​​​​​​​Oedipus Rex Character Analysis Essay


When people wish to know something about themselves, they will go to great lengths to find their reality, often without thinking of the consequences. Sophocles created a great example of this with Oedipus Rex. Through the use of foreshadowing and the motif of verbal misunderstandings, Oedipus’ mysterious origins come to light. The intensity surrounding this helps to showcase how people, when in pursuit of information they deem important to their character, will go to extreme and sometimes fatal lengths to learn their truths. 

Throughout Oedipus’ life, he’s been surrounded by secrets. His birth parents thought he was dead, his adoptive parents never told him the truth of his birth, Iocasta kept her past a secret. People only told him information in half-truths or riddles, if at all. This caused his past to be filled with mystery and his present to be full of misunderstandings that proved lethal. “To the children with whom he lives now he will be Brother and father- the very same; to her Who bore him, son and husband- the same Who came to his father’s bed, wet with his father’s blood. Enough. Go think that over.” (pg. 1326, Teiresias). Here, Teiresias seems to be directly avoiding answering Oedipus’ questions. This happens multiple times throughout the play, where other characters keep important information from Oedipus. He left Corinth to avoid killing the man he knew as father, to avoid marrying the woman he called mom. Neither of these people were a part of the prophecy given to him, and yet Oedipus was left to believe that they were. Based on the knowledge we know Oedipus had, his decision to run away from Corinth made a lot of sense; he was just protecting those he loved. Some of the misunderstandings in this play are more purposeful and have intent. ”Phoibus ordained the search; why did he not say who the culprit is?” “An honest question. But no man in the world can make the gods do more than the gods will.” (pg. 1321, Choragos and Oedipus). It’s clear that Apollo was withholding information. His prophecy had also already been fulfilled, as Oedipus has already killed his father and had children by his mother. There really was no reason for Apollo to send the plague after Thebes except for his and the gods’ amusement. These aren’t quite misunderstandings; Apollo is playing with Oedipus. This is a common theme throughout Oedipus Rex, and often end up foreshadowing other events.

A very good portion of Oedipus’ life could be expected. The events leading up to his fall make it very predictable and foreseeable. Just his name in itself is incredibly telling- “Oedipus”, meaning “Swollen-foot” based purely on the way he was almost left to die. How his parents “gave their infant son to a shepherd with orders that he be left on a mountainside to die” sets us up to expect that Oedipus doesn’t die, that he comes back and completes his prophecy. (pg. 1311, prologue). The one thing ancient Greeks should’ve learned by this point is that if you’re going to try and avoid a prophecy, do it yourself. Don’t set out a servant to do it, the gods will always strike just enough mercy into their hearts last minute. The shepherd sent to kill Oedipus backs down after he had already “pinned the babe’s ankles together,” which ultimately ended up affecting him for the entire course of his life. (pg. 1311, prologue). These examples might not be a part of the story that’s on stage, but it is knowledge that the audience comes with prior. This foreshadowing and information that theater goers have help to set up and explain later events. The way Oedipus says, “My children, generations of the living In the line of Kadmos, nursed at his ancient hearth:…”, calling his subjects his “children” and referencing Kadmos, who is the founder of Thebes, even though he doesn’t think he’s from Thebes himself, is also foreshadowing and alluding to his mysterious origins. (pg. 1312, Oedipus). Even if Oedipus isn’t aware of it, he seems to know that he has some sort of birth connection with his subjects. The audience or readers can connect this and other instances to one another, and most often accurately predict the outcome of the story.

The way Sophocles utilizes the literary device of foreshadowing and the motif of misunderstandings and riddles brings to light Oedipus’ mysterious past and shows how when desperate, people will go to extreme lengths over something. This feeling of needing to know something and of missing a part of your identity is integral to the human experience, and it is something that most, if not all, people will go through in their lifetimes.

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