This is an essay that I wrote for my Interpreting Literature class during my second year of college. The prompt was to write about what Oedipus’ (a tragic hero of Greek mythology) choices suggests about his character and values and how does this shape our response to him as a hero. I very much enjoyed reading Oedipus’ story because of what could be learned from how he handled his situation with comparison with his wife. Here is my view of the decisions king Oedipus made and what could be learned from him.
The title of an ancient Greek play that Sophocles wrote is called Oedipus the King. The plot overview of the story is that Oedipus vowed to search and impose justice upon the murder of the previous king of Thebes, Laius, in order to rid of the plague that struck the city. Eventually, Oedipus found out that not only is Laius his father, but he is in fact the murderer that has been causing his city to suffer. Upon realization of this and after the discovery of the suicide of Jocasta, his wife and mother, he decided to blind himself and chose to be exiled. Oedipus’ decision to inflict self-punishment in this way shows that he has a character that of a leader with integrity by taking full responsibility of his actions and a strong person by braving through a life full of pain, thus showing an overall character as a respectable, sincere hero.
Despite Oedipus’ mistakes, throughout the play, his persistence to search and act upon the crime that was done to the past king of Thebes shows that he is a leader with integrity. This is due to the fact that he still decided to cast punishment on himself in order to rid of the plague in the city in which he ruled. In the beginning of the play, Oedipus proclaims, “Call the assembly and let it meet upon understanding that I’ll do everything” (145). Not only did he say that he will do everything in his power to uncover the truth, but he also cursed this man, not knowing that he in fact is the one responsible. Towards the end, he discovered the whole truth but instead of withdrawing his curses and statements, he openly bestowed punishment upon himself. The fact that he could have taken back his word because he was the king at that time but chose not to shows that he was a type of leader that does not take advantage of his appointed authority. The chorus stated the words that came out from blind Oedipus, “For he’ll cast himself, out of the land, he says, and not remain to bring a curse upon his house, the curse he called upon it in his proclamation” (1290). His responsible acts show his genuine care for his people and his genuine repentance over his wrong deeds.
Furthermore, Oedipus’ decision to blind and cast himself into exile as punishment instead of taking his own, life like Jocasta shows strength and responsibility. This is because he knew he will live a life of shame and pain coming from his inner self and from others who despise him, yet this was the life he chose. Jocasta took the easy way out by taking her own life, which shows characters of weakness and irresponsibility. Throughout the play, she did not want to find out the truth because of her fear of what might be exposed. In line 1060, Jocasta pleaded with Oedipus saying, “I beg you- do not hunt this out- I beg you, if you have any care for your own life. What I am suffering is enough”. Clearly, she was not interested in what was for the benefit of the majority, but instead, she was selfish in her desire to bury the past. In her statement, it may seem that she cares for Oedipus’ wellbeing by persuading him not to dig for the truth any longer. However, she knows how much Oedipus wants to know the truth, which shows that her persuasion is for her own selfish intention and not really for her husband. The fact that she made him feel guilty by saying, “what I am suffering is enough” shows her desperation to leave the past behind. Jocasta chose to live in ignorance while Oedipus searched for the truth and was willing to face it despite the possibility of it being unpleasant. Upon demanding the truth from the herdsman he summoned to speak of the past, Oedipus admitted, “I of frightful hearing, but I must hear” (1170). By this time, Oedipus has already started to have inkling that it might be him that he is looking for; however, he still did not stop searching for the truth. Based on the way Jocasta spoke throughout the play, I do not think that she was strong enough to handle the truth and even she knew this herself. She let her emotions control her to the point that it drove her to commit yet another selfish decision- suicide. Oedipus could have chosen suicide in order to not suffer the consequences of his errors, but instead, he was strong enough to choose to live a life of misery. This shows that Oedipus has control over his emotions and was able to make decisions based on what is right, not based on the selfish nature of human beings. He believes that this was the best decision that could be done in order for justice to be served. Oedipus stated at the end of the play, “What I have done here was best done…I have done things deserving worse punishment than hanging” (1370, 1375). Here, Oedipus admits that death is not an appropriate punishment because of the level of destruction and shame he caused. He believes it to be fitting that he suffer for the rest of his life and that even the gods hate him above all other people in the earth.
In this sense, Jocasta’s weakness highlights Oedipus’ strength. The two completely different paths that Jocasta and Oedipus chose give readers a person to compare the other to, thus make it clearer who is weak and who is strong. A person of weak spirit, like Jocasta, would not voluntarily choose the path Oedipus did. At the same time, suicide is a selfish and irresponsible act because the person that commits this act will leave everyone behind and not be held accountable for what they did in their life. It is like escaping punishment for the wrong deeds that one has done. Jocasta is a character in the play that illuminates the character of Oedipus by her words, actions, and decisions.
Oedipus’ decision shapes the reader view of him as a respectable and sincere hero because he values justice despite that he will be the one to suffer the consequences. Although, others may view Oedipus’ decision as unfair and insufficient because he killed several men and thus should also be killed. However, I believe that it is a much worse punishment to live a lifetime of pain rather than to die right away. Oedipus’ believes that a lifetime of blindness and exile is the best-fit punishment because this way, he will be able to pay for what he has done for the rest of his life. Others may not view Oedipus as a respectable and sincere hero because of the murders he committed. While, I too do not believe in murder, I can still say that Oedipus have such characters because of the life time decision he chose in order to pay for his wrongs. Every human being is flawed, but when one decides a lifetime punishment voluntarily, this shows genuine repentance. In the end, Oedipus made sure that his daughters will be well taken care of and he understands the severity of how they will be affected by what their father did. He even asked Creon to quickly take him to a place where he may not hear a human voice, meaning he wishes to spend the rest of his life away from people so that he may not commit anymore wrongs. Despite the wrong deeds he committed, at the end, with his authority as king, he was able to expose the truth about the main cause of the plague in Thebes. By casting himself to exile, he was able to save his city. Throughout the play, Oedipus has been consistent in his desire to find out the truth. Because of these circumstances, Oedipus is not merely a king- he is Oedipus the sincere king.