Symbolism in Oedipus the King Video

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  • 0:04 Symbols - More Than…
  • 0:56 Eyes
  • 2:59 The Fated Crossroads
  • 4:18 Oedipus's Ankles
  • 6:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ansley Stephenson

Ansley is a former high school English teacher with a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in English Education.

In this lesson we'll explore three prominent symbols in Sophocles's Greek tragedy 'Oedipus the King:' eyes, the crossroads, and Oedipus's ankles. These symbols contribute to the themes of the play.

Symbols - More Than Meets the Eye

Ever notice how snakes or serpents are constantly used in stories to represent evil? For example, in the 'Garden of Eden' story in the Bible's book of Genesis, the serpent symbolizes Satan. Medusa, a monster in Greek mythology, has serpents coming out of her head instead of hair. Super creepy! The serpent is one popular symbol across time and cultures.

Symbols are elements that appear repeatedly in a story and have a deeper meaning than what appears on the surface. Oedipus the King is a famous tragedy written by the Greek playwright Sophocles. As with any work of literature, the play contains symbols that enhance its themes. Three symbols seen prominently in Oedipus the King are eyes, both blind ones and those with sight, the crossroads, and Oedipus's ankles. Let's explore these symbols further.


Sight vs. blindness is a huge theme in Oedipus the King. Naturally, the symbol that appears in the plot to support this theme is eyes, both those that have vision and those that are blind. This theme and its accompanying symbol are introduced when Tiresias, a blind prophet, is trying to explain to Oedipus that Oedipus himself is actually the man who killed King Laius. Oedipus refuses to believe Tiresias or see the evidence right in front of him to confirm it; instead he tries to blame the murder on everyone else. Thus, Oedipus is 'blind' to the truth.

Throughout Oedipus and Tiresias's conversation you can find a lot of play on words with the ideas of 'seeing' and 'knowing.' Tiresias ends up telling Oedipus that not only is he the murderer, but he will end up physically blind once he finally accepts the truth. He says, 'Since you have reproached me with my blindness/I say--you have your sight but do not see/ What evils are about you…/Yea, you are ignorant/That to your own you are an enemy. . . /Soon from this land shall drive you, stalking grim,/Your mother's and your father's two-edged curse,/With eyes then dark, though they look proudly now.'

Oedipus's reaction to Tiresias's claim is to make fun of him for being an old blind man. Although Tiresias may have blind eyes, he can see the truth, unlike Oedipus. Like Tiresias tells him he will, Oedipus ends up symbolically punishing himself by blinding his eyes with the brooches belonging to Jocasta, his wife who is also his mother. A messenger says, 'What followed; snatching from her dress gold pins/Wherewith she was adorned, he lifted them,/And smote the nerves of his own eyeballs, saying/Something like this--that they should see no more/Evils like those he had endured or wrought.' Therefore, eyes with vision represent ignorant pride, while blinded eyes represent knowledge.

The Fated Crossroads

Another symbol featured in Oedipus's story is the crossroads. A crossroads is a place where multiple roads meet. When you're standing at a crossroads, physically or metaphorically, you have a decision to make: which road will you take? Your decision could potentially be life changing. Besides representing an important choice, crossroads as symbols also represent fate: do you have a choice in which road you pick, or is it fate?

A crossroads is first mentioned when Jocasta explains how and where King Laius was murdered: 'at a place where three roads meet.' This new knowledge worries Oedipus because he remembers killing a man at a crossroads: 'When in my travels/I was come near this place where three roads meet,/. . . And the old man himself, would thrust me. I,/Being enraged, strike him who jostled me.'

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