Oedipus the King is one of the most eminent literary works in the history of literature. The work has stood the test of time, and has left an everlasting mark on the minds of the avid readers. The critics across the world have spoken in unison regarding the literary quintessence of the literary work. The character of the protagonist, Oedipus, is an immortalized literary character that embodies one of the most tragic fates in the history of literature. His characteristic traits set him apart, and the chronology of events in his life that shape him as an individual leaves a mark on the minds of the readers as they think in retrospect about the psyche and transformation of this man, Oedipus.
Oedipus is a tragic hero whose life is driven by brutal fate, no matter how much he endeavors to act according to his will. The character is the nest example that testifies that no man can transcend fate, and it is impossible to weave one’s destiny. Even a powerful man like him is left totally helpless in front of the omnipotent power of fate. His tragic fall makes the readers cringe in pain as they witness this man who has not done anything wrong consciously is punished at the cruel clutches of life.
The king of Thebes abandons his son, Oedipus, and asks him to be killed as he is informed by the oracle that his son would kill him in future. As fate has it stored for the child, he is saved and brought up far away from the kingdom. Oedipus grows up to be an intrepid man who is ready to brave all odds in life.
The play begins with Oedipus trying to find a way out from the ill-effects of the curse that has befallen the land of Thebes. He is the king of the land, and is a responsible man who wishes to serve the people of the land with all his heart and capacity. Hence, he sends his brother-in-law to seek the aid of Apollo. Oedipus asks Creon, “Where are they? Where in the wide world to find / The far, faint traces of a bygone crime?” (Sophocles 107-8) Thus, he plays the role of a very responsible ruler who endeavors with all his effort to ensure a better life for the people of the land that he rules. Creon returns only to inform that the curse that looms over the land would be lifted if King Laius’ assassin is caught and prosecuted.
When Oedipus comes to know this, he takes all the initiative to find the murderer. Determination is one of the most important characteristics of Oedipus. He would have never come to know of the truth if he was not determined. Although it brought about his fall, determination is a very admirable trait in an individual. “Sophocles makes Oedipus’s search to some extent a search for self-knowledge as well, but it is royal duty not hubris which drives the action of the play.” (Holland 70) He acts with grit on being informed by Creon about the word of the Oracle of Delphi. He does exactly what an able king ought to do in such a scenario.
He summons many unwilling citizens and enquires of the whereabouts of the matter, so that he can finally find the murderer and kill him. He shows utmost commitment in this cause, and carries out his responsibilities as an able ruler in the best possible way. He is righteous, conscientious and just in his approach as a king.
All of this happens, but he is still in dark about his involvement in the murder of the deceased king. When the blind prophet, Teiresias, tells him that he himself has murdered the King Laius, Oedipus gets enraged. The prophet says to him, “I have no more to say; storm as thou willst, / And give the rein to all thy pent-up rage.” (Sophocles 346-47) The prophet iterates about the omnipotence of fate in one’s life.
Another major trait of his character is his anger. He had killed his biological father at the crossroads out of rage years ago—a nightmare that seems to haunt him even now, although he has no knowledge of it. His violent temper is a major tragic flaw in his character, and it acts as a catalyst for his downfall. He also shows his rage, and lashes out at Creon and the blind prophet for making bad revelations. Thus, it can be opined that Oedipus is an emotional character, who gets affected by things that are unfavorable.
As he enquires more people, he becomes sure that he is the murderer. Jocasta kills herself in the trauma of the revelations, and Oedipus blinds himself. He chooses to live in exile as a punishment for his wrong deeds. Ironically, he had no idea about the wrongs while he committed them.
Another main characteristic of Oedipus is hubris or excessive pride. Oedipus is proud of himself, and many a time in the play his words ooze with his sense of pride. He takes pride in the fact that he saved the people of Thebes from the Sphinx. He believes that he deserves the throne of the land as he is the savior of the people. One major action of hubris is seen when Oedipus endeavors to deny his fate. He was informed by the Oracle of Delphi that he was destined to murder his father and sleep with his mother. To avoid this situation, he never returns to Corinth, the land where he was brought up. He also decided never to meet the people who brought him up, believing them to be his biological parents. He later says, “Thus sprung why should I fear to trace my birth? / Nothing can make me other than I am.” (Sophocles 1085-86) He believes that he knows his paternal identity, and does not fear to enquire about the king’s murderer.
In the sheer irony of fate, the escape from Corinth led him to a situation where he killed his real father, and married his mother, Jocasta. While he endeavors to avoid his fate, he ends up in the most horrific situation that triggers off his fall.
Hamartia is a word that perfectly applies in the tragic case of Oedipus. The word comes from the Greek expression ‘hamartanein’ that means missing the mark. As Oedipus tries to zero in on the murderer of King Laius, he gets to know the unexpected. He wishes to save Thebes from the plague, and leaves no stone unturned to restore the well-being of the people of the land. However, in the process he beckons his disaster.
All the time he lived in the glass house with a false sense of pride and greatness. He is shattered to know that he has killed his father years back. It is, indeed, a sin to have slept with his mother and have children. He finds himself in the vicious circle of fate and life. There is no escape from the brutal clutches of fate, although he has tried his very best to weave his own destiny all these years. “It is he himself who punishes the culprit (this is, himself) through blinding and exile.” (Tymieniecka 50) Thus, he is successful in upholding his sense of conscience in the face of the bitter tragedy of life.
The play Oedipus the King received a lot of appreciation from Aristotle. The play reveals how the downfall of the powerful protagonist is caused by the very actions of the man. Oedipus, in spite of being very powerful as a king, is found to be a mere puppet or plaything in the hands of fate and destiny. It is the terrible irony of his life that while he tries to do the right things as an individual, he treads toward his ultimate destruction. His gouging out the eyes at the end of the play is a very painful thing to witness for the readers. However, this gory act is symbolic of his being throughout the play. He was, indeed, blind of all the unfathomable complexities of the world and life, while it seemed to be crystal clear to him.
Holland, Glenn Stanfield. Divine Irony. London: Associated University Press, 2000. Print.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. London: University of Chicago, 1991. Print.
Tymieniecka, Anna-Teresa, ed. Mystery in its Passions: Literary Explorations: Literary
Explorations. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004. Print.