King Oedipus





"It was you, we remember, a newcomer to Cadmus’ town, that broke our bondage to the vile Enchantress. With no foreknowledge or hint that we could give, But, as we truly believe, with the help of God, You gave us back our life. Now, Oedipus great and glorious, we seek your help again." King Oedipus, the greatest and noblest of all men, is once again being called upon by the Thebans to save the polis from disaster. The Chorus holds Oedipus as the object of universal adoration, but is he really the greatest Theban king ever? Why is it that the chorus neglects to mention any of Oedipus’ great contributions to Thebes, except that of defeating the Sphinx. If he were an excellent leader, it seems curious that the only notable thing about his kingship was an act that took place fifteen years and four of his children ago. Was it really Sophocles’ intention that we regard Oedipus as a "good" man? Oedipus accuses Tiresias and Creon, two innocent men, of conspiring to dethrone him and take over the country. Would a "good" man do this, lacking any evidence but his own suspicions? Would a "good" man wish his own brother-in-law dead when no one could even testify to his guilt? Would a "good" man threaten a timid shepherd with pain and death merely because he was hesitant to reveal the harsh realities of Oedipus’ life? Oedipus’ tale of meeting Laius is another troubling point. In Colonus he states in plain terms that King Laius would have murdered him had he not killed Laius. In his initial speech to Jocasta on Laius’ death he tells a different story. It sounds as though he provoked, or at least escalated, the attack on him, striking the first real blow instead of going off the road, which was all Laius’ party really wanted him to do. His earlier speech is not at all a recall of killing in self-defense. Oedipus is, rather, quite hotheaded and possibly even bloodthirsty.
Oedipus does not unselfishly seek out the truth even though he knows it will be painful for him, rather, he has no idea what the outcome of his search will be, denies the truth at every turn, and threatens those who speak it. Many people may paint Oedipus as a great man, pointing out that he pursues the truth at whatever personal cost and has the strength to accept and endure it when found. They admire that Oedipus was willing to bring himself down in his lust to find his true identity. However, the driving force of Oedipus’ fact-finding mission is an attempt to end the disease that plagues his city. He doesn’t realize the personal consequences his hunt will have for him, and his loyalty to the truth is based on his ignorance of it. In fact, if we examine his "quest for identity", it becomes apparent that the sequence of events are quite coincidental. First, he summons Tiresias to name the killer, who Oedipus does not at the time believe to be himself. Second, a messenger arrives from Corinth, not summoned by the king, revealing that Oedipus is not truly Polybus’ son. Finally, the shepherd reveals all of Oedipus’ past, after having been called for the purpose of providing more information about Laius’ death. The coincidental nature of these events contradicts this vision of Oedipus as a sort of Greek private-eye who relentlessly digs out clues in a self-destructive search for his parents. Yes, Oedipus is eager to find the truth, but the most important witnesses for the true story of his birth either come to him of their own will, or a called by Oedipus in the hopes that they will tell him something entirely different. In the end, he resigns himself to the truth which would have been clear much earlier (as it was to Jocasta: "white with terror" p.55), had he just been open to accepting it. But at the time he searches, he does not even consider the truth, as told by Tiresias and the Corinthian drunk, a possiblilty. It seems as if he is looking for a story that he finds tolerable, instead of thoroughly investigating all of the possibilities. When Tiresias confronts Oedipus with the truth,