Level 16 - Colossus
A Puppet Without Strings
The theory behind fate or predetermination has been embedded in today’s society partially due to literature. Sophocles’ Oedipus The King perpetuates this ideology that the title character pursues a path which happens to be foretold. Oedipus was determined to save his city and discover his identity, however he ultimately assists in his own downfall. An Oracle reveals that Oedipus is destined to murder his father and marry his mother, and Oedipus, unable to face his unspeakable fate, chooses to flee his “home” in order to escape from it. Oedipus, whom believed he was running from his destiny, was actually led directly to it. Oedipus unknowingly fulfills the prophecy by marrying Jocasta, his biological mother, and becomes King of Thebes after murdering a man who was his true father, Laius. Oedipus resolves to lift a deadly plague that had descended on the city, only to learn that in order to do so he must find and punish the murderer of the former King Laius. He invokes a curse on the sinner. Ironically, Oedipus remains ignorant of the fact that he himself was the transgressor; he was jinxing himself.
When the blind prophet Teiresias is summoned to shed light on the subject, he warns Oedipus not to be overly presumptuous and assures him that the future will come of itself and the past will surface when need be. Initially, his rash, self-righteous internal character begins to surface and with his increased frustration Oedipus begins to adversely affect his relationships with others, particularly antagonizing his friends and respected members of the city. Oedipus’ detrimental behavior eventually leads to the realization of his true identity; this horrifying truth brings dishonor to his family and destroys his image in the eyes of the people. Oedipus finally emerges with his world in pieces and the mere thought of his abominable sins leaves him guilt-ridden; he is eventually overcome. Overall, in terms of the downfall of the king, Oedipus brought it upon himself, what he sought to find out was intentionally kept from him, in the words of the prophet Teiresias, “how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise! (Page 23, line 316)”
At first, Oedipus appears to be genuinely concerned about the welfare of his citizens. He is anxious to do all in his power to ensure that the plague that engulfed the city was ameliorated by avenging the murder of Laius. But evidently, the people were not his primary concern. Oedipus virtually attacks the prophet when Teiresias challenges him with the truth: “you are the land’s pollution! (Pg. 25, line 353)” and “I say you are the murderer of the king whose murderer you seek. (Pg. 26, line 360)” Oedipus calls Teiresias a false prophet, ridicules his blindness, and even goes so far as to tell him that only his old age has spared his punishment. Oedipus threatens him with the vitriolic, condemning words: “Go and a curse with you! Quick, home with you! Out of my house at once! (Pg. 29, line 430)”
After alienating Teiresias, whose counsel is normally revered, Oedipus succeeds in accusing the seer of scheming with Jocasta’s brother Creon. At this point, Oedipus’ violent anger and rage is apparent and in full swing. Creon, his kinsman, acts as a contrast to his irrational behavior; Oedipus’ dramatic foil:
“My mind would not be traitor if it’s wise; I am no treason lover, of
my nature, nor would I ever dare to join a plot. Prove what I say.
Go to the oracle...if you discover I laid any plot together with the
seer, kill me I say, not only by your vote but my own. But do not
charge me on obscure opinion without some proof to back it.”
(Pg. 36, lines 600-609)
When Oedipus threatens to kill Creon, accusing him of trying to gain control of the throne, Creon rationally attempts to make sense of the situation. He has no reason to defend himself, for he is innocent; there is no evidence against him and Oedipus’ accusation is unfounded. It is Oedipus who is becoming more and more defensive as he is beginning to realize that the unspeakable may be true. He lashes out at those who merely state the facts; to him they are hard to accept as realities. But by doing so he has antagonized a well-respected prophet, and lost a friend. Creon, realizing that his friendship to Oedipus may be lost, reminds him: “To throw away an honest friend is, as it were, to throw your life away, which a man loves the best.”
Primarily, he committed patricide without his own knowledge, and never had the opportunity to really know his true father. He had to escape from the man who he believed to be his father in order to protect him and keep from fulfilling the rest of the prophecy. This proves that he could run away, only he escaped from the wrong place. Oedipus then unintentionally commits incest by marrying his mother and has four children by her. Upon realization of his true parentage and the horrifying nature of the crimes he committed without his own knowledge, Oedipus is shocked at the extent of his sinful deeds. His actions cause tremendous pain for Jocasta, his wife and mother, who pleaded with him from the beginning not to seek that which is not meant to be sought. Initially, when Oedipus had not yet realized that he was indeed responsible for these terrible sins, he thought that Jocasta feared uncovering of the past because of the dishonor she would feel if associated with Oedipus if he was discovered to be of low lineage. Ironically, dishonor is too mild a term to describe the amount of grief and suffering the unleashing of the past would bring about.
Unfortunately, once the trail was started it was followed to the end, and a bitter end at that. Oedipus is ultimately so ashamed that he could not bear to face his sins:
“Light of the sun, let me look upon you no more after today! I who first
saw the light bred of a match accursed, and accursed in my living with
them I lived with, cursed in my killing.” (Pg. 63, lines 1183-1185)
Jocasta finds a means of escape only through suicide. At the sight of her dead body, Oedipus, also choosing self-inflicted pain as the ideal form of punishment, removes her gold brooches from her dress and pierces his own eyes, for he feels he does not deserve to see nor does he wish to look upon his horrendous deeds, “Why should I see whose vision showed me nothing sweet to see? (Pg. 69, line 1334)” He also begs Creon to banish him from the city, into exile but Creon refuses to comply. Oedipus does feel grief and concern for his children and the pain this horror will inevitably cause them. He asks Creon to take care of his daughters, for they will need his guidance. He tells Antigone and Ismene:
“If you were older, children, and were wiser, there’s much advise I would
give you. But as it is, let this be what you pray: give me a life wherever
there is an opportunity to live, and better life than was my father’s.”
(Pg. 75, line 1511)
This is perhaps one of the most tragic scenes in the play, for the obvious emotional pain Oedipus is experiencing is overwhelming.
Befittingly, misfortune seems to encompass the tragedy of Oedipus, as the downfall of a king is witnessed. The root of this destruction appears to be a course of action, which was chosen by Oedipus; the irony that it had been written before is just that, satire. As a tragic hero, his story is one in which he himself becomes responsible for accelerating his own downfall, he managed to run away from one facet of his life, it just happened to be the wrong one. Introduced as a caring and concerned King, he suddenly emerges as a rash and presumptuous character whose decisions are not well founded. The Greeks’ belief in moderation is relevant with respect to Oedipus’ character in that those who display emotions in excess are destined for a fall. Oedipus’ overpowering sense of rage is the reason for his pitiful condition in the end, when all that remains is a powerless blind man, victim of his own self-nature.