Type: Critical Essays
Sample donated: Laurence Hall
Last updated: March 23, 2019
In Sophocles’ Oedipusthe King, Oedipus sends his brother-in-law, Creon, to an oracle to find outhow to end the plague that has befallen his city, Thebes.
Creon returns withthe news that the murderer of the previous king, Laius, must be captured andexecuted if order is to be restored to the city. Upon discovering the solution,Oedipus is determined to find the murderer and end the plague. However, blindprophet Teiresias advises Oedipus not to pursue more information on the matter,since it will only lead to greater pain and suffering. Oedipus allows no one tointerfere with his pursuit, and because of his pride and stubbornness, helearns that he has, in fact, killed his own father and slept with his ownmother. The story ends in overall tragedy.
Although it seems as if all thesuffering that occurred in Oedipus the King is a direct result ofOedipus’ hubris, Sophocles argues that fate is ultimately stronger than freewill, and that subjects cannot be entirely to blame for the choices that theymake. Throughout Oedipus the King, Oedipusis constantly allowing his excessive pride to drown out the advice given to himby those that already know the horrific truth behind the knowledge that he isseeking. This shows that Oedipus’ tragic flaw is his hubris, which suggeststhat his actions are responsible for the numerous tragedies that ensue.However, it also shows that that he will do anything to make the abominabletruth disappear, and to ultimately escape his fate, which is a notion thatSophocles deems impossible. One of the first displays of Oedipus’ blatanthubris occurs when the blind prophet, Teiresias, refuses to tell him the truth:Indeed, I am so angry I shall not hold back ajot of what I think.
For I would have you know I think you were complotter ofthe deed and doer of the deed save in so far as for the actual killing. Had youhad eyes I would have said alone you murdered him. (Sophocles 391-395) Oedipus is so displeasedwith Teiresias’ behavior and disobedience to divulge his knowledge, that heaccuses him of being the murderer of Laius. Although Oedipus is excessivelyproud, overcome with anger, and determined to seek the forbidden truth, any ofhis actions cannot change what has already been done. Unbeknownst to him atthis time, Oedipus is guilty of both murdering his father and sleeping with hismother, and no amount of power or pride can reverse his fate, which iscongruent with Sophocles’ argument that fate always overpowers free will. Evenwhen Teiresias eventually does tell Oedipus about his shameful truth, Oedipus’hubris still manages to prevent him from processing it.
At this point in thestory, he has the answers he has been seeking all along, and he can technicallyput an end to the city’s suffering. It is Oedipus’ hamartia that leads to morecatastrophe, as he repeatedly shows that he is more concerned with himself thanhe is with anyone else. Even within Oedipus’ most intimate relationship- the onethat he shares with his wife, Jocasta- he refuses to set aside his hubris,accept the person that he is, and deal with the consequences of the shamefulacts he has committed. At first, Jocasta is just as proud and unwilling to takethe advice of the prophecies as Oedipus is. However, after meeting with thefirst messenger, many critical clues are revealed, and it is evident that thepieces are beginning to come together for both Oedipus and Jocasta. Oedipus andJocasta are slightly put at ease when they learn that Oedipus’ father inCorinth, Polybus, is dead by natural causes. But even this is not enough tosatisfy Oedipus, and his desire to go after the forbidden truth intensifieswhen he finds out that Polybus is not his biological father. Unfortunately,Jocasta is no longer foolish enough to want to pursue the matter any further,and so she warns Oedipus “Why ask of whom he spoke? Don’t give it heed; nor tryto keep in mind what has been said, it will be wasted labor” (Sophocles 1202).
He does not listen, and she humbles herself even more: “I beg you- do not huntthis out- I beg you, if you have any care for your own life. What I amsuffering is enough” (Sophocles 1206). This moment is crucial, for it expressesthat Jocasta can now see clearly that the greater pain really does come withthe more questions asked. She is no longer blind to the truth, and it damagesher in ways that she cannot live with.
Arrogant Oedipus, remainingtragically-flawed and learning nothing from Jocasta’s reaction, continues thepath to his own downfall. His selfishness distracts him from the fact that fatewill have its way no matter what he does. Thelast instance in which Oedipus’ hubris inhibits him from doing what is ineveryone’s best interest, reveals itself in the meeting he has with the secondmessenger. This is the herdsman Jocasta warned him against, and this pivotalinteraction exemplifies Oedipus’ tragic flaw, while simultaneously provingSophocles’ point that fate has the power to overcome free will. After undergoingOedipus’ interrogation, the herdsman finally gives in and reveals the lastpiece of information, which manages to convince Oedipus of what the prophecieswere telling him all along: “O master, I pitied it, and thought that I couldsend it off to another country and this man was from another country.
But hesaved it for the most terrible troubles. If you are the man he says you are,you’re bred to misery” (Sophocles 1360). The herdsman did not want to kill babyOedipus, and so he tried to escape fate by sending him off to Corinth. Thesignificance of this moment lies within the fact that Oedipus is, at last, madefully aware of the truth he had been avoiding throughout the entire play. His pridevanishes, and shame and regret arise in its place. Sophocles’ Oedipusthe King tells the story of a man, too blinded by his pride to see ahideous truth that has been presented to him repeatedly.
Oedipus’ acts ofselfishness and arrogance throughout the play are followed by an avalanche oftragic events. However, regardless of the callousness of his actions, his fateis still unavoidable, and the pitiful acts he has already committed areirreversible. Therefore, Oedipus can be criticized for his lack of wisdom andexcessive pride, but these traits cannot technically be to blame for the tragicfate that befalls him.