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Sophocles, an ancient Greek playwright and dramatist, wrote "Oedipus the King" around 427 B.C., while living in the most luxurious times of the Athenian era, and also during the Persian wars (Bloom 12). He was born and raised in Athens to a family of great honor and aristocracy, and had relationships with other highly respected Athenians which benefited him and the success he had with his talent (Bloom 12). Although very little is known about the origin of Greek drama, the plays of Sophocles and other writers of this time were produced from mythology and dramatic irony (Walter 7).The author uses the main character, Oedipus Rex, to show the themes, metaphors, symbolism, and the influences of the Athenian history in a mythical story about the legends and fate of a society.
Sophocles wrote the story of Oedipus Rex in the form of a play, which is the best way of showing the personality of each character and making the events of the play more exciting for the reader or audience. He uses Oedipus's character transformation and realization of himself to set the theme of the story. Sophocles uses dramatic irony, where the audience knows what's going to happen but the character is ignorant of his future, to tell the story (Walter 7). William Walter stated, "Since the audience knows what has happened to Oedipus in the past - which he will soon discover himself - particularly chilling irony attaches to his energetic prosecution of the inquiry and such statements as the one about danger to himself from Laius's murderer."
The main character and protagonist is Oedipus, who gives the play most of its drama, tragedy, and entertainment. Oedipus is a very intelligent man who is great at solving riddles, including the riddle of the Sphinx. He appears to be an excellent ruler who always maintains to cater to his citizens' needs, and does so in a fast-acting manner. Although the people of Thebes admire him and have faith in him as their leader, Oedipus had flaws as well. He is stubbornly blind to the truth about himself, which is a constant problem he faces throughout the story. He leaves his home in Corinth because of a prophecy that was put upon him that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother. After doing this, Oedipus becomes extremely confident that he can stop his fate from happening. Also, becoming King of Thebes so quickly has given him the pride and happiness that makes him believe his life is wonderful, making it even harder for him to face the cold truth later on in the play. After telling the town of Thebes that he will exile the murderer of Laius in order to end the plague, he talks to Tiresias who tries to convince him that he was in fact the killer of Laius. This incident creates a crisis in the story, yet Oedipus refuses to believe it. He and his wife Jocasta find out that Polybus and Merope aren't his real parents, leaving Oedipus confused and angry. Oedipus also knows that Jocasta had a baby that she tried to kill because it was plagued with a very similar prophecy to his own. She pinned the baby's feet together; Oedipus's feet are ruined. Although he has all the facts to make him realize the truth, he is unable to see this and refuses to believe what is put before him. The references to sight and blindness used in "Oedipus the King" refer to both literal and metaphorical blindness. Although Oedipus is known for his quick comprehension and is physically able to see, metaphorically he is blind to the things he doesn't want to believe. Tiresias is a blind soothsayer of Thebes who can't literally see, but has very clear vision when it comes to knowledge and insight about the truth. Many events in the play refer back to the theme of sight and blindness and it turns out to be a significant trait in the characters of the play.
Another flaw that Oedipus possesses is his habit to act too quickly before thinking. He flees Corinth to escape his own prophecy, without considering other possibilities. After leaving he runs into a quarrel with Laius, the current King of Thebes and his own father, and his men and kills them all. After hearing that the plague was occurring because the killer of Laius was in town, he immediately says he will curse and expel the killer from Thebes. Another course of action Oedipus takes before thinking it through is when he stabs out his own eyes after finding out he is the killer of Laius and that the prophecy cursed to him came true. "What good were eyes to me? Nothing I could see could bring me joy" (Sophocles 1473-74). He begs to be exiled and knows he will never see his daughters again. Almost every action filled event that happens in "Oedipus the King" occurs because Oedipus immediately takes action according to his first instinct, often making matters much worse for himself.
Oedipus's wife and birth mother, Jocasta, doesn't play much of a role until close to the end of the play, but has an impact on Oedipus's character. She seems to be the support system and comforter of Oedipus. She tries to help keep peace between him and Creon. Also, she comforts Oedipus when he hears about Tiresias's prophecies, then when she realizes they are true, she continues to protect him. She is the true mother of the story and the character that deeply cares for Oedipus and the overall outcome of the city of Thebes.
The chorus also plays an important role in the play, acting as the ideal audience and giving the reaction the author is trying to give off (Walter 10). Their purpose was often to question the identity and purpose of new characters coming on stage and show the changing of times, which helped the reader or audience better understand events in the play (Walter 10). Sophocles uses the Chorus in "Oedipus the King", like it is used in most of the other ancient Greek tragedies.
The setting of this drama has a large impact on the theme, characters, and overall plot. The society and way of life of the Greeks evolved around the traditions and myths of their ancient time. The people of Athens, as well as Thebes, worshipped the Gods, lived their lives around the customs of their society, and strongly confided in their religion. Oedipus, along with all the other characters, based their life around fate and predestination, which was the cause of many events in the play. Fate plays a strong role in the story because if something was meant to happen from the beginning, then there's nothing you can do about it. Oedipus is constantly trying to fight off the fate of his own life and escape the evil that threatens him; His main task throughout the play is to escape the prophecy fate put upon him, creating the majority of the irony (Woodard 102).
One of the most important aspects of "Oedipus the King" is the dramatic irony that occurs. The first prologue contains very little information about past events, creating irony right from the beginning. William Walter stated, "Since the audience knows what has happened to Oedipus in the past - which he will soon discover himself - particularly chilling irony attaches to his energetic prosecution of the inquiry and such statements as the one about danger to himself from Laius's murderer." Oedipus is known for being very intelligence and a great leader and admired by everyone. He saves Thebes from the Sphinx, yet in the end the plague was put on Thebes all because of him and the unknown fact that he killed King Laius. Oedipus curses the murderer and reassures the chorus and people of Thebes the punishment the murderer will have to face. When he's making all these promises about what he'll do to the killer of Laius, it creates even more dramatic irony because he is the murderer. As Oedipus and Tiresias are talking, it's ironic that Tiresias is hesitant to speak because he is the one that knows the truth about everything. Oedipus, however, blurts out things to Tiresias because of his anger, and he doesn't know the real truth. Ironically, the man who literally can't see (Tiresias) knows all the facts and wisdom, and the man that can physically see (Oedipus) is blinded from the actual facts about himself (Walter 34). Oedipus talks to the messenger who tells him the truth about everything. He goes from worrying about the search for Laius's murderer to the search of who he is, which ironically are the same searches (Walter 38).
Sophocles uses symbolism as well to represent ideas in "Oedipus the King". Oedipus's name also means "swollen foot", given to him because his ankles were pinned together as a baby which has left him with a distinct scar. His permanent injury symbolizes the way fate has marked him, and the way his mobilization has always been affected. The three-way crossroads that is often referred back to during the story is also a symbol used by Sophocles. It represents the moment where his dreadful prophecy becomes reality, and is the main cause of all the future events of the play. A crossroads is a place where a decision must be made, and in this case Oedipus's decision has major consequences.
As Oedipus's character goes through many difficulties and battles with finding the truth about himself, it greatly impacts him as a person. In the beginning he is a witty, prideful and heroic King with all the confidence in the world. Towards the middle of the play he turns into an oppressor in complete denial of the truth. In the end he turns out to be a rejected, fearful man in misery from his tragic fate. Sophocles put all the aspects of fate, Greek history, irony, legends, mythology, symbolism, and blindness to show the tragedy battled by Oedipus Rex and the people of Thebes. Sophocles' ability to put so many different ideas and meanings into one play is what has made "Oedipus the King", along with the other two Oedipus plays, legendary to our society.