Oedipus the King
“Alas, how terrible is wisdom
when it brings no profit to the man that's wise!
This I knew well, but had forgotten it,
else I would not have come here.”
― Sophocles, Oedipus the King
The oral traditions of Greece included the mythos of the life of Oedipus long before the first performance of this play, and the audience knew exactly what would happen before the gears of the plot begin turning. But the relentless, clockwork motion of the play kept theatergoers rapt then, as it does now, because watching fate unfold when it is known to you but not to the people who are its prisoners is a privilege borrowed from the gods.
Oedipus is portrayed bold, mighty, and just, as the Priest claims him "greatest in all men's eyes".(l 40) Yet he also has human foibles and it is soon clear he has a destiny that, in spite of his actions, cannot be avoided. One theme of Oedipus the King is based on his hubris, but there is also the importance of his search for knowledge, the truth of his own being. Before the action of this play begins, Oedipus has already attempted to outrun fate, marking himself early for destruction. By attempting to escape a prophecy that he would kill his father, and leaving the palace at Corinth where he was raised, he sets the machinery of doom in motion.
Traveling along the highways, he soon enough meets and murders a man he thinks is merely an overly aggressive stranger. Years later, he discovers that the dead man is his natural father, Laius, and that he has unwittingly performed the act he was trying to avoid. The play begins with Oedipus again attempting to reshape the arc of his life that was described by prophecy. The hints of his coming failure are numerous.
In the Priest’s first long speech, when he begs Oedipus to save the city, he appeals to the king’s long experience—as a statesman, as a wanderer, as a ruler and as a vagrant. Unknown to the Priest and to Oedipus—but known to the audience—is that this king’s experience also includes killing his father and marrying his mother. The very experience to which the Priest appeals is moving Oedipus step by step to destruction. This exchange between the Priest and Oedipus is an example of how Sophocles builds dramatic tension into his play by including multiple levels of meaning in a single statement.
The technique will be repeated throughout the play. It reappears just a few lines later, when Oedipus tells the Priest that he has asked for help from the Oracle at Delphi and will follow its advice or consider himself a traitor. With the borrowed omniscience of the gods, the audience knows that Oedipus is already a traitor for having killed Laius, and that he will be faced with pronouncing the judgment he has pronounced upon himself. It remains only to witness what happens.
In another exchange weighted with similarly complex levels of meaning, Creon tells Oedipus what he has learned from the Oracle. Creon begins with the murder of Laius as background, and Oedipus says that he knows of the previous king, but has never seen him. Creon continues, delivering the Oracle’s instructions, and Oedipus vows to find and punish the murderer of Laius.
While the Oracle’s wishes are being delivered by Creon and while Oedipus reacts to them, the audience knows, as before, what Oedipus does not—that he murdered Laius, that he is the dead king’s son and that the widowed queen Oedipus married is his mother. Once again, there is something transfixing, tragic and doomed about watching Oedipus, in his ignorance, attempting to follow the Oracle’s orders but all the time preparing for the revelation of his crime and his subsequent doom.
The first hint of the truth is revealed to Oedipus by the blind prophet, Tiresias, and the king answers the seemingly unbelievable charge with rage, insults and threats. Raised in Corinth by the royal house as if he were the natural son of his adoptive parents, Oedipus rejects what Tiresias says as errant nonsense, saying "Had you eyes I would have said alone you murdered him [Laius]."(ls. 348-9) The blind prophet, who taunts Oedipus as being the one who is unable to see the truth, claiming "you are the land's pollution."(l 353) He challenges the king to reconsider everything about himself and the challenge is met with rage - Oedipus is unable to see the truth or to hear well-intentioned advice.
Pride and faith in his own abilities moves Oedipus ever onward toward doom, failure to honor the gods results in the very destruction they foretell, and humanity is unable to escape what is predicted for it. His wife, Jocasta, is a flawed individual. Her arrogant dismissal of the gods and her proclamations of victory over fate foretell her undoing. As much as Oedipus, she is unable to see until it is too late that her life fulfilled the very prophecy she sought vainly and pridefully to undo. Oedipus begins to see, in brief glimpses, how blind he has been to the central facts of his own life.
Thinking that he is doing a good deed, a Messenger tells Oedipus that it’s fine for Oedipus to come back to Corinth any time—he’s in no danger of fulfilling the prophecy there, the Messenger says. By telling Oedipus that the queen who raised him is not his natural mother, the Messenger has unknowingly revealed enough of the truth to make Oedipus tragically curious and to push Jocasta toward despair. Motivated by a simple desire to ease worry, the Messenger has released the machinations of fate that will produce the full revelation of the truth and all its awful effects. When the Messenger speaks, he is as blindly ignorant of his fatal role in serving destiny as Oedipus and Jocasta are of theirs. He speaks, but he does not see.
In this section, the theme is hammered home time and again that people go through their lives thinking they are fulfilling one purpose when they are actually lurching toward the completion of several others. The gods know this and watch events unfold from above. The first audiences of this play knew the histories of its characters before the first lines were spoken, and the drama unfolded for viewers who watched with the borrowed omniscience of the gods. Modern readers are left to decide for themselves what they think about fate, prophecy and human attempts to outrun destiny.
The climax of the play is both pitiful and tragic. Yet, it also yields knowledge for Oedipus of who he really is, even as he goes forth as a blind man. The chorus intones the message that "Time who sees all has found you out / against your will;" (ls. 1213-14). As Aristotle put it in his Poetics, Sophocles has organized his story so as to emphasize the elements of ignorance, irony, and the unexpected recognition of the truth. The magnificence of this drama has allowed it to endure and challenge readers ever since.