Discussion of the play Oedipus the King should be preceded by the notice that the plot for this play was not invented by Sophocles. On the contrary, the story was well-known to Greek audience and probably for this reason it was so popular. The story of king Oedipus served as a starting point for numerous variations and, virtually, the play created by Sophocles is one of those variations and not the original. The story opens with the trouble that affected city of Thebes, plague, and the inhabitants ask king Oedipus to respond to the situation.
The Oracle at Delphi informs king’s brother-in-law, Creon, that to save the city it is necessary to punish the murderer of the former king of Thebes. It is known that the king was killed by the gang of thieves and one of king’s fellows escaped. Oedipus resorts to blind prophet Teiresias but latter refuses to tell what he knows. After some wrangle Teiresias reveals that the murderer is Oedipus however the king refuses to believe it. At the same time a Sphinx captures the city and agrees to leave it after his riddle are solved.
Oedipus claims that he’ll be able to do it. Then Teiresias confirms it and leaves the stage. Oedipus is worried with Teiresias’ words and quarrels with his brother-in-law while his wife, Jocasta, tries to comfort him arguing that Delphic oracle predicted that Laius would be killed by his own son who will then sleep with his own mother when in fact Laius was murdered by a gang of thieves. At this point Oedipus begins to understand that it might be true that he killed Laius.
When he sends for the only person who can cast a light to this mystery, the shepherd who survived, the messenger from Corinth arrives and invites Oedipus to go there and replace the king Polybus who died. Oedipus at first thinks that oracle’s prophecy is disproved but then the truth comes to a light and the shepherded who arrived confirms that Oedipus is a child whom his mother and now actually a wife, Jocasta, ordered to kill as he was prophesied to assassinate his parents. Oedipus realizes who he is and who his parents are and sees that prophesy came true.
The story ends with the Jocasta’s death who hanged herself, and Oedipus, on discovering her dead, stabs his eyes with the pins from her dress. Oedipus goes in exile and asks his brother-in-law, Creon, to take care of his daughters. But Creon appears to be avaricious of his new power does not obey this request. One of the main themes of Oedipus the King is the reluctance of characters to accept the truth. When Oedipus and his wife are trying to find the truth about Laius’s death Jocasta says that she was informed that Laius was killed by a gang and Oedipus knows that he committed crime alone.
This fact gives him the possibility to persuade himself that he didn’t kill his own father, though in heart he feels that that was exactly a case. Though the play is hundreds years old it deals with the features of human nature relevant to our days. It often happens when people in attempt to avoid reality pretend not seeing obvious facts. They refer to see what they want and look through the disagreeable things. The play in allegorical manner shows that it’s nearly impossible to escape the truth.
Another example is when Jocasta told Oedipus how she bound the legs of her child again he does not find parallels with his own swollen feet. Both of them have the facts and circumstances that testify that prophecy is true but they refuse to see those facts and pretend not to understand them. Such situation makes the story to sound ironically. Another theme of the play is the lack of free will. All main characters are doomed to act according to their fate and they do not have enough power to change the course of events in their life.
That is why the central figure in the play is an oracle. The play is full of symbols, e. g. the crossroads that conveys the sense of doom and the prodigious power of prophecy and the absence of freedom and right of choice. The general impression of the story resembles the impression after reading a detective story. The plot is intricate, full of small but important elements, each of them created with own purpose. The main actor in this detective tale is fate and events take place in a space hunted by fate. The destiny or fate signifies here an ominous power so significant for Greeks.
The fate appears in the play in its twofold form – first, in the form of Oedipus’s destiny or his ultimate end, so in this case it is the divine law which is beyond human control. But we can see another version of fate, one that concerns only the random events of this world. This is fate as chance, on the side of the banal. It is present in Oedipus’s chance meeting with a drunken man who calls him bastard, his encounter with an irascible stranger at the crossroads, his arriving in Thebes at the moment when the Sphinx’s riddle has afflicted the land.
This fate is likewise beyond human reason, not because it is above but because it is below human comprehension. And as a consequence what has appeared all along as mere chance has been in reality the working out of king’s terrible destiny. The popularity of the plot that became the basis of the play added much to Sophocles’s fame as the most popular and highly honorable Athenian of his days.
Reference: Sophocles “Oedipus the King” Longman Anthology World Literature Voulme1, 648-688