The Sphinx had asked Oedipus to crack a riddle, and if he succeeded, she promised to take her own life. The riddle went like this “What goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening?” (Dawe 130). Oedipus responded by saying that the answer to the riddle would be a man. This was the right answer because when a person is small, he/she walks on all fours (by crawling), then later learns to walk on two legs and as old age strikes, he/she needs the help of a walking stick to move around hence three legs (Anastapolo 93). The Sphinx was extremely infuriated by Oedipus’ success with the riddle, but she kept her promise and destroyed herself.
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Oedipus’ response most definitely referred to all mankind and not necessarily a specific person. This is because the events that the riddle represented happened in the average human being’s life, and provided one lived a full life, he/she was bound to walk on fours, twos, and threes, as Oedipus clearly pointed out. The times of the day, notably morning, noon, and evening were, of course, used as metaphors to represent the various stages within a person’s life, and that was probably the most challenging component of the riddle. It is no wonder the Sphinx was extremely certain that the traveler could not crack it when she placed the ultimate wager (her life) on it.
The riddle of the sphinx and its answer as basic as it was has come to form the basis of various studies in humanism (Schiller 413). Humanism, in this instance, refers to the universal events that characterize a person’s development from the time of birth to the point of death. The various forms of locomotion characterize a certain stage in a person’s life, and if he/she remains in one, he/she is said to be off-normal. In general, it can be concluded that Oedipus’ answer was drawn from observation and was based on the norm rather than on the queer/unique.
Aside from the various means of getting one’s self from one point to another, there are many other aspects of human life that individuals generally go through, and though not necessarily presented in the Sphinx’s riddle, they could as well have been represented by the nature of the question. This is because it tended to sum up all the three stages of human life and, in a way encompassing all other associated aspects. The three stages are childhood, adulthood, and old age.
When Oedipus asked the question “Who am I” towards the end of the play, he was not simply referring to himself as an individual. On the contrary, he was speaking on behalf of all human beings who are constantly struggling to find their own identities in the world. Oedipus was already aware of his human destiny throughout the play, and it would have been ironic for him to ask the question were he speaking of himself as an individual (Ramphos 57).
The question by Oedipus has come to be constantly referenced to especially in studies related to human beings trying to find their identity. For instance, the question has been constantly referred to by scholars focusing on early childhood development and especially when children begin to discover that they belong to a particular gender, in a way discovering who they are and start behaving accordingly (Smith and Ferstman 127).
To some extent, Oedipus’ question refers to him as a person, especially since he is blind and would naturally have no idea who he actually is. This lack of vision makes him susceptible to much vulnerability, such as unexpected attacks as had been earlier evidenced in the play. However, as literature analysts it is easy to see that Oedipus’ blindness is also symbolic in the sense that it represents mankind’s inability to identify his own inequities. It is because of this weakness that people constantly seek the opinions of others regarding their own selves. Oedipus’ self-seeking journey, revolving around the question, who am I as has been reviewed by various scholars including Sigmund Freud was inherently a basis of psychoanalysis.
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The author of the play wanted to create a drama that had the component of the tragic quest for self awareness (even though the answer was with the main protagonist all along). This is actually where the irony comes in because as it is Oedipus already knew the answer to the secret. This knowledge was however entrenched in his subconscious self and that is probably why he went out on the self-searching quest.
This concept of subconscious recognition of one’s self is applicable to all human beings and therefore Sophocles’ writing was mainly desired to put all the readers and viewers of the play in such a position that they could harness the will and wisdom to understand themselves. Oedipus in some instances comes out as ignorant to the fact that he already knows most of the details of his quest but readers of the play later come to understand the reasons for him acting the way he did in order to drive a certain point home.
Anastapolo, George. On trial: from Adam & Eve to O.J. Simpson. United States: Lexington Books, 2004. Print.
Dawe, Roger D. Oedipus Rex drama by Sophocles. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.
Ramphos, Stelios. Fate and ambiguity in Oedipus the King. Boston: Somerset Hall Press, 2005. Print.
Schiller, FC. Riddles of the Sphinx a Study in the Philosophy of Humanism. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009. Print.
Smith, Joseph and Carla Ferstman. The castration of Oedipus: feminism, psychoanalysis, and the will to power. New York: NYU Press, 1996. Print.