An Oedipus Rex Essay

An Oedipus Rex essay that deals with the moral issues that are presented in this play by Sophocles.

The play Oedipus the King, by Sophocles, deals with a variety of moral issues of the time. Oedipus unknowingly kills his own father and marries his mother. The play deals with who should be the rightful heir to the throne, and whether and heir should be a ruler, just because of their bloodline.

As the play opens, Oedipus has been king of the Greek city-state of Thebes for over 10 years, ruling with his queen Iocasta. The incestual relationship has produced two older boys and two little girls. Oedipus became king by saving the city from a sphinx, a creature with the head of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. The sphinx had devoured anyone who tried to leave the city or enter it.

Oedipus' first words echo, without his realizing it yet, the incest and patricide themes: My children, latest born to Cadmus who was of old, why are ye set before me thus with wreathed branches of suppliants, while the city reeks with incense, rings with prayers for health and cries of woe? I deemed it unmeet, my children, to hear these things at the mouth of others, and have come hither myself. (lines 1-7)

Since Oedipus solved the riddle of the sphinx when no one else had, the townspeople (the "chorus") figured that the gods spoke to Oedipus. Currently, a plague has descended on Thebes. As it says in this section, people are dying faster they can be buried by the survivors--so are cattle and crops. In short, the plague attacks the birth processes of all that live in & around Thebes, an appropriate symbol of the gods' wrath over the perversion of birth that is incest. Oedipus and Iocasta have brought the curse of the plague upon the town, but no one knows it yet. The Priest of Zeus says: For the city, as thou thyself seest, is now too sorely vexed, and can no more lift her head from beneath the angry waves of death; a blight is on her in the fruitful blossoms of the land, in the herds among the pastures, in the barren pangs of women; and withal the flaming god, the malign plague, hath swooped on us, and ravages the town. (lines 21-26)

Theban elders have turned to Oedipus to save their city again. He does, but at a very high personal cost, he loses his throne. The Priest of Zeus speaking on behalf of the people begs Oedipus to help: On, best of mortals, again uplift our state! On, guard thy fame, since now this land calls thee saviour for thy former zeal; and never let it be our memory of thy reign that we were first restored and afterward cast down: nay, lift up this State in such wise that it fall no more. (lines 48-53)

Oedipus, knowing there was a plague, has already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to Apollo's (the god of enlightenment and the sun) oracle at Delphi to ask the gods what to do. Creon advises that he talk to Oedipus privately before making the answer public, but Oedipus says no. The gods want the Thebans to find the murderer of their former king, Lauis, and either kill him or exile him. Oedipus immediately pledges to do so, even if the investigation leads to his own house. So, unknowingly, Oedipus is hunting himself, the murderer of Laius.

Oedipus is both at the same time selfless and self-centered. Evidence of Oedipus' opposing characteristics of selflessness and self-centeredness can be found in his words: Oh my piteous children, known, well known, to me are the desires wherewith ye have come: well wot I that ye suffer all; yet sufferers as ye are, there is not one of you whose suffering is as mine. Your pain comes on each one of you for himself alone, and for no other; but my soul mourns at once for the city, and for myself, and for thee.

(Lines 58-64)

The lines show how Oedipus is acting as a savior, for the benefit of his people, in this play, and he is acting on his own behalf. The relationship between Creon and Oedipus appears strained. Creon is angry about Oedipus' getting the throne after Laius was reported dead, because he would have been next in line for the throne after Laius. Oedipus trusts him enough to send him to Delphi. However, Oedipus accuses Creon of not reporting the gods' message accurately. Oedipus feels Creon is trying to take advantage of the God's message in order to get Oedipus ousted. Oedipus tells Iocasta, "the cause is Creon and the plots that he hath against me" (695-696). Creon feels avenged when he becomes King at the end. He feels Oedipus was lacking as a king. He tells Oedipus, "Crave not to be master in all things, for the mastery which thou didst win hath not followed thee through life" (Lines1526-1529)

Oedipus was born a prince, raised to be a king. The play teaches us about the nature of leadership and the qualities of a great leader. A person is not a great leader just because they are born a prince and raised to be King. He is the sort of king who is more concerned with outer image than the substance of his rule. Oedipus has a "messiah complex" when he takes on the role of savior of Thebes. He is acting in a self-centered manner, but is selfless in doing so. However, because Oedipus forsakes the God's by killing his father and sleeping with his mother, he is not worthy of being King. Oedipus admits this much when he discovers the truth from the chorus about who killed his father and who Iocasta really is: So had I not come to shed my father's blood, nor been called among men the spouse of her from who I sprang, but now am I forsaken of the gods, son of a defiled mother, successor to his bed who gave me mine own wretched being: and if there be yet a woe surpassing woes, it hath become the portion of Oedipus. (lines 58-64)

Irony and coincidence influence our view of Oedipus as a tragic protagonist. Oedipus is a fool of the gods, and he is not free to choose his own way. The gods simply know what Oedipus will do in a given situation because they manipulate events beyond likelihood and mere coincidence. He does not know he has killed his own father, and sleeps with his mother. It is this irony that influences our view of Oedipus. We feel sorry for the tragic character, because he does not control his own destiny and does know the evils he has committed. We feel empathy for his plight when he says "Apollo, friends, Apollo was he that brought these woes to pass, these my sore, sore woes: but the hand that struck the eyes was none save mine, wretched that I am! Why was I to see, when sight could show me nothing sweet. (lines 29-33)

Oedipus blames the gods for cursing him, but also believes he should have seen the workings of the gods, and prevented the tragic disaster that befell him. What is further ironic, is Iocasta is actually willing to live in incest with her son as long as the information is not public. Since it was Iocasta, according to the herdsman in the next scene, which actually gave the baby to him and commanded him to abandon it on the mountainside. Iocasta kills herself to protect her son, because she fears he can not face the public shame of their incest.

Sophocles uses Creon to contradict Oedipus and show the qualities of a true leader. Creon tells Oedipus;

I have not come in mockery, Oedipus, nor to reproach thee with any bygone fault. (To the attendants) But ye, if ye respect the children of men no more, revere at least the all-nurturing flame of our lord the Sun, spare to show thus nakedly a pollution such as this--one which neither earth can welcome, nor the holy rain, nor the light. (Lines 1425-1429)

Creon is saying that he will rule by the wishes of the Gods. A true leader obeys the Gods and is the tool of their desires. In this fashion, a true leader ensures the welfare and well being of his people. The plague never would have happened if Oedipus had not scorned the Gods by killing his father and marrying his mother.

In Oedipus the King, Sophocles points out the irony of allowing a person to become king just because they are born royalty. True leaders are not bred, Sophocles is saying, they are made by their deed, and actions. Oedipus does try to rule honorably, but he is motivated by what is best for him not by the utilitarian good of the people. A true leader is man who is selfless and not self-centered. He rules for the utilitarian good of all his subjects not for his own personal interests and self-gain.

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