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Riley Mosby
Dr. Atkins
ENGW 105 18
12 January 2017

Oedipus Essay
One of the most pondered questions throughout history has been "what drives humanity?". This

topic is discussed in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. This play tells the story of a man who tries to escape a

prophecy which states that he would come to murder his father, the king, and have incestuous relations

with his mother, the queen, but in doing so he ensures that the prophecy is fulfilled. Like many other

Greek tragedies, Oedipus Rex makes many assertions about humanity. Oedipus Rex reveals that man has

an innate sense of self-preservation, as seen through the words and actions of Jocasta and Laius, Tiresias

and the shepherd, Creon, the chorus, and Oedipus.

Jocasta and Laius are the parents of the titular character, Oedipus. Though this fact is not known

to by the characters, it is apparent to the readers in a case of dramatic irony. In their youth, Jocasta and

Laius are warned that their son would grow up to murder his father. In an effort to subvert this prophecy,

they send their son away to be abandoned their son in the wilderness and left him for dead. This was an

act of self-preservation. This Their instinct to live was so great that it overcame any maternal or paternal

instinct to save their son. The abandonment of Oedipus as a child shows that the preservation of self is

more important thant the preservation of Laius bloodline. Even Oedipus incredulously asks, Her own

child,/ how could she? (231). Jocasta demonstrates that she cares chiefly of for herself when she urges

Oedipus not to investigate his origins. Jocasta realizes who she married when the messenger reveals who

he received the baby from saying, He called himself a servant of/ if I remember rightlyLaius.

(Jocasta turns sharply) (221). Oedipus assumes that she does not want to be demeaned with the

knowledge that she married a commoner, but in reality, Jocasta is ashamed of her incestuous relations
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with her son. BecauseAs a result of this shame, Jocasta knows that she will be ostracized by society and

chooses to and as a result she hangs herself rather than deal with the consequences:

straight to her rooms she rushed, flinging herself

across the bridal-bed, doors slamming behind her

once inside, she wailed for Laius, dead so long,

remembering how she bore his child long ago

Oh how she wept, mourning the marriage-bed

where she let loose that double broodmonsters

husband by her husband, children by her child. (236)

Oedipus parents feel a greater need to protect their own self-interests over anyone elses, including their

childs interests.

Before the conflict of Oedipus true identity arises, there is the conflict of the punishment of an

unsolved murder. King Laius was supposedly murdered by a band of highwaymen, and until the

murderers are brought to justice, the city of Thebes will suffer. To get aid and guidance in solving Laius

murder, it is suggested that Oedipus talk with Tiresias, a blind prophet. As a prophet, Tiresias knows that

it was Oedipus who killed Laius, thus fulfilling the first part of his prophecy. Rather than incur Oedipus

wrath and face banishment, Tiresias tries to hide the truth from Oedipus. This shows Tiresias self-

preservation. When asked who Laius murderer is he responds:

How terribleto see the truth

when the truth is the only pain to him who sees!

I knew it well, but I put it from my mind,

else I never would have come. (176)


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In a similar way, the shepherd also tries to shield the truth about Oedipus origins from him in an act of

self-preservation. When interrogated he says, No/ gods sake, master, no more question! in a futile

attempt to avoid Oedipus anger (230). Tiresias and the shepherd both try to circumvent the truth to

protect themselves from Oedipus fury.

Creon is Jocastas sister, which means that he is both Oedipus uncle and brother-in-law. As

brother to the queen, Creon holds a great deal of political power. In a fit of paranoia, Oedipus convinces

himself that Creon is conspiring with Tiresias to overthrow him. Rather than acquiesce and submit

himself to Oedipus judgment, Creon heatedly defends himself. Of the accusation, Creon says

How wrong is it to take the good for bad,

purely at random, or take the bad for good.

But reject a friend, a kinsman? I would as soon

tear out the life within us, priceless life itself. (194)

He knows that to lose this argument would mean his death, and even comments on the value of life. This

threat of death is enough for Creon to abandon all royal dignity and decorum to argue in the streets in

front of the chorus. When Jocasta hears of the fighting she says, Have you no sense? Poor misguided

men,/ such shoutingwhy this public outburst?/ Arent you ashamed (196). These actions show that

maintaining his life and status are more important than his reputation. In the end of the play when

Oedipus reaches for Creon, he subtly evades his grasp, already beginning to distance himself from the

ruined king. Oedipus says, Promise me, noble Creon, touch my hand! (Reaching toward Creon, who

draws back.) (249). In an act of self-preservation, Creon refuses contact with Oedipus lest the citizens

interpret his actions as forgiveness for the crimes committed, which would frame Creon as a weak leader

and make him susceptible to threats.


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The chorus in Oedipus Rex fulfills the traditional role of choruses in Greek tragedies, showing the

opinions of the citizens of Thebes and influencing some characters decisions. In the beginning of the

play, the chorus is very loyal to Oedipus because he broke the curse of the Sphinx by solving a riddle.

This loyalty remains steadfast throughout the play until Oedipus true identity is revealed. With Oedipus

tragic fall, so falls the chorus loyalty to Oedipus. The chorus knows it must cut ties with Oedipus for

their own preservation. When Oedipus begs for death so that his loved ones suffering could end, the

chorus says, Oh if only would to god (242). The citizens realize that Oedipus is no longer the great

savior of the Thebes, and even begin to lament his existence because of the effect it had on their lives.

Every aspect of Oedipus life was motivated by self-preservation. His parents abandoned him at

birth for their own protection. Oedipus fled from Corinth so would not commit patricide and be shunned

by society. He even argued with Creon and Tiresias on suspicion that they were plotting against him.

Sophocles reiterates numerous time in Oedipus Rex that humanity has an innate sense oif self-

preservation that overrules all other societal obligations.


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Works Cited

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays. Trans. Robert Fagles. N.p.: Viking Penguin, 1982. Print.

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