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Literature Review: Oedipus Rex

Updated on August 3, 2015
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Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.

Background

Sometime before 429 BC, Sophocles wrote the Athenian tragedy, Oedipus the King¸ also known as Oedipus Rex, which was first performed in 429 BC. The second in order of composition of Sophocles’ Theban plays, it is chronologically the first. Telling of a man who becomes the King of Thebes while unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy, the play’s characters include Oedipus, a priest, Creon, Tiresias, Jocasta, two messengers and a shepherd with non-speaking appearances by Antigone and Ismene. The play’s legacy has led to several films, including two in English, and many television presentations. The second English version, released in 1968, starred Christopher Plummer, Lilli Palmer, Orson Welles, and Donald Sutherland.

Synopsis

As a plague ravages Thebes, Creon, the queen’s brother, returns from the Oracle of Delphi with news that it will be lifted when the murderer of the true king is found. However, the blind prophet Tiresias warns the current king, Oedipus, that he really doesn’t want to know who caused it. However, driven by honor and a dedication to his people, Oedipus finds out that he himself is the cause due to an old prophecy.

Review

An interesting play, Oedipus Rex has deep thematic elements regarding the connection between fate and free will while at the same time, contrasting literal and metaphorical references to eyesight.

The Ancient Greeks put quite a bit of emphasis on what the oracles and Fates had to say concerning the lives of mortals. However, this play could be interpreted as it’s better to ignore what they say in the first place due to the efforts that the characters go to in order to avoid fulfilling the prophecy being the means of fulfillment. Really, it shows that there is an interconnectedness with prophetic utterances and the actions of man that bring about the result that has been prophesied. Also known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

For one, there’s the prophecy given to Oedipus’ real parents when he’s born, which says that he’s going to kill his father and marry his mother. It causes his parents to throw him into the wilderness to die so that the prophecy cannot be carried out, which in turn leads to him being found and raised by the royalty of Corinth.

But Oedipus still knows of the prophecy and doesn’t want to kill his father or marry his mother and he leaves because he believes that the aforementioned Corinthian royalty are his true parents. And his leaving prompts him to kill this person that cuts him off at a crossroads and marry the supposedly single queen when he becomes king of Thebes after solving the riddle of the Sphinx. Him finding out that the man he killed was his father and that the queen he married was his mother causes him to blind himself and his wife/mother to commit suicide. The very thing that was sought to be avoided by so many people was ultimately fulfilled because of the desire to avoid it.

Had the Theban King not reacted to the prophecy by throwing young Oedipus out, he wouldn’t have been killed and had Oedipus not known of the prophecy, or that he was adopted, he wouldn’t have left and been able to kill his real father either.

This can be loosely compared to The Bible and Jesus’ prophecy at the last supper that Peter would deny him three times. It doesn’t suggest that Peter was a puppet of predestination and he did so by his own free will. This is also the case with the play that presents a non-exclusivity with free will and predestination.

The play also goes into a motif concerning sight and blindness as there are literal and metaphorical references to eyesight throughout it. Having clear vision is a metaphor for being insightful and full of knowledge, but Oedipus, who is known for being clear-sighted is blind to the entire truth throughout the story. Contrast this with the blind prophet Tiresias who is able to see the truth and tell the clear-sighted Oedipus what he knows after warning him that despite being able to see, he can’t see the truth. And once he knows of everything he’s committed in regards to the prophecy, Oedipus blinds himself and once he’s no longer clear-sighted, he ironically gets some limited prophetic ability, which is seen in the sequel to the play, Oedipus at Colonus.

4 stars for Oedipus Rex

Blind to the Truth?

Cleverly showing that sometimes fate and prophecy become self-fulfilling with the actions of man, Oedipus Rex is very interesting and pretty good. It will get four stars and a recommendation.

the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinions.

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