World Literature

Oedipus Rex


That Sophocles’ Oedipus the King endures through the ages as representative of the greatest human drama is hardly surprising.  In plain terms, there is little of the extremes of human experience not within the play, as those extremes illustrate the most primal human passions and conflicts.  In Oedipus, in fact, there is “something for everyone”.   There is the grandeur of tragedy that potently affects history and kingdoms; there is the element of divine interaction with mortal affairs, adding intense gravity and further shades of meaning to the characters and the events; and there is, perhaps most importantly of all, keen insight and revelation as to the nature of man and what is perceived to be destiny.  Not insignificantly, and as has been greatly explored in 19th and 20th century psychology, there is as well the overwhelming issue of psychosexual relations within a family.  From within such an arena, then, endless speculation as to man’s essence is possible, and this most certainly maintains Oedipus in its status as both legendary and lasting.

The range of issues in the play, then, creates debate as to Sophocles’ primary intent.  For some, Oedipus exists to reveal the danger of man’s arrogance.  For others, it is clearly a work demonstrating that fate is a force too powerful to resist, and humanity generates misery in futile attempts to do so.  Still others feel that the thrust of Oedipus lies in its devastating exploration of masculine rage and alternating love for the mother.  There is validity to all of this.  As will be seen in the following, however, everything in Oedipus serves a greater purpose beyond these concepts.  They are crucial to the effect, but they serve it, and that ultimate effect is Sophocles’ brilliant presentation of man and destiny as inextricably linked.  In Oedipus the King, destiny is irrevocably in place, not because it is ordained by the gods, but because Oedipus himself actually creates it.

Structure and General Story

Before any claim of Oedipus as shaping his own destiny may be reasonably offered, it is necessary to examine the chief components of the play, as well as how each enables different interpretations.  This same process allows for another critical component, that of comprehending the real complexity of the work.  In no uncertain terms, this is a play of relentless action, as it is also driven by events setting the stage for what is to come.  In a sense, Sophocles weaves an intricate web here.  To view his larger aim, then, requires some attention of the structure and the strands forming it.  As this is done, the central element of Oedipus as the chief agent in the creation and fulfillment of his own destiny is then revealed.

In a sense, the actual structure of Oedipus the King, despite its emphasis on action and reaction, is highly unusual.  Even as part of a cycle of tragedies, the play is different in terms of consistent emphasis and actual timing.  More exactly, and has been noted by both Goethe and Freud, Oedipus is almost pure analysis.  All of the events and actions are reactive because the scenario is fully developed before the play begins and the process then offered is one of revelation and exploration (Patrice  20).  Oedipus is the king of Thebes when the action commences, and one facing the crisis of a plague.  Creon returns from the oracle to deliver what explanation he has been given, and this first scene is powerfully revelatory in several ways.  To begin with, it establishes a platform of dire emergency, and of authority facing it.  Clearly, the entire kingdom is in great trouble, just as it is immediately established that Oedipus is its rightful ruler.  On one level, then, it may be seen that Sophocles is merely following dramatic convention.  He offers from the start a scenario ripe with dramatic possibilities, in which an evil must be understood and defeated by a just and responsible king.

There is more than this evident here, and it is important to note that Sophocles does not rely on any previous history to accomplish the effects.  In the exchanges between the priest of the temple, Oedipus, and Creon, and even as revelation is to be the keynote, the circumstances are clear.  The city is begging the intervention of Oedipus, and this can only be because it views him as their savior.  Moreover, tacitly implied is that Oedipus has a strong sense of his responsibility to his people because he has already sent Creon to Delphi to gain information (Ramfos  15).  At the same time, something is clearly wrong and, as it is established that Oedipus is critical to the scene, the seeds of revelation are planted.  The king’s reaction to Creon’s news, in that the city is cursed by the unaddressed evil of Laius’s murder, is taken in by Oedipus rationally.  Simply, he seeks to learn about this event he knows nothing of:  “When Laius fell in bloody death, where was he – at home, or in his fields, or in another land?” (Sophocles  ll 131-132).   This in itself produces a potent effect, in that the audience senses an involvement unknown to the hero.  As will be seen, destiny and character are foreshadowed even here.

With regard to the structure of the rest of the play, political machinations combine with personal griefs and needs so intricately, they overlap. It is true that Oedipus initially suspects Creon of orchestrating a plot to undermine him, and by means of the prophet Tiresias’s explanation of his own history.  Elements then combine to both unravel and deepen the mystery, and each phase of the process brings Oedipus nearer to the core of the curse.   The past subsumes the present, Oedipus finally comprehends the truth of what he has done, he blinds himself in misery and penance, and Jocasta takes her own life.  Within this unfolding of truth and events are other elements of great import, not the least of which is Oedipus’s persistent need to deny the reality of what he has done.  That this is a twin reality of patricide and incest further complicates the meaning, and certainly adds weight to views of the play as centering on psychosexual family conflict.  There is as well the crucial presence of the gods, always influential in the form of higher authorities knowing and acting upon the human realities.  Nonetheless, and also discussed in the following, even these are elements that support the greater meaning of destiny as shaped by the individual, if only by virtue of the extremity of them.  They do not eclipse the real meaning but, through their immense force, actually reinforce it.  While Oedipus the King as a play offers fields for varying interpretations, ranging from suppressed guilt, divine intervention or control, conflict in authority, and the tragedy of violating natural family orders, everything nonetheless brings the audience to a single place wherein Oedipus himself has forged his own destiny.


Reverting to the play’s beginning, this meaning of destiny as self-enabled may be traced to the opening presentations of character and circumstance.  The simple fact that Oedipus is determined to save his people and is ignorant of the true cause of plague is essentially foreshadowing too large to be ignored.  What is accomplishes is the fully dimensional presentation of the king, in that he is clearly one thing and very possibly another.  His ostensible motives and actions are correct:  “So now I will fight on his behalf, as if this matter concerned my father, and I will strive to do everything I can to find him, the man who spilled his blood”  (Sophocles  ll 308-312).  They are, however, a little “too” correct, and so there is a strong sense of mystery, and likely culpability, attached to Oedipus.  Equally importantly, if there is culpability, there must have been action on his part somehow generating the dilemma he himself is out to solve.  Put another way, Sophocles presents in the beginning a vast panorama of drama and situation, but he also keeps his audience focused on what may well be the agent most responsible: Oedipus.

This aspect of panorama, as well as the multiple and intense components of the drama, easily obfuscate just how responsible Oedipus is in his own destiny, and consequently the destinies of all those connected to him.  Nonetheless, Sophocles is true to his larger purpose, which may be seen in other developments in the play.  When Oedipus rebukes Tiresias, he is no longer focusing on what should be his primary objective, that of ending the Theban plague.  This is another “plague,” in the sense that dispute and animosity at this level is likely to translate to more trouble for the kingdom (Girard  ix).  Here, then, is a subtle presenting of the scope of Oedipus’s character.  He is a king with a strong sense of responsibility, but beneath this role is a man clearly affected by private passions.  The actual power of his nature, too, is demonstrated in this exchange, and goes to reinforcing his role as, not as a victim of destiny, but a shaper of it.  Tiresias blatantly tells Oedipus that he is the man he himself is seeking, and Oedipus’s reaction is indomitable:  “That’s twice you’ve stated that disgraceful lie – something you’ll regret”  (Sophocles  ll 434-435).  What is critical here is not that Oedipus is in fierce denial as to a possible truth, but that his will is such that he will oppose such a possibility with all his being.  In plain terms, it is difficult to conceive of a god with more purpose or force of character.  In creating Oedipus as this fixed, Sophocles is here then revealing how one man’s nature can be an immense force in how events unfold.

Tied to this is the inescapable element of Oedipus’s sense of himself as “larger than life.”  There is something of a conundrum here; Oedipus believes himself to be important because divine judgment has indicated his greatness, so it becomes difficult to separate the man from the destiny.  Oedipus views himself as exalted and consequently capable of directing events as needed, as he expresses to Tiresias:  “Mock my excellence –  but you will find out I am truly great”  (Sophocles  ll 554-555).  If the gods ordain events, then, no human power can alter them, and the stage is perpetually set for conflict wherein man defies the greater power of the gods.  The conundrum lies, of course, in the gods promoting those humans to whom they attach important destinies, who then seek to take control themselves.

This duality is certainly a challenge to any assertion that humans, and particularly Oedipus, actually create their own destinies.  Closer examination, however, reveals that the parameters of action and influence are so defined that it is indeed Oedipus who sets his own course, and because his nature compels him to do so.  Regarding the role of the gods in Oedipus the King, there has long been debate as to actual influence.  On one level, the gods, and notably Apollo through his oracle, may be said to instigate events through their revealing of what will occur.  Apollo tells Laius that he will be murdered by his own son, as he also tells Creon what is necessary to end the Theban plague.  This is intervention of a kind, in that it sets out courses for action and offers results that may be relied upon.  It is, however, misleading to overestimate the actual divine impact.  Apollo is the voice of destiny (Bloom  74), and therein lies the crucial consideration.  Through Delphi or through the prophet Tiresias, Apollo clarifies or obscures as the god deems correct at the time.  He does not, however, compel.  He illustrates, he defines, and he even foresees, but the responsibility of choice and response remains with mortals.  Not unexpectedly, divine prophecy has impact, if only in urging human action to take certain directions.  Still, it remains voluntary human action, and what actually transpires then is that an Oedipus, believing a thing, conducts himself in a way to make that thing serve his interests.  It is, more plainly, only destiny when the hero chooses to create it.

As noted earlier, the elements of patricide and incest with his mother render Oedipus vulnerable, at least more ostensibly, to being a pawn of fate.  This is because, also as noted, these are among the most extreme situations conceivable to humans.  They defy what is viewed as the sacred and reflect the wholly unnatural; this being the case, it seems more likely that no mortal man could set a course for himself in which these acts occur.  With Oedipus, the conflict within the character, known or unknown to him, is virtually insoluble.  Not unexpectedly, a great deal of thought links Oedipus to Orestes, as both tragic heroes are doomed to pervert the relation between a son and mother.  If Orestes descends into madness through the act of matricide, Oedipus’s path is not appreciably different, for his marrying of his mother may be seen as only another variation of destroying the natural bond.  Orestes kills his mother to comply with paternal needs but, as the Furies make very clear, there can be no break between mother and son (Jacobs  96). That is, however, precisely what Oedipus does.  In taking Jocasta for his wife, he perverts nature.  That the gods have foreseen this and that Oedipus is unaware of his sin until later are important elements, but they cannot change the reality of Oedipus himself having created this life.  The extremity of the acts then only goes to more reinforce how his own will, oblivious to the true circumstances at the time or not, is the primary agent.

It is held that Sophocles’s Oedipus is unique in that he is not an Aristotelian hero, who falls due to a moral flaw in his nature.  On the contrary, the real tragedy of Oedipus lies in his being only ignorant.  His tragedy unfolds only because he is not aware of the circumstances when he acts (Knox  49).  In all of this, the gods are watching.  However, just as when they speak, that is the limit of their effect, and this is central to comprehending how Oedipus is the creator of his destiny.  If, for example, all the gods and all divine instruction or intervention were removed from the play, what is left is a hero facing unspeakable misery because of what he does not know until too late.  This is often the tragedy of real men and women, and it is interesting to note how in real life the absence of divine prophecy does not lessen the tragedies.  They are all the more painful because there is usually a sense that they could have been avoided, but this, as in the presence of divine witnesses, is immaterial.

Lastly, the relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta offers powerful clues as to Sophocles’s intent in revealing man as the architect of his own destiny.  Freudian issues are rampant here, of course, and justly so; essentially, there is no presentation of such a union that does not generate horror, so the weight of the incest is, as noted, overwhelming.  So overwhelming, it leads the audience away from Jocasta’s own influence on the hero.  More importantly, it blurs her role in the play as a kind of ironic commentary.  Three times, Jocasta dismisses the integrity of prophets and oracles (Kirkwood  133): “So as far as these oracular sayings go, I would not look for confirmation anywhere”  (Sophocles  ll 1025-1026).  On a surface level, this serves the purpose of heightening the tension, and emphasizing an expected rebuttal.  In a sense, that rebuttal occurs when the facts are known to Oedipus and Jocasta, as the god’s prophecy is proved true.

It is equally valid, however, if not more so, to take Jocasta’s skepticism as a warning, very deliberately intended for Oedipus.  To accept prophecy, she implies, is to negate responsibility.  Tied to this is the suggestion that the unknowable – which will shortly strike her and her son down – is precisely that, and it is dangerous to act on what is foretold because such action must fulfill prophecy.  In other words, it is reasonable to view Jocasta as, if doomed, the voice of reason Oedipus requires.  Conflict as to his own power and that of destiny engages him from the start, and Jocasta dismisses destiny because she sees how mortals too often employ it as either excuse or motivation.  That the unknowable does destroy her and Oedipus is then all the more tragically ironic.  It was the unknowable all along that would doom them, not prophecy, and the destiny was created only by how Oedipus and herself responded to circumstances as they happened.


It is inescapable that a great play be subject to different interpretations as to its “true” meaning, if only because greatness itself lies in the expanse of the work allowing for different perceptions.  With Oedipus the King, this is profoundly evident.  The scale of the action and the force of the characters are such as to serve well as platforms for a variety of central themes, not the least of which is the complex and disturbing situation of incest between mother and son.  Beneath and beyond any such issues, however, lies the core element of just how inevitable destiny is in governing lives.  Oedipus is from the play’s start a “marked man,” as the riddle of his past is eventually revealed as the source of his city’s crisis.  Destiny, then, is in place, and powerfully so.  Nonetheless, and as each revelation makes clear, the gods do not proscribe this destiny, for it is created by Oedipus himself.  The reasons are both crucial and unimportant, because the basic reality remains unchanged.  In Oedipus the King, destiny is a potent force, but it is one in place, not because of irrevocable fate or the machinations of gods, but because the nature of Oedipus creates it.

Works Cited

Bloom, H.  Sophocles: Oedipus Rex.  New York: Infobase Publishing, 2006.  Print.

Girard, R.  Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire.  Stanford: Stanford       University Press, 2004.  Print.

Jacobs, A.  On Matricide: Myth, Psychoanalysis, and the Law of the Mother.  New York:            Columbia University Press.  Print.

Kirkwood, G. M.  A Study of Sophoclean Drama.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.  Print.

Knox, B.  Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Tragic Hero and His Time.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.  Print.

Patrice, P.  Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis.  Toronto: University of     Toronto Press, 1998.  Print.

Ramfos, S.  Fate And Ambiguity in Oedipus the King.  Boston: Somerset Hall Press, 2005.  Print.