Themes In Oedipus Rex English Literature Essay

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Oedipus Rex is probably the most famous tragedy ever written. The play was produced in Athens around 430 B.C at the Great Dionysia, a cultural festival held in honor of the God Dionysus. In the play Oedipus, the king of Thebes, aware that his city is being destroyed by fire, sends his brother-in-law Creon to find a remedy from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. When Creon returns Oedipus begins investigating the death of Laius,and discovers through many ways that he was the one who had unknowingly killed Laius and then

married his own mother, Jocasta. After the suicide of his mother, Oedipus blinds himself and takes leave of his children. Many historical authors including Voltaire, philosopher Frederic

Nietzsche, and the father of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud reacted at length to the play's themes of incest and patricide. Freud, proved that Oedipus's fate is common to us. "Oedipus Complex" is the definitive parent-child relationship.

Knowledge and Ignorance

Oedipus's desire to gain knowledge that will help to rid Thebes of its pollution is evident from the beginning

of the play. When the priest comes to him to ask for help, Oedipus has already begun the process of searching

for solutions; he has sent Creon to Delphi to learn from Apollo what measures should be taken. When Creon

enters, Oedipus begins questioning him intensely, declares a search for Laius's murderer, and asks for

Teiresias's assistance as well as that of others; when a member of the chorus offers information Oedipus says,

"tell me. I am interested in all reports." His strong belief that the search for the truth will lead to a successful

cleansing of Thebes is juxtaposed with the reluctance on the part of other characters to deliver their

knowledge. Most fear retribution, since their knowledge points to Oedipus as the source of Thebes's troubles.

This belief should also be understood in the context of Oedipus's ignorance and final, tragic discovery of his

identity; by demanding that others tell him all they know he is forced to confront the hideous facts of his

patricide and incest.

Choices and Consequences

Another theme in the play is the distinction between the truthfulness of oracles and prophecies of the gods, as opposed to man's ability to influence his life's trajectory through his own actions. Despite his best efforts to be a

good and wise king, fate works against Oedipus and finally shows that he was wrong to believe in a conspiracy and to substantiate his claims about the evil machinations of Creon and Teiresias, fate

works against him and finally shows that he was wrong to believe in a conspiracy. For example, when

Oedipus wishes to punish Creon, he expresses to a member of the chorus his intention to shape his policy in

forcefully self-determining language: "Would you have me stand still, hold my peace, and let this man win

everything, through my inaction?" Again, Oedipus struggles against the oracle that predicts his hand in his

father's death and boldly asserts that it is wrong when Polybos's death is reported: "Polybos. Has packed the

oracles off with him underground. They are empty words." But the oracle remains true, and Oedipus is

helpless in the face of its powerful prophecy.

Public vs. Private Life

The extent to which Oedipus desires public disclosure of information is particularly striking in the play's first

scenes. He asks the priest and Creon to speak publicly about the troubles of Thebes and to offer possible clues

and solutions in front of his subjects, in spite of their reservations. Creon asks: "Is it your pleasure to hear me

with all these/ Gathered around us? I am prepared to speak,/But should we not go in?'' Oedipus consistently

refuses to hide any knowledge he will receive and wants his informers to adopt a similar attitude. When

Teiresias refuses to answer Oedipus's call and later resists revealing the king's dark truth, Oedipus grows

impatient, hostile, and abusive. Teiresias would like to keep his information to himself, as will the shepherd in

a later scene, but Oedipus will hear nothing of it. In addition, Jocasta is inclined to evade or gloss over the

truth as it is about to be revealed from various people. She views the matter a private one and tries to protect

Oedipus from the disastrous disclosures. Oedipus, however, refuses to tolerate a world in which secrets exist.

He publicly learns the truthâ€"at the expense of his sanity and happiness. His desire for a Theban society that

fosters truth and openess is an admirable one, one that albeit contributes to his demise


The Genre of Greek Tragic Drama

Ever since Aristotle's high praise regarding its structure and characterization in his Poetics, Oedipus Rex has

been considered one of the most outstanding examples of tragic drama. In tragedy, a protagonist inspires in

his audience the twin emotions of pity and fear. Usually a person of virtue and status, the tragic hero can be a

scapegoat of the gods or a victim of circumstances. Their fate (often death or exile) establishes a new and

better social order. Not only does it make the viewer aware of human suffering, tragedy illustrates the manner

in which pride (hubris) can topple even the strongest of characters. It is part of the playwright's intention that

audiences will identify with these fallen heroes-and possibly rethink the manner in which they live their lives.

Theorists of tragedy, beginning with Aristotle, have used the term catharsis to capture the sense of purgation

and purification that watching a tragedy yield in a viewer: relief that they are not in the position of the

protagonist and awareness that one slip of fate could place them in such circumstances.


The dramatic structure of Greek drama is helpfully outlined by Aristotle in the twelfth book of Poetics. In this

classical tragedy, a Prologue shows Oedipus consulting the priest who speaks for the Theban elders, the first

choral ode or Parodos is performed, four acts are presented and followed by odes called stasimons, and in the

Exodos, or final act, the fate of Oedipus is revealed.


Tragedies in fifth-century Athens were performed in the marketplace, known in Greek as the agora. The

dramatic competitions of the Great Dionysia, Athens's annual cultural and religious festival, were held in a

structure made of wood near the Acropolis. The chorus performed on a raised stage. There were no female

actors, and it is still unknown (though much speculated upon) whether women attended these performances. It

is also noteworthy that the performance space was near the Priyx, the area in which the century's increasingly

heated and rhetorically sophisticated political debates took placeâ€"a feature of Athenian cultural life that

suggests the pervasive nature of spectacles of polished and persuasive verbal expression.

The Chorus

The Greek chorus, like the genre of tragedy itself, is reputed to be a remnant of the ritualistic and ceremonial

origins of Greek tragedy. Sophocles added three members of the chorus to Aeschylus's twelve. In terms of

form, the choral ode has a tripartite structure which bears traces of its use as a song and dance pattern. The

three parts are called, respectively, the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode; their metrical structures vary

and are usually very complex. If the strophe established the dance pattern, in the antistrophe the dancers trace

backwards the same steps, ending the ode in a different way with the epode.

With respect to content, the choral odes bring an additional viewpoint to the play, and often this perspective is

broader and more socio-religious than those offered by individual characters; it is also conservative and

traditional at times, potentially in an effort to reflect the views of its society rather than the protagonist. The

Chorus's first set of lyrics in Oedipus Rex, for example, express a curiosity about Apollo's oracle and describes

the ruinous landscape of Thebes. Its second utterance reminds the audience of the newness of Teiresias's

report: "And never until now has any man brought word/Of Laius's dark death staining Oedipus the King."

The chorus reiterates some of the action, expressing varying degrees of hope and despair wilh respect to it;

one of its members delivers the play's final lines, much like the Shakespearean epilogue. Sometimes the

chorus sings a dirge with one or more characters, as when it suggests to Oedipus not to disbelieve Creon's

protestations of innocence.


The play's action occurs outside Oedipus's palace in Thebes. Thebes had been founded, according to the myth,

by Cadmus (a son of Agenor, King of Phoenicia) while searching for his sister Europa, who had been

abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. A direct line of descent can be traced from Cadmus to Oedpius;

between them are Polydorus, Labdacus, and, of course, Laius.

Imagery and Foreshadowing

Associated with knowledge and ignorance are the recurring images of darkness and light in the play, and these

images work as examples of a kind of foreshadowing for which the play is justly famous. When the play

begins, the priest uses this set of contrasts to describe the current condition of Thebes: "And all the house of

Kadmos is laid waste/All emptied, and all darkened." Shortly after this moment, Oedipus promises Creon:

"Then once more I must bring what is dark to light,'' that is, the murder of Laius will out and Oedipus will be

responsible for finding and exposing the culprit(s). Metaphorical and literal uses of darkness and light also

provide foreshadowing, since it is Oedipus's desire to bring the truth to light that leads him to a

self-knowledge ruinous and evil enough to cause him to blind himself. After the shepherd reveals his birth he

declares, "O Light, may I look on you for the last time!" In saying this he sets up for the audience, who are,

presumably, familiar with the legend of Oedipus, his subsequent actions. The second messenger describes his

command to himself as he proceeds to perform the gruesome task: "From this hour, go in darkness!" thereby

enacting both a literal and metaphorical fall into the dark consequences of his unbearable knowledge. These

are but a few examples of how imagery and foreshadowing as techniques can meet, overlap, and mutually

inform one another in the play; through subjective interpretation, many more may be found.