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Characterization in Oedipus the King

Characterization in Oedipus Rex

The dialogue, action and motivation revolve about the characters in the story (Abrams 32-33). It is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate the types of characters present in Sophocles’ tragic drama, Oedipus Rex, whether static or dynamic, whether flat or round, and whether protrayed through showing or telling.

Werner Jaeger in “Sophocles’ Mastery of Character Development” pays the dramatist the very highest compliment with regard to character development:

The ineffaceable impression which Sophocles makes on us today and his imperishable position in the literature of the world are both due to his character-drawing. If we ask which of the men and women ofGreek tragedy have an independent life in the imagination apart from the stage and from the actual plot in which they appear, we must answer, ‘those created by Sophocles, above all others’ (36).

Surely it can be said of Sophocles’ main characters that they grow beyond the two dimensional aspect into really rounded physical presences. This is done through mostly the showing technique, though the chorus at times is involved in telling the audience various pieces of information. At the outset of Oedipus Rex the reader sees a king who comes to the door full of curiosity: “Explain your mood and purport. Is it dread /Of ill that moves you or a boon ye crave?” When the priest has responded that the people are despairing from the effects of the plague, the king shows another dimension to his character with his deep sympathy for his subjects: “Ye sicken all, well wot I, yet my pain, /How great soever yours, outtops it all.” Shortly thereafter a second round character makes his appearance on stage in the pers…

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…and Creon become so later in the tragedy. Rarely does the dramatist use the chorus to convey information; most of this comes from exchanges of dialogue, which would be the showing technique.


Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

Ehrenberg, Victor. “Sophoclean Rulers: Oedipus.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex, edited by Michael J. O’Brien. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Jaeger, Werner. “Sophocles’ Mastery of Character Development.” In Readings on Sophocles, edited by Don Nardo. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1997.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Transl. by F. Storr. no pag. new?tag=public

Oedipus the King: Unrealistic or Realistic

Oedipus Rex – Unrealistic or Realistic

Let’s explore the traces of realsim and its opposite in Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex.

The first obvious question is: How can this drama possibly be considered realistic since it relies so heavily on predetermination and fate in the life of the protagonist, Oedipus? As Jocasta recounts to Oedipus:

An oracle

Once came to Laius (I will not say

‘Twas from the Delphic god himself, but from

His ministers) declaring he was doomed

To perish by the hand of his own son,

A child that should be born to him by me.

Charles Segal in Oedipus Tyrannus has a solid rebuttal to what appears predestination:

The issues of destiny, predetermination, and foreknowledge are raised as problems, not as dogma. How much control do we have over the shape of our lives? How much of what happens to us is due to heredity, to accidents, to sheer luck. . . . These are the questions that the play raises, and it raises them as questions. It shows us men and women who are both powerful and helpless, often at the same moment. Oedipus embodies the human condition. . . . (75-76).

If this critic is correct that Oedipus embodies the human condition as it really is, then he is totally representative of reality, and not unrealistic as it might appear on first reading. Victor Ehrenberg in “Sophoclean Rulers: Oedipus” analyzes the protagonist of the tragedy and finds a balanced, realistic type who possesses the qualities of a king, including the human, realistic desire for more:

Oedipus is a ‘good king,’ a father of his people, an honest and great ruler, while at the same time an outstanding intellect. . . . He even shares the thro…

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…Sophoclean Rulers: Oedipus.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex, edited by Michael J. O’Brien. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. England: Penguin Books, 1972.

Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

“Sophocles” In Literature of the Western World, edited by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. NewYork: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1984.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Transl. by F. Storr. new?tag=public

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