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.
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon

The play begins with a declaration from the oracle at Delphi: Thebes is suffering because the person guilty of the murder of King Laius has not been brought to justice. Oedipus sets himself the task of discovering the guilty party—so guilt, in the legal sense, is central to Oedipus Rex. Yet ultimately it is not legal guilt but the emotion of guilt, of remorse for having done something terrible, that drives the play.

After all, one can argue that neither Oedipus nor Jocasta are guilty in a legal sense. They committed their acts unknowingly. Yet their overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame for violating two of the basic rules of civilized humanity—the taboos against incest and killing one's parents—are enough to make Jocasta commit suicide and to make Oedipus blind himself violently.

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Guilt and Shame Quotes in Oedipus Rex

Below you will find the important quotes in Oedipus Rex related to the theme of Guilt and Shame.
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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Thebes, city of death, one long cortege
and the suffering rises
wails for mercy rise
and the wild hymn for the Healer blazes out
clashing with our sobs our cries of mourning—
O golden daughter of god, send rescue
radiant as the kindness in your eyes!
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 211-217
Explanation and Analysis:

The chorus continues to lament the current decrepit state of Thebes. They narrow their earlier general call for help from the gods to one toward a specific deity (seemingly Artemis, a daughter of Zeus, although she is only one of a litany of gods and goddesses called upon by the Chorus).

Sophocles’ language here is highly lyrical: that Thebes is deemed “city of death” shows how horrifically it has been affected by the plague, and the phrase “one long cortege” presents it as a single funeral procession for its demise. The next two lines put into parallel “suffering rises” and “wails for mercy rise,” playing on the term “rise” to mean both increasing and lifting through the air toward the gods. The chorus then describes their own laments and the role they play in the cacophony of Thebes: a mix of ”wails for mercy,” “wild hymn,” and “cries of mourning.” Thus we have the combination of horror and entreaties for aid, being described by the very public performing the acts themselves. Before, the chorus’s request for help was addressed to a general divine realm, but they ask here specifically for “the Healer.” This speaks to the greek belief that specific gods played particular roles on earth and in heaven—and that each was bestowed with a set of properties to be called upon when needed. The references to “kindness in your eyes” also bears noticing considering the importance of vision throughout the play. Indeed, the salvation of Thebes will come through “eyes”—yet its radiance will be the cruelty that gouges out Oedipus’s eyes in order to absolve the city of its crime.

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
No man will ever
be rooted from the earth as brutally as you.
Related Characters: Tiresias (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 488-489
Explanation and Analysis:

Tiresias speaks these condemning lines as his argument with Oedipus escalates. He predicts that Oedipus will suffer a horrifying end to his life.

This language is actually remarkably similar to that used by Oedipus earlier in the play. Recall that Oedipus cursed the murderer of Laius to “drag out his life in agony, step by painful step,” which highlighted the way the killer would die slowly and in agony. That Tiresias evokes, similarly, the way Oedipus will die “brutally” reiterates how they are actually speaking about a single person: Oedipus is the murderer of Laius, whom he himself has cursed. Tiresias’s pronouncement is thus less a new prophecy than a reiteration of what Oedipus himself has already brought into motion.

It is a typical technique of Sophocles to have characters make similar pronouncements about people or events that they believe to be different, but are actually the same. It creates a dramatic irony in which the audience knows that Oedipus had cursed himself, just as Tiresias curses him here—even when Oedipus is unaware of this equivalence. The technique also further blurs the lines between human action and fate—for here Tiresias seems, as a divine figure, to bring about Oedipus’s destiny. But he only does so after Oedipus’s aggression has forced Tiresias to do so.

Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich,
he will grope his way toward a foreign soil,
a stick tapping before him step by step.
Related Characters: Tiresias (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 517-519
Explanation and Analysis:

After pronouncing that Oedipus will suffer a terrible end, Tiresias tells this riddle about the killer of Laius. He describes the pitiful way the killer’s life will end.

As is characteristic in the play, the elements of the prophecy will be easily recognized by anyone who knows the Oedipus story. “Blind who now has eyes” refers to the way Oedipus will gouge out his own eyes once he learns of his crimes, while “beggar who now is rich” foretells how he will fall swiftly from king to vagrant. As before, Tiresias uses Oedipus’s own language—“step by step”—from the king’s earlier curse on the killer of Laius. Here, Tiresias uses the phrase more literally to refer to the way Oedipus will, once he is blinded, move slowly away from Thebes as an outcast.

That Tiresias has left Oedipus with a riddle recalls the hero’s own triumph when he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. In a sense, Tiresias is offering a second test to Oedipus’s character: perhaps if he were able to solve this relatively straightforward riddle, he could avoid his fate. That he cannot do so speaks to how extensively Oedipus has been blinded by his pride—to the point that he cannot perform the same task that garnered him acclaim in Thebes to begin with. Sophocles thus renders Oedipus's tragic downfall the result of not just any character flaw, but rather one that undermines his defining heroic characteristic: intelligence.

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
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 998-1310 Quotes
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.