Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Sophocles, King Oedipus (c. 429 BC) (Translated by E. F. Watling 1947)

King Oedipus (c. 429 BC) by Sophocles is a classical Greek tragedy that tells the story of a great man, Oedipus the King of Thebes, whose pride in his intelligence led him to be egotistical and so confident that he felt he could even defy a fate determined by the will of the gods.  However, his apparently clever efforts to avoid his fate are shown to have inadvertently brought it about.  Consequently the play asserts the hierarchical authority of the gods over men and of the world of religion over that of politics.  It presents a warning to the theatre audience on the impossibility of cheating a divinely determined fate. 

The play focuses on the climactic realisation by Oedipus of his true identity and his corresponding realisation of his guilt of the horrible crimes of patricide and incest, which was followed by an emotionally heart-wrenching brutal self-inflicted punishment. The story that led to this crisis is revealed in fragments in a series of dialogues. 

The parents of Oedipus, Laius the king of Thebes and his wife Jocasta, had been  told by an oracle, before Oedipus was born, that King Laius would be killed by his son who would then marry his widowed mother.  It was a horrifying fate that Laius and Jocasta sought to avoid by killing their own son.  But the shepherd they entrusted to dispose of the baby took pity on the child and gave him to another shepherd, a Corinthian, who then took the baby to the childless King Polybus and his wife Merope to raise as their own, which they did. 

When Oedipus was a young man, he consulted an oracle and learned of his abominable fate.  To avoid it, he cleverly resolved to leave Corinth, never to return while those whom he understood to be his parents (Polybus and Merope) lived.   While on his way to Thebes, he encountered a traveller and his escorts, and following an argument, he killed the traveller and all but one witness who escaped. Arriving in Thebes, Oedipus found a city state that had just recently lost its king and was terrorised by a sphinx who killed anyone who could not answer its riddle.  Oedipus used his superior intelligence and courage to solve the riddle and kill the sphinx, thereby liberating Thebes.  Hailed as a hero, he was appointed king and he married the widowed queen Jocasta, with whom he would have children. 

When Thebes was beset by a plague, a belated divine punishment for the unavenged murder of King Laius, the brave, clever and resourceful King Oedipus took the initiative and swore to punish the killer and rid the city state of pestilence.  But through several dialogues Oedipus learns the horrifying truth that he had killed his father and married his mother, thereby fulfilling the grim fate he sought to defy.  The formidable personal qualities of Oedipus were revealed as insufficient to avoid a divinely determined fate.  His downfall, due to his fatal flaw of pride and overconfidence, serves as a lesson to all men on the supremacy of the gods. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: King Oedipus meaning, King Oedipus themes, King Oedipus analysis, King Oedipus notes