5 Important Oedipus Rex Quotes Explained

The Story of Oedipus Rex in Just Five Quotes

Oedipus Rex
(Merlyn Severn/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) is a famous play by the great ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles. The play was first performed around 429 BCE and is part of a trilogy of plays which also include Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus.

In a nutshell, the play tells the story of Oedipus, a man doomed from birth as a result of a prophecy which states that he will murder his father and marry his mother. Despite his family's attempts to stop the prophecy from being fulfilled, Oedipus still falls prey to fate. The simple plot of the play can be easily summed up in just five key quotes.

Oedipus Rex has influenced artists and thinkers around the world for more than two millennia. It's the basis for Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytical theory, appropriately named the "Oedipus complex;" as Freud notes of Oedipus in his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams: "His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so."

Setting the Scene

"Ah! my poor children, known, ah, known too well,
The quest that brings you hither and your need.
Ye sicken all, well wot I, yet my pain,
How great soever yours, outtops it all."

Oedipus exclaims these sympathetic words at the beginning of the play to the people of Thebes. The city is beset with a plague and many of Oedipus's citizens are sick and dying. These words paint Oedipus as a compassionate and empathetic ruler. This image, juxtaposed with Oedipus's dark and twisted past, revealed later in the play, makes his downfall even more striking. Greek audiences at the time were already familiar with the story of Oedipus; thus Sophocles skillfully added these lines for dramatic irony.

Oedipus Reveals His Paranoia and Hubris

"The trusty Creon, my familiar friend,
Hath lain in wait to oust me and suborned
This mountebank, this juggling charlatan,
This tricksy beggar-priest, for gain alone
Keen-eyed, but in his proper art stone-blind.
Say, sirrah, hast thou ever proved thyself
A prophet? When the riddling Sphinx was here
Why hadst thou no deliverance for this folk?
And yet the riddle was not to be solved
By guess-work but required the prophet's art
Wherein thou wast found lacking; neither birds nor sign from heaven helped thee, but I came.
The simple Oedipus; I stopped her mouth."

This speech by Oedipus reveals a lot about his personality. A clear contrast from the first quote, Oedipus' tone here shows that he is paranoid, has a short temper, and is pompous. What's happening is that Teiresias, a prophet, refuses to tell Oedipus who the murderer of King Laius (Oedipus's father) is. A bewildered Oedipus reacts by angrily taunting Teiresias for being "stone-blind," a "charlatan," a "beggar-priest," and so on. He also accuses Creon, the person who brought Teiresias, for planning this perplexing scene in an attempt to undermine Oedipus. He then continues to belittle Teiresias by saying how useless the old prophet, as it was Oedipus who defeated the Sphinx who terrorized the city. 

Teiresias Reveals the Truth

"Of the children, inmates of his home,
He shall be proved the brother and the sire,
Of her who bare him son and husband both,
Co-partner, and assassin of his sire."

Provoked by Oedipus's offensive words, Teiresias finally hints at the truth. He reveals that not only is Oedipus the murderer of Laius, but he is both "brother and [father]" to his children, both "son and husband" to his wife, and the "assassin of his [father]." This is the first piece of information Oedipus gets in discovering how he unwittingly committed incest and patricide. A humbling lesson—Sophocles shows how Oedipus' hot temper and hubris provoked Teiresias and set his own downfall in motion.  

Oedipus' Tragic Downfall

"Dark, dark! The horror of darkness, like a shroud,
Wraps me and bears me on through mist and cloud.
Ah me, ah me! What spasms athwart me shoot,
What pangs of agonizing memory?"

In a grotesque scene, Oedipus screams these lines after he blinds himself. At this point, Oedipus has realized that he indeed killed his father and slept with his mother. He is unable to cope with the truth after he has been blind to it for so long, and so symbolically blinds himself physically. Now, all Oedipus can see is "darkness, like a shroud."

The Conclusion of One Story and Beginning of the Next

"Though I cannot behold you, I must weep
In thinking of the evil days to come,
The slights and wrongs that men will put upon you.

Where'er ye go to feast or festival,
No merrymaking will it prove 
for you"

Oedipus utters these words to his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, at the end of the play before being cast out of the city. The introduction of these two characters foreshadows the plot of another famous play by Sophocles, Antigone. 

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Lombardi, Esther. "5 Important Oedipus Rex Quotes Explained." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/oedipus-rex-quotes-740934. Lombardi, Esther. (2020, August 26). 5 Important Oedipus Rex Quotes Explained. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/oedipus-rex-quotes-740934 Lombardi, Esther. "5 Important Oedipus Rex Quotes Explained." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/oedipus-rex-quotes-740934 (accessed June 4, 2023).