Though first performed circa 429 BCE, the play "Oedipus Rex", by Sophocles, is still widely read and performed today. It has been cited by many critics as the perfect example of a tragedy, with its themes and motifs of fate versus freewill and sightedness versus blindness. As Aristotle argues in his "Poetics", a tragedy would not be so moving if the main characters were not similar enough to the members of the audience that the audience fears these same events could happen to themselves but dissimilar enough that the audience is able to feel relief that these events are not, in fact, happening to them.
The main characters in "Oedipus Rex" are Oedipus, Jocasta, and Teiresias. Oedipus, the protagonist, is king of Thebes, and at the onset of the play he is awaiting the return of a messenger sent to the oracle at Delphi to ask what might be done to halt a plague that is crippling the city. The messenger soon arrives and informs Oedipus that the plague will cease when the murderer of the former king, King Laius, is held accountable for the murder, whereupon Oedipus sends for the blind prophet Teiresias to ask for counsel in finding the murderer.
Teiresias at first, knowing Oedipus himself to be the murderer, refuses to counsel the king, which leads the king to accuse the prophet of being paid off by Creon, Oedipus’ uncle and of having a part in the murder himself. When an angered Teiresias finally tells Oedipus that Oedipus himself was the murderer and that Jocasta, Queen of Thebes and Oedipus’ wife, is also Oedipus’ mother, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his own eyes.
Oedipus’ loyalty to his people is shown through his strong conviction to do whatever must be done in order to halt the plague, from sending messengers to the oracle to seeking the counsel of Teiresias. Oedipus also has an evidently strong sense of duty. When he learns of his own wrongdoings, he punishes himself in the same manner he might have punished another.
Oedipus cannot be said to be the most level-headed man—he is angered by the man at the crossroads and so kills the man on something of a whim. He also refuses to follow the original counsel of Teiresias and give up the quest for Laius’ murderer, though this is another example that shows his deep commitment to duty.
Overall, Oedipus is certainly a moral citizen who deeply values justice. Instead of killing himself upon learning of his actions, Oedipus blinds himself in an echo of his earlier blindness to his actions and forces himself to live with his shame and guilt. He doesn’t try to take the easiest way out.
Jocasta, on the other hand, kills herself to avoid the jeers she would otherwise face now it is publicly known that she has been married to her son—the son she was supposed to kill precisely because of a prophecy that the boy would kill his father and marry his mother. Unlike Oedipus, she is too weak to deal with the consequences of her actions and so hangs herself.
Teiresias, the blind prophet, is an interesting character who returns time and again in literature. He is an older man and shares his wisdom and counsel with many kings and others. In "Oedipus Rex", he is shown to be a loyal subject—he doesn’t wish to tell Oedipus, his king, that Oedipus has done wrong and instead counsels the king to give up his search for Laius’ murderer. It is only when angered by Oedipus’ unfair accusations that Teiresias finally tells Oedipus the truth of the matter, though this is still not an announcement he enjoys making.
The characters in this play are certainly realistic enough—anyone might be the hapless Oedipus, cursed to kill his father and marry his mother. Sophocles allows these characters to grow and explore their own strengths throughout the course of the play so that the Oedipus at the end of the play is a very different, but very similar man, to the one at the start of the play.
Sophocles. "The Three Theban Plays". Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Books, New York: 1984.