Study Guides > Oedipus Rex
- Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos Study Guide Contents
- Study Questions
- Terms to Know
- Summary of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos
Originally performed at the City Dionysia, probably in the second year of the Athenian Plague -- 429 B.C., Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos (frequently Latinized as Oedipus Rex) won second prize. We don't have the play that won first to compare, but Oedipus Tyrannos is considered by many to be the best Greek tragedy.
The city of Thebes wants its rulers to fix its current problem, an outbreak of divinely-sent pestilence. Prophecies reveal the means to the end, but Oedipus the ruler, who is committed to the cause of Thebes, doesn't realize he is at the root of the problem. The tragedy shows his gradual awakening.
Structure of Oedipus Tyrannos
- Prologue (1-150)
- Parodos (151-215)
- First Episode (216-462)
- First Stasimon (463-512)
- Second Episode (513-862) Kommos (649-697)
- Second Stasimon (863-910)
- Third Episode (911-1085)
- Third Stasimon (1086-1109)
- Fourth Episode (1110-1185)
- Fourth Stasimon (1186-1222)
- Exodus (1223-1530)
The divisions of ancient plays were marked by interludes of choral odes. For this reason, the first song of the chorus is called the parodos (or eisodos because the chorus enters at this time), although the subsequent ones are called stasima, standing songs. The episodes, like acts, follow the parados and stasima. The exodus is the final, leaving-the-stage choral ode. The kommos is an interchange between chorus and actors.
(Priest, Oedipus, Creon)
The priest summarizes the dismal plight of Thebes. Creon says the oracle of Apollo says the defiler responsible for the pestilence will have to be banished or pay with blood, since the crime was one of blood -- the killing of Oedipus' predecessor, Laius. Oedipus promises to work for the revenge, which satisfies the priest.
The chorus summarizes the plight of Thebes and says it is fearful of what is to come.
Oedipus says he will support the cause of finding the killer just as if Laius had been his own father. He curses those who will hinder the investigation. The chorus suggests he call on the soothsayer Tiresias.
Tiresias enters led by a boy.
Tiresias asks what he's been summoned for and when he hears he makes enigmatic statements about his wisdom not helping.
The comments anger Oedipus. Tiresias tells Oedipus that he, Oedipus, is the defiler. Oedipus suggests that Tiresias is in cahoots with Creon, but Tiresias insists Oedipus is all to blame. Oedipus says that he didn't ask for the crown, it was given him as a result of solving the riddle of the sphinx and so ridding the city of its problems. Oedipus wonders why Tiresias didn't solve the sphinx's riddle if he's such a good soothsayer and says they're scapegoating him. He then taunts the blind seer.
Tiresias says Oedipus' taunts about his blindness will come back to haunt him. When Oedipus orders Tiresias to leave, Tiresias reminds him he didn't want to come, but only came because Oedipus insisted.
Oedipus asks Tiresias who his parents were. Tiresias replies that he'll learn soon enough. Tiresias riddles that the defiler appears to be an alien, but is a native Theban, brother and father to his own children, and will leave Thebes as a beggar.
Oedipus and Tiresias exit.
(Consisting of two strophes and the responsive antistrophes)
The chorus describes the dilemmas, a man was named who is now trying to escape his fate. While Tiresias is mortal and can have made a mistake, the gods can't have done so.
(Creon, Oedipus, Jocasta)
Creon argues with Oedipus about whether or not he is trying to steal the throne. Jocasta comes in and tells the men to stop fighting and go home. The chorus urges Oedipus not to condemn a man who has always been honorable solely on the basis of a rumor.
Jocasta wants to know what the men were arguing about. Oedipus says Creon accused him of shedding Laius' blood. Jocasta says seers aren't infallible. She relates a story: Seers told Laius that he would be killed by a son, but they pinned the baby's feet together and left him to die on a mountain, so Apollo didn't make the son kill his father.
Oedipus begins to see the light, asks for confirming details and says he thinks he has condemned himself with his curses. He asks who told Jocasta about Laius' death at the junction of three roads. She replies it was a slave who is no longer at Thebes. Oedipus asks Jocasta to summon him.
Oedipus tells his story, as he knows it: He was the son of Polybus of Corinth and Merope, or so he thought until a drunk told him he was illegitimate. He went to Delphi to learn the truth, and there heard that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother, so he left Corinth for good, coming to Thebes, where he has been since.
Oedipus wants to know one thing from the slave -- whether it was true that Laius' men were beset by a band of robbers or was it by a single man, since if it was a band, Oedipus will be in the clear.
Jocasta says that's not the only point that should clear Oedipus -- her son had been killed in infancy, but she sends for the witness, anyway.
Iocasta and Oedipus exit.
The chorus sings of pride coming before a fall. It also says that the oracles must come true or he will never believe them again.
(Jocasta, Shepherd Messenger from Corinth, Oedipus)
Recommended reading: "Undoing in Sophoclean Drama: Lusis and the Analysis of Irony," by Simon Goldhill; Transactions of the American Philological Association (2009)
She says she wants permission to go as a suppliant to a shrine because Oedipus' fear has been contagious.
A Corinthian Shepherd messenger enters.
The messenger asks for the house of Oedipus and is told by the chorus which mentions that the woman standing there is the mother of Oedipus' children. The messenger says the king of Corinth has died and Oedipus is to be made king.
Oedipus learns that his "father" died of old age without Oedipus' help. Oedipus tells Jocasta he must still fear the part of the prophecy about sharing his mother's bed.
The Corinthian messenger tries to persuade Oedipus to return home to Corinth with him, but Oedipus declines, so the messenger assures Oedipus he has nothing to fear from the oracle, since the Corinthian king was not his father by blood. The Corinthian messenger was the shepherd who had presented the infant Oedipus to King Polybus. He had received the infant Oedipus from a Theban herdsman in the woods of Mt. Cithaeron. The Corinthian messenger-shepherd claims to have been Oedipus' savior since he had taken out the pin that held the baby's ankles together.
Oedipus asks if anyone knows whether the Theban herdsman is around.
The chorus tells him Jocasta would know best, but Jocasta asks him to give it up.
When Oedipus insists, she says her last words to Oedipus (part of Oedipus' curse was that no one should talk with those who brought the pestilence on Thebes, but as we'll soon see, it's not just that curse she's responding to).
Oedipus says Jocasta may be worried that Oedipus is base born.
The chorus sings that Oedipus will acknowledge Thebes as his home.
This short stasimon is called the cheerful chorus. For interpretation, see:
- "The Third Stasimon of the Oedipus Tyrannos"
Classical Philology (1975).
(Oedipus, Corinthian Shepherd, former Theban shepherd)
Oedipus says he sees a man old enough to be the Theban herdsman.
The former Theban herdsman enters.
Oedipus asks the Corinthian herdsman if the man who has just entered is the man he referred to.
The Corinthian herdsman says he is.
Oedipus asks the newcomer if he was once in the employ of Laius.
He says he was, as a shepherd, who led his sheep on Mt. Cithaeron, but he doesn't recognize the Corinthian. The Corinthian asks the Theban if he remembers having given him a baby. He then says the baby is now King Oedipus. The Theban curses him.
Oedipus scolds the old Theban man and orders his hands tied, at which point the Theban agrees to answer the question, which is whether he had given the Corinthian herdsman a baby. When he agrees, Oedipus asks where he got the baby, to which the Theban reluctantly says the house of Laius. Further pressed, he says it was probably Laius' son, but Jocasta would know better, since it was Jocasta who gave the child to him to dispose of because the prophecies told that that child would kill its father.
Oedipus says he's been accursed and will see no more.
The chorus comments on how no man should be counted blessed because bad fortune may be just around the corner.
(2nd Messenger, Oedipus, Creon)
He says Jocasta has killed herself. Oedipus finds her hanging, takes one of her brooches and pokes out his own eyes. Now he is having trouble because he needs assistance, yet wants to leave Thebes.
The chorus wants to know why he blinded himself.
Oedipus says it was Apollo's he and his family suffer, but it was his own hand that did the blinding. He calls himself thrice cursed. He says if he could make himself deaf, too, he would.
The chorus tells Oedipus that Creon approaches. Since Oedipus had falsely accused Creon, he asks what he should say.
Creon tells Oedipus he isn't there to scold him. Creon tells the attendants to take Oedipus out of sight.
Oedipus asks Creon to do him a favor that will help Creon -- to banish him.
Creon says he could have done that, but he's not sure it's the god's will.
Oedipus asks to live on Mt. Cithaeron where he was supposed to have been cast. He asks Creon to look after his children.
Attendants bring in Oedipus' daughters Antigone and Ismene.
Oedipus tells his daughters they have the same mother. He says no one is likely to want to marry them. He asks Creon to pity them, especially since they are kin.
Although Oedipus wants to be banished, he doesn't want to leave his children.
Creon tells him not to try to continue to be master.
The chorus reiterates that no man should be counted happy until the end of his life.