Oedipus and the Sphinx by Baron Francois-Xavier Fabre (French, 1766-1837), ca. 1806-1810
The Egoistic Escape from Fate in Oedipus the King by Sophocles
Crowned by Aristotle as the exemplar of tragedy, Oedipus the King by Sophocles is the ne plus ultra of this Greek mythology. Premiered c. 425 BC at the Festival of Dionysus — a theatrical event attended by pious Greek citizens en masse — the societal and religious value of Oedipus the King heightens. Oedipus, the elected King of Thebes, supposed son of Polybus and Meropê, lived in the shadows of his prophetic patricide and incest. To avoid his doom, Oedipus voluntarily banished himself from Corinth and thus, unbeknownst to him, obliged his fate. Through the exploration of the themes and the characters’ interaction with pination, Sophocles disclosed the consequences of sacrilege. Sophocles executed the prime of dramatic irony in Oedipus the King, chiefly through Oedipus’ presumptuous negligence, plaintive nescience, and palpable naiveté to his nemesis.
Sophocles utilizes dramatic irony to spotlight the contrast between sight and blindness as influenced by egotism. At the beginning of the play, Oedipus boasts of his glory of smiting the Sphinx, “'Tis I am come, world-honored Oedipus.” (Sophocles 4). With little care, pride transmutes into vanity. Oedipus’ self-preoccupation is presented to the reader early in the play, boding his later blindness to his double identity as his vision and cognition merely contain the prophecy baneful to him. When Oedipus boldly demands the truth from Tiresias, the blind seer-craft, the former wants only the “truth” that aligns with his morality. In contradiction, Tiresias remains lucid with the verity. During the dialogue, Tiresias laments, “A fearful thing is knowledge” (Sophocles 19). Ironically, this exclamation justifies Tiresias’ omniscience as all of Thebes spirals into agony upon the deplorable revelation. Tiresias is literally blind yet prophetically perceptive; Oedipus is seeing yet blinded by obsessively evading his fate. The former is “both blind and clairvoyant” (CliffNotes), whereas the latter, willfully ignorant, ultimately blinds himself literally and submits to his fate. Tiresias, thus, serves as a foil to Oedipus in this matter. It is indeed Oedipus’ hubris that led to his inevitable nemesis.
Oedipus’ catharsis represents the futility of effort, thus the fragility of human life. The Gods and heralds of Ancient Greece were revered. Oedipus and Jocasta, for instance, would be regarded as sophomoric by Ancient Greeks as they refused to accept their mutual prophecies. When Jocasta learns of Tiresias’ ominous prediction, she solaces Oedipus:
The seer?—Then tear thy terrors like a veil
And take free breath. A seer? No human thing
Born on the earth hath power for conjuring
Truth from the dark of God. (Sophocles 42)
Referring to God’s wisdom as “the dark” was blasphemy. Jocasta’s direct refutation of sacred powers is analogous to that demonstrated by Oedipus. She parallels Oedipus’ persona. Subsequently, Jocasta narrates the ancient omen cast upon her, which she deems incredible. Her vain consolation eventually unearths how the same Oracle of Delphi vexes her husband-son — another dramatic irony in the stark display. Their refusal of the truth is tantamount to an admission of its inescapability.
The aforementioned subjects allude to another cardinal theme in the play, fate v. free will. Oedipus and Jocasta seek freedom of choice over oracular obedience, leading tragic lives at last. Little did they know, their choices unraveled their seemingly free will. The satire of Oedipus and Jocasta denying the prophecy propels the dramatic irony, as the truth has been transparent all along; they did not see it. After Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’ self-punishment, the Messenger — resonating Theban voices — introspects the eternal scandal of Thebes:
All the riches yester sun
Saw in this house were rich in verity.
What call ye now our riches?
Agony, Delusion, Death, Shame, all that eye or ear
Hath ever dreamed of misery, is here. (Sophocles 76)
Sophocles arouses sympathy among the readers as Oedipus’ pitiful destiny becomes unequivocal. Here, the readers ponder whether Oedipus regrets escaping his reverberating identity. To him, stubborn denial proved to be nonoptimal.
Oedipus the King embodies the overflow of emotional obligation in the crux of Attic tragedy. Fate intertwines the life of Oedipus; the prophecy is his autocrat. Through the tragedy of Oedipus, Sophocles exudes that those rejecting oracles would be met with retaliation. The playwright’s view was explicit yet conservative during the fifth century BC in Athens, where rationality challenged spirituality. Albeit, the ineradicable oracular precognitions were rooted in the Ancient Greeks. Though intriguing, the immorality of the carte blanch is not timeless. Free will supersedes fate in modern society nonetheless.
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Suhandoko, Suhandoko. “Analysis of Oedipus the King.” ResearchGate, 9 July 2019,
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