Of all the Greek myths, the story of Oedipus, the King of Thebes, is perhaps the most compelling and tragic. Cursed before birth and haunted by prophecy, Oedipus struggles against his cruel, inexorable fate and suffers unbearably when it is realized; the nature and the depth of his suffering are unparalleled in Greek mythology. The myth of Oedipus is recounted and the story is developed further in the works of Sophocles. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, Sophocles chronicles the fall of Oedipus and the continuing devastation of the House of Thebes. Though it is speculated the three plays were not written in chronological order—and each play certainly stands alone—Oedipus the King would be the first of the three if the plays were arranged to tell the story of Oedipus chronologically. To fully appreciate the drama, which Sophocles develops primarily through dramatic irony, it is essential to know the story in Greek mythology on which it is based.
In the Greek myth of Oedipus, the king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta, are told by Apollo that any son they produce will kill his father. Frightened by the prophecy, they attempt to avoid their fate when Jocasta later bears a son; the infant’s ankles are pinned together, and he is sent away to die in the wilderness. A kind shepherd takes pity on the baby and delivers him to the childless king and queen of Corinth. They dote upon their adopted prince and name him Oedipus, which translates roughly as “swollen feet,” the name reflecting the wounds he sustained as a baby. As a young man, Oedipus learns from Apollo that he is meant not only to kill his father but also to marry his mother. Believing that the king and queen who adopted him are his natural parents, Oedipus leaves Corinth for good so that the prophecy will not be fulfilled. His departure sets him literally on the road that leads to his ultimate fate. Outside Thebes, Oedipus kills King Laius in a dispute, saves Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, and then marries the widowed Queen Jocasta. Together they have four children, and the House of Thebes, with Oedipus as the king, is established. When Oedipus and Jocasta eventually learn his true identity and realize how the terrible prophecy has been fulfilled, they are both destroyed by the knowledge, although in different ways, and the House of Thebes is cursed for generations.
In Oedipus the King, Sophocles does not dramatize the entire myth; the play focuses instead on why and how Oedipus comes to realize that Laius was his father and that Jocasta, his wife and the mother of his children, is his own mother, as well; once the terrible truth is revealed, Sophocles devotes the remainder of the drama to the anguish and self-hatred Oedipus feels and to his desire for punishment. Amazingly, it is not the horrific plot of the myth that drives Oedipus the King; instead, the play develops as an ironic mystery. Determined to discover who killed King Laius many years before and to cleanse Thebes of such corruption, Oedipus unwittingly pursues and eventually arrives at the truth of his own identity and his actions. Sophocles uncovers clues, one by one; he presents witnesses, some willing and some not; and he offers final proof of the tragedy which has befallen Oedipus and his family. The play is full of suspense—not the suspense of finding out who killed Laius, as that is known through myth, but the suspense of waiting for Oedipus to realize he has not escaped his destiny and to confront its tragic consequences.
In a culture that believed in the supernatural, whether or not there was space for the individual or community to make its own decisions was a question particularly important to the Athenians as they tried to set up a democratic society. Sophocles carefully explored the anxiety behind this question with Oedipus the King, heightened by the religious context of the play. Thought to have composed more than 120 plays during his career, Sophocles won twenty-four competitions (eighteen at the Festival of Dionysia, a religious festival in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility). When Oedipus the King was performed in Athens circa 429 BCE, the myth of Oedipus was well known to his contemporaries; it was deeply embedded in Greek culture and consciousness. Moreover, the Athenians of his time generally still believed in the power of the oracle at Apollo’s temple in Delphi, although traditional religious beliefs were beginning to wane in Greek society. Thus the ancient Greeks’ interpretation of Oedipus the King would have differed somewhat from that of a modern audience, but they most likely would have pondered some of the same mysteries in the play that will always engage us as mortal beings. Do we determine our own destinies? Does the search for truth achieve the greatest good? Are the present and the future controlled by the past? Why, among many, do the innocent suffer? In regard to considering these questions, universal and timeless, we are not so very different from Sophocles’s audience in Athens.
Our reaction to Oedipus is no doubt similar, as well. We pity him—the abandoned infant left to die, the young man compelled to leave the only home he had ever known, the king who loves his family and despairs for his people when Thebes is suddenly beset by misery and death. Even as Oedipus callously dismisses Jocasta’s fear and rages against others in his unyielding, willful pursuit of the truth, we feel pity, knowing what awaits him at the end of his search. When the play concludes, we feel sorrow for the self-mutilated king, blood streaming like tears down his face, forever blind now to the wonders of the world. Led away by Creon, Oedipus will be exiled from Thebes, tortured further by the knowledge that his actions have driven Jocasta to suicide and have doomed his children’s future. According to Aristotle, Oedipus the King is the model for drama. Setting aside for a moment the play’s intriguing plot and profound themes, its power to evoke intense human empathy would be reason enough to accept Aristotle’s view. Written during the Golden Age of Greece, Oedipus the King endures as a masterpiece in world literature; in its expression of the human condition, the tragedy remains as relevant today as it was in ancient Athens more than two thousand years ago.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Trace the primary themes in Oedipus the King, including destiny and fate, the search for knowledge, and the corrupting influence of excessive pride.
2. Explain the role of prophecy and the role of the oracle and discuss how ancient and contemporary audiences would relate to them.
3. Identify examples of the motifs of fate, light, and blindness and discuss their significance.
4. Explain how the chorus functions in the play and discuss what is achieved through the choral odes.
5. Describe the fatal flaws of Oedipus.
6. Identify and explain moments of dramatic irony in the play.
7. Describe the tragic hero’s search for truth.
8. Explain the role of Tiresias.
9. Explain the role of the hero.
10. Understand several major sociopolitical concerns addressed by Greek tragedy including the masses vs. the elite, gods vs. Man, rhetoric vs. deeds, and gender roles.