Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King)

Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex)
Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex). Oxford University Press

Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus the King, is a tragedy written by Greek playwright Sophocles. The play, first staged in 429 B.C., is part of a trilogy about the fictional king of Thebes, who fulfills a prophecy about killing his father and marrying his mother.

Oedipus Rex is a tale full of high majesty and unspeakable tragedy in which a great man is entwined in a fall of his own making. So enduring was the power of this play that it provided a template for the tragic works that followed it, and was identified by Aristotle (in his Poetics) as the purest of all the classical tragedies.

Oedipus Rex: Overview

The story revolves around a nobleman, Oedipus, who leaves his city when a prophecy is revealed to him that says he will kill his father and marry his mother. He travels to Thebes in an attempt to escape his fate. On the outskirts of the city, he meets and quarrels with a group of riders, all of whom he kills.

When Oedipus finally arrives in Thebes, King Laius has been killed, and the land is without a monarch. He finds that a monster called the Sphinx is tormenting the people. The Sphinx refuses to leave the city unless someone answers his riddle, and he devours anyone who answers incorrectly. This is the famous riddle: "What  is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?"

Oedipus answers the riddle correctly: "Man." (As babies, humans crawl on four legs, when adult, they walk on two legs, and when older, they walk with the help of a third leg, or cane.)

The Sphinx dies, and Oedipus becomes King of Thebes, and marries Jocasta, the late King Laius' widow.

The play is set many years later, when a plague has descended on the land, as punishment for the murder of King Laius. Oedipus summons the blind prophet Tiresias, who at first declines to help him investigate Laius' murder.

He tries to persuade Oedipus that he doesn't really want to know who Laius' killer is, but eventually is provoked into revealing the truth: It was Oedipus himself.

Through a number of conversations, Oedipus realizes that one of the men he killed on the road was none other than Laius, his biological father. Oedipus therefore had more of a claim to the throne of Thebes than he'd ever imagined. Laius had heard the same prophecy as Oedipus, and had sent his baby son away to a distant city, where a noble couple had taken him and pretended that he was their own. Far from running away from his fate, Oedipus had unwittingly run towards it. He fulfilled the first part of the prophecy when he killed Laius. When he married Jocasta, he made his own mother his queen.

When she learns the truth, Jocasta hangs herself. Oedipus is tormented, in a state close to madness when he sees Jocasta is dead. He blinds himself and says goodbye to Thebes. As the play concludes, we see the blind Oedipus walking away, with his daughter as his guide.

Revelation and Transformation in Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex is brilliant in the slow, steady way that its plot is revealed and the dramatic irony that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.

The realization of who Oedipus is and what he has done arrives for the audience early on. We spend the rest of the time waiting in desperate expectation of Oedipus's realization, in an example of dramatic irony, when the audience knows more about the characters than the characters do.

Through the course of the play, Oedipus becomes more aware of who he is. He fulfills the prophecy from which he was trying to escape. It appears Sophocles was trying to suggest that we cannot escape our fates, no matter how we may try.

Blind in Oedipus Rex

Oedipus blinded himself in an act of extreme grief and torment. Writers from John Milton to Sigmund Freud have written about this incredibly symbolic event. In the moment before that horrible act, Oedipus was utterly powerless. The gods had overruled all of his designs to accomplish their will and torment him.

Oedipus can no longer bear to look on his people, himself, or the world. He must escape from that world into darkness and, in the final moments of the play, into exile.

As one of the great works in Western literature, Oedipus Rex is full of powerful poetry and incredible imagery. The voice has echoed through the centuries, and has lost none of its terrible power.