Oedipus Rex

By Sophocles


Lines 1- 150

The scene opens in front of the king's palace with numerous citizens sitting in attitudes of supplication. After addressing the people in the accustomed manner Oedipus asks the priest what all the lamentation in the city is about. The priest in return illustrates the extent of the suffering and beseeches Oedipus in the name of the whole city to bring deliverance from the deadly pestilence. Oedipus immediately assures his help and shows himself a good ruler in that he had already taken forethought what ought to be done. For he has sent Creon, a kinsman of his, to the Delphic oracle to seek advice from the god what actions he should take to save the city.

Creon enters and delivers the apparently good news. He explains that the god had commanded that revenge must be taken on the murderer of King Laius, Oedipus' predecessor, and that the murderer must be driven away. Creon and Oedipus then recollect the story of Laius' death - his travel abroad on a pilgrimage from which he was never to return. Only one fellow traveller could flee from the scene of horror and reported that a bunch of robbers had killed the king and all the men, who were accompanying him. On hearing this Oedipus was full of ambition and courage that he would shed light on the matter uncovering the murderer and punishing that very man as the god Apollo had demanded.

Lines 151-215: parodos

The chorus, consisting of Theban elders, begins the parodos by singing of their anxiety and apprehension. They call on Apollo, Athena and Artemis for help and deliverance from the pestilence. In the second strophic pair they sing of the horrors of the plague illustrating them with rather visual details and impressions. The last lyric pair is a powerful cry to Zeus, Apollo, Artemis and Dionysus, that they might turn away Ares, whom they suspect to be responsible for all the suffering.

Lines 216-462: first episode

Outside the palace Oedipus asks the citizens if any of them know who the murderer was, whether stranger or friend, or that he, whose conscience was guilty should admit the crime. If someone were to conceal his knowledge, that man would not only be forbidden to seek help from any man in Oedipus' kingdom, but he would also be excluded from all kinds of religious festivities such as prayers, sacrifices or touching holy water. In order to reinforce his solemnity he does not even exclude himself from the severe punishment ("if, with my knowledge, house or hearth of mine receive the guilty man, upon my head lie all the curses I have laid on others" line 249-251). After paying great respect to the dead king in promising that he would fight as if for his own father, Oedipus waits for Teiresias, the blind prophet. Teiresias is a wise man, who has prophetic powers and thus everyone hopes that he would be able to help finding out what had happened at the day of the King Laius' death.

Teiresias indeed knows the secret but is unwilling to reveal it. Only when Oedipus is urging him heavily to speak and even suspects Teiresias to have had a share in the plotting of the king's murder, the truth comes to light. Teiresias uncovers Oedipus for being the murderer. Oedipus can not believe a word he hears and in the heat of anger overconfidently hurls insults and threats at the prophet and for a short time even considers the possibility that his kinsman Creon might have been plotting against him together with Teiresias. Teiresias confronts Oedipus with a superior calmness. He foretells Oedipus' downfall once the truth will become plain to everyone - that Oedipus has in fact killed his father and married his mother.

461-511: second Choral ode (first stasimon)

The first strophic pair deals with the unknown man who committed the sin and where the hunted criminal might be. In the second pair they show some doubts and insecurity as to what they should believe. But even though there is some reluctance in their words they prove themselves still loyal to Oedipus.

513- 696: second episode and first kommos

Creon enters, furious that Oedipus suspected him of having corrupted Teiresias. Oedipus and Creon engage in a heated argument where Oedipus accuses Creon of being a traitor, who sought to become king. Creon on the other hand opposes him with a long speech declaring that he had never wished to become king because he has always preferred to live a kingly life but untroubled of all the responsibility and difficulties of a real king's life. Oedipus in his stubborn foolishness does not give in and is only calmed down by his wife Jocasta and the persistent entreats of the chorus. Creon is banished (not killed) and by this behaviour Oedipus has exposed an unreasonable and impulsive side of his nature.

697-862 third episode

In the following scene Jocasta relates to Oedipus how an oracle had prophesied the death of king Laius many years ago. She recalls the story that on hearing the oracle the new-born child had been cast out into the mountains to meet an unavoidable death. Convinced that the child must have died there, she then recalls the circumstances of king Laius' death: that he had been killed not, as the oracle had foretold, by his son, but by some alien robbers at a place where three roads meet. At this point Oedipus is struck by a creeping suspicion in remembering a disturbingly similar episode where he killed a stranger on the road. He reveals to Jocasta how he grew up in Corinth thinking he was the son of Polybus and then, on finding out about the fatal oracle, fled from his supposed home to never see his parents again. He relates how he killed a stranger at a place where three roads join and realises in terrible lamentation that the stranger almost certainly must have been king Laius. The last hope, which might absolve Oedipus from guilt, is the shepherd, who escaped the deadly quarrel. For, he had reported that more than one robber had killed Laius while in fact Oedipus was on his own.

863-910: third choral ode (second stasimon)

During this choral ode the chorus sing of the divine laws, which are to be revered and venerated. They also pray for punishment of those who are guilty of such impious crime and reinforce the prayer by special reference to Apollo.

911-1085: fourth episode

Dreading the outcome of this mystery Jocasta prays to Apollo that he might save them from this curse. Meanwhile a messenger has come to announce the death of Polybus, whom everyone still believes to have been Oedipus' father. Relieved that the oracle has so far turned out to be unfulfilled (for it was not Oedipus who had killed Polybus) there still remains some doubt about the second half of the oracle - that Oedipus was fated to marry his mother. In the course of the dialogue, the messenger reveals the truth that Polybus in fact was not the father of Oedipus. He explains that he had received Oedipus as a child by a shepherd, some servant of Laius' and that he had handed him on to King Polybus, who reared him as his own son. In order to solve the riddle of his true parentage at last, Oedipus sends for the shepherd-servant of Laius by whom the messenger had received Oedipus. Jocasta seems very reluctant throughout the whole scene to find out about the truth. When she can no longer postpone realisation she dashes from the stage.

1086-1109: fourth choral ode (third stasimon)

In the ensuing ode the chorus provides a brief relief from tension between the interrogations of Oedipus first with the messenger and secondly with the shepherd. With a surprisingly optimistic tone in their words they sing of the next day that will bring to light Oedipus' real mother and father.

1110-1185: fifth episode

The shepherd enters and is faced with the messenger. Though clearly unwilling and hesitant he agrees to know the messenger but he is too scared and does not want to answer the questions about having received and handed on a certain baby. Only after insistent and emphatic threats from Oedipus he admits that it was king Laius' own son whom he had been ordered to kill but in his pity had given to the messenger. Faced with the truth that his parents had planned to kill him as a new-born child and realising that the oracle has turned out to be true, Oedipus breaks out in terrible lamentation.

1186-1222: fifth choral ode (fourth stasimon)

The pessimistic overtone of shock and human misery stands in strong contrast with the general mood of the preceding ode. With Oedipus' fate as their chief example they mourn over the unhappiness of mortals. In order to reinforce the terrible downfall of Oedipus, they recall with great sympathy the honour, with which they had formerly esteemed him as their king.

1223-1296: sixth episode

The attendant enters and speaks to the chorus of the terrible sight he has seen. In a gruesomely reported speech he describes that Jocasta had locked herself into her private chamber and hanged herself. When Oedipus had opened the doors by force and saw his wife (and mother) hanging strangled from a noose he broke into terrible lamentations. He goes on to narrate how Oedipus took a brooch from Jocasta's dress and blinded himself with it by piercing his eyeballs many times.

1297-1530: second kommos and final scene (exodus)

The chorus and Oedipus talk about his act of blinding himself. While the chorus say that being dead is better than to live blind, Oedipus is convinced that he took the better of the two choices. For being blind, he does not have to face his father or mother beyond the grave with seeing eyes and at the same time he cannot see his children or city with his own eyes while he is alive. He reviews some of the crucial moments in his life, which culminate step by step in the fulfilment of the oracle. Creon enters and proves himself a true friend and an upright character. For he is not mindful of the unjust accusations that Oedipus had previously thrown at him. He shows pity and listens to Oedipus' reminiscent groans. Creon insists that Oedipus enters the house and does not yet go to the mountains, where he was exposed as a child and where he will go into exile later on in his life. Meanwhile Oedipus' two daughters, Ismene and Antigone, have been lead in on Creon's order and Oedipus laments about their hopeless and cheerless future. Oedipus and the children are finally led off the stage by Creon and the chorus ends the play with a moral advice: that no man shall ever enjoy his present happiness too much until he has carried it to his grave.