Saturday, September 17, 2011
Essay on Oedipus the King by Sophocles
Tragedy pertains to a tragic drama. It is so-called because it describes the suffering of the protagonist or the main character as a result of a misfortune of which he has no control. While the protagonist’s misfortune may seem to be the result and consequence of his actions, it also emphasizes human weakness and vulnerability to certain actions, which may be caused by either man or God. The severity and harshness of the ending is also seen as something which the protagonist does not deserve. Thus, a tragedy “deals with the pain and suffering caused when an individual, obstinately defying the dictates of divine will or temporal authority, or refusing to yield to destiny and circumstance, instead obeys some inner compulsion that leads to agonizing revelation...." (“Greek Tragedy 1)
This essay seeks to prove that Oedipus the King is indeed the perfect model of a tragedy in the sense that it has all the elements of a great tragedy - human suffering, human frailty and weakness and powerlessness to control one’s destiny. A brief summary, including a background, will be discussed in the beginning of the paper which will be followed by several arguments that aims to prove that Oedipus the King is a perfect model of a great tragedy.
Background of Oedipus the King
As a backgrounder, Laius, the King of Thebes, was informed by a prophet that a child born to him and his wife, Jocasta, will murder him. Fearing that that the prophecy may come true, Laius took his child, pierced his ankle and ordered a servant to leave the child in a mountain. A shepherd found the boy, took pity on him and took him to Corinth. This boy, named Oedipus, meaning swollen feet, was raised by the King and Queen of Corinth as if their son. When the boy grew up, a drunken man revealed that he was not the true son of Polybus, the King of Corinth. Eager to find out the truth about himself, he consulted the Delphic Oracle who told him that he would murder his father and marry his mother. For fear that the oracle may come true, Oedipus left Corinth. Upon arriving at a fork, Oedipus met Laius and four other people. A quarrel followed, Oedipus eventually killed all the men. While he was in Thebes, Oedipus encountered a Sphinx which had a woman’s head, eagle’s wings, lion’s body and serpent’s tail. The sphinx had asked everybody a riddle. Anybody who failed to answer the riddle or gave an incorrect answer to the riddle was immediately eaten. Bold and self-confident, Oedipus faced the Sphinx and answered the riddle. As a result, the Sphinx killed itself. The grateful people of Thebes proclaimed him as heir hero and king. He married the king’s widow, Jocasta. They begot two sons and two daughters. Several years after, a plague struck in Thebes. In his desire to put a stop to the plague, Oedipus consulted a prophet who revealed that the plague would not end until the people of Thebes drive out the murderer of Laius who was within the city. The prophet also made an allusion that Oedipus was Thebes’ pollution which angered him. Oedipus thought that this was a scheme of Creon, his brother-in-law whom he thought desired to replace him as King. At this point, Jocasta told Oedipus that the oracle once prophesied that Laius will be killed by his son. She told him that the prophecy was not true as an eyewitness said that Laius was killed by highway robbers in a location where three different roads meet. Oedipus suddenly remembered an incident in his past where he fled from Corinth and killed a man along the way because of quarrel as to who had the right of way. He thought that the same man could be Laius. As a result he asked that people to look for the herdsman who witnessed the killing of Laius. Later on a messenger brought news that the King Polybus was dead. Laius was asked to return to Corinth to rule the kingdom. Overjoyed that the oracle’s prediction did not come true, he relayed the news to Jocasta. The messenger told Oedipus not to worry about the prophecy since Polybus was not his real father and that the messenger took the baby from the shepherd who found Polybus. The shepherd then revealed that Jocasta once handed to him a baby boy for him to leave on the mountain to die. He however took pity and gave the boy to a messenger. At that point, Oedipus realized that he was indeed Laius child who killed his own father and married his own mother. Jocasta committed suicide after the revelation. Oedipus on the other hand, realizing his mistakes, took his eyes out and pierced it with a knife making him blind. He then left Thebes after asking Creon to take care of his daughters.
The story is a perfect model for a great tragedy because it emphasizes on human weakness, human suffering and man’s inability to change his destiny. A human weakness that is evident throughout the play is pride. Oedipus was a very proud, arrogant and confident man. He had such a high regard for himself that he confidently challenged the Sphinx oblivious of the possibility that the Sphinx may kill him. He knew that he had the intelligence to answer the riddles of the Sphinx no matter how difficult it was. He was successful and became the King of Thebes and married the Queen. As the King, he became more proud and the people exalted and praised him for his courage and intelligence. He considered the people of Thebes as his children who needed his guidance and protection. The people, in return, looked up to him and admired him.
It was this pride and self-confidence that drove Oedipus to investigate and search for the murderer of Laius. Upon learning that the only solution for the plague to leave Thebes and for his people to be saved is to find the murderer of Laius, he took it upon himself to find the murderer. Despite his fears and despite having second thoughts, he proceeded with his investigation confident that in the end he will triumph and once more save the people of Thebes. This was evident in the manner he relentlessly pursued with his investigation. He used his power and position as King to look for the answers to his questions. Thus, he questioned Teiresias and other people such as the herdsman, the messenger, Creon and many others in order to find the truth.
Pride and self-confidence were also the reasons why he thought he could escape his destiny. Thinking that he can do anything, he left Corinth. He thought that by leaving Corinth, he will be able to change his destiny and rewrite his own future. Concerned that the prophecy may be fulfilled, he left Corinth so that he will not murder his own father and marry his own mother. Oedipus, in fact, celebrated several times in the story as he thought that he successfully defied the oracle. This was evident in the story when he received news that the King Corinth had died. Though he loved King Polybus as he was raised by King Polybus as his own son, he was pleased that King Polybus did not die from his own hands. He thought that he managed to escape the oracle’s prophecy. The second was when Jocasta informed him that Laius died at the hands of several robbers. For Oedipus, this could only mean that he could not have been the person who killed Laius. And so he rejoiced thinking that he managed to defy the oracle.
In the end, however, Oedipus’ arrogance led to his downfall. He lost his wife. He lost his eyesight. He lost his children. He lost his kingship. As the investigator, he uncovered the riddles of his life and found out that he was the boy born of Laius and Jocasta who was the subject of the prophecy. His intelligence, pride and arrogance led to this discovery which resulted in him losing everything that he had.
He also realized that no matter what he did he will not be able to escape his destiny. No matter how hard he tried to defy and refuse to yield to his destiny, the ultimate end is that circumstances within and beyond his control will conspire resulting in the fulfillment of what has been preordained even before one is born.
Oedipus the King is a perfect model for a tragedy. It may true that had Oedipus not been so proud of himself he would not have lost everything. His wife would not have committed suicide. He may still have retained his kingship, his children and his eyesight. To a certain extent, Oedipus triggered the events that happened in his life. However, it is also true that Oedipus should not be faulted for the suffering he experienced. It was not his fault that he was given away and left to die by Laius. It was not his fault that he left Corinth to avoid killing Polybus whom he believed was his father. It was not his fault that he encountered Laius in a crossroad which resulted in him killing Laius. It was also not his fault that he defeated the Sphinx and married Jocasta, the Queen of Thebes. It was also not his fault that a plague came to his Kingdom. Everything happened by accident. Oedipus did not intend to cause any harm to any person. Yet his actions brought suffering to himself, to his wife and mother Jocasta, to his children who are also his brothers and sisters, and to his people. This is indeed a tragic end.
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