Oedipus the King - Sophocles
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Themes: Anger, Fate, Impiety, Justice, Tyranny
The story of Oedipus is rich and complex. It defies a superficial account, especially one that explains the action of the play simply in terms of fate. No doubt fate is an element in the play, but is fate an irrational force determining all action, or do the characters get the fate they deserve? The chorus in the play raises this question around line 862. In one stanza the chorus chants: “May destiny ever find me pious in word and deed…” Another stanza of the chorus remarks: “Insolence breeds the tyrant…” Finally, we hear the refrain: “If a man walks with haughtiness of hand or word and gives no heed to Justice and the shrines of Gods despises, may an evil doom smite him for his ill-starred pride of heart!” These passages in the play should dispel the notion that the main characters of the play are simply pawns in the hands of the gods.
Oedipus and his wife Jocasta hear awful account of what their future will be like, Oedipus discovers he is fated kill his father and marry his mother (line 792) and Jocasta tells the story that her original husband, Laius, is told that he would be killed by his son (line 714.) Oedipus’ reaction is reasonable. He tries to avoid this horror by leaving his home town. Laius and Jocasta also try to avoid their fate by attempting to kill their infant son. These events raise the question if, in some way, they bring their fate upon them. Is Oedipus guilty of trying to control his life in a way that is not fitting a human being? Is his blinding of himself at the end of the play a sign that he tried to see too much in his youth?
One should be careful to draw too quick a conclusion about these matters? For the play Oedipus at Colonus might reveal more of the picture of Oedipus’ character and the “plan” of the gods.
Towards the end of the play, the Chorus says: “Indeed I pity you, but I cannot look at you, though there’s much I want to ask and much to learn and much to see.” (Line 1304) What do we learn from what happens to Oedipus?
Does Oedipus and/or Jocasta deserve what happens to them in this play?
Is there a point to this play?
Morality and Human Action - Sophocles, Oedipus Rex; Aristotle, Ethics (selections); Kant. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals; Flannery O’Connor, The Lame Shall Enter First; King, Letter from Birmingham Jail