Oedipus Rex Book summary
Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus the King, is one of the three plays that Sophocles wrote revolving around the character of Oedipus and his descendants. This play is set to be the first play in the timeline among the three, however, it was written and performed last. Oedipus Rex follows the King of Thebes who is trying to punish the killer of the former King, without realizing that he himself is the murderer and son of King Laius. Oedipus Rex is not truly a discovery of Oedipus's acts of patricide and incest, but rather an observation of Oedipus's discovery of these acts.
The play begins outside the palace of Oedipus, the King of Thebes, as a large group of suppliants led by a priest of Zeus come to seek their King's aid. Oedipus comes out to them, greets them with ardor, and asks them to state their request. He assures them that he will do all he can to aid them in their mission, and asks the priest to serve as the spokesman for the suppliants. The priest abides by his king's wishes and begins his speech by praising Odepius, whose coming had freed the people of Thebes from the terror of the riddling Sphinx. He asks that Oedipus maintain his reputation as their savior by relieving them of the plague that had been running rampant in the state. Oedipus assures them that he is aware of the plague, and more concerned about it than them. He informs everyone that he already dispatched his brother-in-law, Creon, to seek the aid of the Delphic Shrine in fighting the plague.
The priest sees Creon approaching from a distance just as the king mentions his mission. Creon informs Oedipus that he has received word from Apollo, and asks him whether he would like to receive the news in private. Oedipus desires that God's command be revealed in front of the suppliants. Creon reveals that Apollo had ordained that the plague would be lifted when the Theban state finds and punishes the man who had slain their former king, Laius. Oedipus had never heard of Laius's fate and questioned Creon about the circumstances surrounding the old King's death. He learns that Laius had been killed abroad as he had been journeying to the Delphic Shrine. One man had survived from the royal party and had informed them that the king had been killed by a group of knaves. Oedipus is angered when he learns that the Theban people did not organize a quest to avenge their king, but Creon explains that they had been occupied with the Sphinx. Oedipus vows to find the killer of Laius, who is claimed to be in the land of Thebes by Apollo. The suppliants depart with satisfaction as Oedipus leaves to begin preparations for the search.
Theban elders gather to pray to the Olympian gods for succor against the monstrous plague that is running unhindered through the state. Oedipus arrives just as they are concluding their prayer, and informs them of the crime that he had been unaware of until he had received word from the Delphic shrine. He reads out a proclamation asking for any citizen with knowledge about King Laius's death to come forward. Oedipus curses the murderer as he orders that the criminal will never find shelter in Thebes ever again. He offers his people a reward for any information that can be of aid in finding the killer and declares that he would avenge Laius's murder as if the old king had been his sire. The Theban elders suggest that Oedipus seek further aid from Apollo, and failing that consult the Theban Oracle, Teiresias, who they claim can see eye to eye with the god of prophecies. Oedipus assures them that his zeal for the matter to be closed has already led him to summon the oracle twice already at the insistence of Creon. However, the oracle hasn't yet responded to his summons, and the Theban elders share the rumors that they had heard about Laius's death. They too had heard that the act had been committed by a group of travelers, but no one had seen the messenger who had brought them this news. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the blind seer, Tiresias, who is led in by a young boy.
Oedipus greets the seer with reverence and praises his vocation before pleading that the seer applies his talents in shielding Thebes from the scourge of the plague. The oracle answers half-heartedly in riddles, and Oedipus is taken aback by the melancholic mood of the seer. He presses him to help them with his gift, but the Seer doesn't wish to speak about the plague. Oedipus's pleas soon turn into commands, as the Seer's stubbornness begins to anger him. He accuses the oracle of being unpatriotic, while the seer assures him that his silence in the matter is for Oedipus's good. Oedipus goes further and begins to believe that the oracle's hesitancy to lend aid is a sign of guilt. He accuses the seer of being complicit in the murder of the former king of Thebes. The Oracle and the king become involved in a heated argument as the Oracle says that Oedipus is the criminal and that he is unaware even of his lineage. They berate one another as Oedipus points out the oracle's failure in ridding Thebes of the Sphinx, which he had vanquished with his wit. Oedipus begins to believe that the Oracle is conspiring with Creon for the title of King, one which had been granted to him as a gift for the service he had rendered the Theban state. He bemoans his fate and curses the Oracle who is making use of his venerated position to make baseless accusations. Oedipus orders the oracle to return, but Teiresias parts with a final prophecy. He tells the murderer is posing as an alien but is born in Thebes. The murderer is both a brother and father to his children, just as he is both son and husband to his wife, and the slayer of his sire. The oracle departs with these final words and Oedipus storms leaving the Theban elders who had tried to intervene in the argument and stated that both parties had spoken in anger. They are confused by the prophecy of the Oracle since they cannot believe that Oedipus could have committed such heinous acts without any signs and proof.
Creon, Jocasta's brother, approaches the elders and tells them that he has heard Oedipus is making a terrible and baseless accusation against him. The elders assure him that Oedipus had not truly meant anything that he had said and that his words had been borne out of anger. Creon refuses to accept the elders' explanation, but he is halted by the still wrathful Oedipus. He immediately reinstates the accusation that Creon is conspiring with the oracle to seize his throne since it was Creon who had insisted that Oedipus seek the Oracle's aid. The man tries to explain his case, but Oedipus refuses to be budged in his belief and he begins to question Creon. The accused man tells Oedipus that the same Oracle had been alive and respectable even during the time of Laius, and he had never once told them of Oedipus's coming. Creon manages to gain an opportunity to speak for himself and draws a rational argument about why he is satisfied in his present position. He explains that he has no ambition to be called a King since his present role allows him all he desires without requiring the sacrifices that are demanded of all kings. He goes further to state that if he chooses not to believe him then they could journey to the Delphic shrine to confirm his nature. Creon promises that he would himself condemn himself to death if it was revealed that he had been dishonest and had ever coveted Oedipus's throne. The king claims that he can't tarry in this manner when his kingdom is in jeopardy and expresses his desire to inflict capital punishment on Creon. The hapless man is overcome with emotion as he rails that Oedipus will one day learn that Creon had truly been innocent, and had never once been disloyal. Their argument is interrupted by the arrival of the Queen, Jocasta, who criticizes her King and brother for arguing in front of others. She asks them to put aside their quarrel, but Creon explains that Oedipus intends to either kill or exile him. Oedipus reveals that he believes Creon has committed treachery, but Jocasta pleads on her brother's behalf and assures him of his loyal nature. She and the group of Theban elders come together to convince Oedipus against punishing Creon, and he relents. Oedipus dismisses a sulky Creon who is still unwilling to accept any part of the accusation that Oedipus had laid against him. Oedipus leaves as well, and Jocasta begins to question the Elders, but she gains no insight as they suggest that the matter be put to rest.
Jocasta speaks to Oedipus and asks him to confide in her, and he reveals that the Oracle had accused him of being Laius's killer, and he believed that Creon had been involved in the matter. Jocasta at once assures Oedipus to let go of all his angst, since she knew for certain that oracles could not be trusted, and she begins to recount how King Laius had been approached by an oracle and told that he would meet his end at his son's hands. The king had acted on this knowledge, and had riveted his son's feet together three days after birth, and had him abandoned on Mount Cithaeron. Yet, Laius had met his death at the hands of highwaymen who had accosted him when he had been journeying to the shrine of Delphi. Oedipus is overcome with emotion at his wife's account and begins to question her about the circumstances surrounding Liau's death. He asks her where Laius was believed to have met his end, and she tells him that the messenger had said that the old king had fallen in a land called Phocis, on an intersection of three roads. Oedipus curses his fate and asks her when she had received word of the accident. He learns that the survivor of the attack had found his way home just a few days after Oedipus had taken the throne. Oedipus questions her about Laius's build and the size as well as nature of the company that had accompanied him. He grows more and more distressed as Jocasta answers all of his queries. Oedipus wishes to meet the survivor but learns that Jocasta had sent him away upon his request since he had been a loyal servant to the king's family all of his life. She assures him that she can have him brought forth as he desires, but seeks to learn the reason for Oedipus's distress.
The king explains that he believes he had cursed himself in his proclamation, and that the words of the seer may turn out to be partially correct. Oedipus then begins to narrate his history and begins with his parentage. He is the son of the King of Corinth, Polybus, and his wife Merope, a Dorian. Oedipus had been among the most reputed citizens of Corinth until a rumor had begun to circulate that Oedipus was not the true born son of his Polybus. He had sought clarification from his parents, and they had dismissed it as just a rumor. However, this story continued to spread and it began to haunt Oedipus, who then decided to approach the Oracle of Delphi for answers to his question. Apollo denied him the answers he had sought but gave him a prophecy that caused him grave concern. The Oracle told Oedipus that he would one day kill his mother, climb into the bed with his mother, and mate with her to birth monstrous children. He had decided right then to shun his home of Corinth and had been wandering on the road to Delphi when he had an altercation with a set of travelers matching the description of Liaus's retinue. Oedipus is grief-stricken that he may have been King Laius's killer, and expresses guilt that he had further dishonored the man by claiming his wife. However, he is hopeful since everyone had claimed that the king had been killed by a gang of highwaymen and not a single individual. Jocasta agrees that everyone had heard the man claim so, and asks him to exercise patience until the man arrives. She further insists that one cannot put stock in the words of the oracle since one had claimed that Laius would meet his end at the hands of his son, but the son had most certainly perished. She succeeds in placating Oedipus, and they both retreat into the palace.
The Theban leaders gather and pray for their king, and are interrupted by the arrival of Jocasta who has come to the high shrines since her husband has been rather upset. The queen is soon followed by a Corinthian Messenger, who requests to see the King of Thebes, Oedipus. The elders direct him to Jocasta, Oedipus's wife, and she asks him about the message he bears. The messenger tells the Queen that the King of Corinth, Polybus, had passed and the commons had chosen Oedipus as their new king. Jocasta is amazed to learn of Polybus's death and immediately sends for Oedipus. She is happy to hear of Polybus's death since Oedipus had avoided going back home to never hurt his father as per the prophecy he had received. Oedipus arrives and learns from the messenger that Polybus had died of old age. He and Jocasta begin to happily discuss the fact that the Oracle's words had proven false. However, Oedipus still expresses his worry about his mother, who is still alive and thus the prophecy is still at risk of proving true. The messenger overhears the conversation and asks Oedipus about the prophecy. Oedipus willingly tells the messenger the details of the prophecy and explains that he cannot take the title of King of Corinth since he could never return there until his mother was alive. The messenger happily claims that he can assuage all of Oedipus's concerns as he reveals that he was not the natural-born child of Polybus, and thus the mother who had raised him was not truly his mother. Oedipus is thunderstruck and asks the messenger to explain.
The messenger tells him that Oedipus had been given to him by a shepherd who had belonged to the house of Laius. The messenger had received Oedipus in the wooded glens of Mount Cithaeron, and as evidence reminds him about the injury on his ankles. The messenger had been the one to remove the pin that had riveted his feet as a newborn baby. The Queen becomes worried at the mention of the injury and asks Oedipus not to pursue the matter. Oedipus remains undaunted and begins to make inquiries about the shepherd from Laius's house who had handed the babe to the Corinthian man. He learns that it happens to be the same man who had witnessed Laius's murder and had come with the report to Jocasta. Oedipus commands that the witness be brought forward, but Jocasta continues to pressure him not to follow through with the matter. Oedipus mistakes Jocasta's reluctance to be motivated by the pride of her ancestry. The old servants arrive, but Jocasta has already left him with final parting words as she tells him that he is creating his doom. Oedipus is undeterred and immediately begins to question the old servant when he arrives.
The old man is reluctant to admit that he had ever given the Corinthian man a baby, but Oedipus extracts the truth from him under the threat of punishment. The man is horrified when he learns that Oedipus is the same child that he had delivered to the Corinthians, and had hoped the child would find a haven among those people. He reveals that the baby had been given to him by Laius's wife, Jocasta, to dispose of in the mountains. However, he had taken pity on the baby and decided to disobey the king's directive. Oedipus reels with the knowledge of his parentage and curses his life for being such a blight on humanity. He returns to his castle still lamenting his existence.
The council of Theban elders mourns their King's fate, who had been caused to live a nightmare of reality. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a second messenger who claims to be carrying terrible news. He explains how Jocasta had raced back to her palace and screamed in agony over her marriage bed. She had cursed herself for bringing forth children with her son, and then all had gone silent. Oedipus had arrived at the palace, and drawn a sword while searching for Jocasta. He had thrown down her chamber doors with inhuman strength only to find his mother and wife dead, hanging with a noose around her throat. He had cut her down and struck himself repeatedly with the broaches from her robe. He had blinded himself and lamented his horrid fate while telling all that he would stay true to the punishment he had decreed for the killer of Laius. The elders express terrible remorse at the turn of events and find Oedipus himself coming before them. They ask him why he had blinded himself in such a terrible way, and replies that he could not withstand seeing the light after he had learned his truth. Oedipus curses the man who had saved his life and wishes that he had died as a child, and the elders agree that it would have been a better fate than his present one.
Creon enters, and the elders inform Oedipus that he is now the rightful King of Thebes, but Oedipus is ashamed of facing his brother-in-law and uncle. Creon doesn't hold any of Oedipus's accusations against him and instead treats him with much kindness. Oedipus wishes to be removed from the sight of men to wander the forests of Cithaeron which already ought to have been his place of death. Creon wishes to consult the gods and has Oedipus meet his daughters. Oedipus weeps bitterly as he embraces his daughters and wonders at their poor fate now that everyone would learn that they were children of incest. Creon insists that they will be looked after as Oedipus hopes, and they all return to the palace.
Greek Drama, Sophocles, Classical Greek Play