Oedipus Rex

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Action vs. Reflection Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Oedipus Rex, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon

In his quest for truth, Oedipus is a man of constant action. When the priests come to ask for his help, he has already dispatched Creon to the oracle to find out what the gods suggest. When the chorus suggests that he consult Tiresias, Oedipus has already sent for him. Oedipus decides quickly and acts quickly—traits his audience would have seen as admirable and in the best tradition of Athenian leadership. But Oedipus's tendency to decide and act quickly also leads him down a path to his own destruction. He becomes convinced that Tiresias and Creon are plotting to overthrow him, though he has no evidence to prove it.

At several stages where he might have paused to reflect on the outcome of his actions—where he might have sifted through the evidence before him and decided not to pursue the question further, or not in such a public way—he forges onward, even threatening to torture the reluctant shepherd to make him speak. And it is the shepherds words that irrefutably condemn Oedipus. Even here, his will to act doesn't end. Discovering Jocasta, his wife and mother, dead, Oedipus quickly takes his punishment into his own hands and gauges out his eyes.

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Action vs. Reflection ThemeTracker

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Action vs. Reflection Quotes in Oedipus Rex

Below you will find the important quotes in Oedipus Rex related to the theme of Action vs. Reflection.
Lines 341-708 Quotes
Did you rise to the crisis? Not a word,
you and your birds, your gods—nothing.
No, but I came by, Oedipus the ignorant,
I stopped the Sphinx! With no help from the birds,
the flight of my own intelligence hit the mark.
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker), Tiresias
Page Number: 449-453
Explanation and Analysis:

Tiresias and Oedipus begin to fight, each insulting the other about the way they have been negligent of Thebes. Here, Oedipus reprimands Tiresias for not having intervened when Thebes was previously crippled by the Sphinx.

Oedipus juxtaposes the roles of divine and human intervention. He aligns Tiresias with “your birds, your gods”—the first which stands for auguries (observing the actions of birds to predict the future), the second which explicitly links him to the divine. But Oedipus claims ”nothing” came from this spiritual realm, whereas it was “Oedipus the ignorant” who was successful. His ignorance is set in contrast with the “help from the birds”—the foresight permitted by reading divine signs—and Oedipus thus implies that his “own intelligence” has merit even if it is not derived from divine prophecy. He was able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx through his own mental acuity alone, without the aid of the gods.

Oedipus's statement is actually quite blasphemous, for it elevates his human intelligence above divine providence. Again, he displays himself to be deeply proud, assuming that his previous accomplishments have given him a status that cannot be challenged by others, even the gods. This fault speaks, itself, to the limits of Oedipus’s “intelligence,” for while he may be shrewd and clever, he has no wisdom when dealing with others and thus cannot prevent his fate.


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Lines 709-997 Quotes
Look at you, sullen in yielding, brutal in your rage—
you will go too far. It's perfect justice:
natures like yours are hardest on themselves.
Related Characters: Creon (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 746-748
Explanation and Analysis:

Oedipus permits Creon to leave without punishment. But as he departs, Creon shouts this condemnation of Oedipus.

His insult points again to the crippling pride in Oedipus’s personality. That he is “sullen in yielding” speaks to how reluctant he is to accept the calming advice of Jocasta and the chorus, while “brutal in your rage” reiterates how terrifying he is if allowed to fully unleash his frustration. Creon points again to how Oedipus is unable to mediate his response to the given situation based on whether he should be angry or accepting. As a result, he “will go too far,” or overreach what is permitted by his royal position.

Beyond reiterating Oedipus’s character flaws, Creon’s language also stresses that Oedipus’s fate is the result of his own faulty actions. Saying “it’s perfect justice” implies that Oedipus’s story is not the result of a pre-designed divine plot to unseat him, but rather is the natural and necessary result of his own arrogant behavior. Similarly, “natures like yours are hardest on themselves” places the burden of agency onto Oedipus’s “nature.” By Creon’s account, it is the tragic hero who brings fate on himself.

You who set our beloved land—storm-tossed, shattered—
straight on course. Now again, good helmsman,
steer us through the storm!
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 765-767
Explanation and Analysis:

In the wake of Oedipus’s fight with Creon, the chorus continues to defend their ruler. They repeatedly call upon him to save them from the current plague.

Sophocles underlines, once more, how fully the populace of Thebes has aligned themselves with Oedipus. Though they do diverge from his viewpoints at times—for instance urging a merciful treatment of Creon—their general view is entirely sympathetic to him. Here, the chorus again brings up the way Oedipus had previously saved their “beloved land,” this time making use of a sailing metaphor, in which the plague is a “storm” and their ruler a “good helmsman.” The image presents composure and good judgment as the necessary qualities to save Thebes—both of which Oedipus is, of course, lacking at this point. Yet the chorus seems unaware of this discrepancy. That they simply continue to implore Oedipus speaks to their own sort of blindness—for they, like their ruler, cannot tell that he acts unjustly and will thus bring tragedy upon himself.

Lines 1311-1680 Quotes
Take me away, far, far from Thebes,
quickly, cast me away, my friends—
this great murderous ruin, this man cursed to heaven,
the man the deathless gods hate most of all!
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker)
Page Number: 1477-1480
Explanation and Analysis:

Oedipus continues to disparage his fate and to speak of madness and darkness. He then asks to be thrown out of Thebes.

In contrast to his earlier proud position as a king, Oedipus has descended to the lowliest role of beggar and outcast. He thus rejects the city he had saved and ruled and affirms that he was “cursed to heaven” or fated to this end. Oedipus further reaffirms the importance of the “deathless gods,” which had previously been said to be in decline. Yet as with his blindness, Oedipus insists upon acting decisively and taking control of his fate: he speaks in commands to others and curses himself—as if to preempt the curses and judgments of others. In an odd way, then, he seems to be defending his own minute quantity of human agency up to the very end of the play.

One should note, however, that the passage recreates, in an odd way, the first moments of Oedipus’s life—when as a baby he was cast away from the city. A circular narrative like this affirms how his destiny was set to begin with: both because it repeats a similar motif and because it shows how inescapable his destiny as an outcast must be. Though he may have been able to avoid it as a young baby, his fate eventually returned. Thus we see at the play’s end a complicated negotiation of fate and agency, in which the structure of the tragedy reaffirms the power of destiny even as the hero seeks to carve out a space for his own control.