The Cultural Significance of Oedipus Rex
It has been the case throughout history the stories are indicative of a society's culture and values. In Sophocles' Theban tragedy Oedipus Rex, Oedipus struggles to assert his will against his fate set forth by the gods, and in doing so reveals the values of the Greeks in the period of the play's composition. Through Oedipus' words actions and the words and actions of his fellow Thebans, the ideals of the Greeks concerning governance and society, as well as Greek ideals concerning fate and man's relationship with the Gods are told to the observer. Thus, though it is a single work, Oedipus Rex unveils much about ideas and philosophies.
Of the topics touched upon in Oedipus Rex, governance takes some prominence, no doubt since the central figure of the drama, Oedipus, is a king. Greeks had the strong belief that reason should be the defining characteristic of a ruler, and the subject is touched upon lightly in the text. For instance Creon when Oedipus hotly accuses him of misdeeds toward asserts strongly "If you think that stubbornness is of value apart from reason, you are a madman!" (Sophocles, 574-575) Creon in essence accuses Oedipus of being irrational, letting his anger over a perceived wrong drive his mind away from Socratic reason. Similarly the Chorus, who sometimes in Greek tragedies speaks as the voice of reason, says this about kingship and tyranny, "Audacity sires the tyrant---audacity, if filled up rashly with all excess neither timely nor useful, scaling the highest eaves rushes into precipitous necessity where it suffers from its ill placed foot." (Sophocles, 902-907) The words "rashly" and "audacity" are obviously not synonymous with reason, as well as the phrase "it suffers from its ill placed foot". Here the Chorus seems to comment on Oedipus' actions in attempting to find out the truth of the plight affecting Thebes, seemingly saying he his not acting a proper governor should. To sum up the point, the Greeks held reason to be the greatest gift of man, and therefore a tyrant's actions should be governed by reason.
As with many ancient societies, one's birth or blood was important in the Greek society of Sophocles, but not absolute in terms of Greek governance. This is plane in Oedipus Rex, since the king spends much of the drama seeking the truth to his descent. The king when angered by the prophet Tiresias orders him to leave. To which the blind seer retorts "Men like myself are born, to your eyes, fools, but to the parents who bore you we seem wise." Oedipus is quick to exclaim "To whom? Wait! Who on earth are my parents?" indicative of the importance he places on his lineage. (Sophocles, 458-460) He reiterates later the importance of the question when he discovers he is not the son of Polybus, the late King of Corinth. "Let it all burst out, if it must! As for me, though it be small, I wish to know my stock. But she (Jocasta) since a woman is proud of such things is troubled by this low birth of mine." (Sophocles, 1104-1106) His resolution to find his ancestry, and his reaction to Tiresias' words about his parents, clearly shows that a Greek placed value on the lineage of man, or indeed a woman, as Oedipus' comment about Jocasta reveals. However one's blood was not necessarily critical to be a king. Immediately following the previously mentioned lines, Oedipus speaks, "But I deem myself a child of Chance, who gives good things, and I will not be dishonored." (Sophocles, 1107-1108) In essence, Oedipus claims that though he may not be of regal inheritance but fate (i.e. the gods) has placed him in his position, and therefore he is fit to be King of Thebes. To sum up the point, it was clearly important to the Greeks who they are descendant from, but as with Oedipus not absolute for ruler.
While lineage was important, one's family or kinsmen was integral, a fact that Sophocles' drama clearly asserts. Family was critical and thus crimes against family were irreprehensible. For instance, when Oedipus comes to believe that Creon sent the Tiresias to him as a ploy to gain the rule of Thebes he is enraged beyond reason, which as discussed earlier was considered integral to the Greeks. Oedipus says this in his confrontation with Creon, "If you (Creon) think a man that does his kinsman ill will not pay the price, you are fool." (Sophocles, 576-577) Calling Creon a fool indicates Oedipus' anger over the perceived betrayal of his adopted relative. And why would he be angry if it was not considered horrendous act to plot against one's own? The Chorus after Tiresias' revelation of Oedipus' own acts against his family comments upon sins against kin:
Who was it the oracles-speaking rock of Delphi saw committing the most unspeaking acts with red hands? Now, stronger than swift-footed horses, he must deftly move his foot in flight. For in arms against him leaps the son of Zeus with fire and lightning and, following after him the terrible unerring Furies. (Sophocles, 486-496)
The Chorus, in essence, says that such crimes are especial heinous, as the "Furies" themselves were deities that punished such transgressors. But the most compelling as to the Greeks perception of acts against family is the fate of Oedipus and his and mother Jocasta. Oedipus, unable to bear the shame of what he has done gouges out his own eyes because, for as he says "For why must I see, I for whom no sight is sweet." (Sophocles, 1364-1365) Jocasta, his wife and mother, kills herself over the horror of what she has sired. Such acts can only say how important family was to Greeks, as it was to other peoples in his ancient world.
While governance and societal values take some precedence in Oedipus Rex, arguably more central and integral are the topics of fate and man's relationship with the god's themselves. One inescapable fact of Greek culture was the god's were in control. This is seen early on since what spurns Oedipus into his detective story to find the truth of himself is the plight of Thebes sent upon them the gods. As the Priest when conversing with Oedipus says, "Falling upon us, the fire-bringing god, most hateful disease, drives the city, and by him the house of Cadmus is drained, and dark Hades grows rich with groans and wails." (Sophocles, 30-33) Oedipus in trying to seek the truth was hoping to appease the gods so they would lift the plague from the city. As the Priest also says, "But may Phoebus who sent these prophecies come at once as savior and stayer of disease!" (Sophocles, 160-161) Though Oedipus heroically struggles against his destiny; he as well still acknowledges the supremacy of the gods. "You have spoken justly, but no man can compel the gods when they are unwilling." (Sophocles, 291-292) Very humble words coming from a man who is supposed be a tyrant. This reveals how central the gods were to Greek as well. That beings said to offend was something that merited harsh punishment. Oedipus, unaware that the offender is himself declares:
I ban this man, whoever he is, from all land over which I hold power and the throne. I decree that no one shall receive him, nor make him partner in prayers to the gods or sacrifices, nor allow him holy water; but instead that everyone must expel him from their homes as the man is the source of our pollution, as the oracle of Pytho has revealed to me. (Sophocles, 240-249)
Irony abounds in tragedy, but that aside such a condemnation from a king shows how much influence the gods held over Greek society and even governance. Oedipus goes as far as to damn the criminal from worship, that "no one shall receive him, nor make him partner is prayers to the gods…" and further, "but instead everyone must expel him from their homes." Such ostracism is of the heaviest sentences in the Greek world, as shows the severity of the crime. Clearly to the Greeks, no matter the actions of mortal men on Earth, the gods rule.
Of all the themes in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, fate is the most profound. Oedipus' struggle against his fate, as has been mentioned throughout this essay, is arguably the primary conflict of play. Oedipus' story demonstrates the Greek belief that men were bound by fate no matter how they fought against it. The Chorus again acting as the voice of reason comments on fate, "What man can protect himself, warding away the shafts of anger when such things happen?" (Sophocles, 921-922) The Chorus in essence asks what man can control fate. But more indicative are the events the play itself. Laius, the late King of Thebes in attempting to avoid his fate of his son murdering him sends his son away. But instead insures his son would return and kill him. Oedipus hearing his fate leaves so he would not kill his father, as he says "I heard and fled henceforth to share with Corinth only the stars, where I would never see completed the disgrace of those evil oracles of mine." (Sophocles, 822-825) But in doing so he ensures the prophecies would be realized. In end all the prophecies that had been heard from the Delphi Oracle came true. The idea even great kings of men, like Oedipus are bound by this cosmic force called fate, is extremely powerful. It illustrates the profundity of fate in Greek life. The last lines of the play spoken by the Chorus show the Greeks sentiments toward fate:
People of our country Thebes, behold this Oedipus, who knew the famous riddle and was a most powerful man, whose fortunes all citizens watched with emulation, how deep the sea of dire misfortune that has taken him! Therefore, it is necessary to call no man blessed as we await the final day, until he has reached the limit of life and suffered nothing grievous. (Sophocles, 1550-1559)
The utter pessimism of this lines implies the importance of fate to the Greeks Fate is so present in the tragedy of Oedipus that it itself is almost its own character. Man was ruled by his fate and could not escape it.
In conclusion Oedipus's duel wit the fates displays, with poetic wit, the values of the Greeks in the era of its composition. Oedipus' and his fellows' actions exemplified Greek values toward their society, as well as their ideas of fate the gods themselves. Oedipus' fight against his fate, his attempt to try an escape his doom reveals the merits and values of Greek society. His tragic rise and fall, from King of Thebes to a blind vagabond, shows the supremacy of fate and gods in the Greek World. In that sense his fall is the jewel of the tragedy, for how can there be a greater hero than the one that fights a battle he is sure to lose?
1. Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Clayton, Delaware: Prestwick House Literary Classics, 2005.