Oedipus Rex

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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.
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon

The terrible deeds that are Oedipus's undoing actually took place long before the play begins. King Laius has been dead for many years, Oedipus has ruled for some time, and his marriage to Jocasta has produced four children. They might have all remained happy in their ignorance had the plague not come to Thebes and the oracle not commanded that the murderer of Laius be found. Good king that he is, Oedipus swears he will find the murderer. Every step of the way, people are reluctant to speak and try to tell him that it would be better if the past were left alone. Creon suggests that they discuss the oracle behind closed doors, not in front of everyone, but Oedipus wants to show that he is open to the truth and keeps no secrets from his people. Tiresias refuses to say what he knows, and only speaks when he has been insulted and accused of treachery. Jocasta begs Oedipus to cease his investigations. The old shepherd gives Oedipus the final pieces of the puzzle only when threatened with death. In his desire to seek out the truth and save his people from the plague, Oedipus becomes his own prosecutor, and then his own judge and punisher.

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Finding Out the Truth Quotes in Oedipus Rex

Below you will find the important quotes in Oedipus Rex related to the theme of Finding Out the Truth.
Lines 1-340 Quotes
If ever, once in the past, you stopped some ruin
launched against our walls
you hurled the flame of pain
far, far from Thebes—you gods,
come now, come down once more!
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 186-189
Explanation and Analysis:

The chorus enters suddenly into the play’s action. They beg the Gods to come to aid the city as they have before.

A chorus’s role is essential in every Greek tragedy: they function as an analog for the audience within the play—a general public that watches the events unfolding and helps articulate their significance to the actual audience. Here, the chorus has a specific identity: members of the city of Thebes who specifically wish for their city to be saved. As a result, they are not entirely omniscient—they haven't yet heard Creon’s news from the oracle, in this case—but will gain information as it is explained to the public of Thebes.

Even as the priests ask Oedipus, a mortal man, for help, the chorus members turn their pleas to higher powers, directly imploring the gods to “come now, come down” to their aid. This language showcases the Greek belief that the gods intervened directly in human affairs and could take on corporeal bodies to do so. Intriguingly, the chorus’s plea makes references to past interventions with the lines “if ever, once in the past” and “once more!” These references imply that the gods have directly changed the fate of Thebes before—and that those past events signify that they have a continued obligation to do so. Thus the chorus’s speech points to the intimate relationship between divine and mortal realms, which in turn means an intimate relationship between fate (the will of the gods) and free will (the will of humans).

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Now my curse on the murderer. Whoever he is,
a lone man unknown in his crime
or one among many, let that man drag out
his life in agony, step by painful step—
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker)
Page Number: 280-283
Explanation and Analysis:

Having learned that the plague is a punishment for the murder of Laius, Oedipus here condemns the killer. He spitefully demands that his life be drawn out in extended pain rather than lived freely or ended quickly.

For an audience familiar with the Oedipus story, these lines unwittingly predict the tragic hero’s fate. Oedipus highlights how the actual identity of the murderer does not matter to him, whether he has committed many crimes before or whether this is his first. The phrase “unknown in his crime” implies that the murderer may not even be aware of what he has done, which is the precise situation in which Oedipus finds himself. That Oedipus’s curse demands he “drag out his life in agony” speaks to a certain type of vengeful cruelty: the victim is not supposed to merely receive punishment or death, but rather experience a torturous decline (as Oedipus himself will).

This passage brings up a point of much contention in analyses of this play: does Oedipus bring his fate upon himself? Here, the protagonist seems to have cursed himself and demanded his own torturous death—which would make the play’s plot his own fault. In this case, Oedipus is not just at the whims of destiny and the gods, but rather lives a tragic life due to human action and free will. The tension between these two poles—fate and human agency—remains a central problem to the play, and it begins already in this famous curse.

Lines 341-708 Quotes
Just send me home. You bear your burdens,
I'll bear mine. It's better that way,
please believe me.
Related Characters: Tiresias (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 364-366
Explanation and Analysis:

Tiresias comes to Oedipus to offer counsel on the plague. But when asked to share his wisdom, Tiresias asks to be allowed to depart without any comment.

As with the earlier scene, Oedipus here seems to bring his fate upon himself. By pressing Tiresias to tell him about the murderer of Laius, Oedipus is actively pursuing his own demise. Sophocles thus presents a division between the information held by prophets like Tiresias and its assimilation into the populace: his foresight seems to only come true when it is at last vocalized to Oedipus—for at that point it will become self-fulfilling prophecy. The text also implicitly cautions against the hubris of pursuing knowledge beyond one’s range of understanding, for Oedipus's tragic action is not so much the murder itself but rather his insistent wish to know the truth instead of just to “bear your burdens” in silence.

Furthermore, Tiresias seems capable of resisting this fate. He knows Oedipus’s true identity, but actively resists telling him of it—he acts, not like an oracle who would simply freely convey information. Sophocles thus makes Tiresias a character halfway between the divine and mortal realms: he has access to content beyond normal humans, but he is still privy to the human emotions of pity and anger—which dictate whether he will reveal what he has foreseen.

But whether a mere man can know the truth,
whether a seer can fathom more than I—
there is no test, no certain proof
though matching skill for skill
a man can outstrip a rival. No, not till I see
these charges proved will I side with his accusers....
Never will I convict my king, never in my heart.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 563-572
Explanation and Analysis:

After Tiresias and Oedipus have finished fighting, the chorus expresses their sympathy for the king. They acknowledge the power of oracles, but also refuse to accept Tiresias's judgement until it has been proved certain.

The chorus challenges Tiresias, as Oedipus did before, on whether he does indeed profess prophetic powers above those of humans. They wonder “whether a seer can fathom more than I,” thus expressing a deep-seated skepticism with oracles. Like Oedipus, they want the proof of “matching skill for skill”—an even playing field, such as when Oedipus proved his strength and intelligence against the Sphinx. Perhaps the chorus, composed as it is by residents of Thebes, has been influenced by Oedipus’s more secular and humanist sensibilities, which prioritize human agency over the will of the gods. Indeed, they seem willing to defend Oedipus to great lengths when they say “Never will I convict my king, never in my heart.” That is to say, the chorus is willing to deny explicit evidence against Oedipus due to their strong attachment to him as a ruler.

This passage also marks the chorus as distinctly ignorant rather than omniscient. They play the role of an audience that is not already intimately aware of the story of Oedipus—and thus they allow viewers to compare their own knowledge against what a more ignorant viewer might assume. This strategy is part of what allows Sophocles to re-stage an old tale and maintain dramatic tension, for he can maintain the semblance of unfamiliarity in the perspective of the chorus.

Lines 709-997 Quotes
Listen to me and learn some peace of mind:
no skill in the world,
nothing human can penetrate the future.
Related Characters: Jocasta (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 780-782
Explanation and Analysis:

Jocasta gives this consoling speech after Oedipus recounts his interaction with Tiresias. She claims that prophets have no real knowledge of events to come, and that Oedipus therefore should not be disturbed by what Tiresias has said.

These lines make a sharp division between the human and divine realms: Jocasta associates “skill” with “human,” both of which contrast with the providence of the “future.” Much like Oedipus praised his intelligence over the bird auguries of Tiresias, Jocasta claims that human skill can only affect the current state of affairs and cannot “penetrate” or enter any zone beyond that of the present. Though this appeal might strike some as disheartening, it would grant “peace of mind” to Oedipus and Jocasta by denying the significance of the prophecies they have heard thus far. That is to say, it would allow them to exist in their human realm without the anxiety that they should change their actions to respond to the unique “skill” of Tiresias.

It is important to clarify here that Jocasta is not denying the existence or providence of the gods. This is not an atheistic passage, but rather one that sharply delineates between divine and earthly realms. Her claim is that mediums such as Tiresias do not actually bridge the gap between the two realms, but rather exist fully in the human one—and thus have no unique access to the divine.

Lines 998-1310 Quotes
They are dying, the old oracles sent to Laius,
now our masters strike them off the rolls.
Nowhere Apollo's golden glory now—
the gods, the gods go down.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 994-997
Explanation and Analysis:

After first contending that the gods are everlasting and all-powerful, the chorus rapidly shifts positions here. They claim that given the current state of Thebes, the relative power of Oedipus, and the potential falseness of the prophecies, the gods may in fact be in decline.

To substantiate this point, the chorus directly inverts their earlier descriptions: if before, the gods were deathless and immortal, here we learn the oracles “are dying.” This formulation is both literal and metaphoric, for it refers to their increasing lack of importance in Thebes society, due to the perspective of “our masters.” Indeed, this lack of adherence to old prophecies extends to more than just prophets such as Tiresias—for it even applies to “Apollo’s golden glory.” The gods themselves are deemed to be in decline: they “go down” in public interest and in perceived relevance.

The chorus implies that a massive societal shift has taken place in the way of Oedipus’s rise to power: a movement away from the providence of religion and instead toward a more secular orientation. By repeatedly praising human intelligence and disparaging prophecy, Oedipus has already shown this to be his personal belief system—and the chorus has affirmed the actions and ideas of their ruler. Thus Thebes seem to have arrived at a complex and pivotal decision: if the prophecies about Oedipus prove untrue, it would cause them to see the gods as “down,” and gravitate toward an increasingly secular society.

Man of agony—
that is the only name I have for you,
that, no other—ever, ever, ever!
Related Characters: Jocasta (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 1176-1179
Explanation and Analysis:

Jocasta has just concluded that Oedipus is her son and she repeatedly implores him not to continue his investigation. When he refuses to do so, she screams this at him.

This passage plays on the way that Oedipus introduced himself at the play’s onset: recall that he selected not to use his name at first, but rather implied that all should know him based on his fame. Here, Jocasta similarly replaces his name, but instead with the epithet “man of agony,” thus foreshadowing how this will be Oedipus’s new legacy by the play’s end. Beyond condemning him to a life of misery, Jocasta’s language also subtly wipes away his identity. Replacing his specific name with this generic term denies the coherence between Oedipus's current royal position and his actual identity. Jocasta implies that he will hold “no other” title or identity in the years to come, and that this identification with agony with be permanent: “ever, ever, ever!” Thus Sophocles uses Jocasta’s moment of realization—called in Greek tragedy an anagnorisis—to demonstrate the pending end of Oedipus’s identity as it is currently defined.

If you are the man he says you are, believe me
you were born for pain.
Related Characters: A Shepherd (speaker), Oedipus, A Messenger
Page Number: 1304-1305
Explanation and Analysis:

When interrogated by Oedipus, the shepherd at first resists his attempts to procure information. Yet eventually the shepherd gives in, condemning Oedipus to his terrifying fate.

These lines articulate an important new position on the role of fate in Oedipus’s destiny. Whereas other characters or critics may believe the tragic action occurred due to a mixture of destiny and human folly, the shepherd clearly attributes what will occur solely to a pre-determined narrative. That Oedipus was “born for pain” implies that his life's torment began precisely at the moment he came into the world: his later actions thus would only fulfill this pre-designed path, rather than carving a new one. This point builds on Jocasta’s claim that his name is “man of agony”—which makes his identity similarly equivalent to pain—and reiterates the power of the gods and fate to control each moment in human affairs. Thus Sophocles moves at this crucial moment in the tragedy to highlight the role of destiny over human action.

Lines 1311-1680 Quotes
"...is there a man more agonized?
More wed to pain and frenzy? Not a man on earth,
the joy of your life ground down to nothing
O Oedipus, name for the ages—"
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 1331-1334
Explanation and Analysis:

Having now learned of Oedipus’s history and fate, the chorus renounces their earlier adoration of him. They reflect on the way Oedipus has shown himself to be predestined to a doomed and painful life.

This passage is a striking turn in the perception of the chorus, which had previously refused to accept claims or prophecies that told of their king’s fate. Here, they adopt the language of other accusers: he is “agonized” and “wed to pain and frenzy”—thus permanently associated with these horrific qualities. As before, he is singular and famous—but this is no longer due to heroism, and instead because of his tragic fate. That the chorus says, “O Oedipus, name for the ages” demonstrates that this fate will be recorded and maintained for eons to come: thus they already predict the writing of Sophocles’ play and the other ways that this story will enter Greek cultural history (and Western culture in general). Even at this point, however, the chorus still displays a level of sympathy for their ruler. Instead of calling Oedipus “man of agony” in the disparaging tone of Jocasta, they choose “man more agonized,” which forefronts the pain he must be enduring. They also make mention of the previous “joy of your life,” and even maintain the use of his name, “Oedipus.” This continued sympathy reiterates how the chorus functions as an analog to the audience—for it reacts with a similar emotional and caring mindset that an observer of the tragedy might have.

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.

Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 1683-1684
Explanation and Analysis:

After Creon has dealt with Oedipus’s fate, they both depart the stage to leave only the chorus. The chorus ends the play with these lines that reaffirm the power of the gods to dictate each action of man.

Once more, the chorus functions as a way to explain the morals and meanings of the tragedy to the audience. Their perspective has changed radically over the course of play—from full-heartedly supporting Oedipus, to questioning his position, and finally to condemning him to his fate. Here, they extrapolate from the specific example of Oedipus to offer a more broad-reaching comment on humanity. They take their king as proof that none can escape the control of the gods, and that their earlier skepticisms of divine control were unwise.

As a result, men can only “keep our watch and wait the final day,” implying that observation and submissiveness are the only possible responses to destiny. Oedipus’s proud attempts to escape or challenge his fate are deemed foolhardy, and thus any active attempt to shift one’s life will ultimately fail. The chorus’s next line is far darker, however, for it says that no one will be “free of pain” until death. This seems to imply that being bound by destiny is by definition a type of pain—and that watching and waiting will similarly bring pains that can never be fully eluded. Sophocles’s final lesson extracted from Oedipus is thus a cautionary and dark one: none can escape the providence of the gods, and therefore one must accept a life of pained predestination.