Explain how Oedipus experiences a reversal of fortune, a discovery of truth, and a calamity (excessive suffering) at the end of the play.

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readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Oedipus experienced a reversal of fortune at the end of the play, because he fell from an enormous height. At the beginning of the play, he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, ruled Thebes, possessed a good functional family, and earned the respect and admiration of the people. At end of the play, all these honors are taken away, as he goes into exile. The reversals cannot be starker. Oedipus in one moment lost his city, family, and dignity. 

This reversal is on account of a revelation of truth. In other words, Oedipus did not really know who he was. When he found out his true identity, he realized that he killed his father in an act of violence, married his mother unwittingly, and bored children who were simultaneously his siblings. This revelation brought him low. 

All of these things brought enormous suffering. Truly the Greek adage - "Count no man happy until he is dead," applies to Oedipus. 

Here is what the chorus says:

People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus. He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance, he rose to power, a man beyond all power. Who could behold his greatness without envy? Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.

poetrymfa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The tragedy of Oedipus can be quite effectively explained through the three categories you mentioned. This examine this more closely:

  • Reversal of Fortune: We see Oedipus's fortune reverse when we discover that he has played himself directly into the prophecy which predicted that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus begins the play in a position of extreme power and respect. He has assumed the role of King of Thebes and won the hand of Queen Jocasta after defeating the riddle of the Sphinx. His blatant disregard for Tiresias' advice and the forces of fate cause him to fall from grace; once he learns of his true origin, he gouges his own eyes out and leaves the palace in a state of exile. This loss of power and status is a stark turnaround.
  • Discovery of Truth: As already mentioned, Oedipus discovers the truth about his birth, his hand in his own father's death, and his incestuous marriage--all part of a self-fulfilling prophecy that he could not avoid.
  • Calamity: Oedipus experiences excessive suffering at the end of the play in terms of the scope of what he loses. He loses the throne, his marriage, his sight, his reputation, his progeny, and his pride. 
Read the study guide:
Oedipus Rex

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