Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 4


Oedipus Rex: A Moral Tragedy

Asra Afrin

Abstract: The Greek tragedies were composed to moralize the city/state. Oedipus Rex is one of the
Theban plays. The article explores Oedipus Rex as a moral play. This paper discusses how the Greek
tragedy, Oedipus Rex was intended to moralize the society. It attempts to put forth the actions of some
of the characters that are intended to convey morality either directly or indirectly. It attempts to
present the moral aspects of the play. The paper looks at the moral aspects of the play. Discusses the
play’s effect on society and audience, turning them towards religion. Shows it as a play having a
moral message as its goal and makes moral benefit. The aim of the play is to provide moral and
philosophical education to practice in the everyday life.
Key Words
Moral: Relating to the principles of right and wrong in behavior, especially for teaching right
behavior. Or Positively affecting the mind. The principles of morality are derived from Religion,
Culture or from any philosophy.
Thebes: Thebes is a city in Boeotia in Central Greece. The city is popular due to having reference to
it in the Greek myths.
Dionysus: Greek God of Music, wine and grapes in Greek mythology.
Dionysia: Dionysia was a Greek state festival held every spring in honor of Dionysus.
Sphinx: In Greek Mythology, the Sphinx has the head of a woman, the haunches of a lion and the
wings of a bird. She is mythicized as treacherous and merciless.
Introduction to Greek Literature
Oedipus Rex is a Greek tragedy. Greek literature is the oldest literature in the world. Homer,
Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Longinus are some of the famous Greek writers and philosophers. Most
of the forms of literature in English are borrowed from Greek literature, including tragedy. The first
tragedies were written by Greek dramatists such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides.
The Greek tragedies were performed in Theatres at the time of religious festivals. A
competition was held and each playwright produced tragedy and comedy. At the end of the
competition a winner was prized. The selection of a play as best or winning was decided on the basis
of its effect in benefitting the society morally and religiously.
Introduction to Author
Sophocles was a fifth century Greek playwright. He wrote more than hundred and twenty
plays. But only seven survive. They are Ajax, Antigone, Women of Trachis, Oedipus Rex, Electra,
Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus Rex is very famous play. Oedipus Rex is referred by

Volume 8, Issue 2, 2020 http://aegaeum.com/ Page No: 134


Aristotle as an example of a tragedy in his Poetics. Sophocles presented his tragedies during Dionysia.
He won the prize for twenty four times and was one of the greatest playwrights.
The Greek tragedies were composed with the intention of moralizing the society and to
promote the religious and Athenian rules and laws. The Greek tragedies always have a moral
message to make people good citizens of State. The Greek tragedies had an aim of making people
loyal to the king and religion. Oedipus Rex is one of such tragedies that attempt to good and bad, evil
and virtue, hate and love, merciful and merciless provide a moral. The Athenian rules and religion are
shown as sacred and breaking of these rules brought wrath on the city or on individual. This wrath or
curse is shown in the form of natural calamities, plagues, death, suffering etc. The curse of god fell as
a result of some fault to which Aristotle calls as ‘hamartia’, by the protagonist. The Greek tragedies
often provide a moral through depiction of some fault/ignorance or pride by the protagonist. This fault
causes for his destruction/ horrible ending as a result of his fault.
The play Oedipus Rex shows morals as supreme and even kings and queens are not excused
in following the religious rules and laws. If any king or queen violates the religious laws, although
unknowingly, they suffer by the curse of god. The play conveys the message that even the powerful
kings and queens are not free from the curse of god. With this the play strengthens the belief in
religion and god. The play doesn’t convey the moral directly but indirectly, by making the character
realize his faults after experiencing the grief and curse. The moral is that anyone who violates the
religious laws will have to face a wrath of god.
King Laius seduces Chrysippus which casts doom over him and his descendants. This arise
the fear in the audience that the immoral acts or committing of the things that are considered sin bring
curse even on the descendants. By this the play arises the fear of befalling misfortune and attempts to
keep the audience/citizens on the moral path.
On one hand we see king Laius becoming merciless and tying the feet of the new born
Oedipus and asking his wife to send the child to be left on the mountainous area. On the other hand
we see king Polybus who brings up Oedipus as his own child. and showers his mercy and love on him
though he was unaware of Oedipus’s real identity and ancestry. Polybus represents a kind hearted
Murder of king Laius and marrying Jocasta:
Killing one’s own father and marrying one’s mother are considered sins in every religion and
considered immoral in every culture. And committing these sins either knowingly or unknowingly
brings curse and suffering. Oedipus unaware of the fact that Laius is his father, kills him and unaware
of the fact that Jocasta is his mother, marries her. This is the biggest sin that creates extraordinary
effect on the audience. This brings curse on the people of Thebes. The curse is described by the priest;
Zeus in this way.
“that our trees let drop the best of their flowers to the ground just before they
become fruit; that our herds drop dead as they graze and our women have all
become barren”(Oedipus Rex, act; 1 [4]).
The depiction of the fall of a wrath/curse on Thebes was to indicate the existence of god who
doesn’t tolerate the sins such as murder of own father and marrying own mother. This fear of curse
did not allow the people to go against the religious laws. And the fear of curse kept them follow the
religious morals and laws. The curse of god continues until Oedipus punishes himself and Jocasta
kills herself out of the shame of the greatest sin.
The play shows natural calamities are curse of god. committing of sins calls the curse of god
either on individuals or on the city. This depends on the nature of the sin in religion. The play conveys
the message that if religious laws are broken/ignored, the curse of god befalls and people suffer. Even
the kings and queens are not exempted from following the religious morals and laws. Apollo, Zeus

Volume 8, Issue 2, 2020 http://aegaeum.com/ Page No: 135


and Athena are addressed directly by the characters in the play reflecting the religious belief of the

Riddle of the Sphinx and the pride of Oedipus:

Oedipus on his way to Thebes encounters the Sphinx. She asks him to solve her riddle to save
himself and the city, Thebes from the curse. He solves her riddle. Solving the riddle of the Sphinx
makes him haughty and he taunts Tiresias. Oedipus assumes himself greater than the blind prophet of
Thebes, as he solved the riddle which Tiresias could not solve. Solving the riddle makes him proud of
himself. He thinks he is greater than Tiresias in knowledge. He is proud of his knowledge and says he
solved the riddle without the help of gods and omens whereas Tiresias could not solve the riddle and
could not rescue Thebes from the curse of the sphinx even with the help of birds, gods and omens.
Another moral the play conveys is that a man should not have pride. Being proud and haughty
is not liked by gods. And the pride causes for some misfortune or a destruction. Pride and arrogance
are thought to be the sins. The Greek religion like other religions shows god as supreme and being
proud makes the god angry. The play strengthens the belief that god is supreme and god alone has all
knowledge. It is sin on the part of human beings to have pride.
Fate plays significant role in Greek tragedies. It was believed by the Greek people that fate is decided
by gods and fate can’t be reversed/ avoided by human beings. Oedipus attempts to escape from his
fate. “Oedipus: Apollo told me once that I would be my mother’s husband and my father’s murderer,
so I left Corinth a long time ago” (Oedipus Rex, lines 991-994).
Oedipus tried to escape the fate in order to keep himself away from the sin. Oedipus leaves
Corinth and moves to Thebes in order to avoid the befalling fate. He attempts to do so because he, like
all others, believed that it is a greatest sin to kill own father and marry own mother. The only solution
he could think of was to leave Corinth for Thebes. unknowingly he steps towards his misfortune. This
act of Oedipus is regarded as a sin in Greek religion. Greeks believed we human beings do not have
the power to avoid our fate and fate is decided by gods and any action that attempts to avoid the fate is
a sin.
Oedipus’s Recognition:
After the recognition of the truth that he has killed his own father and Jocasta whom he
married is his own mother, Oedipus blinds himself and Jocasta kills herself. This act of Oedipus can
be interpreted as an acceptance of his sins and punishing himself with his own hands for the sins he
committed. It can be said that Oedipus as a king was in search of the culprit who killed the former
king Laius. Realizing the truth that he killed Laius who was none other than his own father, he feels
ashamed. He curses his birth and Polybus for bringing him up. he repents that he is the cause of the
plague and he ignored the prophecy of Tiresias. Out of guilt he blinds himself. His repentance, guilt,
cry and blinding himself shows Oedipus is not a wicked man, but a religious man who accepted that it
was a sin/ immoral act to kill his own father and marry his mother. Oedipus without any bias and
hesitation punishes himself. The act of blinding himself carries the message of morality and justice.
The play portrays a great moral by representing the story of a king. The break of religious
laws by a king creates more effect. So the protagonists of the Greek tragedies belong to noble family.
Aristotle says the protagonist should be from a noble family and “that which reveals moral purpose,
showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids” (Poetics).
Finding the culprit from ordinary people and punishing an ordinary citizen would not have
brought the effects of a tragedy. It was common for people to see ordinary man punished by the state
officials or kings. The ignorance of a king and violation of the religious laws by a king and

Volume 8, Issue 2, 2020 http://aegaeum.com/ Page No: 136


punishment and suffering of a king creates more effect on the audience. The play shows king must be
respected and that kings have power on their people. The play carries the message that people should
be loyal to their kings and follow religious laws. On the other hand the play shows the king are not
free to break the religious laws.
The aim of the Greek tragedies was to keep people loyal to the kings and to make them follow
religious rules and laws. Its aim was to make the society moral and religious. To make people believe
strongly in religion the play gives more importance to the natural calamities or the curse of god rather
than to punishment given by the state. It is an attempt to bring the fear of god and the fear of the
punishment from god through curse which falls in the form of disasters, calamities, death or suffering.
The play aims at moralizing the audience turning them to religious believes. The fear of the king and
the state laws would not achieve this aim. So the curse plays important role in achieving this aim.


[1] Dawe, R. D, editor. “Sophocles: Oedipus Rex”. 2nd ed, Cambridge University Press.
[2] “A Study Guide for Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex”. Gale Study Guides.
[3] “Studies in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex”. Books way.
[4] http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Oedipus.php.
[5] http://www.ancient-mythology.com/greek/oedipus_rex.php.
[6] http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragic_hero.
[7] http://www.pitt.edu/~edfloyd/Class1130/sphinx.html.
[8] Klosko, George, editor. “The Development of Plato’s Political Theory”. 2nd ed, OUP, (2006).
[9] Day, Gary. “Literary Criticism: A New History”. Orient Black Swan.
[10] www.google.co.in/amp/literariness.org/2017/05/01/literary-criticism-of-aristotle/amp/?espv=1

Volume 8, Issue 2, 2020 http://aegaeum.com/ Page No: 137