Oedipus the King

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

AT: King Oedipus; Oedipus Rex A: Sophocles Pf:c.429–420bc, Athens Tr: 1715 G: Greek trag. in verse S: The city of Thebes, in the mythical past C: 7m, 2f, extras, chorus (m)Because the city of Thebes is suffering from a plague, its king Oedipus has sent Creon to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The oracle declares that the plague will be lifted only when the city rids itself of an unclean person, the killer of the former king Laius. Oedipus strenuously attempts to identify the criminal. While his queen Jocasta begs him not to dig too deep into the past, Oedipus reveals that the same oracle had prophesied to him that he would murder his father and marry his mother. However, he feels safe in the knowledge that he abandoned his parents in Corinth, so as to avoid fulfilling the prophecy. On his way to Thebes he had killed an old man and now fears that this man might indeed be Laius. Far worse is to follow: news comes that his ‘father’ has died in Corinth, but that Oedipus was adopted as a foundling. He had been set out on a mountain to die, in an attempt by Laius to thwart a similar prophecy. When it is finally revealed that Oedipus murdered his own father and has been living in incest with his mother Jocasta, she hangs herself. Oedipus stabs out his eyes and prepares to go into exile once more.

AT: King Oedipus; Oedipus Rex A: Sophocles Pf:c.429–420bc, Athens Tr: 1715 G: Greek trag. in verse S: The city of Thebes, in the mythical past C: 7m, 2f, extras, chorus (m)

One of the most important plays of world theatre, Sophocles' Oedipus, greatly admired by Aristotle, is full of tragic irony and is a model of analytic plot structure, in which the past is gradually revealed with cataclysmic effect in the present. It is often mistakenly assumed that Oedipus is a totally innocent victim, a plaything of the gods. However, in his retelling of this well-known myth, Sophocles carefully motivates Oedipus' original visit to the oracle by reference to a drunk who tells Oedipus that he is adopted. With his parentage in doubt, Oedipus acts foolishly by running away and trying to prevent the oracle being fulfilled. Moreover, he has never asked about the fate of the former king, his wife's former husband. He, Jocasta, and the Thebans have been living a lie – and the plague is the result. Indeed, because of a prophecy to Laius that his son would kill him, Oedipus as a baby is mutilated and put out to die. It is impossible to flout the oracle: the will of the gods is inexorable, but Laius and Oedipus help to bring it about, through a hubristic lack of piety. That Oedipus is so terribly punished is unfair, but Sophocles knew that the world does not operate according to human notions of justice. As the classical scholar Gilbert Murray said, the Greek hero is like a man who drinks untreated water during a typhoid outbreak. He is not wicked, merely foolish, but is nevertheless terribly punished. While preserving the traditional form of Greek tragedy, Sophocles' innovation of a third speaking character is especially effective here. As Oedipus probes for the truth from the Messenger, his wife/mother Jocasta tries to prevent him from hurtling towards his doom, thus increasing the tension of the scene. Oedipus has provided the source for many later versions, notably by Seneca, Tasso (King Torrismondo, 1586), Dryden (1678), Voltaire (1718), Hofmannsthal (1910), Yeats (1926), Cocteau (The Infernal Machine), Berkoff (Greek, 1980), Anouilh (1986), and was used by Sigmund Freud in his formulation of the ‘Oedipus complex’.


Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

Reference entries

Sophocles (496—406 bc)

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.