Oedipus the King is a typical Sophoclean tragedy where the tragedy of Oedipus is foreshadowed in the beginning of the play. The oracle predicts that Oedipus would be killing his own father and marrying his own mother. Since then, Oedipus tries to escape the inevitable fate that awaits him. The greatest irony of the play is that al his efforts to evade the destiny bring him closer to it. The play has evoked a lot of critical appreciation due to its Aristotelian lineage and Freudian undercurrents.
One of the recurrent themes in the play is predestination and destiny of human life. The Greeks are the chief exponents of human destiny and fate and we do find in Oedipus the King how Oedipus’s self is tormented by the prophecy of the oracle and how helpless is he in preventing the doom that was his destiny.
There have been debates regarding the underlying reasons that lead Oedipus to doom. Oedipus, from the status of a well-respected noble king, degenerates himself into a murderer and indulges in incest with his mother. The play Oedipus the King is very much in the Aristotelian line of tragedy. The rising action of the play begins when Creon comes with the news that the plague in Thebes will end only when the murderer of King Laius is avenged.
The rising action culminates in the climax where Oedipus understands that he is the real cause for the plague. The play then proceeds to the falling action where Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus pokes out his own eyes, invoking pity and fear in the minds of the audience. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is a person who has all the noble qualities, but suffers from a ‘hamartia’ or a ‘tragic flaw in his character. The tragic flaw of Oedipus is his indomitable pride and belief in himself. In Oedipus the king, one finds the journey of the self from pride, hubris, anger, annoyance, self-disbelief and self-ignorance to self-discovery, self-realization and self-knowledge.
But, unfortunately, Oedipus’s self discovery doesn’t lead him to light or redemption; instead it plunges him in to darkness, feeling of guilt and eternal doom, to follow his inevitable destiny. Freud, drawing conclusions from his psychoanalytical theories, states that it is the Oedipus Complex of the protagonist that leads to his fall. According to Freud, every male child has a sexual attraction towards the mother and a subsequent hatred towards the father. The Freudian reading of the play has been much discussed that the term Oedipus Complex has been employed extensively in literary criticism.
The play has had great significance to the Greeks. The Greeks believed in the power of oracles, prophesies, predestination and myths, and were very much preoccupied with good and evil. They believed that the sin or folly of the king would adversely affect the country. Thus the crime committed by Oedipus and the subsequent plague that affects the country is capable of arresting attention of the audience. The Sphinx and the riddle of the Sphinx act as the dominant symbols in the play. For the Egyptians, the Sphinx was a symbol of prosperity and goodness whereas in the play the Sphinx is a symbol of pride and by answering the riddle of the Sphinx Oedipus proves himself to be of superior pride.
Tieresias, in the play, acts as a foil to the character of the protagonist and the physical blindness of Tieresias is contrasted with the mental blindness of Oedipus. Thus, Teiresias, eventhough he “is literally ‘in the dark’ with his own blindness… manages to have sight over everything that is to follow.” (Major Themes).
Thus, Oedipus’s fight with his own destiny only leads to the realization of the pre-order path in life. The human predicament as shown through the self of Oedipus in the play, is made clear when the chorus speaks of him in the concluding scene. Oedipus, according to them, “held the key to the deepest mysteries,” but “misfortune swept over his head” and the implication of this is that no one can be completely happy until “he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace.” (Sophocles, p. 68). One’s path is determined by fate and thus the supernatural remains prominent in the text.
Major Themes. GradeSaver. 1999. Web.
Sophocles. The Theban Plays. London & New York: Penguin Books, 1974.