Oedipus the King

A summary and analysis of the play by Sophocles

There are none of the plays of Sophocles which exhibit more strikingly than the two which bear the name of Oedipus that solemn irony which the genius of a modern scholar has detected in the frame-work of this poet's tragedies. This irony consists in the contrast which the spectator, well acquainted with the legendary basis of the tragedy, is enabled to draw between the real state of the case and the conceptions supposed to be entertained by the person represented on the stage. It is this contrast, regarded from different points of view, which makes the two plays whose subject is Oedipus the counterparts of one another, and induces us to think that, whether they were or were not written, as is said, nearly at the same time, they were intended by the poet to form constituent parts of one picture.

The Oedipus Tyrannus represents the king of Thebes, in the full confidence of his own glory at the beginning of the play, but brought step by step to the consciousness of the horrible guilt in which he had unawares involved himself. "The wrath of heaven," says a well-known expositor, "has been pointed against the afflicted city, only that it might fall with concentrated force on the head of a single man; and he who is its object stands alone calm and secure; unconscious of his own misery he can afford pity for the unfortunate; to him all look for succor; and, as in the plentitude of wisdom and power, he undertakes to trace the evil, of which he is himself the sole author, to its secret source." The greatest dramatic ingenuity is shown in the manner in which Oedipus investigates the dreadful reality, and the hearer, though acquainted with the plot, shudders when Oedipus becomes at last conscious that he is about to hear the whole extent of his calamity. The powerful and self-confident king of the early part of the play becomes the blind and helpless outcast of the concluding scene, but his sins were involuntary, and his punishment and humiliation are his own act, so that the sufferer leaves the stage an object of the spectator's compassion, and a fit hero for the drama which renders poetic justice to this poor victim of fate.

As with the Antigone, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus belong to the legendary era of Thebes.

The story is one of the most ingenious of all the fables of ancient mythology; yet others, as that of Niobe, which, without any such interweaving of events, exhibit quite in a simple manner and in colossal dimensions, both human overweening, and its impending punishment from the gods, are conceived in a grander spirit. What gives a less lofty character to that of Oedipus, is the intrigue which lies in it. Intrigue in a dramatic sense is a complication which arises from the mutual crossing of designs and accidents, and this is evidently the case in the destinies of Oedipus, inasmuch as all that his parents and he himself do to escape from the prophesied horrors, carries them on toward them. But the grand and terrific meaning of this fable lies in a circumstance which perhaps is generally overlooked; that to this very Oedipus, who solved the riddle of human life propounded by the Sphinx, his own life remained an inexplicable riddle, till it was cleared up all too late in the most dreadful manner, when all was lost irrecoverably.

Thus, in the concluding scene, Oedipus, after piercing his eyes with a gold-chased clasp from the robe of his wife, laments his fate: "I must needs blind myself, that I may not see my father when I pass to Hades, nor my suffering mother, nor my children's faces, nor yet this city, nor the shrines of the gods. How could I meet my citizens face to face, stained with such dire pollution? Oh! could I but stop the stream of sound and close my ears against it! How sweet a thing it were to be bereft of thought, free from all ill."

Turning to the citizens of Thebes, the chorus exclaims:

Behold this Œdipus
Who knew the famous riddle, and was noblest,
Whose fortune who saw not with envious gaze?
And lo! in what a sea of direst trouble
He now is plunged. From hence the lesson learn ye
To reckon no man happy till ye witness
The closing day; until he pass the border
Which severs life from death, unscathed by sorrow.

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¹ This essay was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1 ed. Alfred Bates. (New York: Historical Publishing Company, 1906), pp. 123-126.

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