Oedipus the King, issues in morality
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Sigmund Freud stated the play Oedipus the King is an immoral play and sets aside the individual’s responsibility and social law. Freud also states that divine forces in the play are partly to blame for the immoral conduct of the characters. This is not an accurate statement. Oedipus the King is not immoral because the main character, Oedipus, did not intend to do wrong. Oedipus’s ignorance about his lineage prevents him from knowing that the man he killed on the road was his father and that his marriage to Jocasta was immoral. Throughout the play Oedipus is searching for truth and justice, not trying to evade it.
Moral is defined as being in accordance with or concerned with right conduct or its principles; conforming to these principles rather than to law or custom. Morality is an internal compass which points us in the direction of right or wrong. As humans, we are not born with this knowledge, it is taught to us by our family, friends, and culture. A government or community may impose moral standards, but ultimately these values are unique to each individual. Therefore, what was immoral to Freud, may not be to other people.
Freud states that human beings have certain moral instincts that would guard against a crime such as marrying one’s mother and that the Gods deceived Oedipus. This deception allowed Oedipus to believe his marriage to Jocasta was legitimate. However, the play leads the reader to believe that Apollo did not plan this deception. The plague is sent to punish the land of Thebes because of the actions of Oedipus, primarily the murder of King Laius.
Although human beings may have Freud’s moral instincts that offer some protection against this type of conduct, we cannot apply those to the character of Oedipus. Oedipus had been deceived about his lineage, either by the divine intervention of Apollo or his own bad luck. He believed his true parents were Polybus and Merope from Corinth. To the best of his knowledge, Jocasta was not related to him before they were married. The instincts that Freud refers to cannot be unconditional and concrete. Certainly if Oedipus had known Jocasta was his mother, those instincts would have prevented his marriage to her. The same is true of Jocasta: she would never have married Oedipus had she known he was her son. The ignorance of their true relationship prevents their moral instincts from protecting them.
The marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta was certainly unethical, at least by our standards today. However, Oedipus himself showed high moral standards. The fact that his crimes were not premeditated proves that he has high ethical standards. Oedipus even fled his home to protect himself after learning that he was destined to murder his father.
During the entire course of the play, Oedipus is investigating the murder of King Laius. This investigation started to appease Apollo and remove the plague, but soon becomes more personal for Oedipus in his search for justice. By the definition of morality, Oedipus is clearly concerned with doing right and demonstrated time and again his high moral principles.
The actions of Oedipus and Jocasta further illustrate this when they realize their true relationship. Oedipus at this point intended to kill Jocasta. For the modern reader, this may show lack of moral ethics. However, in ancient Greece, this action may have been justified, or at least accepted, under the circumstances. We cannot apply modern morality to the culture of ancient Greece. However, the overwhelming guilt Jocasta experienced because of this knowledge caused her to take her own life before Oedipus could reach her.
Oedipus not only felt the guilt of his marriage to his mother, but also the death of the woman he loved. This guilt compelled him to cut out his eyes as punishment for his actions. He did not take his own life as Jocasta had because suicide, even in that time, may have been considered immoral. Characters without moral ethics would not have demonstrated this guilt and remorse.
Oedipus had a distinct sense of good and evil. His unlawful actions were not premeditated or intentional. Because his intentions were always to do what he felt to be correct, it is obvious that he had high moral values. Oedipus’s ignorance of his true parents protects him from immorality. Making mistakes and suffering the consequences of them does not make one immoral, it simply makes them human.