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I chose Oedipus Tyrannus for this essay because I wanted to demonstrate how Oedipus was portrayed as a hero but was really a foolish man. I agree that my writing and logic on why Oedipus was not a hero, but rather a man possessed by self was the best argument of this article, as shown by his greed and tyrannical actions as Thebes' king. I wish I had more space to go deeper into the reasons why Oedipus behaved the way he did and to clarify why I think he is more like the anti-hero of this story. So far as feedback is concerned, I would be interested to hear what you think of my interpretation of this story and how it fits with established scholarly opinion.
Oedipus Tyrannus: The Tragic Hero
Oedipus Tyrannus is one of the Greek Tragedies written by Sophocles which tells the story of Oedipus of Thebes, a hero who had years before saved the city from the Sphinx by answering her riddle and defeating her (Meineck & Woodruff). However, Oedipus has a dark secret, one that he has carried with him for years buried deep down in his soul because he chooses not to believe in the truth of which it spoke. After he learns of his future and his fate from the God Apollo, he decides to escape the fate that the Gods have divined for him by separating himself from the only mother and father which he ever knew. The tragedy of Oedipus’ future hero status is that he unknowingly runs straight into the future he was trying to avoid. Oedipus is a foolish, arrogant mortal who believes that he can escape the future that Apollo foretold to him because he assumes that by running away from those who raised him, ones who he knew as mother and father, he would be able to avoid the fate of killing his father and sleeping with his mother, which is illustrated by the fact that once he is told he tries to distance himself from them and in doing so, he runs headlong into his true future without realizing it.
Defining Oedipus as a hero, even a tragic hero, is a misnomer. A hero is one who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. Oedipus’ only achievement was banishing the Sphinx which just showed that he was of greater intellect than the Sphinx and was able to solve her riddle. Other than this, he was a tyrannical leader who by his actions brought disease, pestilence and despair to the people of Thebes. He did this all without even knowing that it was he who was causing all the misfortune. For the people of the city of Thebes, Oedipus appeared heroic in his one questionably heroic deed but that was the one and only time in his life that he had done anything that did not involve saving himself in one way or another. As for the people of Thebes, it seems that they were operating under a false assumption of Oedipus being amiable to the Gods. This is noted by the elderly priest near the beginning of the play when he says;
“We know that you are not a god;
These children came to your hearth to plead
To the man who knows best the trials of life,
For you understand divine power.
You came to Thebes, saved us from the Sphinx,
And without any help, delivered us from despair.
We could do nothing; we knew nothing.
It is said that once you were helped by a god;
We believed it, and you saved all our lives.”
The people of Thebes deify Oedipus to a certain extent because he was, as the elderly priest said, “helped by a god” and the people tended to combine this with the fact that he was their hero to revere him. Also, we can see in this passage the quasi-deification of Oedipus in the peoples’ minds from the priest’s words “We know that you are not a god” and “For you understand divine power.” This was quite strange to the first audiences of this play as Greece was a wholly democratic state and the deification of a leader would have been exceedingly strange to them.
As the story continues, Oedipus attempts to find the reason for the calamity which has befallen Thebes, trying to live up to the heroic quasi-deification which the citizens prescribe to him. He sends his brother-in-law Creon to Apollo’s shrine who returns with the news that one man, the man who murdered Laius, the former ruler of Thebes must be found and cast out or put to death to right the chaos currently besetting the city of Thebes. Oedipus begins a search for the murderer accusing many along the way but ultimately the fates come full-circle and Oedipus discovers that it is he who murdered Laius. In Oedipus’ search for the truth he appears outwardly heroic but here again, he is simply trying to satisfy his own thirst for the knowledge which he already has buried deep down in his soul. Adding to Oedipus’ pain is discovering the fact that his life did turn out exactly as Apollo had foretold. Laius was his father, Jocasta was his mother and wife, and he was the one who killed Laius that day at the three crossroads.
Jocasta, knowing that Oedipus will soon find out the truth of his life, hangs herself and is found by Oedipus who, in one last desperate attempt to show a hero’s compassion to the people who he had brought so much pain, pestilence, and despair, gouges out his own eyes. A messenger relays Oedipus’ words to the people:
“Now you may not see the evil, Not the evil I have done—or suffered. From now on, you must gaze in darkness On forbidden faces, while the ones you should have seen You’ll never know
In this way, Oedipus tries to atone for the sins that he has committed and the pain he has brought upon Thebes, but even his seemingly heroic deed is overshadowed by the fact that he always knew his fate but chose to ignore Apollo’s warning. This more than anything else proves that Oedipus is no hero, just a foolish, arrogant mortal.
Meineck, Peter and Paul Woodruff. “The Fall of the House of Thebes.” Early World Literature.
Sophocles. “Oedipus Tyrannus.” Early World Literature.
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