What are the two major themes of Oedipus Rex?

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In determining the themes of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, it's important to understand the distinction between a theme and a motif.

A theme is a dominant central idea, message, or moral that the playwright wishes to convey to the audience. A theme is often a universal truth, at least at the time the play was written, and is often centered around society, human nature, or the human condition.

A motif is a recurring idea, image, symbol, or event that supports, reinforces, or helps to explain a theme.

It's also important to understand the context in which the plays were written and performed. In Ancient Greece, plays weren't intended for entertainment—they were written and performed in order to teach the audience a moral lesson.

Most of the plots of Greek tragedies were based on ancient myths and legends that the audience grew up reading and hearing. The audience already knew how the story was going to end when they went to see a play, so what was interesting to the audience was not the myth or legend itself, but how the playwright dramatized the myth and how the playwright dramatized the lessons to be learned from the myth.

A good question to ask is whether a particular idea or event is a lesson or moral to be learned (a theme) or if the idea or event simply supports the lesson to be learned (a motif).

A major theme in Oedipus Rex is that the gods, not individual human beings, determine an individual's fate—the idea of fate versus free will.

No matter what Oedipus or anybody else does, no matter how much free will Oedipus exercises (or thinks he does), he can't escape his fate. He will kill his father and marry his mother because the gods said so.

The Oracle is a major motif that supports the theme of fate versus free will. The oracle made predictions based on the will of the gods and provided guidance, often in cryptic terms. The oracle is discussed or consulted several times during the play. Nothing having to do with consulting the oracle is a theme of Oedipus Rex, but the oracle is a motif that recurs throughout the play and which supports the theme of the will of the gods versus free will.

Another major theme of Oedipus Rex is that excessive pride (hubris) caused Oedipus' tragic downfall. There's a lesson to be learned from the choices that Oedipus makes, particularly the mistakes that he makes, based on his pride.

A motif that supports this theme is blindness. In Oedipus Rex, blindness symbolizes ignorance in the sense that some characters simply don't know that they're acting against their own or another character's best interest. Blindness also represents a prideful refusal to see and acknowledge the truth of the prophecies, as well as a refusal to recognize one's own faults.

In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus's pride and his refusal to recognize the will of the gods lead to his tragic downfall.

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The two most prominent themes in Oedipus Rex are:

Knowledge, as it relates to oneself, one's family, and one's society at large.  The dominant motif in the play is, of course, sight and blindness.  We have a brash young king with perfect outward sight who is blind to his own self-knowledge and his family history.  Oedipus is blind to rage and arrogance, both of which cause him to make tragic mistakes.  As his foil, we have an old blind prophet in Tiresias who sees only too well these mistakes and tries to warn Oedipus, but, alas, it is too late.

Choices, as they relate to freedom and fate.  Did Oedipus have choices in this play?  Did fate or freedom of choice cause his downfall?  Could he have prevented his family's tragedy?  Yes, he could; otherwise, this play would fall apart and cease to be a tragedy.  Yes, the play is engineered for disaster, but Oedipus speeds up his own downfall by failing to listen to Creon, Tiresias, and most importantly, himself.  Denial of the past is an all too easy way to set oneself up to fail.  But, in the end, Oedipus has victory over his fate, as he chooses to punish himself and suffer for never knowing to begin with.  In this way, Oedipus becomes heroic by realizing that the greatest ethical and moral choice of all is to suffer.

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What is the theme in Oedipus Rex?

Another theme of the text is that mortals cannot escape the gods' will. The oracle of Delphi, who delivers the prophecy that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother, is thought to be the mouthpiece of the god Apollo. When Oedipus hears this prophecy, he decides that, rather than go home to Corinth, he will stay away: this way, he could not possibly, even inadvertently, kill his father, Polybus, and marry his mother, Merope. He doesn't know, of course, that Polybus and Merope adopted him and that Corinth is not really his home. In his pride, Oedipus assumes that he can escape the prophecy by outsmarting the oracle (and, by implication, Apollo), and this is actually what enables the prophecy to come true. When he decides not to return to Corinth, he goes to Thebes, where his birth parents are from. On the way, he encounters his birth father, Laius, who he kills in anger, and he marries his birth mother, Jocasta, shortly after he arrives. Oedipus's pride drives him to think that he can outsmart the oracle, and so he tries to do so; it is this very fact that actually enables the prophecy to come to fruition. It is said that pride goes before the fall, and this theme applies to Oedipus as well.

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What is the theme in Oedipus Rex?

One of the major themes in this play is the inevitability of fate. Oedipus thought he had done everything he could to avoid fulfilling the terrible destiny predicted for him by a religious oracle when he was a baby: that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother. Those around him sought to avoid this in the first instance by leaving him out to die, but he was taken in by a kindly shepherd and grew up never knowing his father and mother, King Laius and Queen Jocasta, so that when he came across them he was quite unable to recognise him (and vice versa) and ended up unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother. When the truth of this is eventually brought to light, the horror is so great that Jocasta kills herself and he puts out his own eyes and is forced to become an exile in his old age.

However the play does not just focus on such grim events: it also shows how people can cope with even the most terrible events that befall them. Oedipus does survive, he is strong, and in the sequel to this play, Oedipus at Colonus, he actually goes on to regain  a measure of power and authority, becoming, in his death, an oracle-like figure.

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What is the theme of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles?

In any great work of literature there are arguably an abundance of themes, and this classic play is certainly no exception. So, in answer to your question, I am going to focus on one theme that to me stands out as being essentially important to the action - the gradual journey of self-knowledge that Oedipus embarks on through the course of the play.

Oedipus is certainly sincere in wanting to find the killer of Laius and thereby rid Thebes of its punishment and the plague that is killing its citizens. However, bizarrely, the dramatic irony that makes us know that it is him all along that he is looking for casts Oedipus in this play as a detective who is hunting for himself, and gradually pieces together the hideous truth. He certainly spares no efforts in his quest for truth, as is shown by the thorough and vigorous interrogation that he gives Creon. He even goes as far as to ask for the advice and wisdom of Teiresias in his quest. He says, at many stages, that he wants any scrap of information that could help him find the killer. Yet what is fascinating to focus on throughout the play is that the vibrant and defiant certainty that Oedipus has that the revelation of the truth will lead to the end of the punishment of Thebes is always contrasted to the severe reluctance of other characters to share and reveal their knowledge. It is clear that this reluctance is based on fear, as these characters are able to see what Oedipus is blind to until later on in the play - that their clues implicate Oedipus in the murder of Laius and point towards his involvement in the plague. Oedipus, for most of the play, remains ignorant, but as he gradually pieces together the clues he is given he makes the ultimate and desperate discovery of the truth, and his identity. Ironically, by his insistence that others reveal their information he is forced to confront ever-more his own role in this saga and how he has committed the unforgivable crime of patricide and incest. It is this final act of "seeing" himself for who he really is and knowing himself for whom he really is that ironically results in his own self-mutilation - he cannot bear to "see" any more in this life.

I have included a link to the enotes section of this play based on themes to help you investigate other themes.

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