Oedipus Rex Themes
The main themes in Oedipus Rex are ignorance and blindness and the power of prophecy.
- Ignorance and blindness: Oedipus’s search for answers comes into conflict with other characters’ efforts to hide the truth. Ironically, Oedipus’s decision to literally blind himself coincides with his newfound knowledge.
- The power of prophecy: Oedipus and Jocasta try to act against the prophecy of the gods but are helpless to change their fate.
Ignorance and Blindness
Oedipus spends the majority of the play ignorant of his parentage and of the wrongs he has accidentally committed. Even as other characters attempt to convince him to cease his pursuit of knowledge, he continues forward undaunted. Most of the other characters know enough to be cautious, whereas Oedipus is, metaphorically, completely in the dark. His ignorance makes him bold, but it also makes him reckless. It leads him to unfairly lash out at other characters, like Teiresias, Creon, and the herdsman, because he cannot understand that they are trying to help him. His ignorance figuratively blinds him to the emotions and motivations of other characters.
Other characters endeavor to keep Oedipus from the truth. Jocasta begins to suspect that Oedipus is her son after learning that a herdsman of Laius gave the infant Oedipus to the Corinthian messenger. However, rather than facing up to the knowledge, she desperately pleads with Oedipus to stop his quest for knowledge. The herdsman of Laius behaves the same way, refusing to reveal Oedipus’s parentage until he is threatened with death. Both of these characters attempt to preserve Oedipus’s ignorance in order to spare him from the knowledge of his own damnation. Even Polybus and Merope, Oedipus’s adoptive parents, refused to tell him that he was adopted.
The theme of ignorance as blindness is embodied most poignantly by Teiresias, the blind prophet. Teiresias is physically blind, but, as a prophet, he possesses endless knowledge. By contrast, Oedipus can physically see, but he is blind to the truth. When Oedipus first asks him about Laius’s murderer, Teiresias refuses to respond. Much like Jocasta and the herdsman do later in the story, he laments that even though he has the answers, they only bring pain. Teiresias’s initial unwillingness to reveal the truth to Oedipus suggests that ignorance is perhaps its own form of bliss.
In spite of the other characters’ attempts to shield him, Oedipus eventually discovers the truth. His decision to physically blind himself represents his transition from ignorance to knowledge. Symbolically, Oedipus sacrifices his physical eyesight for the ability to see the truth. However, his decision to blind himself can also be read as a desperate attempt to recapture the blissful ignorance he forsook.
The Power of Prophecy
One of the most important questions surrounding Oedipus Rex’s tragic end is whether or not it could have been avoided. Teiresias, and indeed the plot of the play itself, suggests that it was preordained and therefore unavoidable. Indeed, all of the attempts to escape the prophecy only served to help it come true. Laius and Jocasta sent their infant son away, only for him to be adopted by the Corinthian king and queen. As an adult, Oedipus receives the same prophecy and flees from Corinth in the belief that Polybus and Merope truly are his parents. He ends up in Thebes, where he unknowingly kills his real father and marries his real mother. No matter what the characters do, their actions only spur the prophecy forward, even when those actions are intended to flee the prophecy.
The tragic flaw of hubris is exhibited by characters who challenge or subvert the will of the gods. Upon receiving the prophecy, Laius, Jocasta, and later Oedipus exhibit hubris in attempting to change their fates. Paradoxically, despite the gods having issued the damning prophecy, Oedipus would have been saved if he believed the will of the gods were absolute. For example, had Laius and Jocasta not attempted to defy Apollo’s prophecy, Oedipus would have been aware of his parentage. Armed with the truth, he may have...
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avoided committing the sins that he fought so hard to avoid committing. By this interpretation, the prophecy was a test of piety that Laius and Jocasta failed.
However, read in a different light, the prophecy inspired its own fulfillment. Teiresias ultimately issued a self-fulfilling prophecy; Had Laius and Jocasta never been told about their son’s destined future, they likely would not have sent him away. Instead, Oedipus would have been raised with the full knowledge of his parentage. Whether this would have fully mitigated the prophecy or not is impossible to say. However, Oedipus would not have been able to fulfill it unknowingly, as he does in Oedipus Rex.