Summary and Analysis: <i>Oedipus the King</i>
A messenger from the palace announces that the queen is dead. He describes the details of the queen's suicide as well as Oedipus' horrifying self-blinding with Jocasta's pins.
Oedipus appears on stage to the horror and pity of the chorus. Questioned about his self-mutilation, Oedipus explains in agony that he has raked out his eyes because he could not look again upon the loved ones he has defiled, especially his daughters Ismene and Antigone.
Oedipus begs Creon — who has assumed authority in Thebes — to have him put to death or banished. Creon says that he will consult the oracle for judgement; in the meantime, he counsels Oedipus to accept obedience. Humbled, Oedipus disappears with Creon into the palace, as the chorus again laments Oedipus' downfall.
Driven to madness by the revelation of his unconscious actions, Oedipus' conscious and deliberate self-blinding — a methodical, rhythmic action — seems to serve as his way of taking control of the pain that torments him. The violence empties and exhausts Oedipus' fury, and he accepts his fate by becoming one with it: "I am agony" (1444).
The final resolution, then, is the humbling of the once proud Oedipus — his literal acceptance of his blindness and his submission to another's will. Now the willful king yields to his fate — an uncertain future tarnished by his infamy — as the chorus laments Oedipus' fall from greatness with the warning to "count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last" (1684).
The Athenians were known throughout the ancient world for their decisive action and determination, but, by definition, no one can withstand the blows of fate, anymore than one can avoid death. Therefore, the pity and terror aroused by Oedipus' tragic fall brings about a catharsis, the realization that the power of fate cannot be overcome by will — even by the will of a king.
Modern readers may wonder why Oedipus' self-mutilation occurs off-stage and is announced by the messenger to the assembled elders (and audience). Greek theater had strict conventions, and one of the strictest involved the depiction of violence. Such action occurred ob skena — off-stage — as a matter of tradition. This Greek term later came into English as "obscene," meaning offensive to prevailing notions of decency.