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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Power of Unwritten Law

After defeating Polynices and taking the throne of Thebes, Creon commands that Polynices be left to rot unburied, his flesh eaten by dogs and birds, creating an “obscenity” for everyone to see (Antigone, 231). Creon thinks that he is justified in his treatment of Polynices because the latter was a traitor, an enemy of the state, and the security of the state makes all of human life—including family life and religion—possible. Therefore, to Creon’s way of thinking, the good of the state comes before all other duties and values. However, the subsequent events of the play demonstrate that some duties are more fundamental than the state and its laws. The duty to bury the dead is part of what it means to be human, not part of what it means to be a citizen. That is why Polynices’ rotting body is an “obscenity” rather than a crime. Moral duties—such as the duties owed to the dead—make up the body of unwritten law and tradition, the law to which Antigone appeals.

The Willingness to Ignore the Truth

When Oedipus and Jocasta begin to get close to the truth about Laius’s murder, in Oedipus the King, Oedipus fastens onto a detail in the hope of exonerating himself. Jocasta says that she was told that Laius was killed by “strangers,” whereas Oedipus knows that he acted alone when he killed a man in similar circumstances. This is an extraordinary moment because it calls into question the entire truth-seeking process Oedipus believes himself to be undertaking. Both Oedipus and Jocasta act as though the servant’s story, once spoken, is irrefutable history. Neither can face the possibility of what it would mean if the servant were wrong. This is perhaps why Jocasta feels she can tell Oedipus of the prophecy that her son would kill his father, and Oedipus can tell her about the similar prophecy given him by an oracle (867–875), and neither feels compelled to remark on the coincidence; or why Oedipus can hear the story of Jocasta binding her child’s ankles (780–781) and not think of his own swollen feet. While the information in these speeches is largely intended to make the audience painfully aware of the tragic irony, it also emphasizes just how desperately Oedipus and Jocasta do not want to speak the obvious truth: they look at the circumstances and details of everyday life and pretend not to see them.

The Limits of Free Will

Prophecy is a central part of Oedipus the King. The play begins with Creon’s return from the oracle at Delphi, where he has learned that the plague will be lifted if Thebes banishes the man who killed Laius. Tiresias prophesies the capture of one who is both father and brother to his own children. Oedipus tells Jocasta of a prophecy he heard as a youth, that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother, and Jocasta tells Oedipus of a similar prophecy given to Laius, that her son would grow up to kill his father. Oedipus and Jocasta debate the extent to which prophecies should be trusted at all, and when all of the prophecies come true, it appears that one of Sophocles’ aims is to justify the powers of the gods and prophets, which had recently come under attack in fifth-century b.c. Athens.

Sophocles’ audience would, of course, have known the story of Oedipus, which only increases the sense of complete inevitability about how the play would end. It is difficult to say how justly one can accuse Oedipus of being “blind” or foolish when he seems to have no choice about fulfilling the prophecy: he is sent away from Thebes as a baby and by a remarkable coincidence saved and raised as a prince in Corinth. Hearing that he is fated to kill his father, he flees Corinth and, by a still more remarkable coincidence, ends up back in Thebes, now king and husband in his actual father’s place. Oedipus seems only to desire to flee his fate, but his fate continually catches up with him. Many people have tried to argue that Oedipus brings about his catastrophe because of a “tragic flaw,” but nobody has managed to create a consensus about what Oedipus’s flaw actually is. Perhaps his story is meant to show that error and disaster can happen to anyone, that human beings are relatively powerless before fate or the gods, and that a cautious humility is the best attitude toward life.

More main ideas from The Oedipus Plays

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