Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. The King had been given a prophecy, by the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, that his son would kill him and marry his mother and because of this prophecy they gave the infant to a shepherd. The shepherd that took him to the mountains of Kitharon and instead of just leaving him, he gave the infant to a shepherd of King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth. later in the play the shepherd said, “O master, I pitied it, and thought that I could send it off to another country and this man was from another country. (1645-1652) The King and Queen named him Oedipus, which meant ‘swell foot’, and raised him as their son. When he learned later in life that he was not their biological son he left Corinth and began the journey that would bring truth to the prophecy.
After learning of the prophecy Oedipus left Corinth and on his journey, he came to a place where three roads crossed. He became angry when a man in a carriage, who unknown to him was his father, harassed him. He killed the King and all but one of his servants and then headed to Thebes. Once there he answered the riddle of the Sphinx, restored Thebes, and married Jocasta, who he did not know was his mother. By the start of the play, he exhibited many of the characteristics of Aristotle’s description of a tragic hero. He was a noble king but also had his weaknesses. He created several errors in judgment, demonstrated excessive pride, and at the end his punishment exceeded his crimes.
Oedipus was a good king by being both caring and confident, but his main flaw was that he was stubborn. The people of Thebes both liked and respected him. The Priest said of him, “You came and by your coming saved our city.” (39) He was considered a wise man when he was able to answer the riddle of the Sphinx and become the King of Thebes. But, Oedipus also had his flaws, which included his excessive pride. He was often over confident in his own abilities. Oedipus believed that he could save Thebes and took quick action by having Creon send messengers to the gods at Delphi. When Creon told him that “The God commanded clearly: let someone punish with force this dead man’s murderers.” (126) When told the dead man was King Laius, he became determined that he could find the killer even if it was himself. At one point he compared himself to the gods when he said, “You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers.” (245)
Oedipus made many errors in judgment, which led to his downfall. He was impulsive, angry and quick to jump to conclusions. When he discovered that King Polybus and Queen Merope were not his natural parents, he left the one place he would have been safe. He became angry at Theiresias and forced him to tell him what he knew. Theiresias said concerning the murderer of Laius, “He shall be proved father and brother both to his own children in his own house; to her that gave him birth, a son and husband both; a fellow sower in his father’s bed with that same father that he murdered.” (236-239) Oedipus told him not to return. He then became angry at Creon and when Creon ask if he would banish him Oedipus said “No, certainly; kill you, not banish you.” (726) Jocasta then begged him to “trust him in this, spare him for the sake of this his oath to God, for my sake, and the sake of those who stand here” (755-758) He then had her tell him the story of the death of Laius and what happened to their son. A messenger then arrived with news of the death of his father King Polybus. He then goes on to tell him that Polybus is not his father and that it would be safe for him to return. The messenger told him that he was an infant when he was given him. He then told him that “He was called Laius’ man.” (1186) After hearing the story Oedipus sent for the herdsman to try to verify to himself that he had not been the killer of King Laius. At this point it has become obvious that Oedipus is the son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta. The reader now has a degree of pity for him and a sadness for the circumstances of his life.
Going from being King to a blind person, who he himself exiled from Thebes, was a complete reversal of his Oedipus’s fortune. After getting confirmation from the herdsman that he is the son of Laius and Jocasta he is in beside himself. The herdsman said, “If you are the man he says you are, you’re bred to misery.” (1362) Oedipus now realizes that the prophecy has come true – he killed his father and married his mother. He feels that his life could get no worse. Then a second messenger arrives and tells the reader, “Shortest to hear and tell—our glorious queen Jocasta’s dead.” Oedipus at this point gouges out his own eyes and according to the messenger “he’ll cast himself, out of the land, he says, and not remain to bring a curse upon his house, the curse he called upon it in his proclamation.” (1479 -1481) He did not kill himself because he did not want to be able to see. He said, “I do not know with what eyes I could look upon my father when I die and go under the earth, nor yet my wretched mother— those two to whom I have done things deserving worse punishment than hanging.” (1549-1554) He had no desire to see his children nor his country. He gave himself the greatest punishment, even though he had done many bad things, most of what he did was through ignorance of who he was.
Oedipus was doomed from birth and the reader knew this before he did. Our feelings changed many times throughout the play. The infant given away by his mother evoked pity and yet the killing of King Laius made us feel him a murderer. Had Oedipus known of his true birth, he might never have left Corinth and killed his real father. If he had just allowed Theiresias to leave without telling of his prophecy, he might never have felt he needed to search for the killer of King Laius in the manner he did. Not learning about what he done would not have might it right, it could have had less tragedy on his family. But, then again, it could have destroyed Thebes. At the end he did not fear for sons but wanted his daughters taken care of. He beseeched Creon, “you need not care about my sons; they’re men and so wherever they are, they will not lack a livelihood. But my two girls—so sad and pitiful, whose table never stood apart from mine, and everything I touched they always shared – O Creon, have a thought for them!” (1645-1652) As readers we are now feeling pity and sympathy for him. Despite all that he has done, we cannot help but feel that he is basically a moral and understanding man by wanting his children and country taken care of. Blinded by his own hand and exiled by his own words is truly more punishment than you would expect from someone themselves. Oedipus has become one of the great tragic heroes of all time.
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