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Character Analysis in Oedipus the King
Oedipus: Oedipus is the king of Thebes. At the start of Oedipus the King, many of the events for which he is known have already elapsed, including the answering of the Sphinx’s riddle, the murdering of Laius, and the union with Jocasta. The play details the aftermath of Oedipus’s mistakes. Oedipus reacts to the news of a plague in Thebes by searching for answers. The plague is the result of his own murder of his father, Laius, and so Oedipus’s search leads to his own undoing. The central tension of Oedipus is the combination of his nobility and his unwitting sinfulness. As Edith Hall noted, “Oedipus can only fulfill his exceptional god-ordained destiny because Oedipus is a preeminently capable and intelligent human being.” His undoing is all the more lamentable for this fact.
Jocasta: Jocasta is the queen of Thebes. She is the mother and wife of Oedipus as well as the widow of Laius. Prior to the events of Oedipus Rex, Jocasta was forced to abandon Oedipus on Mount Cithaeron, where he was then found and raised by a shepherd. Jocasta and Oedipus are depicted as having a loving relationship. Jocasta’s care for Oedipus overshadows her desire for the truth. When the same shepherd arrives in Thebes, claiming to have witnessed Oedipus’s murder of Laius, Jocasta pleads for Oedipus to end his search. She would rather protect her relationship with her son and husband than risk the inevitable destruction the truth would cause. In the end, Jocasta hangs herself from grief.
Tiresias: Tiresias is a blind prophet and seer who serves the house of Thebes for seven generations. Hera cursed him with blindness, at which point Zeus gave him clairvoyance and seven lifetimes as a consolation. Tiresias appears early in Oedipus Rex to advise Oedipus in his search for the murderer of Laius. Knowing the truth, Tiresias tells Oedipus, “You yourself are the criminal you seek.” Oedipus dismisses the prophet, calling him blind. Tiresias retorts by calling Oedipus blind, a wise remark on two levels. Oedipus is metaphorica
Character Analysis Examples in Oedipus the King:
Oedipus the King
""who seeks shall find; Who sits with folded hands or sleeps is blind." ..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
By this statement, Creon means that the person who searches will find what they are looking for while the person who waits is “blind.” Blind in this context is more than a physical condition; it suggests a mental blindness to reality as well. Here, Creon introduces one of the main themes of this play: sight vs. blindness. While Oedipus is committed to finding the killer, he is blind to the reality that he is the killer. Oedipus’s denial is a kind of blindness to his situation that causes his ultimate downfall.
" the burden that I bear Is more for these my subjects than myself. ..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
Oedipus’s devotion to his people suggests that he is a morally righteous king. He has his people’s best interests at heart at the beginning of the play. However, the audience knows that the plague is a result of Oedipus’s actions and that the only way to lift it is for Oedipus to offer retribution for his crimes. Sophocles uses this devoted characteristic to both create audience sympathy for this character and establish characteristics that the events of the play will challenge.
"but I grieve at once Both for the general and myself and you...." See in text (Oedipus the King)
Oedipus 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. However, Oedipus’s attempt to remain transparent with his subjects and dissolve the separation between his private and public life is an example of dramatic irony. The audience and reader already know that Oedipus does not truly know himself or the context of his private life. Thus, this attempt to be open with his people is ironic because it’s a false representation of himself.
"by a god inspired ..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
Divine inspiration or aid was a literary trope in Greek stories. This is called deus ex machina. In this trope, a god would appear suddenly and save a seemingly impossible situation from its tragic end. Heroes in Greek epics, such as Odysseus, Telemachus, and Heracles, were often both aided and thwarted by gods. For example, in Homer’s The Odyssey, the god Poseidon prevents Odysseus from returning home and the goddess Athena aids him in overcoming Poseidon’s obstructions. Here, the priest assumes that Oedipus was able to defeat the Sphinx because a god intervened; in other words, he was victorious because the gods were one his side. This sets up Oedipus’s character as a trustworthy man and hero.
"A blight on wives in travail..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
The Priest here lists many of the damaging effects of the plague: the crops and cattle are dying, the children are dying in their mothers’ wombs, and the disease that spreads even among the healthiest of men. While many priests and suppliants pray to the gods for relief, this priest comes to Oedipus to help them escape this plague. Notice that the priest is careful to say that Oedipus does not equal the god’s power, a claim that would have caused more divine wrath, but rather that Oedipus is favored by the gods and can therefore uncover some kind of defense against the blight.
"CHORUS..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
In ancient Greek tragedies, the Chorus was a group of unnamed characters who acted as a collective, speaking (or singing) about and to the various themes and characters in the play. They offer background information about the plot and characters and help the audience follow the action. The chorus often operated as the moral center of the play, demonstrating for the audience how they were supposed to interpret the themes of the play and offering crucial insight to characters on stage.
"in whom Above all other men is truth inborn...." See in text (Oedipus the King)
Oedipus knows that Teiresias, as a prophet, may have insight into the identity of Laius’s murderer. The question remains whether Teiresias’s knowledge, or any other intervention for that matter, can steer Oedipus away from his fate.
"I His blood-avenger will maintain his cause As though he were my sire,..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
Oedipus’s declaration of vengeance for the former king, Laius, is full of dramatic irony. Oedipus intends to avenge Laius “as though he were my sire,” sire meaning “father.” The audience already knows that Laius is his sire. The term “blood-avenger” evokes both Laius’s spilled blood as well as the biological connection between Oedipus and Laius, to which Oedipus is blind.
"This is no time to wrangle but consult How best we may fulfill the oracle...." See in text (Oedipus the King)
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.
"For, let alone the god's express command, It were a scandal ye should leave unpurged..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
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.
"Give him no part in prayer or sacrifice Or lustral rites,..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
Oedipus forbids the killer to take part in any religious rites, speaking to the Greeks’ views on the place of criminals in religion. The gods would be offended by the presence of a polluted man, so his sacrifice wouldn’t even be a proper ritual offering. Whoever the murderer is would be relegated to subhuman status.
"I summon him to make clean shrift to me...." See in text (Oedipus the King)
The theme of transparency appears again as Oedipus asks for the culprit to “make clean shrift”—in other words, to confess his guilt. Although Oedipus 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.
"All our host is in decline; Weaponless my spirit lies...." See in text (Oedipus the King)
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.
"Why didst thou harbor me, Cithaeron, why Didst thou not take and slay me? Then I never Had shown to men the secret of my birth...." See in text (Oedipus the King)
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 once held Jocasta’s gown, accepts responsibility for his actions, and begins to ask for forgiveness.
"My curse on him whoe'er unrived The waif's fell fetters and my life revived!..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
Having gouged out his own eyes after Jocasta’s suicide, Oedipus is led out before 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.
"Why should a mortal man, the sport of chance, With no assured foreknowledge, be afraid?..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
Oedipus has grown up believing Polybus and Merope to be his parents. In this exchange, while Oedipus grieves over 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.
"Thy Thebans? am not I a Theban too? ..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
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 without having the burden of leadership. Creon's words show that while he has no ambition for himself, he believes that the law should 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.
"but I came, The simple Oedipus; I stopped her mouth By mother wit, untaught of auguries...." See in text (Oedipus the King)
The quintessential 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.
"it were not meet that I should learn From others, and am hither come, myself,..." See in text (Oedipus the King)
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. This act characterizes him as a good and attentive King who takes care of his people.