Oedipus Rex (fifth century BCE) is a tragedy based on the myth of King Oedipus. While investigating a murder, Oedipus learns shocking truths about his life.
Introduction: A king discovers the tragic truth.
Table of Contents
Oedipus Rex was first performed in Athens about 2,450 years ago. Today, the play remains as moving and disturbing as ever. The author, Sophocles, turned an old myth into a powerful tragedy. It’s the story of King Oedipus, who brings about his own downfall by uncovering the shocking truth about his identity.
If you’re looking for light entertainment, look elsewhere. With themes of incest, murder, suicide, and extreme self-harm, Oedipus Rex is harrowing, to say the least. But it’s also a masterpiece. It’s still regarded as one of the best tragedies ever written and as one of the greatest plays of all time. It’s also had a unique cultural influence, inspiring countless adaptations – not to mention Freud’s controversial theory of the Oedipus complex. Seeing a production of the play made him reflect on humans’ deepest, darkest desires. Oedipus Rex will give you plenty to think about too – big questions about fate, free will, and identity.
Before we get started, please keep those trigger warnings in mind – it’s going to get dark, and a bit gory. But if you’re feeling up to it, let’s begin. By the way, if you want to start with a very short summary, you can skip ahead to the last section.
King Oedipus must find a murderer and banish him
There’s a terrible plague in the city of Thebes. The streets are filling up with bodies. The king of Thebes, Oedipus, is determined to end the suffering. He’s sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to visit the oracle at Delphi to ask the gods for guidance.
When Creon returns, he tells Oedipus what he’s learned from the oracle. To end the plague, and save the city, they must find the man who killed King Laius years ago and banish him. Oedipus vows to track down this man, whoever he is. Perhaps the blind prophet Tiresias can help him find the killer.
Oedipus summons Tiresias to the palace. The prophet is initially reluctant to speak, but Oedipus insists. He has to know: Who killed Laius?
At last, Tiresias gives his answer. “It’s you,” says Tiresias. “You’re the murderer.” Oedipus is outraged. How dare Tiresias accuse him? After a heated argument, the prophet leaves the palace.
Oedipus is the hero of the tragedy. And because it’s a tragedy, we know from the beginning that he’s going to suffer a downfall. In fact, audiences in ancient Greece would have known even more. When Sophocles’s play was first performed, the story of Oedipus was already a well-known myth. The audience probably knew a lot more about Oedipus than he knew himself.
So, throughout the play, there’s dramatic irony. It can feel uncomfortable at times, watching the hero move toward his doom without realizing it. Especially as, in many ways, he seems like an admirable character. Sophocles portrays Oedipus as a man of action, and a strong, compassionate leader. He’s moved by the suffering of his people, and he urgently wants to identify Laius’s murderer.
At times, Oedipus even seems like a detective, interrogating other characters in his quest for the truth. But his interrogation of the prophet Tiresias leads to an unexpected response – that Oedipus himself is the murderer. In the angry confrontation that follows, Oedipus mocks Tiresias for his blindness, which, as we’ll see later, is deeply ironic. Actually, it’s Oedipus who’s blind to the truth. He just doesn’t realize it yet.
Before we move on, let’s look at another important theme – oracles and prophecies. Oracles were priests or priestesses who were considered portals to the gods. In ancient Greece, it was standard practice to consult them for advice. In Oedipus Rex, the recommendation to find and banish the murderer comes from an oracle, and Oedipus takes it seriously. Of course, he’ll do whatever the oracle suggests. But when another spokesperson for the gods – the prophet Tiresias – shares his knowledge, Oedipus doesn’t want to listen.
So, to sum up, Oedipus is inconsistent in his attitude toward divine messages. He wants to follow the oracle’s advice, but he doesn’t want to believe the prophet who tells him that he’s a murderer. It’s understandable. Of course, no one wants to be told they’re a killer, and the cause of a plague. And humans often are inconsistent in their beliefs or prone to biases. On a psychological level, Oedipus’s behavior is believable. This is one of the strengths of Sophocles’s play. Even if parts of the plot seem implausible, we believe in Oedipus and his reactions. Perhaps we can even identify with him.
Oedipus starts to suspect that he may be the murderer
Still furious, Oedipus focuses his anger on his brother-in-law Creon. As Oedipus and Creon argue, Jocasta arrives to break up the fight. She’s Oedipus’s wife and Creon’s sister. And she was also married to King Laius – the murder victim.
Jocasta reassures Oedipus that he can’t be the murderer. Years ago, there was a prophecy that Laius would be murdered by his son. But in fact, says Jocasta, Laius was killed by strangers. And the son she had with Laius was abandoned in the countryside as a newborn. So, Laius can’t have been killed by his son. And equally, Oedipus can’t have been the murderer. The prophecies were wrong.
But after hearing this story, Oedipus becomes concerned. He recalls that years ago, a drunken stranger told him that he wasn’t his father’s son.
Disturbed, Oedipus went to Delphi to consult the oracle. He wanted to know the truth about his parents. But what he heard from the oracle was even more disturbing. Apparently, Oedipus would one day kill his father and have children with his own mother.
Desperate to avoid this fate, Oedipus fled his home city. On his journey, he passed through the place where, according to Jocasta, Laius was killed. And what a strange coincidence – in this very place, Oedipus got into a fight, and killed a stranger. Oedipus is starting to wonder, Could these events be connected? Is he the one who murdered Laius?
In this part, we learn about two other prophecies. They’re important, so let’s look at them again.
One prophecy said that King Laius would be killed by his son. To prevent this from happening, he and his wife, Jocasta, abandoned their newborn son, leaving him to die in the countryside. Then there was the prophecy about Oedipus – that he’d kill his father and have an incestuous relationship with his mother. Of course, this was another fate that had to be avoided at all costs. So Oedipus left home and cut contact with his family.
And now, as Oedipus searches for the man who murdered Laius, the pieces are starting to come together. At the very least, it seems that Tiresias may have been right – that the murderer Oedipus seeks is none other than himself. If that’s true, Oedipus’s life is ruined.
Some people in this position might be tempted to stop asking questions. Perhaps it’s better not to know the truth. As they say, ignorance is bliss. But for Oedipus, ignorance isn’t an option. First, he’s the king – he has a duty to solve the crime and help the people of Thebes.
And second, he just has to know. It’s personal, after all. There’s a possibility that he’s the murderer … that he murdered his father … and that his parents aren’t who he thought they were.
What would you do, in his position? Stop asking questions? Decide that you’d rather not know? Most of us would probably prefer to know the truth than live with doubt or uncertainty. It’s human nature.
So it makes sense that Oedipus keeps pushing. He keeps asking questions, determined to find out the truth even if it destroys him. Earlier, we mentioned the dramatic irony in Oedipus Rex. By this point, we’re even more aware of it.
We’ve already understood what Oedipus is on the verge of grasping – that he must have been the one to kill Laius. And if that’s the case, what about the other prophecy? Is that true as well? It’s almost painful to watch, as Oedipus is now on the verge of learning the terrible truth.
But at the same time, there’s something compelling about it. We empathize with him, we pity him, yet we also want to witness the moment his world collapses. That’s the funny thing about great works of fiction. We want to see what happens next, even when – or especially when – we know it’s going to be awful.
So, let’s get back to the tragedy. It’s about to get, well, tragic.
Oedipus discovers the truth, which is even worse than he feared
A messenger arrives at the palace with news for Oedipus. His father, Polybus, has died. In the circumstances, this is good news. Polybus died a natural death. So Oedipus didn’t kill his father – the prophecy was wrong. But then, the messenger reveals something else. Polybus wasn’t Oedipus’s biological father.
After dropping this bombshell, the messenger goes on to tell the story. He knows what happened because he was there at the time. Years ago, the messenger was herding sheep when he stumbled across a newborn baby. That baby was none other than Oedipus. The messenger brought the baby to King Polybus, who raised Oedipus as his own son.
Then, the messenger shares another important piece of information. He didn’t actually find the baby himself. Another shepherd gave him the baby – a man who called himself a servant of King Laius.
Realizing what this story implies, Jocasta is distraught. She begs Oedipus to stop asking questions. But, determined to know the whole truth, Oedipus tracks down the old shepherd. And with great reluctance, the man shares his side of the story. He explains that Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta. Terrified of the prophecy – that Laius would be killed by his son – Jocasta decided not to keep her newborn baby. She asked the shepherd to take the child and kill him. But the shepherd took pity on the newborn and handed him over to another man.
After hearing this story, Oedipus breaks down. At last, he understands the terrible truth.
Oedipus killed his father, Laius – not knowing that he was his father.
And he married and had children with his mother, Jocasta – not knowing that she was his mother.
As incredible as it seems, the prophecies were right. And the cruel irony is that the predictions came true even though the people involved were aware of the prophecies and trying to prevent those things from happening. Laius and Jocasta tried to get rid of their son. Oedipus tried to stay away from his parents – or rather, the people he thought were his parents. But while attempting to flee their fates, Laius, Jocasta, and Oedipus found themselves entangled once again.
With such bad luck, it seems that the characters in Oedipus Rex are helpless victims of fate. Tragedy was inevitable, and there was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it.
This is one possible interpretation – that there’s no point in trying to escape your destiny. But it’s also a little more complicated than that. Because while fate certainly exists in the world of Greek tragedy, so does free will. Oedipus isn’t powerless. He thinks, acts, and makes decisions. In his quest for knowledge, he’s extremely proactive, interrogating others and summoning witnesses.
His choices still have value and affect how we see him. Remember, Oedipus is a tragic figure, but he’s also a hero. And you can’t be a hero without free will. So here’s another way of looking at it – we’re not just defined by our fates, but by our reactions. Which begs the question – what is Oedipus going to do next?
Having lost everything, Oedipus begs for banishment
A messenger reveals the horrors that have just taken place inside the palace. Utterly distraught, Jocasta kills herself. Oedipus finds her body hanging from a noose and lifts her down. Then he takes the pins from her brooches and stabs himself in the eyes. Oedipus, now blind and in agony, comes out of the palace and explains why he chose to injure himself in such a terrible way.
He’s overwhelmed by grief and devastated by shame and guilt. Knowing what he’s done, he wants to be blind. How can he look his children in the face? Or his parents, when he meets them again in the afterlife.
Creon arrives, and Oedipus begs to be banished from the city. But Creon says that’s for the gods to decide.
After asking Creon to oversee the burial of Jocasta, Oedipus makes another request. He wants to hold his daughters one last time – the daughters who are also his half-sisters. Oedipus embraces the two young girls, mourning their misfortune and predicting a bleak future. At last, guards arrive and take the children away, despite Oedipus begging them not to. As Creon coldly reminds him, Oedipus is no longer in a position to give orders.
King no more, Oedipus waits for exile.
Even if you know the story and know what’s coming, the blinding still comes as a shock. It’s an extraordinary scene, so it’s worth examining in some more detail.
As we mentioned earlier, Sophocles based the play on an existing myth. But in other versions of the story, Oedipus doesn’t blind himself. So it seems that Sophocles may have added this detail, or at least emphasized it. If that’s the case, why?
Dramatic effect is one reason. Sophocles must have known that the violent scene would have an impact on audiences. Once you’ve seen a performance of Oedipus Rex, and seen an actor with a bloody bandage over his eyes, screaming in agony, well, you don’t forget it. Then there’s the theme of blindness throughout the play. There are lots of references to sight and blindness, many made by Oedipus himself – which in hindsight is ironic. Also, remember the blind prophet Tiresias? Earlier, Oedipus insulted Tiresias for his blindness, not knowing that metaphorically, he was the one who was blind – blind to the truth. So in a way, it’s fitting that Oedipus becomes physically blind after the revelations. There’s a dramatic logic to it.
And here’s something else to consider. As strange as it sounds, maybe we’re supposed not only to pity Oedipus but also admire him for what he does. Previously, we looked at the themes of fate and free will. In the world of Oedipus Rex, fate exists. The prophecies come true. But free will exists too, and what’s interesting is how Oedipus reacts to the revelations – how he chooses to act in the lowest moment of his life. He doesn’t kill himself. And he doesn’t become passive or submissive, as you might expect. Instead, despite it all, Oedipus remains a man of action. In the final scenes of the play, he does several important things in keeping with his status as both king and hero. He blinds himself – a violent act, but arguably a courageous one too. He also gives orders about Jocasta’s burial and the future care of his children. And he repeatedly asks to be banished. It’s what he wants, but in the circumstances, it’s also the right thing to do – the right punishment for the crime.
So, it’s true that Oedipus is both a tragic character and a victim of fate. But equally, he’s a hero with free will. We pity him, but we can also admire him for his resilience and his ability to carry on. He’s an active character until the end.
Naturally, Oedipus Rex is focused on the hero. But Sophocles’s masterpiece can also make us reflect on our own lives. We don’t have control over our destinies, but we do have control over our actions and reactions. And it often seems that we live in a world with both fate and free will. That’s the strange, sometimes tragic thing about being human.
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is a tragedy set in ancient Greece. When the city of Thebes is struck by a plague, King Oedipus asks an oracle for advice. Oedipus is told that to end the plague, he must find the man who murdered King Laius years ago and banish the murderer. While investigating, Oedipus discovers the connection between two prophecies. One prophecy said that Laius would be killed by his son. Another predicted that Oedipus would kill his father, and have an incestuous relationship with his mother. It turns out that both these prophecies have come true. Oedipus learns that he unwittingly killed his biological father, Laius. And he married and had children with his biological mother, Jocasta. Horrified by this discovery, Jocasta takes her own life, while Oedipus blinds himself. His life in ruins, the king begs for exile.
Philosophy, Society, Culture
Oedipus Rex is a classic Greek tragedy that tells the story of Oedipus, the king of Thebes, who unwittingly fulfills a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. The play begins with a plague afflicting the city of Thebes, and Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon to consult the oracle at Delphi. Creon returns with the news that the plague will end when the murderer of Laius, the former king of Thebes, is found and punished. Oedipus vows to find the culprit and curses him for causing the plague.
Oedipus questions Tiresias, the blind prophet, who tells him that he is the murderer he seeks, and that he is living in incest with his mother. Oedipus angrily rejects Tiresias’ words as lies, and accuses him of conspiring with Creon to overthrow him. Oedipus then questions Jocasta, his wife and queen, who tells him that Laius was killed by robbers at a crossroads on the way to Delphi. She also tells him that Laius had received a prophecy that he would be killed by his own son, who would then marry his wife. Jocasta says that they tried to prevent this prophecy by abandoning their infant son on a mountainside with his feet pinned together.
Oedipus is startled by this story, as he recalls that he once killed a man who resembled Laius at a crossroads on the way to Thebes. He also remembers that he was adopted by the king and queen of Corinth, and that he left them after hearing a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He asks Jocasta to send for the only surviving witness of Laius’ murder, a shepherd who was formerly a servant of Laius.
Meanwhile, a messenger arrives from Corinth with the news that Polybus, Oedipus’ adoptive father, has died of natural causes. He also reveals that Oedipus was not the biological son of Polybus and Merope, but a foundling whom the messenger had received from another shepherd, who worked for Laius. Oedipus realizes that this shepherd is the same one he has sent for, and fears that he may be the son of Laius and Jocasta.
The shepherd arrives and reluctantly confirms Oedipus’ suspicions. He says that he was ordered by Laius to kill the baby boy, but he pitied him and gave him to the messenger instead. Oedipus is devastated by the truth and runs into the palace, where he finds Jocasta dead, having hanged herself in shame. He then takes her brooches and gouges out his own eyes, blinding himself. He begs Creon to banish him from Thebes and to take care of his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Creon agrees and leads Oedipus away, as the chorus laments his tragic fate.
Oedipus Rex is a masterpiece of dramatic art that explores themes such as fate, free will, guilt, identity, and human suffering. Sophocles skillfully uses dramatic irony, foreshadowing, symbolism, and imagery to create a powerful and emotional effect on the audience. The play also raises ethical questions about the role of divine justice, human responsibility, and moral choice in a world governed by fate.
The character of Oedipus is complex and tragic. He is portrayed as a noble and heroic ruler who cares for his people and seeks the truth at all costs. He is also intelligent and courageous, as shown by his solving of the riddle of the Sphinx and his willingness to face his destiny. However, he is also flawed by his pride, anger, rashness, and blindness to his own faults. He refuses to listen to those who warn him or advise him, such as Tiresias, Jocasta, or the chorus. He accuses others of treason or conspiracy without evidence or reason. He fails to recognize his own identity or acknowledge his own actions until it is too late.
The play also shows how Oedipus’ fate affects those around him, such as Jocasta, Creon, Tiresias, and his children. They are all victims of circumstances beyond their control or knowledge. They suffer from Oedipus’ mistakes or misfortunes in different ways. Jocasta commits suicide out of horror and shame. Creon inherits a troubled kingdom and a heavy burden. Tiresias suffers from being ignored or insulted by Oedipus. Antigone and Ismene are left orphaned and stigmatized by their father’s crimes.
Oedipus Rex is a timeless and universal tragedy that appeals to the human emotions and intellect. It challenges the audience to reflect on the nature of human existence and the role of fate and choice in shaping one’s destiny. It also warns of the dangers of hubris, ignorance, and self-deception, and the consequences of violating the natural or moral order. It is a play that has inspired and influenced many writers and thinkers throughout history, and that continues to resonate with modern audiences today.