Character Analysis in Oedipus Rex
Having gouged out his own eyes after Jocasta killed herself, Oedipus is led out to the people. Blinded and soon to be exiled, he curses the shepherd who saved him as a child, claiming that his life was not a mercy and that he has only condemned those he loves. The Chorus agrees. Oedipus accepts that his children have been cursed by Fate and that he alone is guilty for this.
Oedipus has grown up believing Polybus and Merope to be his parents. In this exchange, while Oedipus is grieved at hearing about his father’s death, he is pleased that this part of prophecy has been proved false. He expresses his worry about the other part, and Jocasta tells him that it is chance, not Fate, that rules lives. She mocks fate, telling Oedipus that no one can see the future and that all prophecies are false. Her belief is that it is best to live in the moment rather than in obedience to Fate.
Oedipus’s wife and mother, Jocasta, has killed herself, and Oedipus realizes that all Tiresias has said would come to pass has. Until this point, Oedipus had egotistically considered himself blameless and the hero of Thebes. Now that he has unassailable proof of the charges against him, Oedipus finally bows to fate. He stabs his own eyes out with the pins that held Jocasta’s gown and accepts responsibility for his actions and begins to ask for forgiveness.
At this point in the tale, Creon is an advisor and one of the three named rulers of Thebes. He vehemently denies Oedipus's charge of treason, saying that his life is easier and better than having the burden of leadership. Creon's words show that while he has no ambition for himself, he insists that the law always be carried out because it is higher than the individual. Oedipus disputes this, however, claiming that the king is the king, regardless of whether he is right or wrong.
The original tragic hero, Oedipus is destined by fate and pride to fall into infamy. In this passage, Oedipus boasts that his own intellectual powers saved Thebes and rages against Tiresias for claiming that Oedipus was to blame for the plague. This rage is clearly born of Oedipus’s pride and his fear that he may prove to be less capable than he presents himself to be.
Already, Creon is proving to be a different, perhaps more effective, leader than Oedipus was. He seeks advice in making decisions rather than acting impulsively as Oedipus did. Creon is able to learn from the shortcomings of others and rule with reason, not passion.
The parallels between Oedipus’s physical state and Tiresias’s suggests that Oedipus will gain a similar insight that will allow him to see past the trivialities of the physical world, to see what it important.
At the start of the play, Oedipus seemed like a benevolent and merciful king, mindful of his subjects’ well-being. As the play has progressed and he has become further embroiled in the mystery surrounding the prophecy, he has shown a more malevolent side to his character. He turned against his trusted advisor Creon, threatening to exile him, has insulted his wife, and now threatens to torture this man whose greatest fault is not saying what Oedipus wants to hear. His rising malevolence creates tension that will peak at the coming climax.
Oedipus unknowingly killed Laius and, upon learning this, questions if he is just a pawn the gods abuse out of unjustified spite. The theme of inescapable fate is brought up again as Oedipus feels his actions have no bearing on future events, and that he is simply at the whim of the gods. Oedipus transforms from a noble and respectable king, to a character that the audience feels pity for and ultimately is able to sympathize with.
Sophocles suggests a correlation between the themes of ignorance and free will: free will is used as a disguise for ignorance. Because Oedipus believed that he had free reign over his actions, his act of free will created unfavorable consequences. However, even though Oedipus believed he was exercising free will, the consequences had been predetermined by the gods. Oedipus may be a king, but he lacks control over his own destiny, becoming subject to the same problems as his subjects.
Jocasta chides Oedipus for making a fuss over something insignificant. His paranoia of being overthrown coupled with his intense curiosity about the past put him in a state of agitation. He blows things out of proportion and is overly dramatic, and these vices will lead to his downfall.
Sophocles suggests a very close relationship between Oedipus and Thebes. Oedipus tyrannically treats the city as his own personal possession that others are not allowed to help manage. Thus, Oedipus and the city become a singular entity. This allows Oedipus’s private life to have influence over Thebes, and the effects of this may prove disastrous.
Oedipus believes in free will; that he can actively work in the present to alter future events. Unfortunately, it seems as if every other character is not as optimistic. There are many references to destiny and the unstoppable will of the gods. As the plot progresses, it only makes Oedipus’s efforts seem futile and in vain. Sophocles makes the audience feel pity for him, as everyone but Oedipus seems to know he won’t have a happy ending.
The idea that the tyrant’s life is bad because he must be constantly vigilant and can never relax is common in Greek literature and philosophy. Creon tells Oedipus the benefits of being close to the king--but not actually the king--as evidence for why he wouldn’t be involved in a plot to overthrow Oedipus. Creon is rational and uses logic to understand what is happening. Note how this contrasts with how Oedipus is easily angered and rather irrational.
Sophocles’s stage directions for Oedipus Rex were minimal, so it is difficult to decipher the intention of the ellipses here. It could mean that Oedipus is talking over Creon, or that Oedipus waits for Creon to finish speaking but ignores him and continues his thought. Either way, this reinforces Oedipus’s hubris, as he is too prideful to accept help from others.
Oedipus suggests that the throne can only be obtained through immoral means such as using violence or money. This may indicate that the Oedipus’s ascent to the throne was not through nobly defeating the Sphinx, as everyone thinks. There are many passages throughout the play like this which work to subtly discredit Oedipus, gradually turning him into an unreliable character.
It is ironic that Tiresias, the blind prophet, accuses Oedipus of not being able to see. Tiresias is a well-respected figure throughout Greek mythology, providing guidance to many kings and heroes. Since Tiresias delivers the will of the gods, Oedipus’s denial can be interpreted as an act of defiance against the gods. He will suffer for his own blindness because of his inability to accept Tiresias's prophecy.
The chorus acts as the voice of reason here, urging Oedipus and Tiresias to work matters out in a more civil manner. The fact that Oedipus denies Tiresias and ignores the chorus suggests that he is too prideful to take advice from others and will remain ignorant because of his denial.
Tiresias points out one of Oedipus’s vices: vanity. Oedipus’s vanity makes him myopic. He is unable to comprehend things that fall outside the scope of his own beliefs, and he will have a difficult time accepting the truth. This quality is similar to hubris, and it possibly foreshadows his downfall.
Oedipus urges his subjects to be motivated by their own moral beliefs to punish the murderer. The significance he places on justice above all else, even if that means exiling his own family, is a noble quality in a king. His reluctance to make exceptions, to make decisions according to the situation at hand, may bring unforeseen consequences.
The theme of transparency appears again as Oedipus asks for the culprit to declare their guilt publicly. Although he has good intentions, his lack of recognition for the boundary between what things should be done privately and what can be done publicly suggests a sort of ignorance on his part.
In the second strophe, the chorus seems to be voicing Oedipus’s thoughts. Sophocles establishes that Oedipus believes in achieving success through physical means. He doesn’t have faith in the intangible aspects of the mind, such as intelligence, foresight, or intuition. Oedipus’s reliance on the tangible aspects of the world is an unheroic quality; heroes are often well-rounded.
Oedipus’s extreme altruism is surprising. It is actually very difficult to determine if he is truly the attentive and caring king he claims to be, or if he is selfishly motivated by the feelings of goodwill he might receive. This passage seems to foreshadow a conflict Oedipus might face between his well-being and his people’s.
Oedipus, like a good king should, empathizes with his people, recognizing their pain as his pain. He makes his life very public and discloses much of his personal information throughout the play with the Theben people. The theme of transparency will emerge as he continues to dissolve the separation between his private and public life, desiring openness between him and his subjects.
Divine intervention from the gods was commonly associated with a hero’s journey, like in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey when Athena aided Odysseus and Telemachus. So far, Oedipus is characterized as being a heroic character, receiving help from the gods and saving a town from a monster. This creates expectations for Oedipus to continue his heroic streak.
As King of Thebes, Oedipus has messengers and advisors who keep him informed of what's happening in his kingdom. However, when he hears of the plague that's tormenting his people, he decides to see it for himself (an act that characterizes him as a good and attentive King).