Oedipus Rex

By Sophocles

The Lesson of the Play

King Oedipus, a great and prosperous man, shows submission in front of the all- powerful gods. This humbling, however, is undeserved; for Oedipus can not be found guilty and thus deserving of such punishment on any rational grounds. Besides portraying Oedipus constantly in a very good light (pious, loyal, just etc), Sophocles even undertakes the trouble to explain that Oedipus had killed Laius in a quarrel, for which he was not alone responsible. Additionally, Oedipus was ill-fated right from his birth and his treatment can therefore clearly not be a punishment, nor an act of retribution, nor a fault of judgement or character in man, but simply the will of the gods. Such undeserved suffering teaches a lesson that is made clear right at the end of the play and which in its essence is a particularly famous moral from the Croesus story in Herodotus' Histories book 1. For, the chorus at the exodus of the play points to the extent of Oedipus' fall and comment:

"And, being mortal, think on that last day of death,
which all must see, and speak of no man's happiness
'till, without sorrow, he hath passed the goal of life"

Mirror of society

Oedipus' helpless struggle against the god is a tragic symbol for the human will struggling against a force that it cannot control or understand. In order to reproduce this perspective onto society it is necessary to remember the limitations of an Athenian society. Although Athens was called a democracy, a large number of people in the community had no rights whatsoever. There was a constant circle of the powerful - the suppressed, free will - obedience, to rule and being ruled. The individual had no choice but to yield to the powers of society. The art of tragedy reflected these developments indirectly and yet faithfully. For in comparison, the main character in Oedipus Rex has to yield to the sublime power. The function of Oedipus' tragedy was thus cathartic. Similarly to the psychological relief of seeing an innocent man suffering, the emotional stress, which is often roused by social frustration, is somehow weakened by realising the same conflict on a grander scale between man and God / Fate - an example of power and suppression of the same kind.