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The Role of Hubris in Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus

June 24th, 2010

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The role of hubris, a theme commonly present throughout the works of Sophocles and particularly evident in Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, not only exalts the Greek nationalism present at the date of composition but dictates the course of the story, evolving as its tragic hero works through his fated anguish. Hubris, defined as exaggerated pride or self-confidence, is the earmark character trait of Oedipus and perhaps Creon. However, it is the abandonment of his sanctimonious nature that distinguishes Oedipus as a true hero. The theme of the evolution and role in the downfall of men by this overly zealous pride may be traced throughout Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, as it is only by his radical reversal of mind-set that one may deem Oedipus a hero.

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In the opening scene of the first play in the trilogy, Oedipus the King, Sophocles depicts Oedipus as a man of great stature, ruling his lands justly but hints at his own catastrophic fate condemned by his overly arrogant conduct. Initially, Oedipus exhibits intelligence, love and concern for his subjects, and deep-rooted wisdom, upholding a reputation of high moral standards. His wisdom, however, becomes self-righteous, his arrogance becoming very clear on the eighth line of his opening monologue, “Here I am – myself – you all know me, the world knows my fame: I am Oedipus. ” (159). The irony of this statement rests behind the notion that Oedipus’s fame will be known and surpass the ages, but it is his complacent nature that will not allow him to realize this fate already set for him. Viewed as a pillar of strength, Oedipus has a penetrating way of looking at people, judging them so as to keep them below him in his mind. Upon sending Creon, his third in command, to hear the prophecy of Apollo’s oracle, Oedipus remains so confident in his distance from the cause of the terrible hardships of Thebes that he commands Creon to speak of the oracle to the crowd gathered. King Oedipus accuses this man, Creon, of conspiring with Tiresias, the blind prophet, to seize power soon after this messenger returns, becoming jealous and fearful that anyone might begin to take hold of his glory. He then vows to find Laius’s killer to purify the city of its evil presence, but only with intentions of making himself look better. Oedipus places the burden of truth in locating this murderer in saying, “I’ll start again – I’ll bring it all to light myself! ” (167), imposing the idea that only he possesses the wit to find the real killer. In the opening of Oedipus the King, Oedipus appears very cocky and self-righteous, but it is not known until later how this build up of pride was generated.

In the next few scenes it is manifested that Oedipus has a right to claim a certain degree of pride for his accomplishments, but has taken this beyond a reasonable level, even placing himself at a level only succeeded by the gods, showing defiance towards them. He kills a man in the street on his flight out of Corinth, citing his rationale as being one of self-defense. Although this may seem to be an appropriate explanation, it is learned that the entourage accompanying this traveler was in no way harmful. One could conclude that Oedipus slaughtered the traveler he encountered, later identified as King Laius, his own father, for the power that it provided him internally. After killing this man, Oedipus enters into the city of Thebes, solving the riddle of the Sphinx, a monster who guards the gates of the city, and by doing so, ensures the fate of the city. The citizens of Thebes reward their hero with the title of king and give him the hand of the recently widowed queen Iocaste in marriage. Correctly solving the riddle of the Sphinx brings about an important self-confidence in Oedipus, later moving him to the notion that he can solve the mystery of who killed the king. This immense pride in his own intellectual capacity, however, leads to certain doom as he discovers that although he has been too stubborn up until this point to believe anyone who dare hold a conflicting viewpoint, he has fallen into the trap of the gods by attempting to outwit them. It had been prophesied that Laius and Iocaste would give birth to a child who would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. Fearing the possibility of this prophecy coming true, Laius and Iocaste chained their son to the mountainside, leaving him alone to die. He, of course, was saved by a nearby shepherd and brought to the household of Polybos and Merope, the sovereigns of Corinth, where he was raised as if he were their own son. Once Oedipus had learned of this prophecy, he foolishly assumed that the parents he was fated to kill were Polybos and Merope, and thus fled Corinth to avoid this ill-willed destiny. Vainly Oedipus had supposed that he had outwitted the gods altogether because he had left what he had thought to be his homeland and was not in contact with his mother and father any longer. He is so full of personal hubris that he actually believes as cited that he has succeeded in escaping his fate. It is by defying the gods and trying to escape his fate that he walks directly into it. By enveloping pride fueled with actual, admirable accomplishments, Oedipus condemns himself to suffering a most unpleasant fortune.

Oedipus the King closes leaving a pitiful man helpless and broken down by his suffering, completely void of his former hubris once his disasterouw destiny has been revealed.


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