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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Unwritten Law

After defeating Polynices and taking the throne of Thebes, Creon commands that Polynices be left to rot unburied, his flesh eaten by dogs and birds, creating an “obscenity” for everyone to see (Antigone, 231). Creon thinks that he is justified in his treatment of Polynices because the latter was a traitor, an enemy of the state, and the security of the state makes all of human life—including family life and religion—possible. Therefore, to Creon’s way of thinking, the good of the state comes before all other duties and values. However, the subsequent events of the play demonstrate that some duties are more fundamental than the state and its laws. The duty to bury the dead is part of what it means to be human, not part of what it means to be a citizen. That is why Polynices’ rotting body is an “obscenity” rather than a crime. Moral duties—such as the duties owed to the dead—make up the body of unwritten law and tradition, the law to which Antigone appeals.

The Willingness to Ignore the Truth

When Oedipus and Jocasta begin to get close to the truth about Laius’s murder, in Oedipus the King, Oedipus fastens onto a detail in the hope of exonerating himself. Jocasta says that she was told that Laius was killed by “strangers,” whereas Oedipus knows that he acted alone when he killed a man in similar circumstances. This is an extraordinary moment because it calls into question the entire truth-seeking process Oedipus believes himself to be undertaking. Both Oedipus and Jocasta act as though the servant’s story, once spoken, is irrefutable history. Neither can face the possibility of what it would mean if the servant were wrong. This is perhaps why Jocasta feels she can tell Oedipus of the prophecy that her son would kill his father, and Oedipus can tell her about the similar prophecy given him by an oracle (867–875), and neither feels compelled to remark on the coincidence; or why Oedipus can hear the story of Jocasta binding her child’s ankles (780–781) and not think of his own swollen feet. While the information in these speeches is largely intended to make the audience painfully aware of the tragic irony, it also emphasizes just how desperately Oedipus and Jocasta do not want to speak the obvious truth: they look at the circumstances and details of everyday life and pretend not to see them.

The Limits of Free Will

Prophecy is a central part of Oedipus the King. The play begins with Creon’s return from the oracle at Delphi, where he has learned that the plague will be lifted if Thebes banishes the man who killed Laius. Tiresias prophesies the capture of one who is both father and brother to his own children. Oedipus tells Jocasta of a prophecy he heard as a youth, that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother, and Jocasta tells Oedipus of a similar prophecy given to Laius, that her son would grow up to kill his father. Oedipus and Jocasta debate the extent to which prophecies should be trusted at all, and when all of the prophecies come true, it appears that one of Sophocles’ aims is to justify the powers of the gods and prophets, which had recently come under attack in fifth-century b.c. Athens.

Sophocles’ audience would, of course, have known the story of Oedipus, which only increases the sense of complete inevitability about how the play would end. It is difficult to say how justly one can accuse Oedipus of being “blind” or foolish when he seems to have no choice about fulfilling the prophecy: he is sent away from Thebes as a baby and by a remarkable coincidence saved and raised as a prince in Corinth. Hearing that he is fated to kill his father, he flees Corinth and, by a still more remarkable coincidence, ends up back in Thebes, now king and husband in his actual father’s place. Oedipus seems only to desire to flee his fate, but his fate continually catches up with him. Many people have tried to argue that Oedipus brings about his catastrophe because of a “tragic flaw,” but nobody has managed to create a consensus about what Oedipus’s flaw actually is. Perhaps his story is meant to show that error and disaster can happen to anyone, that human beings are relatively powerless before fate or the gods, and that a cautious humility is the best attitude toward life.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Almost every character who dies in the three Theban plays does so at his or her own hand (or own will, as is the case in Oedipus at Colonus). Jocasta hangs herself in Oedipus the King and Antigone hangs herself in Antigone. Eurydice and Haemon stab themselves at the end of Antigone. Oedipus inflicts horrible violence on himself at the end of his first play, and willingly goes to his own mysterious death at the end of his second. Polynices and Eteocles die in battle with one another, and it could be argued that Polynices’ death at least is self-inflicted in that he has heard his father’s curse and knows that his cause is doomed. Incest motivates or indirectly brings about all of the deaths in these plays.

Sight and Blindness

References to eyesight and vision, both literal and metaphorical, are very frequent in all three of the Theban plays. Quite often, the image of clear vision is used as a metaphor for knowledge and insight. In fact, this metaphor is so much a part of the Greek way of thinking that it is almost not a metaphor at all, just as in modern English: to say “I see the truth” or “I see the way things are” is a perfectly ordinary use of language. However, the references to eyesight and insight in these plays form a meaningful pattern in combination with the references to literal and metaphorical blindness. Oedipus is famed for his clear-sightedness and quick comprehension, but he discovers that he has been blind to the truth for many years, and then he blinds himself so as not to have to look on his own children/siblings. Creon is prone to a similar blindness to the truth in Antigone. Though blind, the aging Oedipus finally acquires a limited prophetic vision. Tiresias is blind, yet he sees farther than others. Overall, the plays seem to say that human beings can demonstrate remarkable powers of intellectual penetration and insight, and that they have a great capacity for knowledge, but that even the smartest human being is liable to error, that the human capability for knowledge is ultimately quite limited and unreliable.

Graves and Tombs

The plots of Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus both revolve around burials, and beliefs about burial are important in Oedipus the King as well. Polynices is kept above ground after his death, denied a grave, and his rotting body offends the gods, his relatives, and ancient traditions. Antigone is entombed alive, to the horror of everyone who watches. At the end of Oedipus the King, Oedipus cannot remain in Thebes or be buried within its territory, because his very person is polluted and offensive to the sight of gods and men. Nevertheless, his choice, in Oedipus at Colonus, to be buried at Colonus confers a great and mystical gift on all of Athens, promising that nation victory over future attackers. In Ancient Greece, traitors and people who murder their own relatives could not be buried within their city’s territory, but their relatives still had an obligation to bury them. As one of the basic, inescapable duties that people owe their relatives, burials represent the obligations that come from kinship, as well as the conflicts that can arise between one’s duty to family and to the city-state.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Oedipus’s Swollen Foot

Oedipus gets his name, as the Corinthian messenger tells us in Oedipus the King, from the fact that he was left in the mountains with his ankles pinned together. Jocasta explains that Laius abandoned him in this state on a barren mountain shortly after he was born. The injury leaves Oedipus with a vivid scar for the rest of his life. Oedipus’s injury symbolizes the way in which fate has marked him and set him apart. It also symbolizes the way his movements have been confined and constrained since birth, by Apollo’s prophecy to Laius.

The Three-way Crossroads

In Oedipus the King, Jocasta says that Laius was slain at a place where three roads meet. This crossroads is referred to a number of times during the play, and it symbolizes the crucial moment, long before the events of the play, when Oedipus began to fulfill the dreadful prophecy that he would murder his father and marry his mother. A crossroads is a place where a choice has to be made, so crossroads usually symbolize moments where decisions will have important consequences but where different choices are still possible. In Oedipus the King, the crossroads is part of the distant past, dimly remembered, and Oedipus was not aware at the time that he was making a fateful decision. In this play, the crossroads symbolizes fate and the awesome power of prophecy rather than freedom and choice.

Antigone’s Entombment

Creon condemns Antigone to a horrifying fate: being walled alive inside a tomb. He intends to leave her with just enough food so that neither he nor the citizens of Thebes will have her blood on their hands when she finally dies. Her imprisonment in a tomb symbolizes the fact that her loyalties and feelings lie with the dead—her brothers and her father—rather than with the living, such as Haemon or Ismene. But her imprisonment is also a symbol of Creon’s lack of judgment and his affronts to the gods. Tiresias points out that Creon commits a horrible sin by lodging a living human being inside a grave, as he keeps a rotting body in daylight. Creon’s actions against Antigone and against Polynices’ body show him attempting to invert the order of nature, defying the gods by asserting his own control over their territories.

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz



Why does Creon think his treatment of Polynices is acceptable?
Polynices is his nephew and thus his ward.
Polynices broke his duty to the state.
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs & Symbols QUIZ

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by milktea3579, February 07, 2013

Creon only exiles Oedipus because he wanted to be banished.


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cannot compare

by sassyjam, September 11, 2013


It is not wise to try and compare Oedipus the King and Oedipus at colonus. Traditionally these works were written separately and should be viewed as such. While it is difficult to ignore prior knowledge, unless you are writing specifically comparing the two characterizations (while considering the fact they were written years apart and Greek dramatists are known to change characteristics of characters), an analysis of Oedipus at Colonus must be considered within itself and not as part of a trilogy.


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by megk2013, September 14, 2013

Who is Iokaste?


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