Ever since Aristotle almost universally regarded as the greatest of all Ancient Greek tragedies, Oedipus Rex—or Oedipus Tyrannus, or Oedipus the King—was probably produced in 429 BC, shortly after a plague that had devastated Athens the year before. The play opens many years after Oedipus saves Thebes and becomes its king by way of solving the riddle of the Sphinx, and at a time of great misfortune. Angered with the city for sheltering the murderer of its previous king, Laius, the gods have stricken Thebes with a fertility plague. And only by discovering and banishing this man, Thebes can save itself from total destruction. Ever just, Oedipus curses the murderer of Laius and announces his intention before his trusting subjects to do whatever it takes to find and punish him. Soon after, the blind prophet Teiresias tells him that he should look no further than himself: the perpetrator is none other but him. Oedipus doesn’t believe him and blames Teiresias and Creon for conspiring against him. Oedipus’ wife, Jocasta, intervenes and tries to resolve the dispute by persuading Oedipus to not put that much faith in oracles, because, if they had been accurate all the time, her former husband Laius should have died at the hands of his son, and, yet, he was murdered by robbers at the meeting of three roads. Ironically, this reminds Oedipus of a similar event in his life and leads him to suspect that he might have indeed killed Laius in self-defense. Hoping to be proven wrong, he sends for a herdsman, the only survivor of that encounter. In the meantime, a messenger from Corinth arrives and announces the death of Polybus, Oedipus’ “father,” whose house the Theban king had left long ago to avoid the fulfillment of a prophecy according to which he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Relieved that the first part of this prophecy hasn’t realized, Oedipus bares his fear that there is still some chance for the completion of the latter one, his “mother” Merope being alive. In an attempt to allay his worries, the messenger reveals to him that Polybus and Merope were never his rea; parents: it was he himself who had received Oedipus as an infant from a Theban herdsman. Bizarrely, this mysterious Theban herdsman proves to be the very same man summoned in relation to the murder of Laius. He confirms what both Oedipus and Jocasta have already understood: Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta, all of them mere toys in the hands of Fate. Tormented by guilt and shame, Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus gouges his eyes in despair and desolation.
It is not known when Oedipus Rex was first performed, but the prominent theme of the infestation early in the play seems to suggest a date shortly after the plague that had devastated Athens in 430, at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. Most classical scholars argue for 429 as the most probable date, with some others suggesting a year between 427 and 424.
Even though its date of production is uncertain, we know for sure that the trilogy containing Oedipus Rex—now often regarded as one of the greatest plays in history—took the second prize at the City Dionysia the year it was originally performed; the first prize was won by Philocles, Aeschylus’ nephew.
• Oedipus, King of Thebes, and the supposed son of Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth
• Jocasta, Queen of Thebes, widow of Laius, the former King, and now wife to Oedipus
• Creon, Jocasta’s brother
• Teiresias, the most famous Theban prophet
• Priest of Zeus
• Messenger from Corinth
• Theban herdsman
• Messenger from the Palace
• Chorus of the Elders of Thebes
Before the royal palace at Thebes.
Many years after Oedipus has become the King of Thebes by saving the city from a vicious monster called the Sphinx, a plague of infertility has stricken “the fruitful blossoms of the land, the herds among the pastures, the barren pangs of women.” In the name of a group of suppliants, a Priest of Zeus approaches the city’s favorite son with a plea: “Oedipus, king glorious in our eyes, we, your suppliants, beseech you to find some defense for us, whether you hear it from some divine omen, or learn of it from some mortal.”
An exemplary ruler, Oedipus announces that he is on it and that he has already sent his relative Creon to Delphi (“to learn what we might do or say to protect this city”); he expects his return anytime now. Indeed, soon after, Creon arrives with some curious tidings: the curse on Thebes is divine retribution for the city harboring the murderer of the previous ruler, King Laius. The only way for Thebes to lift the curse and drive out the plague is to discover and get rid of this sinner.
The Chorus of Theban Elders enters and, after bewailing the effects of the plague, calls upon a host of Olympian gods to protect and aid Thebes in these times of trouble.
In answer to the Chorus’ prayer, Oedipus announces the commencement of the city-wide manhunt and invokes a curse upon the unidentified murderer of Laius: “I pray solemnly that the slayer, whoever he is, whether he alone is guilty or he has partners, may, in the horrible way he deserves, wear out his unblessed life. And for myself I pray that if he should, with my knowledge, become a resident of my house, I may suffer the same things which I have just called down on others.”
At Creon’s suggestion, Oedipus sends for the famous seer Teiresias. Though blind, he should be able to see more than anyone else, Creon says, and an investigator might learn most clearly from him about all relevant affairs.
However, to the dismay of Oedipus, Teiresias refuses to say anything. Angered, Oedipus accuses him of being an accomplice (at the least!) and Teiresias responds by uttering something most unexpected: “You, my king, are the accursed defiler of this land.”
The words send Oedipus into a fit of rage, and it is not long before he starts accusing Creon—"Creon the trustworthy, Creon, his old friend”—of yearning to overthrow him, and of conspiring with Teiresias against his reign. Stoically renouncing the charges, the prophet is adamant in his conviction:
“The man whom you have been seeking this long while, uttering threats and proclaiming a search into the murder of Laius, is here, ostensibly an alien sojourner, but soon to be found a native of Thebes… He will be discovered to be at once brother and father of the children with whom he consorts; son and husband of the woman who bore him; heir to his father's bed, shedder of his father's blood.”
The Theban Elders refuse to believe this charge. In the first stasimon of the play, they reiterate Oedipus’ excellence and explicitly state that until they see the word made good, they “will never assent when men blame Oedipus.”
Disconsolate at the fact that he’s suspected by none other than his dear friend and relative of planning a coup against him, Creon attempts to prove his innocence to Oedipus—but it is to no avail. Their dispute threatens to go from bad to worse, but, fortunately, it is interrupted by Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife and Creon’s sister.
Creon departs, and, on being repeatedly enquired about it, Oedipus reveals to his wife the reason behind the argument (him being charged with the murder of Laius) and his suspicions over Creon’s role in the ploy (bribing Teiresias to make the charge). Jocasta replies that he should just ignore the words of Teiresias. After all, she explains, Laius was supposed to be slain by his own son according to an oracle, and yet, he was murdered by robbers, “at a place where the three highways meet.”
The very mention of this place makes Oedipus uneasy: “What restlessness of soul,” he exclaims, “what tumult has come upon me since I heard you speak!” He explains nothing of the source but instead questions Jocasta as to the precise location of the event, the time when it happened and the number of people Laius traveled with. All confirm his initial suspicions: he might have, indeed, unwittingly killed Laius.
He tells Jocasta the full story: how he had found out, early in his life, that he was fated to defile his mother's bed and kill his father sometime in the future; how he ran away from his home in Corinth to escape such a fate; how, while running away, he happened upon a herald and a man in a carriage drawn by colts at the meeting of three roads in Phocis; and, finally, how an insult evolved into a scuffle and resulted in him murdering all but one of these strangers.
This survivor (now a herdsman) seems to be Oedipus’ only hope at the moment: he spoke of robbers in the plural, and Oedipus was both alone and not a robber—so maybe it is no more than a mere coincidence. To find out, he sends for the herdsman to be summoned and questioned.
In the second stasimon, the Chorus prays against arrogance and impiety, covertly suggesting that neither Oedipus was right in treating Creon the way he did, nor Jocasta is for mistrusting oracles. Unfortunately, in a world deprived of gods, ungodly things can happen.
A messenger from Corinth arrives in Thebes and announces that Polybus, Oedipus’ father, has died, making Oedipus king designate. Oedipus is barely saddened by the news. Instead, he and his wife both rejoice in the knowledge that oracles can be indeed wrong: “Polybus has swept them with him to his rest in Hades,” says the relieved Oedipus. “They are worth nothing.”
Even so, Oedipus still has some fears over the other horror predicted to him, i.e., an immoral union with his mother. On learning this, the messenger informs Oedipus that he should fear this outcome even less: Polybus and Merope were never his real parents. And he knows this for a fact, because he, then just a herdsman working for Polybus, was the very person who had received the infant Oedipus from a herdsman in the service of Laius.
“For the gods' sake,” cries Jocasta, “if you have any care for your own life, do not continue this search… Oh ill-fated man, may you never know who you are!” Oedipus begs to differ: I must bring my birth to light, he says, even if it means that I am of lowly origin. He is still unsuspecting of the dreadful truth; Jocasta, on the other hand, can sense it all too well.
The Theban Elders side with Oedipus yet again. Judging by his qualities, they predict in the third stasimon, it would soon come to light that Oedipus is not a mere mortal, but a demigod, the proud son of Pan, Hermes, Apollo, or Dionysus.
The Theban herdsman—the survivor from the encounter at the three roads—is finally brought in. The messenger from Corinth recognizes him at once: he is also the person from whom he had received the child many years ago. “Whose child was it?” asks him Oedipus in anger, even though by now it is obvious even to him that he’s asking about himself. “It was a child of the house of Laius,” answers the herdsman, given to him by none other than his mother,—Jocasta.
The pieces of the puzzle have now been slotted together. “Oh, oh!” shrieks the despairing Oedipus. “All brought to pass, all true. Light, may I now look on you for the last time—I who have been found to be accursed in birth, accursed in wedlock, accursed in the shedding of blood.”
As the king rushes away into the palace, the Chorus, in the fourth and final stasimon, laments his cruel destiny and the nature of his fall. “Whose story is more grievous than yours in men's ears?” they sing. “Who is a more wretched slave to fierce plagues and troubles, with all his life reversed? Alas, renowned Oedipus!”
A messenger exits from the palace and proclaims that Jocasta has hanged herself and that Oedipus has put out his eyes with her golden brooches, cursing them for seeing everything but his own identity. Soon after, Oedipus is brought forth. A shadow of his former self, he implores the Theban Elders to either kill him or send him away from Thebes.
Creon tries to shelter Oedipus from the shame and orders his guards to lead him back into the palace, where he undoubtedly belongs. “For the love of the gods,” replies Oedipus, “Lead me anywhere but there! Cast me out of this land with all speed, to a place where no mortal shall be found to greet me.” Creon agrees to do that if Apollo allows, and, moreover, agrees to take care of Oedipus’ young daughters, Antigone and Ismene. They are brought to their father, and he says goodbye to both of them in a moving farewell speech.
In his Poetics, Aristotle refers to Oedipus Rex repeatedly as the best example of different aspects of the genre of tragedy. Many concur, calling it “the masterpiece of Attic tragedy” (Jebb) or “the greatest extant Greek play” (Whitman). The reasons are numerous—the exploration of the fate vs. free will subject, the imagery of light vs. dark, the intricate ways in which this imagery embeds the theme of knowledge—but the one that has attracted the most attention is perhaps the play’s masterful use of dramatic irony.
Oedipus is blind to what the audience knows all along: as much as he tried, he never managed to escape his prophesized fate. On the contrary, in fact, he has contributed to the fulfillment of the very oracles he attempted to break away from. And he has done this in the noblest way possible: by trying to find Laius’ murderer and saving his city from trouble yet again. He never even suspects that searching for the murderer of Laius, in his case, is synonymous with searching for himself—in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the phrase. This is what makes him one of the most tragic heroes of all time: he brings upon his own demise not because of an inherent fault of his character, but because of a virtue of his.
The moral of the play reminds one of the central message of the famous “Solon and Croesus” story by Herodotus: no matter how happy and honorable one is at any point of his life, refrain from making any judgments until he dies and his life story is wrapped up. There is nobody as happy and as adored as Oedipus at the beginning of the play; by the end of it, nobody would trade places with him for the world.
There are many translations of Oedipus Rex available online, both in verse and in prose; if you are a fan of the latter, you can read Richard Claverhouse Jebb’s translation for Cambridge University Press here. If, however, you prefer poetry, feel free to delve into Francis Storr’s blank verse adaptation here.
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