SOPHOCLES: Oedipus the King
- “While Thebes was under the rule of Laïus and Jocasta there appeared a strange and monstrous creature, “the riddling Sphinx,” “the She-Wolf of the woven song,” who in some unexplained way sang riddles of death and slew the people of Thebes. Laïus went to ask aid of the oracle of Delphi, but was slain mysteriously on the road. Soon afterwards there came to Thebes a young Prince of Corinth, Oedipus, who had left his home and was wandering. He faced the Sphinx and read her riddle, whereupon she flung herself from her rock and died. The throne being vacant was offered to Oedipus, and with it the hand of the Queen, Jocasta.
- Some ten or twelve years afterwards a pestilence has fallen on Thebes. At this point the play begins.
- The date of the first production of the play is not known, but was probably about the year 425 B.C.”
- A crowd of suppliants wait by the altar outside of Oedipus’ palace. Oedipus exits the palace and asks them what they desire.
- The Priest of Zeus responds that a plague has fallen upon the people – crops won’t grow, women are barren, and people are dying of sickness. He asks Oedipus to find some kind of defense for them. They seek Oedipus’ assistance because he saved the city in former times from the Sphinx.
- Oedipus knows everyone is sick. He is more sick than any of them because his soul grieves for everyone. He has already sent his relative Creon to the oracle of Apollo to discover how they can protect the city. He is worried because Creon has been gone longer than what is sufficient. But he promises the suppliants to strictly follow the Oracle.
- Creon appears on stage and tells them the good news that the plague will be removed when the city banishes or kills the man who killed the former king named Laius. He tells Oedipus that Laius was killed on a journey to Delphi. One of Laius’ companions escaped and told the people of the city that robbers set upon them. Creon says that the city did not pursue these robbers because the city was afflicted by the Sphinx.
- Oedipus vows to avenge Laius. He orders anyone who has knowledge about the murderers of Laius to disclose it to him. He also promises that the murderers need not be afraid of coming forth and denouncing themselves because he will only banish them, unhurt. He prays that the murderers live an unblessed life full of misery, even though the murderer may be a person of his household. He will pursue this case as if Laius was his own father. He is connected to Laius because Oedipus married his widow, who bore Oedipus’ children.
- The chorus suggests that they ask Teiresias, a seer, who is Laius’ murderer. Oedipus has already sent for him.
- Teiresias, the blind seer, enters the scene. He is reluctant to disclose what he knows. He laments how terrible it is to possess wisdom when it does not benefit him, but grieves him.
- Oedipus becomes angry because of the seer’s reluctance to disclose the identity of the murderer. He accuses Teiresias of aiding the murderers. Teiresias finally discloses that the murderer is Oedipus. T also asserts that Oedipus has been living in unknown shame with his “closest kin.” Oedipus suspects that Creon persuaded T to denounce Oedipus in order to gain the throne. T denies the accusation.
- Oedipus asks T when he has proved himself to be a seer. When the Sphinx afflicted the city should have solved the riddle, but he didn’t. Oedipus solved it.
- T asks Oed if he knows who his parents are. T insinuates that Oed killed his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta. T says that Oed is blind to his own shame, but will soon see, and then he will be blinded again, this time by his own hand. Oed will be the most miserable man to ever live.
- Oed thinks that his talent in unraveling riddles (that of the Sphinx) makes him great. T states that Oed’s presumed talent is the cause of his downfall (Oed misinterpreted the riddle that predicted he would kill his father and marry his mother).
- Creon enters the scene in indignation because Oed accused him of treason. He denies the accusations. Oed questions him about the murder of Laius. He asks Creon why T never said that Oed killed Laius until now, since T was a seer when Laius was slain.
- Creon is third in line to the throne. He explains to Oed that he does not wish to be king because he lives as one now without the troubles which accompany the title – such as the care of the state and the necessity of doing things against one’s own morals.
- Oed stubbornly threatens to execute Creon, but Jocasts arrives on scene. She chastises both Oed and Creon for bickering. She and the chorus persuade Oed to free Creon. Oed reluctantly does so, believing that Creon will either kill or banish him now that he is free.
- Oed tells Jocasta that he believes Creon persuaded T to accuse Oed of killing Laius. She assures him that mortal do not have prophetic talents; she tells him that an oracle told her and Laius that Laius would be killed by his own son born to himself and Jocasta. Jocasta and Laius pinned their son’s ankles together and exposed him on a mountain to die when he was only three days old. Thus the oracle lied because Laius was killed by foreign robbers.
- Upon hearing Jocasta’s story, Oed becomes anxious. He killed a man where three roads meet in Phocis – a man that matches the exact description of Laius and his train of followers. One of Laius’ men escaped and returned to Thebes, but when he learned that Oed was king, the man begged Jocasta to allow him to live in the fields and tend to flocks in a pasture far away from the city. She granted him his request.
- Oed sends for the man to appear before him. Oed recounts how a man accused him of not being the son of his parents in Corinth. This rumor troubled his mind, so he went to the oracle at Delphi. The oracle did not tell him who his parents were, but prophesied that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oed left Corinth, hoping to avoid that fate because he thought his true parents were those in Corinth.
- At the meeting of the three roads, Laius and his companions tried to thrust Oed from the road. Oed angrily struck the driver. Laius then struck Oed, who then slew everyone in Laius’ carriage except one man.
- Yet Oed still has hope because he heard that a group of robbers, not one man, killed Laius. Oed exits.
- A messenger appears and tells Jocasta that Oed’s father in Corinth, named Polybus, recently died and left him in possession of the kingdom. Jocasta is ecstatic upon hearing the news because she believes that the oracles that proclaimed Oed would murder his father have been discredited.
- Oed believes that this proves the oracles wrong, despite the possibility that Polybus died out of longing for Oed, but Oed doesn’t believe this was true. Polybus simply died from sickness and age. Yet he still fears that he might sleep in his mother’s bed.
- Jocasta tells him that man should not fear anything because the decrees of Fate are supreme – what will be will be regardless of our contrary efforts and fears. “It is best to live at random.”
- The messenger overhears their discussion of the oracle and assures Oed that he has nothing to fear in Corinth because his parents were his adoptive parents. The messenger himself found Oed and gave him to Polybus. He tells Oed that Oed’s ankles were pinned together when another shepherd gave Oed to him. The shepherd belonged to the Laius household. The shepherd is the man who escaped the bloodbath at the meeting of the 3 roads in Phocis, and the one whom Oed has already sent for.
- Jocasta tells Oed to disregard this messenger and the shepherd he sent for. But Oed wants to know for certainty. Jocasta begs him to cease his investigation. Oed says that he will discover the truth though he be found to be the son of a slave (which he thinks is the worst that could happen). Jocasta rushes into the palace in anguish.
- The shepherd enters the scene. The messenger from Corinth begins to question him about their past. The shepherd initially pretends not to know who the messenger is, and is reluctant to answer questions about the infant he gave to him. The shepherd shouts at the messenger to be silent. Oed orders his men to tie the shepherd’s hands, and threatens to torture the servant if he will not speak. The shepherd informs Oed that he received the infant Oed from Jocasta and was told do expose it on a mountain to die so that the prophecy which foretold that the baby would kill Laius would not be fulfilled. However, the shepherd did not expose the baby because he pitied him. Oed rushes into the palace in shock and distress.
- A messenger emerges from the palace and informs the chorus that Jocasta hung herself. Oed found her body, placed it on the floor, removed the brooches that she was wearing, and struck out his own eyes, vowing never to allow himself to see the horrors that he performed and now suffers under.
- Oed emerges from the Palace. He tells the chorus that he plucked out his eyes because sight showed him nothing sweet. He asks one of them to lead him away from Thebes. Oed wishes that the shepherd had exposed him on the mountain rather than live to see this day. The chorus agrees that it would have been better had Oedipus been killed as an infant.
- Creon enters the scene. He says that he will await the oracle’s advice before deciding Oed’s fate. He says Oed will now surely put faith into the god.
- Oed desires to be banished from the city forever. He believes that neither sickness nor anything else will kill him; he is doomed to suffer something strange. But now he is content to let his fate go where it will rather than fight against it like he did in the past. He does not ask Creon to care for his sons because they are men and can fend for themselves, but he does request that Creon care for his daughters. Oed also desires to hold his daughters one last time. Creon grants his wish. Ismene and Antigone enter the scene.
- Oed laments over his children their fate. No man would risk the reproaches of marrying the girls born of incest. Men will taunt them for their entire lives. Creon tells Oed that he must now go. Oedipus reluctantly leaves his daughters.
“It is better to be lord of men than of a wasteland. Neither walled town nor ship is anything if no man dwells within.”
“When a man does not shrink from a deed, he is not scared by a word.”
“Man’s noblest task is to help others to the best of his means and powers.”
“How terrible it is to have wisdom when it does not benefit those who have it.”
“Since it must come anyway, it is right that you tell me.”
“Alas, generation of mortals, how mere a shadow I count your life!”
“We must call no mortal happy until he has crossed life’s border free from pain.”
The Priest of Zeus argues that nothing is important if it is not inhabited or used by mankind. He says “it is better to be the king of men than of a wasteland. Neither a fortress nor a ship is anything if no man dwells within or uses it.”
The Oracle advocates either banishing the man who killed (King) or killing him in retaliation for the crime. This is a penalty in accordance with the principle of lex talianus, which was explored in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. The gods bid them to take vengeance on the murderer of Laius as they bid Orestes take vengeance upon Clytemnestra. Will the people be absolved like Orestes form the crime of murder?
Themes: Fate and Free Will, Wisdom and Knowledge, Determination, Power, Memory and the Past
- Do some characters seem to control their fates more than others? If so, how do they do it? I think that this question is flawed. By definition, one cannot control one’s fate – if there is such a thing as fate – because fate implies that the events of a person’s life are predetermined and immutable.
- Discuss Oedipus’s understanding of his own destiny. How does this change throughout the course of this play? Initially, Oedipus believes that he can avoid his destiny. He leaves Corinth with the intention of distancing himself from his supposed father and mother so that he does not kill his father and marry his mother. But by trying to avoid his fate, he is contributing to its fulfillment. He meets his true follower after leaving Corinth, and kills his father in an act of ancient road rage. After he realizes that the oracle which prophesied his fate has been fulfilled he accepts whatever future fate the gods have ordained for him, though he harbors an intense loathing for the gods. It is interesting that he loathes the gods, but accepts his fate, which is ordained by the three Fates, goddesses in their own right. I think these feelings are not necessarily contrary. Oedipus hates the gods because they have inflicted suffering upon him, but he accepts his fate because it is inevitable. He realizes the futility in resisting his fate, but that doesn’t mean that he must like or worship the gods who ordained that fate.
- How does Oedipus’s fate impact the fates of other members of his family? All members of Oedipus’ family are impacted by his fate. Besides the obvious consequences that affect Jocasta and Laius, Oedipus’ children are also detrimentally affected. At the end of the drama, Oedipus laments over the future that awaits his daughters. He envisions a life afflicted with ridicule and ostracism. They are marked with shame for the rest of their lives, and he wonders if any man will risk the reproach and shame that will accompany marriage to them.
- Do you think Oedipus would have fulfilled the prophecy of killing his father and sleeping with his mother if his parents hadn’t tried to kill him as an infant? If Oedipus’ fate was to kill his father and sleep with his mother, then he would have fulfilled the fate regardless of the events in his life because fate implies that it is unavoidable despite all resistance to the contrary.
- In Oedipus the King is the pursuit of knowledge futile? The pursuit of knowledge is not futile. Oedipus pursued the knowledge of his lineage and he obtained it to the tremendous suffering of himself and his family.
- Was it right of Oedipus to seek the truth about his identity despite warnings not to? If we understand the notion of a “right” action to be that which results in an absence of pain, then Oedipus was wrong to seek the truth about his identity. There are several instances where knowledge of the truth is more painful than ignorance. Whenever I consider the relative values of knowledge and ignorance, I remember a quote from Shakespeare’s Othello – “A man who’s robbed, but doesn’t miss what’s stolen, is not robbed.” Knowledge is very seductive. Mankind has a natural predisposition to seek out the truth. Philosophers are lovers of wisdom, and many philosophers explicitly state in their writings that they strive to obtain the truth despite the possibility of discovering something horrible (see Nietzsche). Knowledge can be beneficial and disadvantageous. The same is true of ignorance. The deciding factor depends upon the unique circumstances of the situation.
- Discuss the motif of blindness and sight in the context of the pursuit of knowledge in Oedipus the King. The motif of blindness and sight is prevalent in this play. The blind seer Tiresias can “see” into the past, present, and future despite being blind. Oedipus, who is not blind for the majority of the play, is blind to the fulfillment of his fate. Once Oedipus gains true knowledge of his past, he chooses to blind himself because he has “seen” too much. Physical sight is often illusory, and those who possess it are often deceived as to the truth. Those who are blind are often the ones who truly “see”, or understand reality as it is.
- To what extent is determination an asset to characters in the Oedipus the King? Determination is an asset to Creon. He is steadfast in his denial of the accusations made against him by Oedipus. He does not waver under the threats of violence, and is determined to persuade Oedipus and Jocasta of his innocence. In the end, Creon is proven innocent.
- Is determination a hindrance in the play? Determination is a major hindrance to Oedipus. He is determined to find the slayer of Laius, even if it means discovering the tragic reality of his life. Even when others exhort him to give up his investigation, he is adamant about pursuing the truth until he has obtained it.
- What, if any, correlation exists between determination and self-deception the play? I think that Oedipus realized there was a very strong possibility that Laius was his father and Jocasta was his mother at a very early point in the tragedy. He had several opportunities during the play to discontinue his investigation, but he pursued it to the very end. I think that he did this because he used self-deception. One part of him persuaded him that his parents were not Jocasta and Laius. In short, he was determined to deceive himself until there was no other possible interpretation of his lineage.
- How is Oedipus the King at the beginning of the play different from Oedipus the cursed man at the end? In the beginning of the tragedy, Oedipus is very arrogant. He knows that he is powerful, and often reminds the other characters of his own intelligence, which he demonstrated by solving the riddle of the Sphinx and alleviating the affliction from the people of Thebes. He is also suspicious of those around him, believing that Creon and Tiresias have conspired to remove him from the throne. At the end of the play, Oedipus has experienced a true reversal. He bends himself to the will of Creon, and to the dictates of Fate. He is a very humble man at the end of the play. He recognizes his past ignorance and chooses to accept the fate that awaits the rest of his life rather than blasphemously resist it.
- What gives a character power in this play? I don’t think that anyone truly has power in this play accept the Fates who ordain the events of a man’s life. Each man seems to be coerced to do something against his will. Oedipus unknowingly fulfills the prophecy, Tiresias involuntarily discloses the true killer of Laius, the shepherd is compelled to testify against his will, Jocasta unknowingly sleeps with her son, Creon does not make a decision regarding Oedipus’ fate until he receives an oracle, etc. No one has power. The gods alone have power, and mankind acts according to their will.
- Remember that Oedipus accuses Creon of plotting against him in order to get more power. Does Creon seem satisfied being the King’s brother-in-law? Creon is very satisfied being the king’s brother-in-law. He even says as much. He asserts that he receives all the benefits of being a king without the troubles and cares that accompany it. If he was king, he would be compelled to do things against his will for the interest of the state. As it currently is, he enjoys everything he desires while still maintain autonomy.
- Does Oedipus’s awareness of his past ultimately benefit or harm him? His awareness of the past harms him. He realizes that he has fulfilled the prophecy of the oracle – he killed his father and slept with his mother. Had he not discovered his true lineage, he would have lived in blissful ignorance. Once again I will quote Shakespeare: “A man who’s robbed, but does not miss what’s stolen, is not robbed.”
- How does hubris impact the ability of Oedipus to perceive and understand the past? Oedipus is very proud. He believes that he possesses superior intelligence because he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. Living as a king for several years likely contributed to his conceited nature too. His hubris does not allow him to even accept the possibility that Jocasta and Laius are his parents until it is proven by overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence.