The drama “Oedipus the King” by Sophocles is considered to be one of the most prominent dramatic works in the history of world drama. It vividly discloses and illustrates the talent of the ancient Greek dramatist as the master of disclosure of the themes that have been topical in the course of development of human society and literature. Human knowledge is very limited, it is simply tiny in comparison with all information existing. However, humanity has been always characterized by the thirst of knowledge. The question of the benefit or danger that may be caused by knowledge is a philosophical question. The lack of knowledge and quest for it, as well as the possible consequences form the main theme of the drama under consideration. The general theme of “Oedipus the King” may be formulated in the following way: life may be imagined as the undiscovered road that is full of unexpected corners, new knowledge may crown you, and it may ruin your life as well, not everyone is strong enough to bear the burden of knowledge.
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The statement that Sophocles puts into the mouth of the tragic hero of the drama: “Oblivion – what a blessing … for the mind to dwell a world away from pain” is one of the key ideas of the whole work (Sophocles 243). The statement may be treated as unexpected and striking because the reader knows that the King of Thebes, Oedipus, used to have a reputation of wise and intelligent ruler. It is his intelligence that predetermined the future development of action, because once it gave him the opportunity to solve “the riddle of Sphinx” and ascend “the throne of Thebes” (Sophocles 159). Knowledge gave the tragic hero the opportunity to save the people of Thebes from outrages of the terrible creature. And Oedipus was considered the savior, the person who had full right to become the king of the saved people. By a strange quirk of fate or by the will of gods the new king was the murderer of the previous king, what is more, the most awful tragedy happened, the father was killed by the son.
It is evident, that the tragedies in the drama happened because of knowledge, the lack of knowledge or, on the contrary, the availability of the information that should have been hidden. Though the action in “Oedipus the King” starts with the plague, “the fiery god of fever hurls down the city, his lightning thrashing through us” torturing Thebes, the development of action suggests information about the secret of Oedipus’ birth (Sophocles 160). The prophecy told the deceased king Laius that he would be killed by his own son, and this fact played the decisive role in the development of action, eventually showing the reader that even awareness cannot save a person from his fate. It is known that ancient Greeks ascribed absolute power to fate; they thought that everything was predetermined in our life, however, no one knew if fate would build up the same flow of action if Laius chose not to play tricks with fate. Thus, it might well be that knowledge ruined Laius’ life.
At the same time, the absence of knowledge inspired the quest of knowledge in Oedipus’ soul. He was thought to be a man of wisdom by the population of Thebes, and there was no denying the fact that he was characterized by high moral standards and faithfulness to his subjects. This was one of the motives in his constant search for the truth and knowledge. However, it cannot be stated that the character of Oedipus is entirely perfect as it is presented by the dramatist. One more motive of the character’s thirst for knowledge is his hubris. Great power has made Oedipus blind, at first in figurative sense of the word, but then the king became physically blind. Sophocles wanted to teach his descendants a lesson that said that everyone who was inspired by pride in his search for knowledge is erring, he is blind, his power is limited, and he is doomed to be punished severely. Just as Oedipus’ father was trying to delude gods, his son was trying to dethrone them in order to take their place. He says: “You pray to the Gods? Let me grant your prayers” (Sophocles 171). The king is blind with his own power, though it is evident for the reader that the king’s life will be ruined as soon as he learns the truth about the secret of his birth and his present life in sin with his own mother. Oedipus does not know the value of the proverb “Sic transit Gloria mundi” (Thus passes the glory of the world), he cannot see that glory is fragile thing that should be cherished. His arrogance and extreme self-confidence doom him to failure. His shallowness is paradoxical: it is in his desire of knowledge, and it is in his inability to get at the truth.
Drawing a conclusion, it should be stated that the quotation mentioned above, which presents oblivion as the highest blessing is the central idea of the whole action. The entire lives, terrible deaths of the characters of the tragedy, Oedipus’ self-made trauma present the proof of the limitedness of human power in comparison with the power of fate. Sophocles is trying to persuade the audience that sometimes it is better not to know the whole truth if you are not sure that you are strong enough to bear the consequences of your search. Physical blindness of the tragic hero is just the symbolic consequence of his intellectual blindness. “Oedipus the King” narrates about the strength of man that is needed if he wants to get knowledge and face the truth.
Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonius. Trans. Robert Fagles. NY: Penguin Classics, 1984.