Student Question

Who is responsible for Oedipus's tragic fall? Rank 4 characters.

Quick answer:

In Oedipus Rex, the person most responsible for Oedipus's tragic fall is Oedipus himself. In a fit of pride and anger, he killed a party of men only because he did not want to stand aside to let them pass. In so doing, he fulfilled the prophecy that he would kill his father. Laius and Jocasta are also responsible in that they tried to kill their infant son. Fourth, the herdsman bears some responsibility.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The characters in Sophocles's play Oedipus Rex are quick to blame prophecy for the tragedies that befall them, but in reality, the responsibility lies firmly on human shoulders.

First and foremost, Oedipus is responsible for his own fall. We are told that as he was traveling along the road to Thebes, he met a small party of men and was ordered to stand to one side while they passed. Oedipus was stubborn and proud, and he didn't take direction well. He also had a violent temper, and the situation soon escalated when he refused to get out of the way. Before long, the lead man of the party and his guards all lay dead, and Oedipus went on his way without any further thought to the matter. He didn't even show remorse that he had just killed several men. The lead man of the party was, of course, Laius, Oedipus's biological father (even though Oedipus didn't know it at the time). If Oedipus had shown just the tiniest bit of humility and obeyed the order that was given him, or even if he had stopped short of violence, the prophecy that he would kill his own father would not have come true. Oedipus himself is to blame due to his arrogance and nasty temper.

We can also put some of the blame on Laius and Jocasta for exposing Oedipus and leaving him to die when he was an infant. They let a prophecy control their lives instead of raising their son.

None of the other characters bear any particular blame for the tragedy. In fact, some of them, like Tiresias, try to warn Oedipus about what is happening. Oedipus does not believe him. The old Shepherd who rescued the infant Oedipus was merely doing what he knew to be right in preventing a child from dying, and Polybus and Merope were kind enough to raise Oedipus as their own son. Perhaps they might have told him of his true origins, but they probably never thought to do so. If they had, Oedipus (who also knew of the prophecy) might have been more on his guard; although, considering his pride and temper, perhaps not.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The character who bears the greatest responsibility for his tragic fall is Oedipus himself. His overweening pride, or hubris, kept him from taking the valuable advice that was offered to him. Two other key figures in the tragedy are Oedipus’s parents, Jocasta—who later becomes his wife—and Laius. They rejected their child in an attempt to prevent the prophecy’s fulfillment. The herdsman also is partly responsible because he saved the boy.

Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex is a tragedy in large part because the hero’s tragic flaw directly leads to the negative results that destroy so many lives. Although fate is a significant factor, at various points humans make decisions that affect the subsequent phases. Oedipus is primarily responsible for his own downfall because he makes some bad choices. He not only refuses to heed Tiresias but even mocks him for his blindness. Earlier, although it could be considered self-defense, he killed Laius.

In regard to his parents’ actions, Laius can be considered more responsible than Jocasta because his challenge to Oedipus on the road resulted in the fatal fight. However, she married Oedipus, bore his children, and took her own life—all of which contributed to his self-harm. In some respects, both parents are equally responsible because they abandoned and ordered the murder of their own child.

Ironically, the kindness of the herdsman—which contrasts sharply with the parents’ cruelty—also makes him somewhat responsible. Because he spared the life of baby Oedipus rather than killing him, he contributed to the prophecy’s fulfillment.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial