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 Setting Thebes, a city of ancient Greece Principal Characters Oedipus, King of Thebes Jocasta, his mother .. and finally his wife 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 fulfilled. [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 old man, accusing him of conspiring with jocasta’s brother, Creon, to overthrow him. Afterwards, Jocasta unfolded to Oedipus the complete circumstances about the earlier prophecy, but maintained that it could not have come to pass – Laius had not been killed by his son, but by a band of robbers “at a place where three roads meet.” When Oedipus heard this he was stunned; quietly he told Jocasta how he himself had once killed a man at such a place. For the first time, both mother and son began to suspect that the words of Teiresias might be true. Their suspicions were soon allayed, however, when a messenger arrived from Corinth with the news that Polybus had died. Oedipus and Jocasta were ecstatic; this meant that the whole chain of prophecy was false; since Oedipus had not killed his own father, there was no reason to believe the oracle’s contention that he had also slain Jocasta’s first husband. But when the king and queen explained their expressions of joy and relief to the messenger, this man imparted some disquieting news: “Oh, you did not know?” he said, in effect.
“Polybus was not your natural father: you were adopted. It was said that a Theban herdsman found you as a baby on a hillside. He gave you to me, and I presented you to the childless King Polybus, who adopted you.” Oedipus was horrified by this account, and immediately sent for the herdsman, who told him the full story of the servant and child he had dealt with years before. The now aged servant was then called forth. Naturally, he was reluctant to confess the truth; but urged on by Oedipus, he blurted out the tale of how Jocasta and Laius had ordered him to take their infant son into the country and slay him, and how he had not found the heart to do the deed.
At that moment, all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place: Oedipus was the infant of whom they spoke; Jocasta, his wife, was also his mother, who had long ago turned him over to be killed; and the man lie had slain at the crossroads was none other than his true father. At the awful realization that she had actually been an accomplice to the fulfillment of the holy and terrible prophecy she had so diligently sought to thwart, Jocasta rushed to her room. By the time Oedipus broke down the heavily bolted doors, it was too late: he saw his wife – his mother – “hung by her neck, from twisted cords, swinging to and fro.” In agony, Oedipus cut down her body, tore the broaches from her clothes, and with them, put out his eyes, screaming, No more shall you behold the evils I have suffered and done. Be dark from now on, since you saw before, What you should not, and knew not What you should! Miserable and repentant, Oedipus was led out of Corinth into exile by Creon, who became king in his stead. And the merciless Theban plague at last came to an end.
Commentary It would be hard to find a play that has been more universally praised than Oedipus Rex (“King Oedipus”). Aristotle considered it the model tragedy, and that opinion has been widely held to the present day. No drama before or since has managed to so successfully combine a rapid, compelling plot, superb characterization, and elegant poetry into such a tight bundle. The tragedy of Oedipus Rex is not so much that Oedipus commits two horrible crimes; after all, he was fated to do so, and committed them unknowingly. It is, rather, that he, like his doomed parents before him, ran headlong into the destiny he was trying to defy, and then compounded his evils by his imperious refusal to believe the prophet’s declaration of his guilt.
Pride was his downfall. The Greeks had a distinct word for this: “Hubris,” a heroically foolish defiance; the feeling that one is beyond the reaches of authority or convention. Oedipus Rex is notable for its use of dramatic irony: everybody in the audience knows from the start that Oedipus himself is the guilty party he seeks out for punishment. The viewers’ enjoyment comes as they see and hear the facts accumulate, bit by bit, until it suddenly dawns on Oedipus that he is his father’s murderer. The irony is heightened by blind Teiresias’ many tauntings and the chorus’ musical references to”seeing the light” Oedipus, though his physical eyes can see, is blind to the truth; and when he finally does come to see the truth, ironically, he blinds himself. The first and final – and most tragic and triumphant – irony, however, lies in the implicit acknowledgment that the very quality of Hubris (Oedipus’ arrogance in defying cosmic and priestly authority, fate and prophecy) is the same quality that enabled him to earlier confront and defeat the Sphinx and to save an oppressed city.
Oedipus, then, is a hero who pits his pride against both gods and fate in the mold of Prometheus (whose downfall was caused by his sharing the gift of fire with man) and another heroine, Cassandra, who was cursed with the blessing of prophecy. And indeed, most Greek dramas carry this theme of human paradox. Perhaps the symbolism of the Sphinx, who haunts the background of Oedipus Rex with her simple yet terrible riddle, says all that is necessary: The true enigma of the universe lies not in any exotic intergalactic phenomenon; the greatest mystery begins and ends with man.