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The Concept of Guilt and Shame in Oedipus the King by Sophocles

The Concept of Guilt and Shame in Oedipus the King by Sophocles

The literature of all historical periods has paid much attention to the analysis of human feelings and emotions as they often have a huge influence on people’s decisions and behavior. All classical writers are obviously good psychologists. They have a perfect understanding of human nature. However, ancient Greek authors seem to be much closer to the modern values than others. The Western civilization is, to some extent, based on the ancient Greek ideals and principles. Therefore, the theories explored by such authors as Sophocles have always been relative and topical. Oedipus the King is a very complex and multidimensional text that analyzes many important issues, such as the role of power, the limits of free will, etc.

However, critics and researchers do not pay enough attention to the concepts of guilt and shame in this ancient play. It occurs despite the fact that they play a very important role there. Sophocles exerts every effort to show how complex and deep these feelings can be and what enormous impact they can have on the human psyche. In Oedipus the King, the author argues that the concept of individual guilt and shame are closely connected with social and legal aspects of the same emotions. He highlights that their psychological nature is a powerful driving force in almost every situation.

The connection between social and individual guilt

One of the central ideas of the play is the interrelations between the individual guilt and social suffering. The work starts with an episode where Oedipus is listening to the city’s representatives complaining about the disasters that have fallen upon their land. While describing the current affairs of the town, the priest, who was the leader of this delegation, says, “A blight is on our harvest in the ear, / A blight upon the grazing flocks and herds, / A blight on wives in travail” (Sophocles). The whole social system is suffering beginning from the crops till the people themselves. However, in the first episodes of the play, the cause of such disasters is not clear. Only when Oedipus sends a messenger to the Delphic shrine, he learns that the guilt is put onto the person who killed King Laius, the previous ruler of the city. Sophocles shows that the whole city of Thebes is suffering because the murderer of the king has not been punished.

Disregarding the fact that Oedipus is the very man who should be blamed for such a situation, it is very important to analyze the following issue. It should be scrutinized how Sophocles sees and understands the relations between the guilt of one individual and the repercussions that his actions might have on the whole community. The priests of the Delphic shrine argue that the principal cause of these long-lasting spell of tragedies and disasters in Thebes is injustice. Sophocles writes about the amount of suffering that people go through, “Weaponless my spirit lies. / Earth her gracious fruits denies” (Sophocles). Therefore, it is obvious that the scale of the crime does not match the depth of the catastrophe that Thebes suffers from. One person kills another one; and, as a result, the whole city is on the edge of an unbelievable crisis. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that Sophocles considers such collective punishment as wrong and inappropriate. It can be explained by two factors. At first, the ancient Greek society is a perfect example of the community where the ties between its individual members are very strong and meaningful. Therefore, for Sophocles, it is absolutely normal that the guilt and shame of one particular individual can be transferred onto the rest of the society. Moreover, this link is not only a single line from one person to the other one. In Oedipus the King, the guilt is disseminated onto a large number of community members. As Koper writes, “In the myth, the fearful transgression of a single individual is substituted for the universal onslaught of reciprocal violence. Oedipus is responsible for the ills that have befallen his people” (88).

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However, as with many other elements of this play, the question about the relationship between the individual and social guilt does not have a univocal answer. As it has already been mentioned, the Delphic shrine said the following. The city has been punished not for the actions of one particular individual, but for injustice. It is not the fact of the murder that makes the gods punish Thebes. However, it is related to the inability of society to punish the murderer itself. When Oedipus learns the words of the Delphic shrine, he tells his people that he will try to change the situation. He promises to punish the man who killed Laius, “I lay my ban / On the assassin whosoever he be. / Let no man in this land, whereof I hold / The sovereign rule, harbor or speak to him” (Sophocles). Therefore, the solution to the problem offered at the beginning of the play remains within the frame of the Greek legal code. It has rather distinct social implications.

Personal guilt and shame versus the crimes regulated by the law

Most of the characters could have avoided the legal punishment. However, they have chosen to murder or wound themselves as the adequate (from their perspective) personal punishment. Fosso argues, “Given all of the tragedy’s conflicting testimony and unclear facts, there is little to prove the hero unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother, aside from his own self-conviction” (29). Sophocles repeatedly stresses that the option of escaping the tragic fate was, to a certain extent, possible. He writes, “Oblivion – what a blessing… for the mind to dwell a world away from pain”. In addition to simply leaving the city and settling his life somewhere else, Oedipus could have listened to Jocasta or Tiresias, the blind prophet. They wanted to hide the truth. However, the hero decided to reveal it. Therefore, the primary stimulus to open the true facts belongs to Oedipus himself. The same could be told about his decision to blind him. Jocasta’s choice also had nothing to do with the legal traditions or systems of Greek society. It was her personal choice. The heroine was not able to live understanding that she was married to her own son who earlier had killed her husband and his father Laius.

In other words, nearly all the characters of the play believe that personal shame and guilt are more effective punishments than the ones implied by the current law. “Oedipus was defending himself when he committed parricide and his marriage to the Theban widow that led to incest was a way of consecrating the victory over the Sphinx, but, regardless,… he bears ‘objective’ guilt” (Sheehan 101). Oedipus’ defense against accusations is a tribute to the logical self. However, his decision to plunge long golden pins from Jocasta’s dress into his eyes is a result of an extremely turbulent inner moral conflict powered by the feeling of shame and guilt.

Jocasta’s fate is probably even more tragic and impressive. Oedipus was sure to get some punishment from the legal court or from the new ruler of Thebes. However, no one told anything about Jocasta’s legal guilt. She was unlikely to be punished even by the ancient Greek society who had rather strict rules concerning the woman’s behavior. She was absolutely unaware of the fact that Oedipus was her son. Of course, she might have certain problems later in her life. However, Sophocles does not give any direct evidence. Therefore, the only way to punish her was to do it independently without any outside help. Jocasta’s inner guilt was so strong that it demanded some logical final. She could not live with her shame. It served as the main destructive force in her fate.

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The choices of Oedipus and Jocasta are deliberate and conscious. They were obviously caused by a number of factors. However, one of the most significant ones was the inability of society to match the legal punishment with the feelings that had tortured these characters after learning the truth. As a result, trying to substitute social justice with their own one, Jocasta and Oedipus selected to murder and wound them. Here Sophocles draws strong parallels between the murder of Laius and the fate of Jocasta as well as Oedipus. In all these cases, the law proved to be ineffective. Only the people could manage to find the truth and serve justice, even if it was done in such a tragic and painful way. Segal also adds a very interesting perspective to this comparison by drawing the readers’ attention to the dialogue between Oedipus and Tiresias, where the prophet is trying “to persuade the accused of his guilt, not the jury” (126). The feelings of guilt and shame appeared to be more powerful than legal norms or even the disgrace from the community.

The limits and nature of guilt and shame in the play

The author of Oedipus the King draws a very close connection between the concepts of guilt and shame. Klaassen even argues that in some cases the word guilt should be rather interpreted as a stain. Therefore, it deals more with shame than actual guilt. He writes, “Oedipus here speaks of his stain, not his guilt; a similar transference may be responsible for the preoccupation with Oedipus’ curse” (Klaassen 328). Later he adds that “the possibility of combining guilt, shame, and fate becomes reasonable” (Klaassen 328).

For Sophocles, guilt and shame are endless and unavoidable. It is obvious that the author does not believe that the characters could simply forget their sins and start a new life, probably in a faraway place where no one knows them. The last line of the play is “Wait till free from pain and sorrow he has gained his final rest” (Sophocles). These words intensify the idea of immeasurable and endless guilt that will survive everything, except death. Therefore, the decision of Jocasta may seem quite reasonable in the frames of Greek morality and logic, in general, and the work, in particular. In any case, the tragic steps made by these characters can be interpreted as attempts to take full control of the shame and guilt torturing them from inside.

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In this way, these concepts enter into curious relations with the idea of free will being widely discussed in the play. In general, Oedipus the King proves that the personal wishes of a human being actually do not matter much. The reason is that fate is impossible to fool and the person will meet his destiny one way or another. However, analyzing the theme of suicide and self-blinding, readers see that it is the human and not god’s wish. The person himself or herself has taken the tragic final decision to stop the circle of pain and misery. Although in the case of Oedipus, this deliverance is not complete, and the principle is the same.

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The violation of two crucial rules for the whole civilized world since ancient time, i.e. the regulations against incest and killing parents, lets guilt become the overwhelming emotion in the soul of Oedipus. Sophocles argues that these feelings are not only a powerful driving force stipulating the course of human actions. However, they are also able to devour other emotions, thus becoming the only ones in the human heart. The author of the play also highlights that guilt and shame can be very deeply rooted in the human psyche. One of the best pieces of evidence is the episode when Oedipus argues with Tiresias. Although he does not have any direct proof that the seer plotted the murder of Laius, he accuses him of this crime. He is subconsciously trying to replace his guilt on another person. Despite the fact that Oedipus did not receive any ultimate evidence proving that it was him who killed Laius, the feeling of guilty is gradually taking place in his mind and soul. At first, it is revealed in the form of anger that Oedipus throws onto respected Tiresias. Later, when the truth becomes obvious, and the king suffers the devastating blow of Jocasta’s death, this guilt turns into the shape of self-destruction.


In conclusion, Oedipus the King is a thought-provoking ancient drama that thoroughly explores the concepts of guilt and shame and their realization in the frames of Greek society. Sophocles pays much attention to the analysis of strong links between the actions of an individual and their influence on the rest of the community. In this way, he argues that the guilt and shame of one person can sometimes be easily transferred to everybody. The author also highlights that the principles of both legal and personal feelings of guilt do not necessarily coincide. Sophocles as well draw the attention of the audience to the fact that there are no distinct limits and time frames for guilt and shame. These ones can accompany the person the whole life.