Oedipus the King
Oedipus the King starts in the legend where Oedipus, king of Thebes, is trying get rid of the plague in his city. Oedipus sends Creon to the oracles at Delphi to get the answer to the city’s problems. Creon is away for a long time, and he returns withTeiresias, the blind prophet. They repeat the oracles’ statement: the plague will end only when Laios’ murderer is discovered. Sophocles tells the events in order and finally unmask Oedipus as the murderer. That Oedipus acted like he didnt know anything about this was irrelevant; he feels he must be punished for his terrible crime, and so in his despair he blinds himself. His wife and mother Iocaste hangs herself. Creon ascends the throne of Thebes, and Oedipus goes into exile.
A priest of Thebes slowly advances toward Oedipus. He is hesitant and cautious before this famous person. You realize that Oedipus isn’t looked up to just because he’s the king; he’s genuinely admired and respected. The priest speaks urgently, informing the king that the city of Thebes, once prosperous, is now in ruin. A mysterious, unnatural plague has settled on the countryside, causing unborn children to die, and the cattle to get sick. Perhaps today you’d look to science for a solution to such a calamity. In Sophocles’ time, however, there would have been no doubt in anyone’s mind that there are religious causes for this misery.
It appears that these people have come to seek comfort and advice from Oedipus, the “wisest in the ways of God.” Oedipus, after all, solved the riddle of the Sphinx. Surely, they feel, Oedipus can now find a remedy for the plague. Only Oedipus can restore Thebes to its former glory.
Oedipus is genuinely touched by the spectacle of his suffering “children.” He promises to investigate the unknown cause of the deadly plague. In fact, like any effective leader, he’s already taken action. He explains that he’s sent Creon, brother of his wife, Queen Iocaste, to the sacred city of Delphi to ask the oracles for a pledge that might yet save the city from destruction. Oedipus is worried, however, that Creon has been gone too long. Just then, Creon rushes in with a troubled expression on his face.
This revelation is a huge shock among the Theban citizens. But Oedipus, immediately presses for more specific information. He demands that Creon name the man responsible for the crime but Creon can only repeat the story of the crime as it was told to him by the oracles: Laios, who was king of Thebes before Oedipus, went on a religious pilgrimage. On the road he was brutally attacked by a band of highwaymen. The former king and his servants, save one who escaped to spread word of the crime, were killed or left to die. Directly following Laios’ murder, new problems arose in Thebes, and there was never a chance to hunt down the killers and avenge the murder.
Oedipus is outraged by this tale, and he resolves to avenge the murder of Laios personally. He has several motives for this: 1. personal safety: the murderer could reappear at any moment to kill him as well; 2. public duty: as king he must avenge the city and the city’s god; 3. moral concern: for everyone’s sake it will be good to be rid of evil.
The Prologue concludes, however, with a note of joyous celebration. The suppliants and priests gather up their ceremonial olive boughs and fig branches. They rejoice, certain that Oedipus will expose the murderer and save the city from inevitable ruin. Oedipus himself exits proudly, reminding his followers that he will do all he can to unmask the murderer:
The Prologue is traditionally followed in Greek tragedy by the Parados, where the Chorus enters. As the “ideal spectator” of these events, this group of actors represents the community and speaks directly to the audience.
First the Chorus restates poetically that Thebes is dying because of the unexplained plague; that the gods must swiftly- but mercifully- intervene to save the city. The Chorus then prays to the gods, asking them to relieve the city from despair. The first antistrophe concludes with a direct plea for Athene and Artemis, goddesses of mercy, to save the city again.
The second strophe and antistrophe again offer prayers and praise to the gods if they will intercede to save Thebes and end the people’s afflictions. This second and concluding strophe and antistrophe, however, ask the gods to be tender and compassionate. Already, a seed is planted in your mind- perhaps Thebes will have to pay a high price for relief.
The Chorus works itself up to a frenzied climax in the third strophe, forcefully recalling that the plague resulted from the shameful actions of a “besieger,” the murderer of Laios. The Chorus calls for a violent revenger:
The final antistrophe rises to a note of religious ecstasy. The Chorus declares that when the plague ends, the faithful must be prepared to greet the moment with celebration. As the Chorus turns to exit, it leaves the audience a final warning. The gods will:
Oedipus enters from the palace and delivers a speech . He recalls how he came as a stranger to Thebes. He promises personally to provide relief from all the evils that have beset the land. In the middle of his long speech Oedipus’ anger rises, and he promises a curse on the murderer of Laios. He further decrees that anyone hiding the murderer will be driven from the land and denied all religious rites of prayer and sacrifice- thus damned eternally. Oedipus concludes by pledging that the murderer will be “consumed in evil and wretchedness.”
The Chorus interrupts Oedipus to suggest that a clairvoyant be sent forth to investigate the mystery. Oedipus- always one step ahead- tells the Chorus that he has already sent Creon to seek out the prophet Teiresias. He’s worried, however, because Creon hasn’t returned yet. Although Oedipus believes in oracles or prophets, he decided to summon Teiresias only because Creon suggested it. Oedipus’ later suspicion of a conspiracy between Creon and Teiresias is the result of their late arrival in Thebes.
Teiresias finally arrives alone. The Chorus, signifying the public respect for this man, hails him with cheers as he is led to the stage by a young child. Your first impression of him, therefore, is a mix of power and helplessness. The blind prophet retreats as Oedipus moves toward him. At first Teiresias is stubborn and refuses to answer any of Oedipus’ questions. Oedipus is puzzled by this personal insult to him as king, and in turn reacts with disrespect to Teiresias. When Teiresias does speak, it is in riddles and jingles. He tells Oedipus that “there is no help in truth,” and that only misery can result from his knowledge.
Oedipus’ tone is bold and you can imagine the loss of respect that Oedipus suffers in the eyes of the audience. But Oedipus is so angry and frustrated that he can think only that Teiresias and Creon have planned to humiliate him here in front of his people. He even accuses Teiresias of being behind the murder:
Teiresias responds by saying that Oedipus himself is the “pollution” of Thebes. Taken aback, Oedipus doesn’t understand what Teiresias has said. But Teiresias repeats it and adds, even more specifically, that Oedipus is the murderer he seeks. When Oedipus demands that Teiresias takes back what he has said, the holy prophet refuses. But Oedipus cannot accept the truth. His anger turns to the absent Creon, and he accuses Creon and Teiresias of plotting to seize power by discrediting him.
Speaking as the ideal spectator, the Chorus interrupts and reminds Oedipus and Teiresias that they have both spoken in anger. The Chorus also tells that the only important matter is to decide how the gods’ will can best be served.
The argument continues, however, and Teiresias reminds Oedipus that although he is a king, he is not a god. The prophet is only speaking for the gods, and he reprimands Oedipus for his “blindness” in this matter.
Before his exit Teiresias reminds Oedipus that he once solved the riddle of the Sphinx. The holy prophet offers Oedipus another riddle to solve. The mysterious riddle describes the murderer of Laios. He is a “blind man, who has his eyes now.” Teiresias says that when this murderer is discovered he will tap the earth with his staff (like a blind man’s white cane), and he will be to his children
This prediction seems like an ominous, convoluted echo of Oedipus’ birth prophecy.
The first scene ends abruptly with the exit of Teiresias. Oedipus is left alone on stage to think about the riddles Teiresias gave him to solve.
Choral songs (stasima) were an important part of traditional Greek tragedy. They were used as interludes or transitions between scenes. The Chorus may have chanted, recited, or spoken the choral songs in a rhythmic pattern as it moved around the stage in a semicircular pattern.
The first choral song has two strophes and two antistrophes. The Chorus is uncertain, and hesitates to support either Oedipus or Teiresias in the argument that concluded the previous scene. The Chorus is consoled, however, by recalling that the murderer is even now being pursued by Oedipus, and predicts that the Furies will also track down the desolate villain responsible for Laios’ death. There’s no way the murderer will escape punishment.
In a second strophe and antistrophe the Chorus continues to express confusion. After weighing the evidence, however, the Chorus declares its faith in Oedipus. The main reason for trusting him rather than Teiresias is personal past experience: Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx. The Chorus concludes that Oedipus, the city’s savior, can’t be doubted until he is proved wrong. Distinct memories resurface:
The final choral ode is important to the development of the story because the Chorus supports Oedipus’ side of the argument with Teiresias. Later, when Oedipus is discovered to be the murderer of Laios, the Chorus admits its error in supporting him. Like any citizen committee responsible for evaluating evidence and making a decision, the Chorus can make a mistake. But it can also recognize that mistake and reverse its opinion. Watch now as the tide of opinion turns gradually away from Oedipus and toward the truth of Teiresias’ prophecy.
Creon now enters to address the Chorus and the audience. He had been absent when Oedipus accused him and Teiresias of conspiring to seize power; this is his opportunity to speak when Oedipus is not present. Creon begins protesting his innocence and denying that he is part of any conspiracy. Tension builds as Creon personally attacks the reputation and moral character of Oedipus. This would be a lot like the “character assassination” tactics that followed the downfall of Richard Nixon. Creon speaks in anger but also out of fear. Why? He is innocent of conspiracy but perhaps doesn’t trust Oedipus to behave fairly. This is the first time you’ve felt Oedipus’ ability as a leader questioned. Already his power is starting to disintegrate.
Creon’s outrage reaches its climax when he asks the Chorus if Oedipus has lost his mind, almost replaying the previous scene:
The Chorus is surprised by Creon’s outburst. It admits that there’s no way of knowing whether Oedipus was seriously accusing Creon or just spouting off in anger. But the Chorus reminds Creon that Oedipus is king and that it is impossible to judge the behavior of great men. This is an important point to consider. The Chorus may be saying that Oedipus has a right to say and do whatever he chooses because he is the king, an absolute authority. Or the Chorus may be saying that for the good of the state no one should question the actions of a ruler.
The mood of the scene is quickly shattered when Oedipus enters from the palace. Oedipus obviously has had time to think about the conspiracy he suspected in the first scene; further thought has confirmed his suspicions, however. His first words to Creon are an accusation. He calls Creon a murderer and demands that he confess to having killed Laios.
Creon is stunned by this. He doesn’t understand why he should now also be a suspect in the murder. Oedipus’ principal argument is that if Teiresias knew the brutal facts of Laios’ death, he should have spoken out earlier. Why did he wait until now to accuse Oedipus? Oedipus asks. Was he bribed to do so by Creon? Oedipus’ logic may be off-base here, but Creon is taken off guard just now, and he tries to meet the accusations.
The only answer Creon can think of to defend Teiresias is that Teiresias is a man who holds his tongue when he has no facts to go on. For himself, however, Creon can think of several reasons why this accusation is false. Turning toward the audience for support, he lists four reasons why he wouldn’t be Oedipus’ rival for power.
Creon presents his defense by saying: 1. he never wanted a king’s power, only his individual rights; 2. he would refuse the office of king because he never wanted to be a slave to policy; 3. he has no need of personal “honors,” only his honorable reputation; and 4. he hates anarchy and could not support any man who did.
Turning back to Oedipus, Creon encourages the king to visit the priestess at Delphi to hear for himself that Creon quoted her accurately. After that, Creon says, if Oedipus still thinks there is a conspiracy, he can sentence Creon to immediate death. This is a brave offer to make, but Creon has worked up his sense of innocence- and perhaps his anger- to a bold pitch.
The Chorus interrupts, encouraging Oedipus to consider the wisdom of Creon’s words. For the first time the Chorus suggests that Oedipus is not acting like a wise and honored ruler. But Oedipus ignores the Chorus’ advice. Instead he demands that Creon be put to death as a “symbol” of what treason means. As his anger mounts Oedipus says that Creon is “evil incarnate,” and should pay for his treason with his life. Surprisingly, Creon remains calm throughout this outburst. He doesn’t interrupt again to protest his innocence. His only reaction is to say to the audience that Oedipus is a “fool.” His self-control throws Oedipus’ irrational reaction into a bad light.
Mercifully, the heated argument is broken off when the Chorus announces that the queen, Iocaste, is approaching; perhaps she’ll be able to make peace between her husband and her brother. This pause in the action of the story gives you a moment to look at what is happening. Oedipus has lost control; he scarcely seems capable of reason or logic. Creon emerges as a sympathetic character who is being abused and misjudged, Iocaste’s arrival, however, presents you with some hope that the argument will be resolved without bloodshed.
Why is Oedipus behaving so rashly? In a matter of a few hours he has dramatically changed from a compassionate ruler, interested in solving the mystery of the plague, to a ranting hothead, intent on destroying Creon. Imagine yourself in Oedipus’ position. Teiresias’ troubling prophecy is still fresh in his mind. Perhaps Oedipus is now beginning to suspect that he himself played a role in the murder of Laios- and it bothers him.
Iocaste has been drawn to the scene by the men’s loud voices, which she overheard in her bedroom. Imagine Iocaste’s entering here like a worried mother who has heard her children fighting over some trivial matter. She tries to persuade Oedipus and Creon to be calm and behave themselves. But Oedipus refuses to listen to her and again demands the death of Creon.
One unique feature of Iocaste’s scene with Oedipus and Creon is the insertion of two strophes to separate the lines of dialogue. Remember that strophes were used before in the Parados, chiefly to suggest the indecision of the Chorus. Here, however, they are used to plead with Oedipus. The Chorus begs Oedipus to open his mind to Iocaste’s views and to respect Creon’s protests of innocence. When Oedipus refuses to change his position, the Chorus attacks his vanity and laments his once-noble character. It also reminds him that there’s trouble enough in Thebes without the king causing more.
Urged on all sides, Oedipus finally agrees to spare Creon’s life, but insists that he leave Thebes at once. He remains angry toward his brother-in-law, though, vowing to hate him as long as he lives. Creon, on the other hand, shows no bitterness toward Oedipus. He keeps his poise and noble stature, in contrast to Oedipus’ ugly rage.
When Creon is banished from Thebes, it appears to Oedipus that the problem has been solved. Oedipus seems convinced that Creon was responsible for the plague, and that Creon and Teiresias really were plotting to seize his throne. You could expect Oedipus and Iocaste to return to the palace at this point. But if they did that the play would be over. Sophocles introduces more conflict by having Iocaste ask the Chorus what Oedipus and Creon had been arguing about.
Iocaste’s question is ironic because it causes her to learn information that will throw her life into a tail-spin. Iocaste refuses to accept the Chorus’ account of a conspiracy between Creon and Teiresias. She innocently asks Oedipus to tell her what Teiresias said that provoked such anger and confusion. Before Oedipus can relate the story, the Chorus interrupts and pleads with Iocaste to let well enough alone. Tension rises as Iocaste, despite the warning, presses on. Iocaste’s innocent question prompts Oedipus to reveal the prophecy made by Teiresias. If Iocaste had not been so inquisitive, Oedipus would never have mentioned Teiresias’ visit. Of course, Iocaste is only trying to find out what Oedipus and Creon were quarreling about. She has never seen or heard them argue before, and is disturbed that her husband and brother have parted as enemies.
Ignoring the pleas of the Chorus to remain silent, Oedipus tells Iocaste that Creon must have hired that “damnable soothsayer” to make false accusations against him. Surprisingly, Iocaste is delighted to hear this news. She tells Oedipus to set his mind at rest. She can offer proof that soothsayers shouldn’t always be taken seriously.
When Iocaste finishes her story there is a moment of stunned silence. Oedipus suddenly demands to know where and when Laios was killed. He is strangely frightened by Iocaste’s response that Laios was killed a short time before Oedipus came to Thebes, at Phokis, where the road divides the towns of Delphi and Daulia. Imagine the anguished look on Oedipus’ face as he tries to understand the story he just heard. A shadowy memory crosses his mind; he senses that something is wrong. He suddenly cries out:
Does he already understand the connection, or is he just unsettled by vague fears? Either way, from this point on Oedipus is obsessed with the specific details of Laios’ death. He demands to know what Laios looked like, and what his features were like. When Iocaste tells him that Laios was similar in height and weight to himself, Oedipus trembles with fear. Something is stirring his memory. Perhaps he is recalling the “curse” he had pronounced on the murderer of Laios in the previous scene. He admits as much, and more, when he says that he himself “may be accurst / By my own ignorant edict,” and that he is “not sure that the blind man can not see.” Perhaps Teiresias really was speaking truth.
. The servant had escaped and returned to Thebes several months after the murder of Laios. But when he saw Oedipus on the throne, for some reason the servant begged Iocaste to send him away from the palace. She did so without question, and the servant left for the wild frontier to live out his life as a shepherd.
Again, Iocaste’s innocent information triggers an urgent response from Oedipus. He insists that the shepherd be brought to Thebes immediately. Iocaste hesitates. Perhaps she’s simply upset by Oedipus’ reaction; perhaps she, too, is beginning to sense that these stories all fit together in some disastrous way. You might even wonder whether Iocaste knows more than she’s telling, to protect herself or Oedipus. The mystery has mushroomed, becoming a complicated tangle of details to unravel. And the characters’ tense, anxious reactions only impress on you how much they have at stake here.
Now it’s Oedipus’ turn to tell a long story. At last you learn about his life before solving the riddle of the Sphinx and becoming king of Thebes. Oedipus says he was born in neighboring Corinth. His father was Polybos and his mother was Merope, wealthy citizens of Corinth. He recalls that one night at a feast, a drunken friend of the family blurted out that Oedipus was not his father’s son. Although he was still a young child, Oedipus was troubled by the accusation, as probably any child would be; he spent hours thinking about what the man had said. As he grew older, lingering doubts remained about his parentage. Finally, when the suspicions and doubts built up into an obsession, Oedipus left his parents and went to Delphi to consult the oracles about his birth.
When he heard this prophecy, Oedipus fled Delphi and vowed never to return to Corinth to tempt the oracles’ prediction. Oedipus tells Iocaste that as he was wandering along the road to Thebes he met a hostile band of travelers at the crossroad near Cithaeron. One of the men- who resembled Iocaste’s description of Laios- struck Oedipus on the head as they passed. Infuriated, Oedipus picked up a club and struck the old man with such force that he died. Although the old man was paid back, Oedipus was so furious at the insult he also attacked the other men in the band- killing them all, he thought, with savage blows of the club. When his anger ceased, Oedipus continued his journey to Thebes. It was there that he met the Sphinx, solved the riddle, and was named king. His marriage to Iocaste soon followed, and he saw it as a reward from the gods for his courage and wisdom.
At the conclusion of his story Oedipus recoils in horror at what he himself has said, and admits to Iocaste
At this point Oedipus finally acknowledges that he must be the murderer of Laios. He is, therefore, the cause of the plague (notice he uses the same word “defilement” that the oracles used in telling Creon what caused the plague). The original problem is solved, then; but before you can even think about whether Oedipus should exile himself, you are urged on by a host of other unsettled questions growing out of the original mystery. What is this prophecy about Oedipus? Whose son is he? What happened to Iocaste’s baby, and why did the shepherd beg to leave Thebes when he saw Oedipus? Sophocles uses this moment to slow the action of the play so the audience can consider these questions. Just as Oedipus pauses to pray to the gods to exile him from Thebes, the Chorus moves toward the audience to speak.
The Chorus begs Oedipus not to flee Thebes, reasoning that he should hear the shepherd tell his story of the murder of Laios before assuming any guilt. Apparently the Chorus is still somewhat on Oedipus’ side. Perhaps his mood has changed, from anger to personal concern, and the Chorus’ sympathy shifts back toward him, forgetting his rash banishment of Creon.
Taking heart from the Chorus’ speech, Oedipus suggests a possible “happy ending” for himself. He reasons that if the former servant, now living as a shepherd, can prove that Laios was killed by a gang and not by a single man, then Oedipus still could be innocent. He’s immediately persuaded by his own argument, and is anxious that the shepherd be sent for at once. This moment may revive your hope to avert tragedy, but its an ironic hope. This shepherd’s news will reveal more than Oedipus bargains for.
Iocaste is uneasy, unwilling to pin everything on the shepherd’s story. Somehow her reluctance sharpens your fear that his answers will not be comforting. She tells Oedipus that the shepherd is now an old man and can’t possibly remember the details of the murder. Furthermore, the shepherd has already told everyone that Laios was killed by a gang, so he isn’t going to change his story and now say Laios was killed by a single man. Further, she protests loudly, the shepherd couldn’t show that Laios’ death fulfilled the oracles’ prophecy, because
Iocaste’s anxiety may show her weakness and confusion, or it may show her love for Oedipus, rising to a desperate pitch.
Oedipus rejects Iocaste’s views, saying that even though she may be right, the shepherd is the only man alive who can shed any light on the circumstances of Laios’ death. Iocaste reluctantly agrees, and a servant is sent to bring the shepherd to Thebes. Oedipus and Iocaste retreat to the palace to wait. The Chorus moves toward the audience to sing the next choral ode.
The scene began with a confident and arrogant Oedipus having complete faith in his innocence and righteousness. Now Oedipus suspects that he may have been guilty of the murder of Laios. He is less sure of himself; his pride and self-confidence are shaken. But he’s still hunting down the truth, while Iocaste watches fearfully. Imagine their moods as they disappear into the palace. You turn to the Chorus, to mull over what has just happened.
The second choral ode explores some of the moral questions raised by Iocaste in the preceding scene. The Chorus debates the nature of the prophecy and the role that oracles play in interpreting the will of the gods. As the Chorus chants, its tone is solemn, expectant, and quietly reverent. There are frequent images that suggest “holy law,” “sacred wood,” and “holy things.”
In the first strophe the Chorus pleads with the gods to provide some moral direction. It prays for strength to help maintain the “laws of the pure universe.” It is puzzled by the “ways of right,” and needs guidance in unraveling the mysterious oracles and prophecies.
After the Chorus addresses the gods, it turns its attention to Oedipus. First it criticizes him as a tyrant. Then it punishes him for his pride. Finally it speaks of his recklessness. The Chorus is displeased with the actions of the king, and yet it prays that the gods will protect him, because he is the “wrestler for the State.” You see that Oedipus may have human faults, but his failures will have greater impact because he is the king.
A second strophe continues the moral argument, stressing that the “holy laws” of the gods must be preserved above all. The Chorus openly condemns haughtiness and the “high hand” of all those who abuse the power they wield. The Chorus predicts- ominously- that anyone who questions the gods will be “caught up in a net of pain.” (Remember Oedipus’ lament about “the net” the gods were weaving for him?)
The Chorus then solemnly turns to address the audience, saying that some will lose faith in the oracles and prophecy, but the faithful will stand steadfast in their religious beliefs. Finally the Chorus predicts that those who deny the oracles and prophecy are ignorant of the ultimate truth of the gods.
The second choral ode raises several important issues. First, the Chorus tells the audience that if the holy oracles and prophecy are proved wrong, then the gods themselves may be suspect (this would be an earth-shaking concept for the Greeks). Second, the Chorus tells the audience that anyone who questions the holy oracles and prophecy should be doubted as well. Third, the Chorus tells the audience that men are blind to the truth of oracles and prophecy because they no longer have faith in the gods.
Oedipus the King