Themes in Oedipus Rex
Fate vs. Free Will: The tension between fate and free will dominates this play. Fate is a force beyond human control. It was believed to be a progression of events set in place for a person before birth. So powerful is the force of fate that Zeus himself could not defy his own. However, the concept of free will was also incredibly important to the Greeks. Thus, Oedipus’s prophecy becomes a “self-fulfilling” prophecy. He is free to choose all of his actions throughout the story. Ironically, these choices cause Oedipus to fulfill his tragic fate.
Sight and Blindness: Sight and blindness are inverted in the play. Though he is blind, Tiresias is able to see everything. Oedipus becomes the king because of his insight into the sphinx's riddle. However, he is blind to his own identity and crimes and literally blinds himself for his misdoings.
Pride: Greek tragedies often present a hero that is brought down by a “hamartia” or fatal flaw. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’s fatal flaw is his pride. When Oedipus hears the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, he believes that he can escape his own fate. Oedipus is so prideful that he believes more in his own ability to exercise his freedom than he does in the power of the gods. This fatal flaw leads to his downfall.
Themes Examples in Oedipus Rex:
In the closing of this drama, the Chorus tells the audience that while Oedipus's deeds were good, Fate still prevailed. The Chorus's message reminds the audience that as long as Fate has control, there can be no true happiness. One's skills, attributes, qualities, and even faith for the gods mean little if Fate has already placed someone on a particular path.
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.
With this last passage of the play, Sophocles seeks to render all men equal. Again, this relates to the theme of inescapable fate. No one is more blessed than anyone else, and everyone is subject to the same hardships--even kings.
Sophocles revisits the theme of inescapable fate. Where Oedipus once tried to change destiny, he now accepts it. The tone here, though, is not one of welcome but of defeat. Oedipus now feels he is at the whim of the gods, of fate, and that his choices will have no bearing.
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.
Again, Sophocles emphasizes the power of communication and how the talk of others relates to one’s identity. All that the audience knows of Oedipus has been revealed not by him but by what others say about him. Gossip is often described as malicious, but it assumes a more neutral role in Oedipus Rex. It doesn’t dictate bad outcomes, but simply reveals truths about a character, as well as the inevitable future.
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.
Sophocles suggests that one’s reputation, their past, is inescapable and can follow them well into the future. The theme of fate applies not only to Oedipus, then, but all characters. It becomes a haunting force that lingers over the entire play, essentially rendering all of the character helpless, because they lack the ability to determine the outcome of their lives.
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 that his ascent to rule over Thebes happened by chance, not of his own volition or through his own actions but by an act of the gods. The conflict between fate and free will, as well as the difficulty to discern between them at times, provides tension as the play progresses.
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.
Recognition of fault will prove to be an important theme in Oedipus Rex. This phrase foreshadows that refusing to accept the truth, or even simple ignorance, will be the downfall of several of the characters.
This “pollution” is what was known to the Greeks as miasma, a contagious power caused by crimes such as murder. It could only be purged through proper rituals that would lead to catharsis, the Greek concept of cleansing one’s emotions to experience renewal. The expanse of the pollution indicates the theme of the separation of private life versus public life, as a single person’s crime creates consequences for the community.
Considering that the events of this play follow a prophecy, this is a curious statement. It suggests that nothing is concrete, that the future is not necessarily determined by past mistakes, but by how one elects to fix--or ignore--those mistakes. This idea of the variability of the future, as well as the recognition of one’s faults are themes that are brought up again later in the play.
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.
The Priest here lists many of the damaging effects of the plague: the poisoning of their crops and cattle, the deaths of their unborn children, and the disease that spreads even among the healthiest of men. It's unclear what disease could cause all of these symptoms at once, so it seems that this "plague" has been sent by the gods and was caused by someone in Thebes.
Apollo, son of Zeus, god of music, truth, healing, plague, and poetry. His shrine at Delphi housed the famous Oracle, whose prophecies were both renowned and feared throughout the Greek city-states. Apollo's attributes as the god of prophecy and disease establish two of the key themes in the play.