Oedipus the King also known by the Latin title Oedipus Rex is an
Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed c.429 BC.
Oedipus Rex was the second of three of Sophocles plays that were
produced, but, it’s the most famous of the three plays (Oedipus at
Colonus, Oedipus Rex, and Antigone).
Oedipus Rex is the story of Oedipus, a man who eventually becomes the
king of Thebes who was destined from birth to murder his father (Laius)
and marry his mother (Jocasta). The play is an example of a classic
tragedy, noticeably containing an emphasis on how Oedipus’s own faults
contribute to the tragic hero’s downfall as opposed to having fate be the
sole cause. Over the centuries, Oedipus Rex has come to be regarded by
many as the Greek tragedy par excellence.
As a young teen Laius was a tutor to the King Pelops of Elis son Chrysippus raping him
which then caused Chrysippus to commit suicide. This cast a doom over Laius and his
descendants. Years later Laius becomes King of Thebes, where he learns from an oracle
that “he is doomed”/to perish by the hand of his own son”. Laius then binds the infants
feet together with pins and order Jocasta (his wife) to kill the infant. Jocasta could not
kill the infant so instead she orders a servant to. The servant/shepherd takes the baby to a
mountain top to die from exposure.
A shepherd rescues the infant and names him Oedipus (or “swollen feet”) (in some
versions of the play the servant/shepherd directly hands the infant to the shepherd).
The shepherd returns to Corinth with the infant, where the infant is raised by the
childless King Polybus of Corinth and his wife Merope as if he were their own.
As a young man in Corinth Oedipus, hears a rumor that King Polybus and Merope are not his
biological parents. When Oedipus confronted the king and queen of the rumor they denied it.
Oedipus decides to ask an oracle if he rumor were true about the king and queen not being his
biological parents. The oracle ignores his question, by telling him instead that he is destined to
“mate with (his) own mother, and shed/with (his) own hands the blood of (his) own sire”.
Desperate to avoid his foretold fate Oedipus leaves Corinth believing that Polybus and Merope
are indeed his true parents and that once away from them, he will never harm them.
On the way to Thebes, Oedipus runs into Laius (Oedipus true father) with several other men. The two men
were unaware who each other are when they started to fight over whose chariot had the right-of-way. King
Laius started to strike Oedipus with his scepter, but Oedipus throws Laius from his chariot and kills him,
therefore fulfilling part of the oracle’s prophecy.
Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx who had placed a curse on the Kingdom of Thebes.
Oedipus reward for freeing the kingdom of Thebes from the Sphinx curse is the kingship and the
hand of Queen Dowager Jocasta, (his true mother). The prophecy is fulfilled, although none of
the main characters
know it yet…
Oedipus now vows to find the murderer of the former King (Laius) and curse him for them
plague that he has caused on his kingdom.
Oedipus calls for the help of a blind prophet named Tiresias. Tiresias refuses to help and advises
Oedipus to abandon his search. Oedipus gets angry and assumes that Tiresias is an accomplice in
the murder. Outraged, Tiresias tells the king that Oedipus himself is the murderer. Oedipus tells
him to leave. As the prophet leaves he mutters that “when the murderer is discovered he shall be
a native citizen of Thebes; brother and father to his own children; and son and husband to his
Jocasta comes in and attempts to comfort Oedipus, telling him he should take no notice of
prophets. “Many years ago I and Laius received an oracle which never came true,” “it was said
that Laius would be killed by his own son, but, as all Thebes knows Laius was killed by bandits
at a crossroads on the way to Delphi”. Oedipus then asks Jocasta “what did Laius look like”?
Jocasta fears that Tiresia’s accusations were true. Oedipus then sends for the one surviving
witness of the attack to be brought tom the palace from the fields where he now works as a
shepherd. Oedipus then tells Jocasta what he had been told as a young man about his parents
and why he chose to leave Corinth and he came upon a crossroad and had a fight with a man
and killed him.
A messenger arrives from Corinth to give
Oedipus the news that his father has died.
Oedipus is ecstatic by the news assuming
that he could have not killed his father
leaving half of the prophecy unfulfilled.
He still fears that he may somehow
commit incest with his mother. The
messenger, eager to ease Oedipus mind,
tells him not to worry; because Merope
was not in fact his real mother. Then the
messenger tells Oedipus the story of how
the King Polybus was given an infant on
Mount Cithaeron by a shepherd from the
Laius household who had been told to get
rid of the child. Oedipus asks does anyone
know of this man, or where he might be
now? They respond that “he is the same
man you have sent for”. Jocasta, now
desperately begs Oedipus to stop asking
questions, but he refuses and Jocasta runs
into the palace
The shepherd arrives Oedipus questions him, but he begs to leave without answering. Oedipus,
then threatens to torture or execute him, then the shepherd tells him all. Everything is finally
revealed and Oedipus curses himself and fate before leaving the stage. Jocasta has hung herself in
the palace bedroom. Oedipus enters the palace in a rage calling for his servants to bring him a
sword so that he might kill himself. He then comes upon Jocasta’s body he cries as he takes her
down, he removes the long gold pins that held her dress together, before plunging them into his
own eyes in despair.
A blind Oedipus now exits the palace and begs
to be exiled as soon as possible. Creon,
Oedipus brother, then takes him back into the
castle and waits to be consulted from the
oracles deciding what is best to be done.
Oedipus daughters (and half-sisters) Antigone
and Ismene are sent out. Oedipus states that
they should be born to such a cursed family.
Greek maxim, that no man should be
considered fortunate until he is dead.
Sophocles.—Mulray,David(translator) (2011) Oedipus
Rex pg. 24-32
Sophocles,-- E.H Plumptre (1991) Oedipus Rex pg. 1-15