The Punishment of Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex)


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The Punishment of Oedipus the King

 

      At the end of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Oedipus, king of Thebes, ends

up banished forever from his kingdom. Additionally, Oedipus physically puts

out his own eyes, for several reasons which will be discussed later. The

question is: Did Oedipus deserve his punishments? There are many factors

that must be considered in answering this, including how Oedipus himself

felt about his situation. His blinding was as much symbolic as it was

physical pain. After all factors have been considered, I think that only

Oedipus' banishment was the necessary punishment..

 

      It is important to keep in mind the whole basic reasoning for

Oedipus' search for Laius' killers: he wished to put an end to a deadly

plague, and that plague would only be stopped when said murderer is  killed,

or driven from the land (pp 4-5). Thusly, when it is revealed that Oedipus

himself murdered Laius, then banishment seems to be the only option. Death,

in my mind, is not valid simply because of what it might do to the

kingdom's people. Even though it seems that Oedipus has not been a

particularly good monarch, in fact his only major accomplishment seems to

be killing the Sphinx all those years ago, having a king put to death could

have serious repercussions on the rest of the kingdom. So in the end, the

only way to cure the plague and keep the kingdom stable seems to be the

banishment of Oedipus. In this case, the question of whether or not he

deserved to be punished seems irrelevant; Oedipus' only goal was to stop

the plague and by leaving, he has accomplished that goal. Banishment was

the only choice.

 

      But what exactly was Oedipus being punished for? Even after re-

reading the play, this still seems to be a gray area. Incest? Immoral, to

be sure, but Oedipus was obviously ignorant to his actions, and to my

knowledge, in Sophoclean times, there was no written law against it and

therefore no punishment for it. Oedipus' punishment may have been for

killing Laius, but how could you punish someone for being a victim of fate?

Greeks believed at the time of the play's writing that a man's life was "

woven" by the 3 fates (Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos) and that he was

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irrevocably bound to that destiny. Knowing this, and knowing that Oedipus

became king of Thebes only because it was his destiny to murder Laius and

kill the Sphinx, how could he rightfully be punished? Even Oedipus himself

knows that his actions are not by choice, but by acts of the gods, he

mentions this twice in the play: "Some savage power has brought this down

upon my head." As well as "My god, my god -- what have you planned to do to

me?" Such quotes clearly show that Oedipus knew that he had no choice in

his actions. In this manner and in this manner alone, Oedipus is

undeserving of said punishment. Oedipus may not have been a particularly

good man, but in the end he knew what was best for his kingdom: "Out of

this kingdom cast me with all speed" ...for only that would save his former

subjects.

 

      Were that Oedipus' only punishment, the play might have been quite

a bit simpler (and this essay quite a bit shorter), but Oedipus, in a fit

of rage, stabs his own eyes with Jocasta's dresspins. This was Oedipus' way

of trying to punish himself, as well as an escape. Oedipus would no longer

gaze upon the faces of his subjects, his brother (uncle?) Creon, or even

those of his children. He is plunged into a world of darkness. It must be

noted that this was more than simply a punishment, though I'm sure that it

was one of the ways Oedipus intended it. The physical pain alone seems to

prove that. There are much easier ways of becoming blind to the world than

stabbing one's eyes out. As I have stated before though, Oedipus was

blinded by his foolish pride long before the beginning of the novel. He

only realized the truth behind Laius' murder when it was right in front of

his nose. He was by no means stupid, in fact he came off as quite a clever

man, but his was a world of blindness because of pride and power.

 

      I have been concentrating on the two most obvious of Oedipus'

punishments, but there is another one that may not seem so clear. Keeping

in mind that Sophocles made it very clear that Oedipus was a man of so much

pride that he may have thought himself to be akin to a god, was not Oedipus

basically stripped of that pride at the end of the play? The true

punishment has been revealed.

 

      Oedipus' life was based on pride. It was what led to the murder of

Laius, which in turn led to the killing of the Sphinx, which led to his

becoming king. As he continues on his particular thread of life, Oedipus

becomes more and more powerful, and as such, his pride also increases

proportionately. He threatens both Tiresias and Creon, and single-handedly

tries to unravel the mystery of Laius' death. What must go on inside his

mind when he finds out that not only did he murder his father, the king,

but he also slept with his mother? Knowing full well that his kingdom would

eventually find out his acts, how could he hold his head up when walking

through the city streets? How could his subjects respect and revere a king

who was a murderer and commiter of incest? Oedipus is thusly stripped of

his pride, the driving force behind his whole personality. He has been

crushed, and that which he had so much of before has been denied him. Where

he was once at one extreme (hubris), he is now at the other. To take away

the very thing that drives a man is worse than any physical pain or even

death itself. That is truly, as Sophocles intended it, Oedipus' ultimate

punishment.

 

      When the curtain falls and the lights go out on Oedipus Rex, the

king's punishments total three. Though in my mind at least, one far

outweighs the other two, they are all important and they all contribute to

the total experience of the Greek tragedy. In the end, I do not feel that

Oedipus truly deserves the punishments he is handed, but that is only

because of the fact that I place myself in the time period that this was

written in, using the beliefs of that time for my own. Were this story to

have taken place in modern times, Oedipus certainly would have deserved his

punishment, but this idea is irrelevant because, quite simply, this did not

take place in our "advanced" civilization. Oedipus was a victim of fate,

incapable of free will, and as such he should have not been punished, save

banishment only to cure the plague.

 

 


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