Oedipus Rex

By Sophocles

Brief Summary: The Myth

The great-grandson of Cadmus, founder of Thebes, was Laius, whose wife Jocasta bore him a child later to be named Oedipus. According to the oracle their child was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Laius and Jocasta, knowing the misfortune, were hoping to escape from the god's will and decided to kill the baby so that they might evade the terrible fate. They would not commit the sin of infanticide themselves, but they would assign the deed to a shepherd, who should abandon the child in the mountains. They even thought of piercing the baby's feet so that it could not even crawl to safety. As the story goes, the shepherd persuaded another shepherd to take the baby to the Corinthian court, away from Thebes, where the childless king would gladly rear the baby as his own son. He gave him the name Oedipus, which means "Swollen-foot" in commemoration of his painful wound.

When Oedipus grew to manhood, still believing that the king and queen of Corinth were his real parents, he heard about the prophecy. Like his parents he tried to escape the oracle and left his supposed parents never to set an eye on them again. While wandering he killed a supposed stranger on the road, which will later on turn out to have been his own father, King Laius. His travels brought him to Thebes. The city at that point was roused in fear and confusion at the news that an unknown traveller had murdered their king. Furthermore, the Thebans were threatened by the Sphinx, a terrible monster, who would destroy every man, who failed to answer her cunning question. After Laius' death Creon had taken over the king's authority and with the agreement of the city he made an announcement that as reward the person, who would solve the Sphinx' riddle, should become king of Thebes and take Jocasta (the former Queen) as his wife. The riddle's question was: "What is it that walks on four legs in the morning, on two at noon and on three on the evening?" Oedipus alone was able to give the right answer, which was "man" who as an infant crawls on all fours, and in old age walks leaning on a stick. Oedipus was thus received in the royal house not only as the welcome saviour but also as the new king. Not knowing that the oracle was running its course he married Jocasta, the widow queen and sons and daughters were born to them.

Some fifteen years went by in seeming prosperity. The gods' oracle had been fulfilled. For, Oedipus had in fact killed his father and married his mother. But parricide and the incestuous relationship to his mother affront the superior and universal laws. For such an offence pestilence and famine tortured the people of Thebes and they prayed to the gods and cried to their king for help and deliverance. At this point the play begins.