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Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” is a tragic play illustrating a shift from the belief of predestination to freedom of choice. Therefore, “Oedipus the King” becomes a symbolic representation of human progress. In the play, Sophocles concentrates on Oedipus’, the main character, discovery of the true murderer of King Laius and the consequences that follow. As a result, Sophocles proficiently adapts human qualities to Oedipus, instead of the god-like characteristics of earlier plays. He masterfully employs vivid images throughout the play which expose Oedipus as a human being. By depicting him as human, Sophocles reveals Oedipus’ inability of controlling the destiny of his future. For this reason, Sophocles portrays Oedipus as a hunter, a plowman, and a sailor. Further analysis of “Oedipus the King” will explain how these three images symbolize human progression.
Early in the play, Sophocles’ introduces the image of Oedipus as a hunter. In fact, Oedipus transforms into a hunter searching for the truth after discovering the murder of the previous king, Laius. The Chorus confirms the image of Oedipus as a hunter by revealing him as the one whom “. . . . outraged all men!/Bending [his] bow to the breaking-point/[he] captured priceless glory” (1323-25). Believing he is capable of controlling ever situation he encounters, Oedipus declares, “If I’d been present then/there would have been no mystery, no long hunt/without a clue in hand” (249-51). Obviously, Oedipus is ambiguous to the identity of the murderer. However, during his conversation with Tiresias, Oedipus learns that “. . . . [he] [is] the murderer [he] hunt[s]” (413). As a result, Sophocles successfully demonstrates human beings lack of power in controlling every situation.
Sophocles presents further illustration of a human’s lack of controlling all life circumstances by applying images of farming to Oedipus. The city of Thebes suffers greatly from a plague that is killing the “. . . . fresh crops/and the rich pastures, cattle sicken and die/and the women die in labor. . . ” (31-33). Without a doubt, the plague affects all facets of life, from the products the soil produces to the very life that inhabits the land. For this reason, Creon explains to Oedipus that he must “drive the corruption from the land” (109) so the land and people can find healing. Thus, Oedipus acquires the image of a plowman, and his hunt becomes twofold. As a result of successfully hunting down Lauis’ murderer, he will sequentially heal the city of the plague.
Sophocles provides additional emphasis of a human’s inability of control by incorporating the image of Oedipus as a sailor. Moreover, he is the sailor who navigates the ship to safety. By comparing the city to a “ship that pitches wildly. . . ” (29), Sophocles establishes Oedipus’ responsibility of steering the city away from “. . . . the red waves of death . . .” (30). In fact, Creon conveys his excellent navigational skills when he speaks of the time that “[Oedipus] came and put us straight on course” (118). Therefore, it is understandable that the Chorus trust Oedipus and solicits his help, asking him to “steer us through the storm” (767). Unfortunately, an exchange with his wife, Jocasta, leaves him incapable of assisting them.
During the conversation, Jocasta informs Oedipus that Laius’ murder occurs at “. . . . a crossroads” (810), which causes him to become disconsolate. Finally, Oedipus has the recognition that he is the murderer of Laius. Accordingly, he is no longer in control of the ship. As a consequence, the people in the city evolve into “. . . . passengers in the grip of fear/watching the pilot of the vessel go to pieces” (1010-11). Clearly, Oedipus is on a “. . . . voyage home to the fatal harbor!” (485). He ultimately loses all self-control and plunges into “. . . . a black sea of terror . . .” (1683).
By exposing images of Oedipus as a hunter, a plowman, and a sailor, Sophocles successfully generates the concept that it is impossible for human’s to control all circumstances of life. His focus on Oedipus’ hunt for the truth provides evidence that for every decision one makes there is a consequence. Therefore, the consequence of Oedipus’ hunt is his own destruction. During his hunt, Oedipus concludes that his past choices create the plague that corrupts the soil. In the end, he realizes that the reckless navigation of his life creates his disaster. In short, Sophocles brings to light that all humans possess the ability to navigate his or her life; however, the direction one chooses to sail determines the outcome of his or her life.
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