What is the tragic hero's misinterpretation in Sophocles' Oedipus the King?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Oedipus's tragic misinterpretation refers to the moment when, as a young man, he interpreted the prophecy from the oracle at Delphi as referring to whom he considered to be his father, Polybus, and whom he considered to be his mother, which was Polybus's wife. Towards the middle of the play, Oedipus relays a story that when he was a young man, at a banquet, a drunken man proclaimed that Polybus was not Oedipus's real father. Though both Polybus and his wife denied the truth of the assertion, still feeling uneasy, Oedipus traveled to Delphi to see if he could learn the truth from Apollo's oracle. However, the oracle only agonized him further by prophesying that he would one day kill his own father and sleep with his own mother. Oedipus wrongly assumed that the oracle was referring to Polybus and his wife and made the decision to flee his known home of Corinth, as we see in the lines:

I heard and fled, henceforth to share with Corinth only the stars, where I would never see completed the disgrace of those evil oracles of mine. (822-825)

However, Oedipus's understanding of the prophecy turned out to be his fatal misinterpretation for immediately after hearing the oracle, at a point where the three roads from Corinth, Thebes, and Delphi meet, in his state of anger, he killed the very man that turned out to be his father. He killed the man and his traveling companions because they had tried to run him off the road. He therefore struck out at them, killing them all. However, had he been returning home to Corinth rather than running away towards Thebes, he might never have crossed paths with his real father and the prophecy might never have been fulfilled. Hence, Oedipus's misinterpretation of the prophecy turns out to be his tragic misinterpretation ultimately leading to his demise.


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