Oedipus' Punishment

Instructor: Thomas White

Thomas holds a BA in education and English literature and has taught middle school English.

In this lesson, we'll explore Oedipus' punishment and read various descriptions of his crime to determine whether or not the harsh punishment was deserved. Learn what hubris is and what it means for Greek drama.

Is the Punishment Deserved?

At the end of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the protagonist Oedipus has gouged out his own eyes and is sent into exile. His wife (and -- spoiler alert -- his mother) is dead, having hung herself.

The gods, it seems, have inflicted a harsh punishment on Oedipus. The question asked by many readers is: did he deserve it? To get to the bottom of this, you'll first have to answer another question: what exactly was Oedipus' crime?

The Simple Answer

The simple answer is that Oedipus is guilty of two crimes: killing the king and incest.

While traveling on the road one day, Oedipus meets King Laius. They have a dispute (essentially over who has the 'right of way'), and Oedipus kills him. Later, he arrives in Thebes, and after answering the Sphinx's riddle, he inherits the crown and marries the queen (who turns out to be the birth mother he's never met).

Oedipus is certainly guilty of these crimes, but it seems unreasonable to give him the most extreme punishment; after all, he had no idea he was committing them. He did not know that Laius was the king or that Jocasta was his mother. Such a life-altering punishment may be too harsh for a series of misunderstandings.

The Problem of Fate

A more interesting possibility is that Oedipus' true crime was fighting the gods. The gods only have an indirect presence in Oedipus Rex. We never see them directly, but the blind prophet Tiresias speaks on their behalf.

Tiresias tells Oedipus clearly that Oedipus is at fault for killing the king, but he will not hear it. When Oedipus refuses to listen to Tiresias, he is denying his fate. In Greek drama, conflict often centers around the protagonist trying to avoid a fate that was predicted for them. In doing so, they are attempting to thwart the will of the gods.

This isn't the first time Oedipus has reacted against his fate. He chooses to travel to Thebes after an Oracle tells him that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother -- this fate is so (rightly) disturbing to him that he flees his home in an attempt to avoid it. Laius, too, tries to avoid his fate. Years earlier, after receiving a prophecy about being slain by his own son, he has his infant son banished from Thebes.

But the gods cannot be so easily thwarted. Both men, in their attempts to change their fate, fulfill their own prophecies. This situation, where an attempt to avoid a predicted fate ends up causing that fate to come true, is called a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It seems reasonable that attempting to thwart the gods would lead to great punishment. But there is a little more to it than that.

The Offense of Pride

To really understand why Oedipus was trying to avoid his fate (and why this was such a bad thing), you must understand a key characteristic of Oedipus: his pride. Oedipus is a man who killed someone over a traffic dispute. Any small offense to his pride can lead to disastrous results.

The chorus makes this clear:

'Pride is the germ of kings;

Pride, when puffed up, vainly, with many things

Unseasonable, unfitting, mounts the wall,

Only to hurry to that fatal fall,

Where feet are vain to serve her'

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account