Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is more than merely a tragedy. It is a profound meditation on the relationship between fate and free will and on the consequences of that relationship with respect to the mystery and meaning of human suffering. Its plot is convoluted and provocative. Oedipus becomes King of Thebes after answering the riddle of the Sphynx. Earlier, he had unwittingly killed his own father, Laius, and equally unwittingly married his own mother, Jocasta, having several children by her, including Antigone, the eponymous heroine of the play by Sophocles which we discussed last time. After Oedipus discovers the full horror of his situation, he stabs himself in both eyes, blinding himself in a fit of madness. The play ends with him clinging to his two young daughters, Antigone and Ismene, before being forcibly separated from them.
The moral of the play is framed by the riddle of the Sphynx: What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening? The answer is Man, who crawls as an infant and hobbles with the help of a stick in old age. The riddle serves, therefore, as an aphoristic portrayal of Man himself whose life begins and ends in weakness and utter dependence on others, with an interlude of seeming strength in between. The riddle provides what might be called the ecce homo symbolic epigraph, enabling Sophocles to present the axiomatic truth of Man’s pathetic weakness as the core of the tragedy. Behold Man!
Oedipus is the man who not only answers the riddle but is himself the answer to it. As we discover in the play’s denouement, he was utterly helpless as a baby and is left to die by those responsible for caring for him; he comes of age as King of Thebes and then is doomed to being utterly dependent on others following his act of self-mutilation. As the answer to the riddle, he becomes not merely the tragic figure of one man doomed by circumstance but a representative of Everyman who is similarly doomed. In this sense, at least in some sense, Oedipus is us. The lessons he learns are applicable to all of us.