Table of Contents
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex portrays the reality of human nature, that despite how respectable or politically powerful individuals become in society, they will never escape from their innate human weaknesses. The fate of the play’s major character, King Oedipus, demonstrates that even people of high stature make mistakes, which subsequently lead to their downfall. Oedipus becomes a king of Thebes after solving the riddle of the sphinx and saving the city from an impending calamity. However, like all heroes of Greek mythology, who experience a tragic end, Oedipus, despite his wisdom, has character flaws: he is stubborn, proud, arrogant, ambitious, determined and obsessively curious to the point of being reckless. Not surprisingly, when the Oracle reports that Thebes is facing a crisis as a result of the murder of King Laius, Oedipus embarks on a mission to expose the murderer. Consequently, Oedipus initiates and facilitates his downfall due to his determination to unravel the mysteries surrounding the king’s death, despite warnings by the prophet Tiresias and his wife/mother Jocasta. His pride compels him to seek to prove that the oracles are wrong in their declaration that he is the king’s murderer. With reference to the play Oedipus Rex, this essay argues that Oedipus’ downfall is a direct consequence of his character flaws: his pride, blind determination, stubbornness, arrogance and hastiness in making decisions.
Critics, who blame fate for the misfortune that befalls Oedipus, argue that he was a helpless pawn in a game played by the gods. Indeed, the role of the gods in the affairs of mortals is a central motif in Greek literature. The gods are always in the thick of things when misfortune destroys heroic figures, their tragic character flaw notwithstanding. In Oedipus the King, for instance, the prophecy by the oracle that Oedipus will kill his biological father and commit incest with his mother suggests that he is just but a puppet in the hands of the gods, who manipulate events to the inevitable tragic end that befalls him. In this case, the prophecy of the god Apollo is of “the self-fulfilling kind, in that it engineers Oedipus’ estrangement from his natural parents and his fatal encounter with King Laius at the crossroads; to do so, Apollo needs only withhold information from Oedipus when he wants and supply it where it will be most misleading” (Ormand 95). Thus, Oedipus would not have changed his destiny even if he tried, because his fate had been sealed by the gods at his birth. The oracle prophesied at Oedipus’ birth that he would murder his father and take his mother as wife. His parents threw him away to avoid the fulfillment of the prophecy, but the gods make sure that Oedipus is rescued and adopted by the king of Corinth.
Nevertheless, Oedipus contributes and facilitates his own downfall through his character flaws (Evans 158). His blind determination to escape from the oracle’s prophecy puts events into motion that will bring him face to face with his father and take him into his mother’s bed. When he learns from the oracle Delphi that he will kill his father, Oedipus runs away from Corinth, supposedly to avoid fulfilling the prophecy. Unknown to him, the decision to run away brings him closer to fulfilling the prophecy that he will kill his father and commit incest with his mother (Sophocles 41). Thus, his determination to escape the prophecy by running away from his foster parents brings him into Thebes, where he kills his real father and defiles his mother’s bed.
Oedipus’ obsession to unravel mysteries is a major factor in his downfall. In fact, an ignorant Oedipus would have been far better off than a knowledgeable Oedipus. During his stay in Corinth, a visitor calls him a bastard. His curiosity takes him to an oracle to seek an explanation, where he learns about his fate. On the other hand, Oedipus would not have embarked on this journey for ‘self-discovery’, if he had dismissed the drunkard’s remarks. Oedipus, as a king of Thebes, learns from his wife that they had disposed off the son who was to kill his father; therefore, there was no possibility of the prophecy’s fulfillment. Regardless, he becomes even more determined to dig deeper. He states that he will start afresh and, once again, unravel the mystery (Sophocles 13). Indeed, Oedipus takes a step closer to his fate with every piece of information he gathers. Thus, his unyielding desire to unravel truths that could have been better left buried, leads him to the tragic revelation about his past horrific deeds.
Oedipus is tragically arrogant, ambitious and proud (Kirkwood 131). Despite the certainty of the oracle, Oedipus desires to prove that he’s not guilty. The oracle’s prophecy does not declare blindness and public humiliation as the misfortune that will befall Oedipus. It is his pride and shame of his past that pushes him to purge out his own eyes in remorse and anger. He talks arrogantly the prophet Tiresias, and fails to heed the prophetess’ warning. He is also arrogant toward the gods by calling the prophetess a liar and dismissing the warning that:
If a man treads the ways of arrogance; does not fear justice, honor not the gods enshrined; evil take him! Ruin is the prize of his fatal pride (Sophocles 44).
At the same time his mother, Jocasta, advises him to give up the search because she realizes that the prophecy has already been fulfilled. She cautions him to leave it if he cared for his own life (Sophocles 54), a warning that further discoveries will destroy him. Regardless her wise counsel, Oedipus replies stubbornly that “let it break, whatever it is……as for myself, I wish to know the truth about my birth” (Sophocles 55).
Oedipus’ hastiness in making critical judgments makes him reckless and unmindful of the consequences of his investigation. Following the oracle’s declaration that the king Laius’s murderer should be sought out and expelled from Thebes to escape an impending crisis, Oedipus has the opportunity to investigate the matter before pronouncing his judgment. In his hastiness, however, he condemns the king’s killer, promising the worst of agonies upon the culprit. He declares that:
And I pray whoever the man is who did this crime,
One unknown person acting on his own
Or with companions, the worst of agonies
Will wear out his wretched life (Sophocles 16).
Therefore, Oedipus unknowingly spells his own curse as a result of his haste condemnation of the killer.
In conclusion, Oedipus meets his tragic end because of the fundamental character flaw. His own blind determination to avoid the prophecy leads him to his real father, whom he kills while running away from Corinth. His obsession to unravel the truth about King Laius’s murderer, despite warning of his mother and the prophetess, plunges him into self-destruction. His arrogance and pride make him dismiss the prophetess’ revelation about his identity, which could have saved him from embarrassment and humiliation after discovering that he was the murderer.