'Oedipus the King' in 60 Seconds

Why You Will Love the Story of 'Oedipus Rex'

A tragic story from the Greek dramatist, Sophocles, "Oedipus the King" is a well-known and studied play filled with murder, incest, and one man's discovery of the truth about his life. It is the story that you may know because Oedipus murdered his father and married his mother (unknowingly, of course).

Also known as "Oedipus Rex", this drama has symbolism and hidden meanings scattered throughout. This makes it a compelling study for the theater as well as high school and college students.

The story also contributed to the naming of Sigmund Freud's most controversial theory in psychology, the Oedipus complex. Appropriately, the theory tries to explain why a child might have sexual desire for a parent of the opposite sex.

This play has alluded to psychological drama long before Freud. Written around 430 BCE, "Oedipus the King" has long thrilled audiences with its plot twists and compelling characters and an unbelievably tragic ending. It is a production that will remain in classical theater's register of the greatest plays ever written.

The Backstory

First of all, to understand Sophocles’ play, "Oedipus the King", a bit of Greek Mythology is in order.

Oedipus was a strong, young man who was walking down the road when all of a sudden, an arrogant rich guy nearly runs him over with a chariot. The two fight – the rich guy dies.

Further down the road, Oedipus meets a Sphinx who has been plaguing the city of Thebes and challenging pedestrians with riddles.

(Anyone who guesses wrong gets gobbled up.) Oedipus solves the riddle correctly and becomes the King of Thebes.

Not only that, he marries an attractive older gal named Jocasta – the recently widowed queen of Thebes.

The Play Begins

The setting is Thebes, over a decade after Oedipus has become king.

  • The Chorus (a bunch of citizens who talk and move in unison) complains to their king about the terrible plague.
  • King Oedipus wants to solve the city’s problems.
  • Apparently, Zeus and the rest of the Olympian Gods are angry that the previous king was murdered and no one bothered to find the murderer.

Oedipus vows to find the killer and bring justice. He will punish the killer no matter who the culprit is… even if it is a friend or a relative, even if he himself turns out to be the killer. (But that couldn’t possibly happen, now could it???)

The Plot Thickens

Oedipus requests help from a local prophet, an old timer named Tiresias. The aging psychic tells Oedipus to stop looking for the killer. But this just makes Oedipus all the more determined to find out who slew the previous king.

Finally, Tiresias gets fed up and spills the beans. The old man claims that Oedipus is the murderer. Then, he declares that the murderer is Theban-born, and (this part gets seriously disturbing) that he killed his father and married his mother.

Ooh! Gross! Yuck!

Yes, Oedipus is a bit freaked out by Tiresias’ claims. Yet, this isn’t the only time he has heard this sort of prophecy.

When he was a young man living in Corinth, another soothsayer claimed that he would kill his father and marry his mother. That prompted Oedipus to run away from Corinth to save his parents and himself from murder and incest.

Oedipus’ wife tells him to relax. She says that many prophecies do not come true. A messenger arrives with news that Oedipus’ dad is dead. This seems to imply that all of the icky curses and destinies are not ordained.

More Bad News for Oedipus

Just when they think that life is fine (except for the deadly plague, of course) a shepherd arrives with a story to tell. The shepherd explains that long ago he found Oedipus as a child, a little baby left out in the wilderness. The shepherd took him back to Corinth where young Oedipus was raised by his adoptive parents.

With a few more disturbing puzzle pieces, Oedipus figures out that when he ran away from his adoptive parents, he bumped into his biological father (King Laius) and killed him during their roadside argument. (Nothing is worse than chariot road rage mixed with patricide).

Then, when Oedipus became king and married Jocasta, Laius’ wife, he was actually marrying his biological mother.

Wrapping Things Up

The chorus is filled with shock and pity. Jocasta hangs herself. And Oedipus uses the pins from her dress to gauge out his eyes. We all cope in different ways, I guess.

Creon, Jocasta’s brother, takes over the throne. Oedipus will wander around Greece as a wretched example of man’s folly. (And, on can assume, Zeus and his fellow Olympians enjoy a mean-spirited chuckle.)