Arrogance in Oedipus Rex

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Before a world of advanced entertainment and technology, there was Greek theater. Unlike many stories told today, ancient Greek tragedies seldom ended well. The heroic qualities of the protagonist were often overshadowed by a horrific human failure. Yet, when written well, a story can elicit strong feelings of sympathy for the damaged hero while simultaneously teaching greek cultural values. The play, Oedipus the King, by Sophocles, showcases the tragic fate of Oedipus while displaying that he is still capable of improvement.

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His futile efforts to escape an inescapable fate leads him to kill his father, King Laius of Thebes, and marry his mother, Jocasta. Oedipus angrily blames others for the murder of Laius in denial and ignorance of his actions. Leading up to his moment of anagnorisis, Oedipus learns that his arrogance only delayed the inevitable. As his kingly characteristics dissipate and he realizes his sin, Oedipus demonstrates the falsity of the idea that one can control fate.

Oedipus dives deeper into the past and his charismatic persona begins to cloud with anger and negation. Sophocles adds depth to the protagonist as his positive characteristics turn against him. A raging plague continues to decimate the city of Thebes and the people are quickly fed up. They gather at the front of the palace in search of relief. After the priest makes the city’s situation clear to the king, Oedipus says, “poor needy children […] Your pain is single, each to each, it does not breed. Mine is treble anguish crying out for the city, for myself, for you.” (7) Though the king is outwardly egotistical, the empathy and care expressed for his people is unmistakably present. Oedipus acknowledges the people’s pain which demonstrates his ability to lead as a dutiful king.

As long as Oedipus remains a god-like figure in the eyes of the citizens of Thebes, his hubris is a trivial issue. The king then tells the Thebans he has already sent Creon to return with a solution. Creon receives a prophecy from Delphi, but the seemingly good news begins to haunt Oedipus. The murderer of Laius must be banished or killed to save the city. Oedipus continues to deny truthful accusations and even goes as far to blame others for his wrongdoings. Creon falls victim to his rage when he tries to reason with the king and Oedipus yells, “I want you dead: a lesson to all of how much envy’s worth […] Only a fool would believe in a rabid man.” (34) This scene reveals how Oedipus is drunk on power through his allegations.

The swiftness at which Oedipus condemns his longtime friend, Creon, tells how he will do anything to remain on the throne. His arrogance is no longer used as show for the people as it was before. Additionally, Oedipus’ denial demonstrates how he constantly runs from his past. The belief that he can control his future stands secure in his mind. All these darker characteristics make Oedipus to be a imperfect hero as he remains in a state of ignorance.

After persuasion and conversation with the chorus, Creon, and Jocasta, Oedipus begins his path to realization. The real moment of transformation starts when Jocasta reveals the details about Laius’ murder in effort to calm Oedipus. The queen says that the murder occurred where three highways meet, and the information chips away at Oedipus’ pride. Immediately, he connects past to present.

Distraught, Oedipus confesses his troubles openly to Jocasta. “Each word that strikes my ear has shattered peace, struck at my very soul.”(40) This moment is pivotal for Oedipus, for he finally is opening up to the truth. His egotism loses grip long enough for the facts to overrule denial. Oedipus does not completely register his sin, but his willingness to listen to Jocasta brings him closer to it. As the dialogue continues between the couple, a sudden change inside urges him to seek more answers.

A servant was said to have witnessed the killing of Laius. Oedipus immediately sees to speak with the servant for details and confirmation. A still clueless Jocasta asks him why, to which Oedipus responds, “There may be things, my wife, that I have said best left unsaid, which makes me want him here.”(43) In this scene, Oedipus has almost reached awareness. The pomposity from his earlier conversation with Creon has nearly dissipated. Oedipus has clearly chosen to seek the truth rather than stay ignorant and secure on his throne. But, he is still comfortable calling Jocasta “[his] wife” which leads to the assumption that Oedipus has yet to connect his prophecy to the present. Additionally, calling for the witness exhibits his foolish hope that the servant will confirm his innocence. Even as Oedipus grows to accept reality, he continues to deny the facts and ignore fate.

After the final bits of information are revealed, Oedipus changes from a self-centered, non-religious ruler to a worthless yet knowledgeable man. The all-knowing shepard reluctantly unfolds the truth that Jocasta’s child never died, for the child is Oedipus himself. The words of the shepard devastate the king. Immersed in complete agony, Oedipus declares, “At last its blazing clear.

Light of my days, go dark. I want to gaze no more […] Myself entwined with those I never could. And I the killer of those I never would.”(67) Oedipus has finally realized that he never escaped the prophecy. In addition, Oedipus even accepts that punishment is deserved for he “want[s] to gaze no more.” This is a stark contrast to the man who was seen as a god in the eyes of mortals. Yet in reaching his low, he also achieved his highest. Being humbled and enlightened is better than being ignorant and arrogant. Oedipus proceeds to banish himself as punishment. His tragic story is then used to teach a lesson to all.

The chorus says, “You saw him fall […] So, being mortal, look on that last day And count no man blessed in his life until He’s crossed life’s bounds unstruck by ruin still.”(81) These final lines of the play mirror the journey Oedipus underwent. The king could not thrive for his past loomed over and he was ”[…] struck by ruin”. This quote, as well as Oedipus’ story, explain the repercussions of trying to escape the inevitable. As the tragedy comes to an end, Oedipus shows that he is capable of improvement even amidst his repulsive sins.

After he learns the truth, Oedipus is able to look into his past with new understanding. He sees that fate, no matter how gruesome, can never be avoided. The change of his damaged character, showcases the passage of ignorance to awareness, pride to disgrace, and power to surrender. But beyond the story of a false ruler, Oedipus the King can teach a lesson about the path of each individual today and to come. Sophocles’ message truly is timeless. Everything in a story— including the ugly and beautiful, life and death—is uncontrollable. One can run but in the end it’s pointless. Part of the journey is the end. 

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Arrogance in Oedipus Rex. (2022, Feb 10). Retrieved from