In class, we have discussed different tragedies, spanning from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon to Seneca’s Thyestes. These tales incorporate classic tropes and themes that we see all across Greek mythology, such as oracles, family rivalries, and the gods themselves. To me, one tragedy in particular stands out among the rest in terms of cultural impact: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. It inspired Sigmund Freud’s idea of the “Oedipal complex”, and I have even seen individuals post “memes” about the play due to its popularity within the education system. Most importantly, it is often pointed to as the classic ironic tale, depicting a man trying to prevent something that has already happened.
When a plague hits the city of Thebes, Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon to meet with the oracle of Delphi and determine how to end it. The oracle says that the murderer of the former ruler of Thebes, Laius, must be caught and punished before the plague goes away. Oedipus brings in the prophet Tiresias, and when is not told what he wants to hear, insults Tiresias and even accuses him of the murder. Tiresias then claims that Oedipus is the murderer, Laius was his father, and he slept with his mother. Oedipus is in disbelief, and accuses Creon of conspiring against him. Unbeknownst to Oedipus, he did murder Laius at a crossroads and also married and procreated with his mother, Jocasta. The rest of the tragedy deals with Oedipus attempting to determine the accuracy of Tiresias. Jocasta recounts the events of Laius’ murder, which resonates with Oedipus, as he did kill a man at a crossroads after he fled Corinth to avoid a similar prophecy in the past. Oedipus learns that he was orphaned and does not know his biological parents, and that he was given to his adopted parents by a shepherd. The truth later unfurls: the shepherd was ordered by Jocasta to kill Oedipus as a baby due to a hearing a prophecy that he would kill Laius, but the shepherd instead gave the baby away. This leads Oedipus to the conclusion that the prophecy has played out. Oedipus, extremely distraught, blinds and exiles himself, while Jocasta hangs herself.
The play largely runs with the idea of irony in mind. Oedipus wants to make sure this prophecy does not occur, going to different lengths to ensure that it has already not happened; he asks different people to relay their versions of events (such as Jocasta and the shepherd), and recalls his own memories of the situation where he murdered someone at a crossroads. Despite this, we know that the prophecy has already happened. The irony ends up becoming an effective plot device, as it builds the audience’s suspense of when Oedipus will learn of his fate, and what his reaction will ultimately be. This introduces another theme that entices audiences across the span of time and locations…
How much does fate affect our lives? Do we have a say in how our life will play out or is it all up to fate? Or is it a mix of both? These questions apply to Oedipus’ story. We know supernatural elements play a role in the tragedy, as you can see through the appearance of oracles and prophets, so it would not be far off to make the argument that the Greek gods had a say in what occurred. Additionally, we know how opposed Oedipus is to his “fate” based on his desire to leave the kingdom of Corinth after hearing the original prophecy, and his ending reaction to learning that the prophecy has come true. Surely, this means he did not intend for these things to happen and the only thing that could have caused it was fate itself.
However, one has to engage in certain actions for the ultimate fate to occur. For example, even though he knew a prophecy said that he would kill his father, Oedipus still killed a man. Likewise, even though he knew the prophecy said he would sleep with his mother, Oedipus still had intercourse with a woman. If Oedipus was so concerned about his fate, why would he continue to take the actions that the prophecy warned him against? The tragedy suggests he had no idea what he was doing, as he believed his parents were in Corinth. Still, it’s hard to believe that this was entirely fate’s fault when Oedipus could have simply not have took part in these actions.
If you subscribe to the belief that “fate” was not the sole proprietor to the result of the play, then perhaps you could say Oedipus was blind to what was occurring. Blindness has a key role to the story. Tiresias, the prophet, is literally blind, while Oedipus is blind of knowledge. This recalls a key quote, when Tiresias exclaims “So, you mock my blindness? Let me tell you this. You with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life…” This harkens back to the theme of irony, as it is ironic that a blind man sees more than Oedipus. At the end of the story, Oedipus stabs himself in the eyes. This parallels the fact that he was blind to what had transpired, and now he feels the need to physically blind himself as proper punishment.
The themes of irony, fate, and blindness are not only intriguing as story mechanisms of Oedipus the King, but as parables for our own lives. A Congressman can fight for their personal beliefs on the federal level, while ignoring the values of their respective districts. We see this happen often in today’s political sphere, so could this just be the average fate of Congressmen? On a more personal level, I could be doing a small assignment for one class while forgetting a heavier-weighted assignment for another class, ultimately damaging my grade point average. Oedipus the King resonates with so many because it highlights our own ironic personality flaws, which could doom us to our own fates.
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