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Oedipus Rex | Themes

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Sophocles, a master of tragedy, creates strong, willful heroes who inevitably discover that their intelligence and independence, combined with an unhealthy sense of self-pride or hubris, leads to their downfall. Often they end up taking one or more characters down with them, and Oedipus Rex is a perfect example of this type of plot.

Self-Discovery

The play is full of self-discovery, but, as is often the case in a tragedy, the self-discovery is painful if not deadly. As a younger man, Oedipus wants to know his true identity at the expense of his presumed parents, Polybus and Merope. In Episode 2 Oedipus tells Jocasta that years ago, in his home of Corinth, a drunken man accused him of not really being his parents' son. Although his parents reassured him that this information was not true, the story spread. He says, "But nonetheless, the accusation always troubled me—the story had become known everywhere. And so I went in secret off to Delphi." Oedipus reacts with selfish pride to the way people are talking about him. He does not find out whether he is really adopted, but Apollo gives him the terrible prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. He leaves Corinth forever to avoid his fate, but by doing so he unwittingly brings this fate upon himself. Oedipus's desire to seek out his real parents and true identity is not a sign of selfish pride but simply natural curiosity. His pride lies in his personal conviction that he can defy the oracle and change the course of his fate.

Oedipus is persistent in that he sends Creon to the oracle to find out why his people are ill and is also willing to consult Teiresias. However, he cannot handle the answers he gets, and his pride flares again. He accuses Creon of plotting with Teiresias to overtake the throne. But, when he questions Jocasta about the death of Laius, both he and Jocasta begin to see parallels in their pasts, notably the same prophecy. Jocasta attempts to remain blind to her real identity and insists oracles are silly, but she continues to pray at the altar, revealing her budding self-knowledge to the audience. By the time the messenger says that the shepherd was the one who gave him a baby bound at its ankles, Jocasta knows the truth but still refuses to face it, and she tries to protect Oedipus from knowing how disastrous the situation really is. When Oedipus persists and says, "I cannot end this now. I must reveal the details of my birth," Jocasta replies, "In the name of the gods, no! If you have some concern for your own life, then stop! Do not keep on investigating this." Jocasta knows that Oedipus will suffer once he discovers his true identity: "O you unhappy man! May you never find out who you really are!" But the shepherd's story confirms Oedipus's lineage, and he discovers he is Jocasta and Laius's son.

Fate versus Free Will

A major theme in Sophocles's plays is the idea that the gods, not human beings, determine the fate of an individual. Sophocles was a religious man who did not question who was in control. His plays reflect his belief that suffering serves as a way to clarify the power of the gods and their intentions for humanity. In Oedipus Rex fate is unavoidable, no matter what lies the characters tell others and themselves and no matter what they do to ensure that they escape their destinies. In fact, the attempt to escape fate seems to be the very thing that ensures that fate is inescapable. Trying to avoid, rather than accept, one's fate increases one's suffering even more. This idea does not, however, eradicate free will and the choices characters make over the courses of their lives. A clear tension exists between fate and free will in Greek tragedy, illustrated by the perpetual conflict between humans and the gods.

Jocasta also tries to control events to avoid the same prophecy in an unimaginably awful way. She and Laius put a pin through the ankles of their own son, causing him to be lame and scarred for life, and order a shepherd to leave him exposed on a rock in the wilderness, which will surely mean his death. But Jocasta is so determined to avoid her fate that she goes one step further and tells the shepherd to kill the baby instead. The shepherd cannot go through with such a horrible, heartless order and disobeys Jocasta, handing the baby over to a messenger to give to Polybus and Merope. That baby is, of course, Oedipus. Jocasta's attempt to orchestrate infanticide secures her fate: the gods are not happy with that shameful act. Jocasta even tries to stop Oedipus from knowing the full story, and she is willing to accept her fate and suffer in silence as long as Oedipus does not know he is the one she tried to have killed. However, neither one can avoid fate nor the knowledge they have come face to face with.

Blindness

Sophocles builds the theme of blindness by having all of the characters in Oedipus Rex either start off as blind, become blind, refuse to see the truth, or wish they had never seen it. Blindness symbolizes the characters' ignorance. By extension this theme includes sight as well, and in Oedipus Rex none of the characters want to see what is finally revealed to be a terrible misjudgment of the power of the god Apollo. However, once they acquire the knowledge or understanding that leads to the truth, their vision becomes clear.

The first instance of blindness is Teiresias, the old, blind prophet. Interestingly, this type of blindness occurs in a character who is the first representation of the truth behind Oedipus's birth and life story. Willful blindness is something that both Creon and Jocasta have in common, to differing degrees. Creon, when accused of wanting the throne, says he does not want to deal with all of the problems that come with running a city. He would rather be blind to all of that and enjoy his life as the brother of a king and queen.

Jocasta, however, blinds herself to the power of the gods by trying to avoid her fate, and, when she discovers the truth about Oedipus, she adopts a willful blindness to the facts: "Why should a man whose life seems ruled by chance live in fear—a man who never looks ahead, who has no certain vision of his future?" She encourages Oedipus to join her in her blindness, and she keeps it up until she can no longer deny the facts. At that point Jocasta runs from the room. In the next episode, she kills herself rather than face what is before her.

After the shepherd admits that he disobeyed Jocasta's order to kill her son, everyone listening knows who Oedipus is and that the prophecy has come true. The Chorus wishes they were blind, singing, "O child of Laius, how I wish I'd never seen you."

Oedipus, having discovered that he has murdered his father and fathered children with his own mother, also has to witness the suicide of the woman who is both his wife and mother. He is the one who finds her hanging in their room, and her death raises his level of suffering to a degree that he cannot stand. He takes the brooches from her clothing and uses the pins to gouge out his eyes, blinding himself permanently. When the second messenger describes the agony of both Jocasta and Oedipus, the Chorus wishes they had never seen Oedipus.

Pride

Pride figures prominently in many Greek tragedies. It is closely related to the Greek idea of hubris, a character trait that leads a person to disregard the limits of human potential preordained by the gods. Oedipus is an intelligent man, but his pride gets the best of him.

Oedipus's pride ultimately leads to his downfall. Hamartia, often referred to as the tragic flaw, is one of the key aspects of Greek tragedy. The main characters in many tragedies are nearly superhuman but burdened with tragic flaws that prevent them from becoming godlike. Oedipus's tragic flaw is his pride. By attempting to escape the prophecy dictated by the gods, he ends up fulfilling it. In doing so, Oedipus becomes guilty of hubris as he tries to overcome his human limitations and rescind the prophecy.

Like Oedipus, Jocasta is guilty of pride and hubris in her attempt to alter fate and later deny it at various points. She sends Oedipus to die as an infant hoping to escape the prophecy. Many years later, when Oedipus reveals to her the prophecy he had heard, she denies it, yet she continues to pray at the altar of Apollo. When she realizes the prophecy has been fulfilled, she tries to shield Oedipus from the truth. Incapable of coping with the prophecy's fulfillment, she commits suicide.

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