Oedipus the King

Mary Kathryn Huffman (married: Gough) / Classical Mythology (231) / Fall ’02 / Professor Winkle

Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King is a masterful work in which Sophocles depicts a man, well-known in Greek myth, who plows through lies and half-truths to find out the truth about a murder – and worst possible truth about himself and his life. The infamous Oedipus (as in the complex) has become King, and, with the best of intentions, has unwittingly committed two of the most heinous crimes known to the Greek world at the time: murder and incest. The victims? His own father and mother. This fate was prophesied him at birth by the Lord Apollo. Oedipus was always fiery, stubborn, and unwise, foolishly assuming that he could save his parents and avoid fate through sheer willpower. All his life he allowed his temper to rage unchecked, almost as if he thought he could lash out at the prophesy he was born to and see it crumble to the ground like ash. As King, Oedipus has as fierce a temper as he had before he was crowned. Though Oedipus loves truly, he is also blinded by self-centeredness and a rather high opinion of himself (probably acquired on his long and difficult flight from destiny). It is worth wondering, looking at this man, whether his irascibility will work to protect or undo him in the end.

The setting of the play is this:

During hard times in his reign, a prophesy from the god Apollo sets Oedipus the task of searching out a murderer living in the land in order to cleanse it and make it fruitful again. The man murdered was Laius, the people’s former king and Oedipus’ wife’s former husband. Oedipus is adamant that the murderer be found and brought to justice. “I am the land’s avenger by all rights,” he says with a fierce determination, “and Apollo’s champion too. But not to assist some distant kinsman, no, for my own sake I’ll rid us of this corruption… by avenging Laius I defend myself” (p167). He sets about finding the people who can give him the answers he means to have. Firstly, the old prophet Tiresias is brought to him. When Tiresias refuses to tell Oedipus what he knows of the murderer, Oedipus rages at him:

“Nothing! You,

you scum of the earth, you’d enrage a heart of stone!

You won’t talk? Nothing moves you?

Out with it, once and for all!


You criticize my temper. . . unaware

of the one you live with, you revile me.


Who could restrain his anger hearing you?

What outrage – you spurn the city!


What will come will come.

Even if I shroud it all in silence.

. . . Do as you like, build your anger

to whatever pitch you please, rage your worst –


Oh I’ll let loose, I have such fury in me –

now I see it all. You helped hatch the plot,

you did the work, yes, short of killing him

with your own hands –“ (p.178)

And yet when Oedipus finally finds out that the man he cursed so hastily before all of Thebes is none other than himself, he still cannot give up his self-centeredness and burning anger.

The well-known catastrophic events play out around him: his wife and mother’s death, the people’s response, his children’s sobs, and his own bitter agony as he gouges out his eyes with broach pins (a blindness fitting, he seems to think, of his previous metaphorical blindness). After performing this act he grieves as the chorus looks on, saying

“The blackest things a man can do, I have done them all!

No more –

it’s wrong to name what’s wrong to do. Quickly,

for the love of god, hide me somewhere,

kill me, hurl me into the sea

where you can never look on me again.


it’s all right. Touch the man of grief.

Do. Don’t be afraid. My troubles are mine

and I am the only man alive who can sustain them” (p 244).

He seems to find it impossible to think of anyone but himself, even in his apparent brokenness. “What grief can crown this grief?” he asks, speaking of his ‘wretched life’, “It’s mine alone, my destiny – I am Oedipus!” (p 242). But he makes it clear that he has not truly broken down or given up; he is still in perfect control of himself, proclaiming that he was the one who blinded himself this time – that it was his own will which willed it, not that of a god.

Now that the awful deeds are done and unveiled, Oedipus’ fiery ragings have burned down to a hugely self-important grief and an intense, yet passive hatred for the gods who destined him for such unbelievable pain. Defiant as ever in the aftermath, he puts on airs and commands as if he had not yet quite given up the power he had lost or the crucial role he had always thought he had. But when Creon brings Oedipus his daughters he begins to mourn over their futures, saying they will almost certainly never find husbands to take care of them – all because of him. His tears are so buried in his own bitterness that he can do no more than wish protection for them in place of the life he should have been able to give them. However, it is my opinion that it is Oedipus’ daughters who begin the humble grieving he really needs to do. Kneeling beside them on the cold stone floor, he is lost in a dark, foggy emptiness filled with their sobs, only able to feel their little heads pressed against his chest, child’s hands clutching his beard – it is in this moment he is suddenly aware of how small and powerless he really is. And also, perhaps, that life isn’t lived by fighting. “Pity them,” he pleads, “Look at them, so young, so vulnerable,

shorn of everything – you’re their only hope.

Promise me, noble Creon, touch my hand! (reaching toward Creon, who draws back.)

You, little ones, if you were old enough

to understand, there is much I’d tell you.

Now, as it is, I’d have you say a prayer.

Pray for life, my children,

live where you are free to grow and season.

Pray god you find a better life than mine,

the father who begot you” (p 249).

But Creon interrupts him before he really has a chance to create his own closure to leaving. Laid bare in the realization of his smallness and his foolishness, Oedipus is suddenly wrenched from the only warm and living bodies left to him as family, from the home he has known so long, and deprived of even the shred of the dignity he ought to be allowed as a human being, it is not surprising that he finally resorts to childish stubbornness, ‘clutching his daughters’ and crying “No – don’t take them away from me, not now! No, no, no!” (p 250).

He is rewarded with the following insult:

Still the king, the master of all things?

No more: here your power ends.

None of your power follows you through life” (p 250).

Often seen in light of the philosophical questions of destiny and the limits of human will, motive, and power, the human elements of this story can be easily overlooked or misread. It seems to me that it is not Oedipus’ temper that undoes him: it’s his inward-looking eyes. All he can see is himself and the huge importance of this terrible prophesy for his life. Perhaps he does really know Love (his daughters, for example), but it is through a veil which blinds him – especially in his fury – as surely as he is blind upon exiting the stage for the final time. Fundamentally it is his particular idea of his own importance which allows him to ignore everything else important which could have given him the sight to avoid disaster. But in any case, it is true that the anger is the tool, if not the source, of his undoing. However I believe that at the very end of the play, in the last page of script, Oedipus is finally humbled such that he can look outside himself – put himself in others’ shoes – and live a good life. Blind as he has made himself, this time when he truly begins to grieve is the first time in his life when his vision has been unclouded by the rage the prophesy intensified and permanently installed in his way of living. The tears shed quench the bonfire of his heart and all that is left are ashes. But before the Phoenix can rise. . . Personal shaming from a relative. And exile. He is given no chance, now. He has learned, but he is thoroughly defeated by his own brother-in-law. Of heroism and durability one sees little here. But of Grace? Nothing.

c. Mary Kathryn Gough

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