From birth, being left to die with his ankles pierced and bound, Oedipus was a tragic figure and his life was predetermined by fate and the prophecies of the God Apollo. Oedipus The King was written by Sophocles in 430 B.C. He was influenced by Greek Mythology and the people of his time knew of all the Greek Gods. But according to Britannnia.com, to Sophocles ‘the gods’ appeared to have represented the natural forces of the universe to which human beings are unwittingly or unwillingly subject (Woodward and Taplin). While Apollo and the other Greek Gods were myths, their influence made the people of his time see why all the characters believed their prophecies.
At the beginning of the play we are not told the legend of Oedipus, but Sophocles audience and many readers today already know how he became King. The legend says that 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. When their son was born, they gave the infant to a shepherd who was told to kill him. The shepherd that took him to the mountains of Cithaeron 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. (1262-1264) The King and Queen named him Oedipus, which meant ‘swell foot’, because King Laius had scarred his feet. They raised him as their son, and it was not until he was older that he learned from another oracle that he was not their biological son and was told the prophecy. He then left Corinth to make sure it would not come true and began the journey that would in the end bring truth to the prophecy. On his journey he came to a place where three roads crossed and he became angry with a man in a carriage, who unknown to him was his father, harassed him. He killed his father, the King, and all but one of his servants. The audience now knew that the first part of the prophecy had come true. He continued to Thebes once there he answered the riddle of the Sphinx, restored Thebes, and married Jocasta, who he did not know was his mother. 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.
When the play begins Oedipus demonstrated that he was a good king by having already sent Creon to see Apollo to find out how they can end the plague that is killing the people of Thebes. 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. But, Oedipus also had his flaws, which included his excessive pride. He was often over confident in his own abilities. When Creon told him that “The God commanded clearly: let someone punish with force this dead man’s murderers” (121), Oedipus asked who the dead man was. When told that it was King Laius, he became determined that he could find the killer even if it was himself. In A Thinker at the Crosswords the author says, “Before Teiresias implicates him in the murder of Laius, Oedipus has already made up his mind – the murderer is a stranger and singular, very much like himself” (Cybulska). He sent for the blind prophet of Apollo, Teiresias, and demanded he tell him the truth and when he said, “You are the land’s pollution” (384), Oedipus said he did not understand. Teiresias then said, “I say you are the murderer of the king whose murdered you seek” (395-396). In Introductions and Translations to the Plays of Sophocles and Euripides the author says, “That Oedipus’ incest and parricide are predetermined is an indisputable fact; that he should, because he is who he is, act and suffer as he does is a dramatic necessity” (Sophocles, Love, and Euripides).
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. When he became angry at Theiresias Oedipus told him to leave and 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.” (689) 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” (712-715) 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. 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 was beside himself. The herdsman said, “If you are the man, he says you are, you’re bred to misery.” (1265-1266). 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” (1325-1326). 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” (1381-1384). 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.” (1452-1456) 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. According to Bragg, “The most mistaken of Oedipus’ beliefs is that he lives in a world in which a good and able man may count on help and approval from responsible divinities’ (Sophocles and Bragg). Our feelings changed many times throughout the play. The infant given away by his mother evoked pity and yet when Oedipus killed King Laius, he made us feel hatred for him as 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, but it could have had less caused tragedy for his family. But, then again, it could have destroyed Thebes. At the end he did not fear for his sons but wanted his daughters taken care of. 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.
The heavy weight of fate that seems to hang over Oedipus, robbing his life of value and destroying everything that gave him a sense of autonomy and self-belief, suggests a doom-laden, pagan belief that, no matter what, we cannot escape the consequences of or past acts. (Sheehan) Oedipus has become one of the great tragic heroes of all time and his fate was determined before his birth.
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