hills Regional High School).
The Old Sheperd
The whole truth was revealed when finally the old Theban shepherd arrived, which turned out to be the same witnessed of Laius murder Jocasta mentioned. He was actually hesitant to tell Oedipus anything, but under the threat of torture he told him everything he knew. He reveals how the baby was given to him to be killed, and how he gave the baby to a Corinthian shepherd because of pity for the baby. When this truth finally revealed, Oedipus rushed to find Jocasta, but it was too late because she already hanged herself. Oedipus blinded himself with a pin from Jocasta’s dress. Creon became the ruler of Thebes. He ordered Oedipus into the house to await the disposal at the god’s pleasure after letting him say goodbye to his daughters. Oedipus, accepting the truth of his sins, insisted that he should be left to die on Cithaeron as what the gods originally intended to happen (Wilson 2007 & Watchung Hills Regional High School).
Sophocles gave a picture of blindness and fallibility of mankind through the story where he concentrated and devoted the greater part of the play to the discovery of the truth about the murder and the incest. He made Oedipus the author of the discovery of the truth and at the same time the unconscious agent in his own destruction. In the story, it is Oedipus who kept on carrying on the unraveling of the truth because he thinks it would benefit himself and his kingdom, taking every step that leads to the truth. But then when the truth was revealed, it was also when he realized the extent of his misguided undertakings (The Tragic of the Greeks 1896).
Even if you read the play many times all over again, you can always get something new out of it as it has a powerful theme of light versus dark, knowledge versus ignorance, truth versus illusion, and seeing versus blindness. One of the ironies shown in the play is that a blind prophet can see the truth and when the sighted man Oedipus realized the truth, he blinded himself so he cannot see the reality of his life (Muswell 2004).
There are ancient bases of the story Oedipus the King. Firstly, there is a religious message in the story which says that you can’t escape your fate (Wilson 2007).
Secondly, in the Greek law, Oedipus was not an innocent unlike in other laws such as that of Roman or English. The act counted more than the motive, this is what the Greek believe (Wilson 2007). Since he committed the crime, he still sinned and has to be punished even if he did not do it intentionally.
Thirdly, to help his friends and harm his enemies are in the duty of Greeks. Thus, the murder of Laius was not actually a crime of Oedipus. At that time they met at the place where three roads meet, Laius insulted Oedipus which makes him an enemy (Wilson 2007). However, this one seems to contradict the claim that what he did corrupted his innocence under the Greek law.
Fourthly, family is of great value to the Greek culture. What was shown in the story is the worst conceivable crime for Greeks — Oedipus killing his father; and the second worst is sleeping with his mother (Wilson 2007).
Fifthly, Oedipus is considered as the greatest of men and the solver of riddles. But can only solve the riddle which tells about his own origin and fate if shocking truth be revealled (Wilson 2007).
Lastly, there is a power of the curse. Oedipus cursed the murderer of Laius which seems to sentence himself (Wilson 2007). And as shown in the play, he punished himself by blinding himself and insisted that he might be left in the Cithaeron as that was the plan of the gods.
Oedipus is yet another flawed hero as he has lived in the ignorance of reality, quickness of his anger and conviction that his intents were right to reveal the truth he can’t ignore. Yet Oedipus is still a good man since his intention is for the betterment of the people in kingdom, to be freed of the plague, which he did not know he actually caused of (Muswell 2004). It is a tragic as his loyalty to Thebes, fidelity to the truth, excessive pride, and self-righteousness ruin him.
What happened to Oedipus, the tragic hero, serves as an example to the audience of what will happen to a great man when he fall because of his arrogance in their social or political position. It serves to teach the audience that whatever they do, they will suffer the consequences, as Oedipus did.
The play also show the importance of understanding and wisdom which go beyond the visual things. Sophocles used the blindness of Teiresias, Jocasta, and Oedipus. Teiresias was technically blind, but he can see the truth. Jocasta’s blindness is shown in the event that she doesn’t believe in the power of oracles. She was blinded by her free will not to accept the truth the Oedipus was her son (BookRags 2006).
On the other hand, Sophocles used Oedipus blindness in revealing the importance of understanding that comes with responsibility. He came close to the truth and yet failed to realize it’s already in front of him (BookRags 2006).
Religion also played an important role in the structure of the play where Oedipus was told he was destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. He thought he could change his own fate and do not leave it all up to the gods. With his lack of belief to gods, his kingdom was affected by the devastation caused by gods as punishment for the offense. Oedipus put aside the religion and believed only to himself.
But we can also see one of Sophocles purpose of his play, which is to let people see the hero inside despite of his downfall. In this case, after Oedipus learned the truth, he accepted it even chose to be punished by the laws of gods and the laws he made.
This is a very good and enlightening play that people should take time to read or watch. It shows many moral lessons from the rule of fate, ignorance, understanding, wisdom, and the destructive power of pride.
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“Oedipus Rex.” The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896: 188-91.
“Oedipus the King.” 2003. Myth Man’s Homework Help Center, Thanasi’s Olympus Greek Restaurant. 25 November 2007 < http://thanasis.com/oedipus.htm>.
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“Oedipus The King by Sophocles.” Watchung Hills Regional High School. 26 November 2007 < http://www.whrhs.org/faculty%5Fweb/rhanft/OedipusTheKingL-levelreadingguide.cfm>.
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