Oedipus Rex by Sophocles I (c. 496 - 406 B.C.)

Oedipus Rex
by Sophocles I (c. 496
- 406 B.C.)

Type of Work:

Tragic, poetic Greek drama


Thebes, a city of ancient Greece

Principal Characters

Oedipus, King of Thebes

Jocasta, his mother ... and finally his

Teiresias, a blind prophet

Creon, Oedipus\' brother-in-law

A Chorus

Play Overveiw
[The original 5th-century B.C. Greek audience
was assumed to be familiar with the background of the play.] Laius and

Jocasta were King and Queen of the Great City of Thebes. But it had been
prophesied that their son would grow up to kill Laius, his own father,
and then marry Jocasta, his own mother. Fearing the divination\'s fulfillment,

Laius and Jocasta delivered Oedipus, their infant son, to a servant, with
orders that he be killed. The servant bore the babe into the wilderness,
but couldn\'t bring himself to carry out the command. Instead, he turned
the child over to a Corinthian herdsman, who in turn passed the little
boy on to Polybus, King of Corinth - who adopted him as his own. Oedipus
was thus raised to believe that he was the natural son of Polybus.

But Oedipus\' life began to unravel the
day he overheard an oracle repeat to him the unthinkable prophecy: he would
someday kill his father and marry his mother. Supposing that Polybus was
his real father, Oedipus determined to leave Corinth so as not to remain
anywhere near Polybus. In his travels, Oedipus came to a place where three
roads converged. There he became caught up in a violent argument with a
band of travelers. He managed to kill all but one of his attackers, but
remained oblivious to the tragic irony of this triumph: among the men he
had slain was Laius, his true father.

Later, the oracular prophecies completed
their awful and ironic cycle of fulfil lm,nt when Oedipus undertook a mission
to save Thebes, still acknowledged as his native city, from the predations
of a dire female monster, the Sphinx. Of all the unlucky heroes to make
the attempt, Oedipus alone was able to answer the riddle that was posed
mockingly to all travelers along the Theban roadside by the winged lion-woman:

"What goes first on four legs, then on two, and then on three?" The Sphynx
had ravenously devoured all those brave and foolhardy souls who regaled
her with exotic answers; but Oedipus, with the simple rejoinder "Man,"
gained the power to final] destroy her. The grateful populace of the city
quickly acclaimed him as King, and in time, he met, fell in love with,
and married his own mother, Jocasta. Of course Jocasta had no idea that
her new young husband was the son she had sent off to be killed as an infant;
nor did Oedipus realize that the loathsome prophecy had now at last been
[As the play begins, the story of how Oedipus
discovers his "crimes" unfolds.]

In Thebes, a dreadful plague had struck.

The citizens assembled to appeal to King Oedipus to curb the disease, and

Oedipus reassured them that Creon, Jocasta\'s brother, had gone to Delphi
to ask the great Apollo how the plague might be ended.

When Creon finally returned, he brought
startling news: Apollo had declared that the scourge had come upon the
city because the very man who had murdered King Laius years before was
now a resident of Thebes. Apollo further swore that the plague would endure
until the murderer was exposed and exiled from the city.

Oedipus, wholly unaware that he himself
was the one who had struck down Laius, vowed to discover the identity of
the murderer at all costs:
... Now I reign, holding the power which
he had held before me, having the selfsame wife and marriage bed - and
if his seed had not met barren fortune, we should be linked by offspring
from one mother; but as it was, fate leapt upon his Head, [and I shall
search] to seize the hand which shed that blood.

Oedipus\' first step was to call in Teiresias,
a blind soothsayer of renowned wisdom. When the King questioned Teiresias
as to the identity of Laius\' murderer, the prophet first claimed that he
did know the man\'s name, but then hesitated: "I shall never reveal ...

I will not hurt you or me." Still Oedipus pressed, and Teiresias finally
relented. "You are the slayer whom you seek," he sadly disclosed; "And
dreaded foot shall drive you from this land. You who now see straight shall
then be blind."

Oedipus, furious at the suggestion of his
guilt, berated the prophet, who retorted by insisting that Oedipus was
yet blind to the truth and would soon learn of his guilt. Oedipus angrily
dismissed the sightless