Essay on Sophocles “Oedipus the King” (2023)

Among the Greek tragedies, there can probably be found something deeper and more elaborate, than “Oedipus the King” by Sophocles, but there is not a single one, in which the philosophical depth and tragic strength would be combined with such incomparable sophistication, noble grace and structural perfection. The image of a monstrous Sphinx with the face of a woman, wings, sharp claws, the body of a lion and mysteriously dangerous speech penetrates the whole tragedy as an incorporation of destiny and unknown future. The following research represents a critical analysis of the Sophocles’ tragedy, dealing with various issues raised in it. It gives a detailed analysis of different problems evoking throughout the tragedy on the basis of the existing research conducted by profound contemporary researchers.

Human Conscience and Destiny

The problem of human Destiny that the humanity faced years ago had not been solved up to these days. The problem of the interrelation of human conscience and something mysterious and unknown is still under discussion. Different world religions tried to solve the problem of interrelation between the humanity and Destiny. The whole system of beliefs, rites and superstitions is simply a byproduct of the interaction between human conscience and the unknown (Martinez 15). According to the religious beliefs, the problem of unknown belongs to the sphere of human intuition, but cannot be solved as such. An attempt to explain irrational matters is an equation with multiple unknowns.

In this regard, the destiny of Oedipus, a poor Cadmian king, is quite exemplary. His whole life is a continuous investigation of his own “crimes” and constant search of truth consisting of multisided local solvability. Various researchers define the destiny of Oedipus as an infernal machine that gradually adds more and more mechanisms of destruction of an innocent human being. This machine is destiny that works despite the acts and wishes of a person. Destiny is first of all the inevitability that deprives a person of the right of choice. It is something like a zugzwang in the game of chess, when every compulsory move inevitably leads to failure (Segal 78)

(Video) Oedipus The King - Thug Notes Summary and Analysis

Oedipus, a newcomer from Corinth and a young hero immediately conquered Sphinx. He saved people from the deathly and truly intimidating allurement of the monster and solved its riddle. This is what he is like at the beginning of the tragedy. He is described as the savior of humanity from the dark forces of the Destiny, a hero of mind and will. The people believed that he would conquer the monster and he himself believed in his own strength. The people considered him a wise deity and he himself thinks so.

However, Oedipus is a human being and nothing more. The victory of mind and will over Sphinx as a symbol of Destiny is temporary. Although, Sphinx ran away and left the people in peace, it pierced the heart of the hero and would soon once again give him unsolvable riddles. This is the core of the tragedy. Although Sphinx no longer exists, it is still inside the soul of its conqueror. It is more intimidating than any carnivorous animal as now he is elusive and bodiless just like a phantom. Sphinx is the mystery of life and every human conscience. The prophet Tiresias has a full right to mock the savior of people by saying that he should no save himself. Let him know who his mother and father are and what the meaning of life is. The meaning of life lies in the victory of his spirit over Destiny and victory of Destiny over spirit (Bloom 65). Let every human solve the riddle of their own origin. It would then seem that the meaning of life is a crime, horror and despair as will is nothing compared to the eternal law of necessity. The ancient and cruel monster won over its conqueror, outwitted the human mind and engaged him into the unlawful temptations.

The Symbolism of the Tragedy

The tragic image of the hero and savior of the people who fought against Sphinx as a riddle of its own origin and Destiny as a tempting spirit is an eternal image that is passed on from generation to generation. The hero and Destiny, will and necessity, mind and world mysteries all represent the true meaning of this religious, philosophic and in many ways symbolic tragedy. In fact, if it was not for symbolism, than what would be left? There would probably be left only a tragic contingency. From the contemporary point of view, Oedipus is not guilty as he was not aware that he was killing his father and would marry his own mother. Neither consciousness, nor will played any role in the murder of his father and incest. In fact, it was not a crime, but simply a tragedy and contamination of an innocent person diluted by the prophecy of deities.

(Video) Oedipus Rex by Sophocles | Summary & Analysis

Oedipus was doomed to spiritual death not because he was guilty, but simply because he wanted to have more power than a human being can have and was too audacious to conquer the Destiny and ancient monster. The power of Oedipus turned into autocracy (Martinez 19). He placed himself over other people forgetting the essence of human nature. He mocked the prophecies of deities and wanted to become deity himself. Here, we can see no tragic contingency, but the very essence of life and the inevitability of the spiritual death of a hero, who believed in his own will, strength and “ego” when he faced the mystery of the world in the form of a womanlike monster with its eternal riddles.

Artistic Mastery of the Tragedy

Apart from the religious and philosophic meaning, the tragedy has a truly inexhaustible fiction attraction. It greatly differs from other Greek tragedies judging from the strength and mastery of the psychological analysis. It thus makes the tragedy resemble the European drama. The poet concentrates on a few horrible hours in the life of a hero without changing the setting and step by step shows all stages of the human existence starting from the highest point of beatitude and ending with the utmost tragedy. The hero becomes an outsider and a cursed criminal (Kallich 34). The king who has been a deity becomes a poor homeless stranger.

The horror and attraction of this tragedy mainly lies in the inevitable and slow graduation, which leads to the solution of the mystery. Something as horrible as death gradually grows into a disaster that leads to the spiritual death of its victim. At the beginning of the tragedy, Oedipus has the utmost power and fame being worshipped by the people. Although the city faces the disastrous plague, nobody doubts that Oedipus would be able to win the hearts of the deities and that the conqueror of Sphinx would save the people from the new disaster. The first hint to suspicion is evident in the words of Tiresius. Oedipus is greatly irritated by the half-word of the prophet and this is when the conflict evokes. It is a dangerous knot that nobody can untangle.

(Video) Oedipus Rex Analysis

The last scene of Oedipus’ despair, his blindness, shame and cursedness is written with such strength and mercilessness of realism that horror and compassion experienced by the readers are mixed with aversion and disgust in our mind (Sophocles 128). However, the harmony is not ruined. The beauty overcomes horror and the last scenes of the tragedy are penetrated with the reconciling tenderness. Oedipus forgets himself, his pride and grief and thinks of his poor outcast children. Love gives makes the human will immortal and conquers the blind power of Destiny.


“Oedipus the King” by Sophocles is so deep and complex that focusing on certain problem that penetrates the tragedy inevitably leads to other issues. The critical analysis of this work is like untangling of a sweater, when by pulling one fiber the other two are revealed. In conclusion, it should be mentioned that the destinies of the three main heroes of the tragedy are closely connected with the feeling of fear. One hero was afraid of death, while the other was afraid of truth, and still other was intimidated by power. As a result, every one of them got just what they feared. The above research represents a critical analysis of such issues as Destiny and human being as well as the importance of symbolism in the tragedy. The research is based on the existing investigations of this ancient piece of writing, still revealing the personal viewpoint of its author. “Oedipus the King” is a true masterpiece that evokes a mixture of feelings in its readers. It has long become a classic writing whose fame will hardly ever fade away.

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