The Greek hero Oedipus is possibly the most tragic figure in all of literature. Born a prince, he flees from his home in order to avoid committing a terrible crime. He defeats the Sphinx, a fearsome monster, and wins a bride and new kingdom. He rules wisely and well and has a family that he dearly loves. He honors the gods and cares for his people. Yet in the end, for all his virtues, he still commits the very crime he sought to avoid. He destroys himself, his family, and his kingdom. While Oedipus’ fate is not all his fault, he does have character traits that lead him to his miserable end. Yet Oedipus is not an evil man, and the same traits that doom him in the end are positive ones earlier in his life. Oedipus is a genuine hero, yet his best qualities are also his worst.
As a result of his defeat of the Sphinx, Oedipus is king of Thebes. He has ruled well for fifteen years, but now a plague has come and is killing the people and blighting the very soil (Scene One, lines 20-26). When the priests come in procession, Oedipus immediately agrees to help them, saying that even as they suffer, he suffers more seeing their pain (lines 90-98). When he learns that in order to lift the curse, he must find and punish who killed the previous king, Laius, Oedipus again vows that he will accomplish anything that needs to be done, saying: “Bring all the people of Cadmus here and tell them there is nothing I will not do (lines 144-145).” While Oedipus makes a brave and impassioned vow, he also makes a rash promise. Eventually, he will discover that he is the one who killed Laius. By vowing death or banishment to whoever killed Laius, Oedipus has left himself no options, no way to mitigate what he has done. By depriving the people of Thebes of their ruler, Oedipus sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to civil war.
Oedipus is also a man who honors the gods and oracles of Greece. Indeed, the only reason he came to Thebes was that he left his home in Corinth upon learning from an oracle that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother (Act Two, lines 790-797). Horrified at the prospect of such an impious act, Oedipus leaves without even talking to his parents. Running away, even with the best of intentions, was a terrible mistake. If he had told them what the oracle predicted, he would have discovered that he was adopted (lines 1070-1093). By believing implicitly in the oracle instead of facing his fears and asking questions that needed to be asked, Oedipus commits the very sin he feared. He killed a “stranger” on the road, the man who was his real father, King Laius. Not knowing the truth, he defeated the Sphinx and as a reward, married the widowed queen of Thebes, Jocasta—his real mother.
Both in his willingness to make any pledge and his fear of committing patricide and incest, Oedipus shows himself as a man who makes rash decisions. He is so determined to avoid his fate that he dries himself to it. When he finally learns the truth, he gouges out his own eyes and banishes himself from Thebes, leaving behind a dead wife and four children who are both his offspring and his siblings.
Oedipus is not a weak man. A weak man would have denied the truth, kept his throne, and perhaps led his people to an even worse fate. However, Oedipus is a deeply flawed hero. Had he stayed in Corinth and faced his so-called fate, he would have avoided the tragedy that ruined not only his life but the lives of his parents and his children. His determination to save Thebes and his willingness to take the word of oracles without question lead him to his doom and condemns those he loves to an equally terrible fate.
- Sophocles. “King Oedipus.” The Theban Plays. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.