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Do you believe in prophecies? Would you live your life guided by a prediction and carefully make each decision to prevent bad fortune? The famous tragedy by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex (429BC), also known as Oedipus the King or Oedipus Tyrannus, explores these questions and more. First performed around 429 BC, Oedipus Rex follows the story of King Oedipus of Thebes as he attempts to discover the root of the plague in Thebes. The famous Greek tragedy, written by Sophocles at the peak of his career, recounts the tale of a cursed man. It's an impressive and classic expression of a tragic Greek drama.
The historical background and context of Oedipus Rex are necessary to review before we get to the summary. The structure of Oedipus Rex is rooted in Aristotle's view of tragedy. For Aristotle, the dramatic form of tragedy is designed to evoke a powerful emotional response through catharsis, the purging of emotions, and serve a political, moral, or ethical purpose. Each portion of the tragedy and all the incidents must be carefully constructed to achieve the tragic effect.
Tragedy originated in Athens in the 6th century BCE. The city Dionysia was a major Athenian festival held to celebrate the Greek god Dionysus, god of wine and theater. Tragedy was first featured during this celebration as an improvised choral ode called a dithyramb. As Aristotle put in Poetics (335), it evolved "by slow degrees" and developed new elements that were appropriate and necessary.
Tragedy focuses on the misfortune or death of a major character. Writers of tragedy developed both cosmic and religious implications of the adversity and suffering of the heroic subjects in the plays. Because tragedies focused on and offered philosophical, religious, and even civic benefits, Greeks often attended the performances to fulfill a religious obligation. The tragedy began as a dramatic form performed by choruses, not actors. Because of this, the chorus remained an integral part of the Greek tragedy and was regarded as one of the actors — as will be examined later in the article.
Oedipus Rex exemplifies the three unities: a principle Aristotle held as essential to the classic form of tragedy. Sophocles created unity of place by having the entire action unfold in front of the royal palace of Thebes. Because only the actions leading up to Oedipus's recognition of the root of the city's misfortune are shown, Sophocles achieves unity of action. Sophocles achieves unity of time because the action on the stage is in real-time and is shorter than a 24-hour day. Aristotle believed anything less than 24 hours to be the proper amount of time for a complete tragic action to unfold.
The central story of Oedipus was one the Athenians would have been familiar with, much like many of us are familiar with superhero tales, comic book adventures, and Christian theology. Before Oedipus assumed the throne of Thebes, he famously solved the riddle of the Sphinx. The Sphinx was a creature with the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the tail of a serpent, and the wings of an eagle.
According to legend, the goddess Hera sent the Sphinx to plague and punish the city of Thebes for an ancient crime the former King of Thebes was guilty of. Oedipus was able to answer the riddle correctly, defeating the Sphinx and winning the throne of Thebes, along with the hand of the queen, Jocasta. King Oedipus has been successfully ruling Thebes for about 15 to 16 years at the beginning of Oedipus Rex.
The riddle of the Sphinx was: "What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?" The answer, provided by Oedipus, is humankind. At the dawn of life, infants crawl on all fours, adults walk on two legs, and in their twilight years, humans use a walking stick to support the body in old age.
Oedipus Rex was one of many plays that followed the formal organization of Greek tragedy. During the Dionysian festivals, playwrights would compete with one another over who could pen and then have a performance of the most successful pieces. They would submit a series of three tragedies (known as trilogies) and a fun, tongue-in-cheek piece called a satyr. The three best submissions would be granted a chorus and were allowed to have their dramas performed during City Dionysia. Winners would earn bragging rights and a crown of ivy as a symbol of their victory. The formal organization of the Greek tragedy typically followed this specific order:
This is the first part of the tragedy and contains the drama's exposition. Sometimes the information was shared via a single actor, speaking as a mortal or a god. In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles uses three actors for the prologue: Oedipus, the Priest, and Creon. They present information as though they are addressing one another and also the Theban populace.
The parados is the official entrance of the chorus. The chorus was a vital part of the tragedies, often summarizing the action on the stage, reviewing themes, foretelling future events, or describing motives. Their voices needed to reach the spectators in the farthest seats, so they often sang and chanted their lines. The chorus also performed rhythmic dance movements consisting of turns and counter-turns. They remained on stage for the remainder of the drama. In order to focus the attention on the actors, the chorus would kneel down or sit at attention. When necessary, they would respond as a group to enhance the action of the tragedy. In Oedipus Rex, the parados is a petition to the gods to release Thebes from suffering.
The major action of the tragedy was divided into four units. Each unit comprised an episode, the major part of each section, and featured actors presenting action and speech. A second smaller section was called the stasimon, typically performed by the play's chorus. The chorus would sing, chant, and dance in unison, as in the parados. The topics addressed focus on the play's developing action. As time progressed, the chorus became less and less central to the drama. In Oedipus Rex, the four episodes and stasima constitute the bulk of the drama.
The first episode consists of Oedipus's interaction with Tiresias, his accusation of the prophet, and Tiresias's declaration that the murderer is already present. Episode two is the rising action of the drama, where Jocasta explains how Laius was murdered. Episode three is the news the messenger from Corinth brings regarding King Polybus's death. In episode four, the shepherd arrives and recounts what he did with the infant child Laius gave him years ago. This marks Oedipus's realization.
The last part of the tragedy, the exodus, literally means "a way out." This last portion was after the four episodes and stasimon sections were finished. It consisted of the resolution, also known as the denouement, the actor's exits, the last messages and dance movements from the chorus, and the chorus's exit. For Oedipus, it is the unraveling of events marked by Oedipus's realization and Jocasta's suicide.
The setting of Oedipus Rex is the city of Thebes. At the onset of the play, Thebes has been prosperous but has now befallen ill circumstances. The province is in turmoil. The Priest speaks for the people and recounts the state of Thebes:
A blight is on our harvest in the ear,
A blight upon the grazing flocks and herds,
A blight on wives in travail; and withal
Armed with his blazing torch the God of Plague
Hath swooped upon our city"
(Priest, lines 25-29)
Thebes is suffering from harvests that won't grow. Flocks of animals are not reproducing. Women are not bearing children. A plague has swooped in, and people are dying of illness. The setting of the play, however, is an example of unity of place. Taking place during daylight, the action all takes place on the palace steps of Thebes in less than 24 hours.
These characters are central to the plot in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.
|Oedipus||Oedipus is King of Thebes. He solved the riddle of the Sphinx about 15 years ago to win the throne and Queen Jocasta's hand in marriage. He arrived at Thebes after fleeing Corinth in an attempt to avoid fulfilling a horrible prophecy.|
|Creon||Creon is Jocasta's brother, King Oedipus's brother-in-law. At the end of the tragedy, he assumes the throne as the children are too young.|
|Antigone and Ismene||Oedipus's young daughters who enter in tears to visit with their shamed father.|
|Tiresias||The blind prophet who tells Oedipus he is Laius's murderer.|
|Jocasta||Jocasta is Queen of Thebes, widow of the previous King Laius, wife and mother to Oedipus.|
|Messenger||Shares the news that the King of Corinth, Polybus, had died of old age and that Oedipus is not the blood son of Polybus.|
|Priest of Zeus||The leader of the Thebans, speaks on their behalf and pleads to Oedipus for help.|
|Chorus||The chorus represents the male elders of Thebes. The chorus gives signals to the audience, guiding their reactions to the tragic events.|
|Laius||Oedipus's predecessor, Jocasta's first husband, and Oedipus's birth father who tried to have the infant Oedipus murdered to avoid the prophecy.|
|Shepherd||He gave the infant Oedipus to a messenger from Corinth, rather than murder the baby.|
|Second Messenger||He shares the news that Jocasta is dead, having hanged herself.|
|Polybus||The King of Corinth who raised Oedipus as his own. He has died of old age.|
|Merope||The Queen of Corinth who raised Oedipus as her own.|
As you read the summary of Oedipus Rex, you may notice it is similar to a modern-day murder mystery but with a spin. The audience is almost immediately aware of the actual murderer and must watch as he discovers the truth himself, which ultimately creates dramatic irony. Like many dramas and Greek tragedies, the narrative of Oedipus Rex begins in media res or in the middle of the action. After rescuing Thebes, still reeling from the loss of their King Laius and the terrors of the Sphinx, King Oedipus has been successfully ruling for about 15 years with a thriving populace.
Suddenly, ill fortune has befallen Thebes. The people of Thebes are suffering, crops are not growing, farm animals are not reproducing, and the women seem barren. The people, guided by a Priest, have come to the palace steps to plead with King Oedipus and ask for his help. Oedipus promises to discover the reason behind the plague that is consuming Thebes, just as he helped rid Thebes of the Sphinx years ago.
Dramatic irony is a situation in a play or narrative where the audience is aware of knowledge or information that isn't clear to the acting character. Because the audience is privy to this knowledge, they witness the character act in ways that are inappropriate and make decisions that are ill-informed. The outcomes are often the opposite of what the character expects.
King Laius, King Oedipus's predecessor (and true birth father), was given a prophecy by an oracle that foretold his son, born to him of Jocasta, would kill him and wed his mother. Fearing this prophecy and in an effort to avoid it, King Laius fastened the infant's ankles together and instructed a servant to kill the infant by leaving him on a mountain to die from exposure.
Did you know? Oedipus was originally written in ancient Greek. The name Oedipus means "swollen foot" and is a reference to the injury the infant Oedipus suffered when his feet were bound by King Laius and sent off to be killed.
Oedipus sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle for advice. Creon, returning from his journey, informs Oedipus that the oracle instructed them to find the murderer of King Laius, the previous king of Thebes. Once he is discovered and punished for the murder, the plague will end. Oedipus vows to do that. He then summons the blind prophet, Tiresias, who is reluctant to answer Oedipus's questions. Tiresias tells Oedipus that he, Oedipus, is Laius's murderer. Oedipus goads and insults Tiresias and accuses him of conspiring with Creon to steal the throne. Tiresias then delivers an ominous remark regarding incest, prophesying blindness, and warning of wandering.
Oedipus then seeks counsel from his wife, Jocasta. She advises him to disregard the prophecy, as Laius once received a prophecy that foretold he would be murdered by his son. However, she shared that the prophecy was not fulfilled because King Laius was murdered by a group of robbers.
This news troubles Oedipus, who recalls that he had killed a man at a crossroads before arriving at Thebes. Oedipus sends for a shepherd, the only man alive who witnessed the murder. Oedipus also recalls a prophecy he received as a young man that indicated he would kill his own father and marry his mother. Having resided in Corinth for his entire life and being raised by King Polybus and Queen Merope, he fled from there in order to avoid fulfilling that destiny. That is how he ended up in Thebes. Jocasta reasserts that he should not heed prophecies.
A messenger arrives from Corinth with news that King Polybus has died of old age. Jocasta is happy because it proves the prophecy wrong. However, the messenger explains that King Polybus and Queen Merope are not his parents. The messenger further explains that he gave the infant Oedipus to the King and Queen of Corinth after having received him from a shepherd, who claimed he was an abandoned child from the house of Laius.
Suddenly worried, Jocasta urges Oedipus to stop his search and runs off in grief and hysteria. Oedipus resolves to send for the shepherd to discover the truth.
The shepherd arrives, and like Tiresias, is initially reluctant to speak. After Oedipus threatens death, the shepherd reveals the truth. Oedipus is King Laius's and Queen Jocasta's son. In a dramatic reversal of fortune, Oedipus realizes at once that the prophecy he aimed to avoid has been fulfilled. He was the "band of thieves" that killed King Laius at the crossroads, and he is married to his mother. He is in anguish.
A messenger reports that Jocasta has hung herself, realizing the truth before Oedipus. In a fit of psychological and emotional anguish, Oedipus runs into the palace, grabs pins from her dress, and gouges his eyes out. Oedipus begs Creon for death. Creon insists that Oedipus wait for the gods to share his future and his punishment. Creon then grants that Oedipus's daughters visit him to bring him some joy. They enter weeping. Once the girls are led away, Oedipus asks for exile, and again Creon urges him to wait. Oedipus, now fallen to the lowest, submits to Creon and awaits word of his fate.
Here are two central themes explored in Oedipus Rex: Fate vs. free will and that human vision and knowledge are limited.
The tragic dilemma, or a situation where the tragic hero is forced to make a difficult choice, is the core of this theme. Oedipus must help Thebes as their king and fulfill his promise to discover King Laius's murderer—or face disaster. However, while following this course of action, he also sets the course for his own disaster. Through his own free will, he left Corinth to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother, but he unintentionally fulfilled the prophecy and met his fate.
The consequences of any choice, whether to let fate take its course, or take action to avoid it by asserting free will, still end in an inescapable dilemma. No matter how noble his actions, fleeing Corinth to prevent a horrible prophecy or saving Thebes from a monster plaguing them, Oedipus was predestined to patricide (the killing of one's father) and incest. Upon his realization, Oedipus makes the following notable remark:
Sights from which I, now wretchedst of all,
Once ranked the foremost Theban in all Thebes,
By my own sentence am cut off, condemned
By my own proclamation 'gainst the wretch,
The miscreant by heaven itself declared
Unclean—and of the race of Laius.
Thus branded as a felon by myself,
How had I dared to look you in the face?"
(Oedipus, lines 1390-1396)
In Oedipus Rex, the tragic irony is that despite his best efforts, Oedipus is the hunter and hunted. Seeing the horrible and unbearable truth of his fate, he blinds himself. Oedipus's defining character trait, which is also his tragic flaw (hamartia), is his hubris (arrogant pride) in thinking he has the power to control all things. Even Creon warns Oedipus in the Exodus of Oedipus Rex, "Crave not mastery in all, / For the mastery that raised thee was thy bane and wrought / thy fall" (Creon, line 1534).
Tragic irony is the audience's awareness that the character's actions will be fatal or detrimental, but the character is not aware.
Sophocles's use of dramatic irony puts the audience in the position of divinity. The viewers and readers witness the action as it unfolds, but they also know the ultimate conclusion. The audience knows more than the actors in the tragedy, and they know more than the tragic hero himself.
In an impulse of defense and rage, Oedipus kills his own father—not knowing his identity—and learns that he can not control his own destiny, no matter his intentions. Humans, like Oedipus, do not know what the future holds and cannot predict adversity they may face in life, such as an illness or accident. Oedipus knew the future, tried to avoid it, and was blind to the reality so plainly in front of him. His literal blindness at the end of the drama is emblematic of his new insight or knowledge. Through his loss of sight, status, and power, Oedipus gained wisdom, showing the ultimate tragedy in life: Loss brings enlightenment.
Here are a few notable quotes from Oedipus Rex.
And now that I am lord,
Successor to his throne, his bed, his wife,
(And had he not been frustrate in the hope
Of issue, common children of one womb
Had forced a closer bond twixt him and me,
But Fate swooped down upon him), therefore I
His blood-avenger will maintain his cause
As though he were my sire, and leave no stone
(Oedipus, lines 263-270)
Oedipus vows to avenge his predecessor's murderer, not knowing he is sealing his own fate. His words directly acknowledge the connection between himself and Laius. However, the audience is armed with more knowledge than Oedipus, sees a deeper meaning in his words, and understands the irony. Oedipus is Laius's blood relative and will avenge Laius's death. The final statement, "as though he were my sire," holds the ultimate irony, because Laius is his biological father. As proud as Oedipus is, he fails to see a simple truth, perhaps because of his pride, and proves himself a fool who is blind to the truth.
Say, sirrah, hast thou ever proved thyself
A prophet? When the riddling
Sphinx was here
Why hadst thou no deliverance for this folk?
And yet the riddle was not to be solved
By guess-work but required the prophet's art;
Wherein thou wast found lacking; neither birds
Nor sign from heaven helped thee, but I came,
The simple Oedipus; I stopped her mouth
By mother wit, untaught of auguries.
This is the man whom thou wouldst undermine,
In hope to reign with Creon in my stead."
(Oedipus, lines 395-405)
Tiresias has plainly told Oedipus that he is the murderer he seeks. Outraged at this because of his refusal to accept the truth, Oedipus accuses Tiresias of lies, questions his motives, and argues that he conspires with Creon to take the throne. His hubris and tragic flaw are on true display, and he praises himself for solving a riddle that no one else could solve. Ironically, this is the same riddle, or the same "skill," that sealed his demise. Ironically, the blind prophet has the insight that Oedipus needs, and although he shares it with him, Oedipus's figurative blindness leads him to sling insults at Tiresias.
What are other instances in the tragedy you can identify that reveal Oedipus's tragic flaw?
Hear then: this man whom thou hast sought to arrest
With threats and warrants this long while, the wretch
Who murdered Laius—that man is here.
He passes for an alien in the land
But soon shall prove a Theban, native born.
And yet his fortune brings him little joy;
For blind of seeing, clad in beggar's weeds,
For purple robes, and leaning on his staff,
To a strange land he soon shall grope his way.
And of the children, inmates of his home,
He shall be proved the brother and the sire,
Of her who bare him son and husband both,
Co-partner, and assassin of his sire."
(Tiresias, lines 454-465)
Tiresias, insulted, angered, and resolved to provide Oedipus with the information he asked for, goes further to describe the fate that awaits Lauis's murderer. Tiresias states that the murderer is standing there with them, hidden as an alien or foreigner, but will be proven to be a Theban by blood. Blind to the truth, he will soon be a wanderer in strange lands and exiled from Thebes. Tiresias describes the incestuous relationship between Jocasta and Oedipus, saying he is both husband and son to her and asserts that Laius's murderer is both brother and father to his own children. Only Oedipus's arrogance over how he assumed the throne, and his absolute confidence in his own abilities to avoid his ill fate, make him blind to these words.
O children mine,
Where are ye? Let me clasp you with these hands,
A brother's hands, a father's; hands that made
Lack-luster sockets of his once bright eyes;
Hands of a man who blindly, recklessly,
Became your sire by her from whom he sprang.
Though I cannot behold you,
I must weep
In thinking of the evil days to come,
The slights and wrongs that men will put upon you."
(Oedipus, lines 1490-1499)
These lines surface one of the recurring themes found in Greek tragedy and much of literature: the idea of inherited guilt. Oedipus is a product of an ancestral curse passed down from Cadmus, the founder and the first king of Thebes. Cadmus killed a dragon, the son of Ares, the god of war. Ares then cursed the house of Cadmus. Oedipus, Cadmus's great-great grandson, has now stained his children with the shame of their father.
Oedipus expresses fear for the days ahead, where his children will suffer from his errors and be stigmatized because he is their father and brother. They are marked as the children of an incestuous relationship. Oedipus is aware of the insults humans will sling at these, his children and siblings, but is powerless to do anything to help them. They are doomed to carry their father's sin and guilt, and they will suffer for it. A concept echoed in the Bible, the sins of the father fall upon the children as well.
The story of Oedipus Rex is about the King of Thebes, his efforts to avoid fulfilling a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, and his discovery that the prophecy was realized.
Oedipus Rex was first performed and written about 429 BCE.
Oedipus Rex was written by Sophocles.
The prophecy in Oedipus Rex foretold Oedipus's fate to kill his father and marry his mother.
Oedipus discovers he has fulfilled the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother. Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus uses pins from her dress to gouge out his eyes.
When was Oedipus Rex first performed?
Oedipus Rex was first performed around 429BC.
Who wrote Oedipus Rex?
Oedipus Rex was written by Greek playwright Sophocles.
What does Oedipus mean?
Oedipus means "swollen foot" and is a reference to the injury caused by Laius when he fastened the infant's fee together.
What is the prophecy that led Oedipus to leave Corinth?
An oracle foretold that Oedipus was doomed to kill his father and marry his mother. Thinking the king and queen of Corinth were his birth parents, he fled, and found himself in Thebes.
What is the riddle of the Sphinx that Oedipus solves?
The riddle of the Sphinx asked: What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening? The answer is "humans." In infancy, humans crawl on all fours, walk on two legs as adults, and during their old age, the twilight years, use a cane to help support their weight.
Who is Jocasta?
Jocasta is Queen of Thebes, wife to Oedipus, and his mother.
Who is Creon?
Creon is Jocasta's brother, Oedipus's brother-in-law, his uncle, and the man that assumes leadership of Thebes at the end of the tragedy.
What does Jocasta do when she realizes Oedipus's true identity?
She hangs herself.
What does Oedipus do when he learns the truth of his birth and his fate?
Oedipus gouges his eyes out with pins from Jocasta's dress.
What is hamartia?
Hamartia is a tragic flaw, the trait that leads to a character's downfall.
What is Oedipus's tragic flaw?
Oedipus's hubris, or his pride, is his tragic flaw.
Who is Tiresias?
Tiresias is the blind prophet that tells Oedipus he is the murderer he seeks. He explains that Oedipus is father and brother to his own children, son and husband to his wife, murderer of his father, and will live his days wandering.
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