Many stories revolve around a strong lead character with a developed personality and an interesting theme that is able to engage a reader. Although tragedy as a genre often relies on actions more than characters, some tragic heroes become the center and the embodiment of the story of the author’s text. For example, the play Oedipus the King, otherwise known as Oedipus Rex, King Oedipus, and Oedipus Tyrannos, written by Sophocles, is a great example of a character’s name becoming synonymous with the plotline. The main hero of the play is king Oedipus, whose life and complicated back story become the primary reason for every event of the play. The protagonist’s personality, shaped by his past experiences, is challenged by fate and circumstances. King Oedipus is a compassionate ruler and a smart and determined person, whose inability to yield his curiosity and passion for learning the truth blind him and lead to a tragic and ironic end.
From the first lines, the author presents Oedipus as a respected and adored leader. People come to Oedipus with the concern about a plague and address him with these words “noblest of men … for now this land of ours / calls you its savior since you saved it once” (Sophocles 53-55). Oedipus is a prideful ruler who deserved his title and respect by freeing the people of Thebes from the Sphinx and her terror. Moreover, his interaction with Sphinx shows him as a knowledgeable man. Oedipus was able to solve a complex riddle that many people couldn’t solve. He is also quite insightful because he anticipates the requests of the citizens to find the plague’s origins. Oedipus is passionate to show his insight and knowledge, as he says, “you have not roused me like a man from sleep / know that I have given many tears to this” (Sophocles 74-75). He wants to show that he cares about the needs of his subjects.
One of the main traits of Oedipus is his curiosity. This characteristic becomes the reason for his demise. He continues his search for truth until the end, although the people closest to him ask Oedipus to stop. This level of determination shows Oedipus as a rather stubborn person because he wants to satisfy his desire for knowledge and clarity, and he is not willing to listen to other people. Through the course of the play, Oedipus’s determination grows. He becomes obsessed with learning the truth. Zachrisson argues that the king wants to know the information not only about the plague but also about himself (321). The story of Oedipus is a story of self-discovery. Moreover, according to Adade-Yeboah et al., these particular characteristics make Oedipus a classic tragic hero, whose temperament alone is able to unravel and further the plot (13).
Oedipus interacts with many people during the course of the play. The readers can see that the relationship between the royal family and the citizens is rather amicable. In the beginning, the king’s subjects come to him in a time of need. They respect him and think of him as a savior. Oedipus is amiable as well. It is evident that he cares for his land and his people when he says, “my spirit groans / for the city and myself and you at once” (Sophocles 72-73). The king’s relationship with his wife, Jocasta, is portrayed as mutually respectful and peaceful. However, as the play continues, the relationship between the couple becomes strained. Jocasta comes to a fearful realization of their familial relation faster than Oedipus and tries to protect him from this information. Although she begs him to stop searching, he does not listen to her, which leads to Jocasta killing herself out of shame.
The interactions between Oedipus and his brother-in-law, Creon, change drastically over the course of the play. Oedipus entrusts Creon with an important task, which shows that the two men trust each other. He greets Creon with the words “Lord Creon, my good brother” and proceeds to listen to him and believe his words (Sophocles 96). However, after getting closer to the truth, Oedipus begins to question Creon’s credibility. His suspicion is based on the lack of knowledge and ignorance of the information he acquired. Oedipus suspects Creon of wanting to take the throne. The king interrogates Creon with emotions that the reader has not seen before. In his interactions with Creon, Oedipus claims that he wants to kill Creon on the basis of his suspicion, showing anger and mistrust towards his brother-in-law. However, Oedipus spares Creon’s life. According to Kitano, this decision may be rooted in the kind nature of Oedipus (55).
The other character, whose words fall under suspicion, is Tiresias, a blind prophet of Thebes. Tiresias plays a significant role in the life of Oedipus because the prophet tells the king about the future many times. In the beginning, Oedipus believes the prophet and his judgment because he asks him to “save yourself and the city, / save me” (Sophocles 341-342). However, after being accused of being the culprit, Oedipus loses his faith in the prophet’s words. The king’s assurance of his innocence is stronger than his trust in Tiresias. The actions and words of Tiresias allow the readers to see the headstrong side of Oedipus. The conflict reaches its peak when Tiresias and Oedipus argue about physical and mental blindness. Oedipus is stubborn and cannot accept the truth during these moments.
Character’s Actions and Speeches
Oedipus openly expresses his thoughts and opinions through his words. His first speech of the play shows him as a passionate ruler. Oedipus claims that he “became a citizen,” thus equating himself with his subjects (Sophocles 240). This speech also reveals his merciful side because he does not wish to kill the murderer of the previous king and promises to let this person leave the land alive and well. He continues to show mercy throughout the course of the play. After confronting Creon, Oedipus is convinced by his wife and the Chorus to spare Creon’s life, although the king certainly feels threatened by his brother-in-law. Oedipus feels that same way about Tiresias, accusing him of being a liar and a conspirator. However, after coming to the realization of his wrongdoings, Oedipus shows dignity and admits his blindness to the situation. Oedipus’s words show him as a prideful man who is able to change and recognize his flaws.
However, the readers also see his irrational side when Oedipus tells a story of killing Laius, his father, and the previous king. Oedipus is unafraid of expressing his emotions. Therefore, he directly tells his interlocutors about his feelings. For example, Oedipus admits his impulsive behavior to Jocasta while telling her about his encounter with Laius, “I became angry / and struck the coachman who was pushing me” (Sophocles 939-940). He also manifests his anger in his dialogue with Tiresias by saying, “indeed I am / so angry I shall not hold back a jot / of what I think” (Sophocles 390-392). His actions align with his words. Oedipus does not attempt to lie about or hide from the information that he learned. Both his rash and thought-out actions are preceded or followed by a speech that lets everyone know his thoughts. He is reluctant to believe the truth, but he confronts it in the end.
The Process of Change
Oedipus’s thought process changes with the unraveling of the plot. By being determined to face the truth, Oedipus becomes more and more obsessed with the process of seeking information. While he is a curious man by nature, his unwillingness to stop significantly impacts his rationality (Li 117). The readers can see Oedipus become more desperate and conflicted over time. In the beginning, Oedipus is a self-assured person who knows his place in the world. However, after new information staggers his position, Oedipus struggles to find himself again. According to Ellmann, the play describes a process of change – a process of a character recognizing the knowledge that he previously declined to accept (82). The stubbornness of the protagonist rises with new information. Oedipus becomes paranoid and wrathful, thus failing to listen to his friends and family the same way as he did before. Moreover, he gradually becomes more scared of the truth while continuing to pursue it. This change affects his relationships with everyone. He loses trust in the people he deemed as friends and drove Jocasta to her end.
After learning the truth, Oedipus changes again. He is no longer the determined and curious man that he was before. The truth influences him and takes his stubbornness away. Oedipus realizes that his life will never be the same, although he does not wish to die. He finally acknowledges the words of Tiresias about being blind to his demise and decides to put out his own eyes. This action shows the level of sorrow and regrets Oedipus feels towards not only his life but the life of his children. He does not want to look at the world anymore because he sees his guilt in the faces of his children and siblings.
The protagonist of the play Oedipus the King is a complex and fascinating character whose actions and decisions have a clear foundation. Oedipus is an intelligent and honest man who takes pride in his position in life. He is on good terms with his family and subjects, who respect him as a king and as a person. However, after being exposed to a problem regarding his kingdom and himself, Oedipus falls victim to his curiosity. His words and actions align with each other. Oedipus is unafraid to express his feelings and share his thoughts with the people he trusts. His obsession with finding the truth is the main reason for the play’s plot progression because Oedipus is unwilling to stop until the very end. In the end, Oedipus loses everything except his life, as he has to acknowledge the truth he has denied for a very long time.
Adade-Yeboah, Asuamah, et al. “The Tragic Hero of the Classical Period.” English Language and Literature Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, 2012, pp. 10-17.
Ellmann, Maud. Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism. Routledge, 2014.
Kitano, Masahiro. Guilt and Character on the Stage in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. 2014, Web.
Li, Ruoqi. “The Complex Relation of Self-determination to Destiny in Oedipus Tyrannos.” English Language and Literature Studies, vol. 5, no. 4, 2015, pp. 115-118.
Sophocles. “Oedipus the King.” Translated by David Grene. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, and Writing, 11th ed., edited by Michael Meyer, Bedford/St. Martins, 2016, pp. 1017-1054.
Zachrisson, Anders. “Oedipus the King: Quest for Self‐knowledge – Denial of Reality. Sophocles’ Vision of Man and Psychoanalytic Concept Formation.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 94, no. 2, 2013, pp. 313-331.