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Hubris can be summarized as excessive pride, self-confidence, self-conceit – in essence, a lack of moderation in one’s character and actions. Oedipus is the character most obviously guilty of hubris in this play. Hubris is seen as something that invites retribution; in effect, the individual who displays this trait has to be humbled, cut down to size. Oedipus is punished as he is revealed to be guilty of the most heinous of crimes: killing his father Laius and marrying his mother Jocasta (albeit entirely unwittingly). It is these actions that have led to a plague ravaging his kingdom of Thebes.
We see Oedipus at the beginning of the play, a strong man in his prime, assured of his leadership and entirely confident in his own abilities, setting out on his task of ridding the land of the scourge. By the end, however, he has undergone the most spectacular downfall; wife/ mother dead through suicide, he himself has been blinded by his own hand, and is about to be exiled at his own wish, as he struggles to come to terms with the enormity of his former deeds. He realises that he himself was the cause of the plague and in order to heal the land he must remove himself.
At first, Oedipus proudly reminds his people of all he has done for them, delivering them from the Sphinx when no one else could prevail. He opens the play with a ringing proclamation of his own identity: ‘the world knows my fame/ I am Oedipus’. His emphasis of his identity is repeated later on, after his downfall, in the most anguished and bitterly ironic terms. When once he took pride in his achievements, his name now is a marker of the most frightful shame and dishonour; he had long ago fulfilled his singularly terrible destiny and now the matter has finally become public.
Oedipus’s initial sense of pride and self-assurance leads him to behave arrogantly with others; he is impatient with them and even openly threatening at times. He mocks the seer Tiresias, tortures the old shepherd who holds the final clue to the terrible events of his past, and he most unjustly blames Creon when he thinks that Creon has been plotting against him. He pays dearly for all his intemperate actions in the end, and also for his earlier hubris in thinking that he could cheat the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He comes to realise that, despite all his self-belief and confidence that he could outwit fate, he actually fulfilled its grim decrees without ever knowing it.
Oedipus is not the only character to evince hubris in this play, although he is certainly the most notorious example. Jocasta, too, displays hubris in her dismissal of divine prophecies and the potency of fate, advising Oedipus to simply ignore them. She is punished even more than Oedipus, who does regain some measure of self-control by the end; Jocasta, however, simply cannot face up to the horror of what has been revealed and straightaway dispatches herself.
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