Oedipus Tyrannus Summary
by Sophocles

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Oedipus Tyrannus Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The chorus at the end of a Greek tragedy will frequently state that human knowledge is limited and that the gods work in ways that human beings do not expect. No tragedy deals with this theme more explicitly than Oedipus Tyrannos. Despite Oedipus’s great confidence in his own knowledge, he is shown throughout the play to be wrong about nearly everything. By the end of the tragedy, Oedipus realizes that he had not even known who he was, where he had been born, or how unfortunate he had been. His fate illustrates the dangers of overconfidence: No matter how certain one may be about things, there is always the possibility that one may be wrong.

Oedipus goes from being a powerful and confident king at the beginning of the tragedy to being a blind beggar at the end. In part, this downfall is the result of his own anger. Oedipus states explicitly that it was due to anger that he killed the man who had blocked his way at the crossroads (line 807); this man turns out to have been Oedipus’s father, Laius. Yet it is also stated several times that Oedipus was destined to kill Laius (lines 713-714) and to marry his mother, Jocasta (lines 789 to 793). These two views are not at all contradictory; both Oedipus and fate have determined his suffering. The ancient Greek view was that an event need not have but a single cause. Actions could be “overdetermined,” that is, caused both by the will of the gods and by the nature of the individuals who perform them.

Moreover, Oedipus is an illustration of Heraclitus’s dictum that “Character determines a person’s destiny.” It is Oedipus’s nature to be confident, brash, and desirous of the truth. These are the qualities that enabled him to defeat the Sphinx and that led to his greatness. These are also the qualities that lead to his downfall in this play. As is often the case in Sophoclean tragedy, the same “heroic flaw” that produced the central character’s success also leads to his suffering.

Sophocles contrasts Oedipus with Teiresias, the blind seer, in this play. Ironically, the character who is blind can “see” the truth much more clearly than can Oedipus, who prided himself on his “insight.” Only when Oedipus himself is blind does he “see” the truth. Genuine truth, Sophocles suggests, is not derived from mere observation of physical realities. Rather, truth is perceived through an inner wisdom and is possible only when one is not distracted by the things of this world.