Oedipus the King: Reason and Passion
In the play, Oedipus the King, there are dual parts of reason and
passion. Oedipus primarily acts with both reason and
passion at different stages in the play.
There are several points in the play where Oedipus acts with
reason. The first such point occurs when he is asked by his
followers to help save Thebes. He acts with reason when he
immediately decides to heed to their demands and find help for
them. However, he may also have been deciding to do this through
. His need for his land to be perfectly normal might have
prompted this immediate decision.
Reason also occurs through the character of Oedipus
has a heroic confidence in his own abilities, and he has good
reason for such confidence, both from his own sense of past
achievements and from the very high regard everyone has of those
achievements. He is conscious of himself as a great man
. He feels
he can achieve anything.
The central metaphor in this play is blindness. For the tragic
hero is, in a sense, blind from the start, at least in the sense
that he is not alert to the fact that the way he sees his
situation may not be true, may be only a partial take on the
reality of things. Oedipus is not prepared to admit that he might
be wrong. Why should he? He has always been right in the past; no
one else in Thebes is acting resolutely to meet the crisis, any
more than they were when the city was threatened before. His
vision may well include a certain narrowness, and yet because he
sees the world that way, he is also the one with the most
confidence in his own sight and the one most ready to act in
accordance with what he sees. The way he sees the world lies at
the very source of what makes him now, and in the past, a great
man. Those around him rely upon that confidence in order for the
crisis to be dealt with.
It is ironic that the only way that the curse will be lifted from
Thebes is by finding the murderer of Laius. Oedipus starts on a
powerful trip to find the murderer, and this ends up throwing him
into a passionate search within himself to find the truth.
Because Oedipus will not compromise, and will only go after the
answer to Apollo's requests in one way, this sets him up for an
horrific downfall. When Oedipus's reason ends up meeting his
passion for finding the murderer, he finds that he is an a
whirlpool of bad things that are going to bring him down.
Even when the full truth of what he has done strikes home,
he will not abandon his faith in himself but will see
himself out to the end. To the very end of this play,
Oedipus is still insisting that he is the one who has
blinded himself, that he will accept his exile, that he is
fully prepared to accept the self-destructive consequences
of what he has done.
Jocasta's attempt to put his mind at rest about killing his
father - "don't believe seers, e.g. they were wrong about Laius
being killed by his son" - the very thing that starts Oedipus on
the suspicion that he is guilty.
Where did Oedipus go wrong? Leaving Corinth? Killing Laius? Marrying
Jocasta? Pursuing his identity-search in the play?
Certainly the latter, but this not the first, or major mistake.
His ill temper, jumping to conclusions as distinctive of Emotion =
Dionysus. Oedipus has characteristics both Apollonian and
I have observed that one key to Oedipus's character is that he
will not compromise. He must see life through on his own terms,
no matter what the cost. He is prepared to acknowledge no
authority outside his own will. Hence, if he is to be satisfied
the world must answer to him.
As his situation gets more complicated and things do not work out
as he has imagined they might, Oedipus does not adapt, change,
and learn. He becomes more and more determined to see the problem
through on his own terms; he becomes increasingly inflexible.
Having accepted the responsibility for saving Thebes, he will on
his own see the matter through, without compromise, without lies,
without deceit. Anyone who suggests that he proceed differently is
simply an obstacle who must be overcome. That attitude, as we
know, leads to the most horrific conclusions.
Oedipus is prepared only to do things in the way he sees fit.
Whatever stands in his way he sees as an obstacle that he must
overcome publicly, directly, and without compromise. He is
anything but a flexible character. His sense of his own worth is
so strong that he will not admit of any departure from his
characteristic way of doing things. In fact, he is probably
incapable of imagining acting in any other manner. He has no
ability for the sort of delayed emotional response. Whatever he
feels, Oedipus immediately reacts to, usually in public.
What makes Oedipus so compelling is not that he suffers horribly
and endures at the end an almost living death. The force of the
play comes from the connection between Oedipus's sufferings and
his own actions, that is, from the awareness of how he himself is
bringing upon his own head the dreadful outcome.
We can say Oedipus is capable of doing what he does because he is
uniquely brave, excellent, and intelligent. But the tragedy
reminds us, even the best and the bravest, those famous throughout
the world for their knowledge, are doomed if they set themselves
up against the mystery of life itself and if they try to force
life to answer to them, they are going to self-destruct. Oedipus
and his reasoning were correct in the way he followed them, but
his passion and his ignorance of viewing the world properly led to
his horrific downfall.