Overview

The main themes of Oedipus Rex are the tragic consequences of knowledge and ignorance, the triumph of fate over individual will, and revealing versus obscuring truth.

  • The tragic consequences of knowledge and ignorance: Oedipus seeks knowledge as a solution to the plague, only to discover that he himself is the cause.
  • The triumph of fate over individual will: Oedipus and Jocasta try to act against the prophecy of the gods but are helpless to change their fate.
  • Revealing versus obscuring truth: Oedipus’s search for answers comes into conflict with other characters’ efforts to hide the truth.

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Themes

Ignorance as a Form of 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...

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