On the basis on lines 1-149 of Sophocles's play Oedipus Rex, how would you characterize Oedipus?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The opening scene of Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex reveals a number of aspects of Oedipus' character or personality, including the following:

  • As a leader, Oedipus seems genuinely concerned for his people.  He calls them his “children” (1) and seems troubled by their “cries of pain” (4). Rather than the people coming directly to Oedipus, he comes to them, or at least he more than meets them half-way.
  • There may be a touch of pride in Oedipus’ reference to himself as a man “whose fame all men acknowledge” (8), and pride will later, of course, be a troubling aspect of Oedipus’ character. At this point in the play, however, he merely seems, himself, to be acknowledging the simple fact that he is indeed famous. Perhaps he is even trying to reassure his people that he has been an effective leader in the past and has won fame as a result. Perhaps he wants to inspire them by suggesting that he can therefore provide leadership in the present that will be just as effective.
  • Oedipus indicates that he doesn’t simply feel required or obligated to help but that he is indeed willing to help. He shows determination as well as compassion and sympathy:

I shall assist you willingly in every way.
I would be a hard-hearted man indeed,
if I did not pity suppliants like these. (13-15)

  • There is, perhaps a touch of pride again when Oedipus says that his suffering surpasses that of anyone else (61-62), but perhaps he says this to emphasize his personal commitment to finding a solution.
  • Like a good leader, Oedipus has already taken some independent initiative in seeking to discover what is troubling the city: he has already sent Creon to question the oracle, not only to learn the cause of the troubles but to discover some solution (67-72).
  • When Creon enters, Oedipus tells him to share his news with everyone (109). He doesn’t try to restrict the news to himself, although Creon gives him this option.
  • As soon as Oedipus learns that an old crime is the cause of the city’s troubles, he immediately thinks of seeking a solution, even though he admits that the exact circumstances “will be hard to track” (128). He immediately begins questioning Creon, trying to determine as many hard facts as possible.
  • He vows that he will cooperate with his people in seeking a solution

. . . you will see how I
work with you, seeking vengeance for this land

as well as for the god. . . . (163-65)

He does, admittedly, express some self-concern (which might be seen as another sign of pride) by asserting that “in avenging Laius, I serve myself” (170), but, again, at this point in the play such language could be interpreted as a public indication of his personal motivation and willingness to use all his qualities of leadership to solve the city’s problems. He does, after all, say that he is depending partly on “the god’s help” (173), thus indicating his piety and, to some degree, his humility.

[Ian Johnston translation; see link below]


kathrynemorse | Student

Characterization is most easily explained in two-parts: direct and indirect characterization. Direct characterization is what the author tells us about the character including his/her history, background, and description.  Indirect characterization is what the author shows us. As readers, we INFER, or figure out from the clues, what kind of person a character is from seeing how he/she acts, speaks, and interacts with others and their reactions to his/her behavior. We KNOW that Oedipus is currently the king and that the townspeople must respect him or they wouldn't have come to ask for help. It is also noticeable that Oedipus is not lacking in success in protecting Thebes in the recent past.

Does he seem like a fair and just leader from his speech to his audience? Is he concerned with their welfare?

Does he feel he can handle the problem, or is he ready to give up?

Does he seem confident and competent like a leader should act?

I think you have your answer when you answer these questions. Be careful not to go into what Oedipus does AFTER lines 1 - 149. However, do read this next part carefully because it has a lot of hints as to the downfall of the hero.

Read the study guide:
Oedipus Rex

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