Critical Analysis of “Oedipus the King”
The Truth of Fate
Critical Analysis of “Oedipus the King”
The journeys we as humans take over our lifetimes are all a matter of choices. As we age, our daily decisions shape the overall outcome of our collective destinies. Gathering our personal views, our beliefs, and our general knowledge of what is right and wrong gives us the ability to form the decisions that shape our destinies and the fates of the people around us. This is a choice that we take for granted, but a choice that Oedipus was never permitted to make for himself. Apollo prognosticated Oedipus’ fate and imparted this knowledge by the time of his conception. It is this prophecy that is the beginning and the end of Oedipus and his undoing. Oedipus’ journey for the identity of self and determination to change his fate is plagued and twisted and the consequences of the outcome agonizing.
Sophocles introduces the readers to “Oedipus the King” by highlighting his triumphs. Oedipus ascended as the King of Thebes after solving the riddle of the Sphinx, an accomplishment that has brought him fame and power. The inhabitance of Thebes falling, martyred by plagues have congregated for prayer at the royal house of Thebes, the temple of” Queen Athena, the goddess of wisdom and protector of Greek cities,” and the river temple of Apollo. (1300). Their prayers are given to “Apollo, the god of poetry, the sun, prophecy and healing,” with offerings of wool to beg for relief from the agony and death brought upon them by the plagues. (1300).
Oedipus, hearing the prayers and cries from the city, call forth a priest from his knees to enlighten him as to the cause of such distress. The priest pleads with Oedipus,” first of men,” to find it with-in himself to be the savior the people of Thebes think he is in these turbulent times of the Death and dying of the crops, cattle, women in childbirth, newborn infants, and the Black Death that plagues the people of Thebes before there is nothing left for him to rule. (1301). “Rule our land…but rule a land of the living not a wasteland.”(1301). Oedipus, seeing the tribulations of his people have been enduring explains that he has observed the suffering and has sent his wife’s brother, Creon to Delphi to solicit the oracle of Apollo for the means to restore peace to the Thebes.
Creon returns to Thebes with the message from the god to,” Drive the corruption from the land…” (1303). Creon further explains that the murderer of the past king, Laius, resides in Thebes. Apollo’s commands were clear, “Pay the killers back-whoever is responsible.” (1303). He further divulges that there was one man traveling with Laius that had survived the attack who had claimed that a band of thieves were responsible for the death of the king. Oedipus questioned Creon for a reason for the lack of investigation into a royal death. The reason given was the persuasion of the Sphinx who had riddled them to focus on the problems that were pressing on them now. With all of these revelations, Oedipus calls forth to the citizens of Thebes to come forward with any information, which may lead to the death or exile of the murder. With the deafening silence to his call for justice, Oedipus proclaims to his own future detriment:
Now my curse on the murderer. Whoever he is,
a lone man unknown in his crime
or one among many, let that man drag out
his life in agony, step by painful step-
I curse myself as well…if by any chance
He proves to be an intimate of our house,
Here at my hearth, with my full knowledge,
May the curse I just called down on him strike me! (1307).
At a leaders suggestion Oedipus sends Creon to bring Lord Tiresias who is a prophet of Apollo to Thebes to find out more about what Apollo may know about the killers of Laius.
Tiresias arrives apprehensively to the royal house of Thebes. After he hears Oedipus’ reasons for call him forth he makes every attempt you convince Oedipus that he really does not want to hear what he has to say. Standing him off with pleading, defiance and strategic sarcasm all of Tiresias’ attempts fall short of changing the course of the questioning. Oedipus results to anger and misguided accusations towards Creon, which finally cause Tiresias to crack:
You with your precious eyes,
you’re blind to the corruption of your life,
to the house you live in, in those you live with-
who are your parents? Do you know? All knowing
you are the scourge of your own flesh and blood,
the dead below the earth and the living here above,
and the double lash of your mother and your father’s curse
will whip you from this land one day, their footfall
treading you down in terror, darkness shrouding
your eyes that can now see the light! (1311).
Yet even with this ominous riddle, Oedipus’ anger at the threatening nature of the prophets prediction causes him to demand Tiresias to leave. Tiresias agrees to leave but only after he gives his divination. He further conveys his foreboding by riddling the details of the eradicators indignity to Thebes, of rags to riches, and of the outcome of blindness and exile. Laying his identity as a prophet on the line, Tiresias taunts Oedipus to solve this:
Revealed at last, brother and father both
to the children he embraces, to his mother
son and husband both- he sowed the loins
his father sowed, he spilled his father’s blood. (1313).
Upon Creon's return Oedipus accuses him of staging the prophecy to over throw the throne. Creon is quick to state that he is the brother of the queen in which entitles him to equal status without the tensions of ruling. Unwilling to bend and with an ever growing fear and confusion, Oedipus volleys for the confession of a set up by Creon and wishes him to death or exile. Oedipus turns to Jocasta the Queen, his wife, and Creon’s sister, to set things straight. She being wife to the king prior recalls the story of the Laius’ visit from an oracle telling him how his own son would be the one to cause his death, and how in the fear of this fate, he bound his three-day-old son’s ankles and disposed of him on an uninhabited mountain.
The stories start to fit together like the pieces of a puzzle that Oedipus was known for solving. The more he pushed forward towards the truth the farther he slipped into the terror of his reality. The place where three roads meet was the place where Laius was killed and the place where Oedipus, himself had killed a man. He thought his father to be Polybus, the king of Corinth yet a man had shouted out at a banquet that he was not his father’s son. He was given a premonition of “a future great with pain, terror, disaster…You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see-you will kill your father, the one who you life!” (1321). For fear of the prophecy coming to truth, Oedipus fled Corinth. This mirrored the prophecy of Tiresias and left the frightened Oedipus confused and conflicted.
Jocasta, wanting to ease her husband’s pain sends for the sole witness a shepherd of the royal family sent away by his own request at the sight of the present king. In the same time a messenger form Corinth to inform Oedipus of Polybus’ death and the wishes of the people of Corinth to have Oedipus take the crown. Sickness and age had taken Polybus’ life, so Oedipus felt that the fate might have changed with the news that he had not caused Polybus’ death. Unfortunately, this was only a brief prelude to joy and relief interrupted when the messenger went on to tell that Oedipus was not a child of Corinth but had been brought there by his own hand and given to the king. His true land was that of Thebes and another shepherd who grazed his flock on the same uninhabited mountain gave him to the messenger. This shepherd was of the house of Laius and witness to his death. When the witness arrived at the royal house of Thebes for his inquiry, the other messenger identified him as the Sheppard who gave him the infant. Finally, with all of the players in place the stories begin to comingle and converge to form a totality of prediction, fate, and turmoil.
With all truths in the light, events fly by in a downward spiral of pain and agony. In infancy, Oedipus was bound and marked for death by his birth mother. He was given to the king of a neighboring nation who raised him as his own. Was predicted to kill his father, procreate with his mother, and produce children that would be unbearable to sight. He fled Corinth to avoid killing his father. Rising to power, he took the throne in Thebes and the past kings wife for his own and spawned several children. He had unknowingly murdered Laius who was his birth father and married his wife, which was his mother. With all this, he had cursed himself by proclaiming to avenge the death of Laius and to lay his own future on the line if it happens to be someone of the royal house of Thebes.
The ramifications of this disconcerting chain of events cause sorrow, regret, and detestation. The grief of the turn of event causes the Queen to take her life. When Oedipus sees his wife/mother hanging he removes the pins from her garments and proceeds to rid himself of sight by gouging his own eyes. This left him unable to see even his own children of which he left the girls in the care of Creon the next to take the throne. This also left his daughters unable to wed by fault of the father and cross breeding. Moreover, by his own proclamation Oedipus caused his own exile.
By searching for the truth and trying to change his fate, Oedipus was damned to live out the rest of his life in agony. By forcing the search, he delivered those he cared about to unspeakable and unforeseen fates of their own. To live without hope or joy would be a futile existence. After the lowest of lows and all you thought you knew undone there is nothing left but to wait for the bitter, benevolent hand of death.
…look on Oedipus.
He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance,
…Who could behold his greatness without envy?
…Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
Count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last. (1341)
Sophocles. "Oedipus the King." Meyer, Michael. THE BEDFORD INTRODUCTION TO LITERATURE. Seventh. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005. 1299-1341.