Oedipus The King Summary Essay

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Oedipus the King: Critical Paper
Sophocles is able to accomplish to achieve several objectives in his play, Oedipus the King. Sophocles magnificently retells a classic Greek tale while also describing the characters and their motives in great detail. Of the characters Sophocles naturally spends the most time characterizing the protagonist of the play, Oedipus. Sophocles conveys Oedipus’ ideals, moral, and opinions about several topics throughout the play. Among the most important and prominent of his beliefs that are revealed dealt with Oedipus’ value of reasoning, intellect, inquiry, and measurement.

Sophocles portrayed Oedipus as an amiable character that the Greek audience could sympathize with and perhaps even relate to. The audience saw a respectable figure, who did not seem to commit any blatant evil, come to his destruction. They saw an indubitable tragedy. Sophocles ensured that the audience would view Oedipus as a respectable and plausible hero by giving Oedipus many of the popular sentiments of the time. These ideals were brought about by a philosophy that was thriving in Greece during Sophocles’ lifetime. Most of Oedipus’ notions, can be traced back to either the dialectic Socrates in who appeared in Plato’s several works, or Plato’s student Aristotle. These notions were being circulated throughout Greece during the time period which Oedipus was thought to be presented, making them common knowledge for the audience of the time (Friedlander 7).
Of all the virtues that the Greeks, especially the Athenians held dear was wisdom, wisdom dealing with everything in life (Friedlander 8). Socrates spurned this Greek movement for wisdom when he not only proclaimed that wisdom is the one true virtue from which all other
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virtues originated, but he also put forth the notorious quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”(“Apology” 203) . Socrates throughout all of Plato’s dialogues, advocated the importance of the wisdom and said that the desire for this wisdom is the only true path to divinity. Aristotle later contributed to the theory when he wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics, that wisdom separated mankind from the animals and wisdom placed the Greeks closer to the gods that they worshiped and admired(435). The Greeks constantly sought for this wisdom so that it may bring them to their greatest pleasure, the purpose in life, a true and final happiness, the aim of their Eudaimonia.( “N.E.” 397) The Greek audience for which Sophocles wrote could easily sympathize with Oedipus in his play. This is due to the fact that Oedipus was struck down from his pedestal while merely attempting to discover himself and in that process to attain wisdom and happiness. The goals for which Oedipus sought were noble goals that a majority of the audience members may have been seeking.
Plato, in his Republic delineated a duelist theory of our world. Plato wrote that our world is actually a cave where people are bound and forced to look at shadows on the wall for their entire life(67). In Plato’s opinion, reality cannot exist in this world because only shadows cast by a fire are seen(69). According to Plato, the only way to see anything in its quintessence, the only way to see bona fide truth and wisdom is to escape the cave(71). By escaping the cave the person could see the fire as a deceiver of reality because that person has now seen true light and virtue. This light, this philosophic insight of reality allows the person to return to the cave, to see objects in their veritable conformations and give them their appropriate judgement and value(74). This theory is the basis for what Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras avouched his concept of “The Art of Measurement.”(“Prot.”163). Socrates holds that since the world is in a cave, the
people cannot trust their judgement or perceptions because they are only of false shadows. Socrates proffered this theory in response to Protagoras’ question of why mankind commits acts that are ultimately harmful, such as smoking or excessive drinking(165). Aristotle believed that this was because of a weak moral habit(“N.E.” 411). However, Socrates did not believe in Aristotle’s famous Akrasia thesis, Socrates believed that no passion or pleasure could possibly overcome the omnipotent knowledge(“Prot. 141”). During the famed dialogue, Protagoras raised an obvious question when he asked why people will continue to smoke although they know it will cause them pain(143). In order to keep from refuting his argument, Socrates explained his Art of Measurement.Socrates declared that the only reason mankind does such harmful things such as smoking is that they simply have no way to measure the immediate pleasure of smoking against the distant pain of the cancer of other disease that smoking causes(144). Socrates said simply that these people have a flawed sense of measurement due to the dark cave they dwell in(“Prot.” 144). Without this art, the essence of wisdom, one cannot accurately weigh pleasure versus pain and one cannot achieve final pleasure…Eudaimonia.
The first step in achieving wisdom is the quest for self-knowledge, the quote on the base of the oracle’s statue at Delphi, “Know Thyself”(Friedlander 5). This was the identity that Oedipus was seeking. According to Socrates, the only way to achieve knowledge in general was though the use of inquiry(“Apology” 210) . Socrates practiced inquiry throughout his entire life. He started this practice when an oracle of Apollo told him that no one was wiser than he(“Apology” 215). In either modesty or disbelieve, Socrates led most of his life questioning others trying to find someone wiser than he. However, although he learned a great deal through his questioning, Socrates discovered only that not one person, philosopher or sophist was truly
wise because Socrates would reveal their self-contradictions(“Apology” 217). Regardless if Socrates would ever find anyone wiser than himself through inquiry, he believed that the life of inquiry was the most philosophical, and therefore the most divine(“Apology” 220). Oedipus too, seems to believe this as he spends a great majority of the play asking questions to anyone he suspects potentially has any information. Oedipus questions everyone that approaches him and questions every scenario that confronts him. Oedipus constantly asks questions, “How can we cleanse ourselves- what rites? What’s the source of the trouble?”(164). Whether it is Jocasta or the messenger that Oedipus is speaking with, he is constantly and desperately trying to discover Laius’ murderer, and later his own identity.
The most obvious and practical use of this inquiry is to acquire new knowledge so that intellect can be strengthened. It is obvious that Oedipus is eager to solve his problems. He is all too eager to find the killer of Laius, his statement “I’ll bring it all to light myself!”(167) illustrates his unwavering determination for answers. As Oedipus uses his intellect to analyze the information he has, his desire for answers only becomes stronger. His desire becomes strongest when Jocasta urges Oedipus not to pursue his past any further, Oedipus ignores her request stating “I must know it all, must see the truth at last.”(222). Oedipus seems to be constantly using his intellect to determine the best method to accomplish his goals. Most of his decisions are made by weighing all of his options and finding the best choice, he calculates the best option in regard to the scenario. During the beginning of the play, Oedipus says, “I have wept through the nights, you must know that, groping, laboring over many paths of thought. After a painful search I found one cure. . . .”(162). This shows the extent he labors himself to determine these calculations.
The second tool that Oedipus uses to strengthen his intellect is reason. Oedipus frequently uses reason in the play in order to resolve which path he must next take, what inquiries he must further make. Virtually all Greek philosophers including Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle believed that man was a being built on reason and that reason was the most necessary and healthy activity for man to practice. In this sense Oedipus seems to be the ideal person as he uses a great deal of sound reasoning. He uses this sound reasoning to accurately judge the situation and continue on his path to identity such as when he states to the chorus leader that if the killer did not flinch at murder, then he will not flinch at the words of Oedipus’ threats (175). He also uses his reason when he tells Creon that he may be danger from the killer, which ironically enough would later come true(167).However, Oedipus proves that he is still in Plato’s dark cave when he uses an even greater amount of false reason and judgement. Oedipus is often quick to judge a situation and to let anger cloud his judgement, such as when he accuses Creon and Tiresias of plotting against him(189). He also fails in his reasoning when he persists to learn the truth despite Jocasta’s pleas(223-224). If Oedipus had stopped his quest for identity when he realized that he was Laius’ killer, he would have avoided a significant amount of pain.
Oedipus uses his intellect and his reason to calculate his decisions such as whom to question or who to accuse. However, his calculations are not always correct. Oedipus seems to deviate from his reason at times.For instance, he wrongly accuses Creon of attempting to take his throne and Oedipus even has the gall to call Tiresias ignorant and blind to the light of truth to which Oedipus is actually blind (181). The quest for Oedipus’ identity is actually a simple equation which Oedipus himself cannot see because of his clouded senses. His lack of the “Art of Measurement” keeps Oedipus from true reason and intellect. However, Oedipus’ hubris leads
him to believe that his judgements are in fact sound and he continues blindly into a quest for knowledge which may not be beneficial. His flawed perceptions prohibit Oedipus from accurately comparing the pleasure and the pain that his identity would cause him. Tiresias indeed had the “Art of Measurement” as he vehemently tells Oedipus to, “Go on reflect on that, solve that.”(185).One of the most prevalent ironies in the play is that Oedipus himself is blind to accurate measurement and truth until he blinds himself. He expressed extremely sound judgement and measurement when he gouged out his own eyes. Oedipus compared the future pain his eyes would give him against the initial pain of the needle and made a justified decision and Oedipus seems content with his decision to wander the mountains. Oedipus had finally seen the light outside the cave, unfortunately, it would be too late to save Oedipus from disgrace.

Every decision or quest that Oedipus made was solved by a simple equation. The equation was a matter of simply comparing pleasure and pain to decide the best path to a hedonistic lifestyle. Philosophers of the time such as Plato and Aristotle wrote of such equations and they described things such as the “Art of Measurement” and true reason to help describe what would be needed to correctly solve such an equation. Oedipus as well as other characters in the play embodied these virtues and skills, or even their defects in order to draw yet another link between literature and philosophy.
Works Cited
Aristotle. “Ethica Nicomachea”. Introduction to Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. Trans.W.D. Ross. New York: Random House Incorporated, 1947.308-545.

Friedlander MD, Ed. “Enjoying Oedipus the King by Sophocles”. 1 Aug.1999. Online Posting.2 Nov. 1999. .

Plato. “Apology”. Plato’s Famous Works. Trans. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell.Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992. 194-223.

Plato. “Protagoras”. Plato’s Famous Works. Trans. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell.Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992. 121-183.

Plato. “Republic”. Plato’s Famous Works. Trans. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992. 30-110.
Sophocles. “Oedipus the King.” Trans. Robert Fagles. The Three Theban Plays. New York: Viking Penguin Incorporated, 1982. 155-252.

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