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.
Guilt and Shame ThemeTracker
Guilt and Shame Quotes in Oedipus Rex
launched against our walls
you hurled the flame of pain
far, far from Thebes—you gods,
come now, come down once more!
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!
a lone man unknown in his crime
or one among many, let that man drag out
his life in agony, step by painful step—
be rooted from the earth as brutally as you.
he will grope his way toward a foreign soil,
a stick tapping before him step by step.
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.
you will go too far. It's perfect justice:
natures like yours are hardest on themselves.
straight on course. Now again, good helmsman,
steer us through the storm!
that is the only name I have for you,
that, no other—ever, ever, ever!
you were born for pain.
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—"
quickly, cast me away, my friends—
this great murderous ruin, this man cursed to heaven,
the man the deathless gods hate most of all!
count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.