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Title: Oedipus the King
Author: Sophocles
Pub. Date: 430 BC
Genre: Tragedy
Biographical info about the author:
Sophocles was born in Colonus in about 493 B.C. and
died in 406 B.C. He lived through times in Athens of both
extreme prowess after the Persian Wars and of decline
after the Peloponnesian Wars. Sophocles was clearly a
prolific playwright, credited for over 120 plays. He
participated in many drama competitions, including the
Festival of Dionysus, which he won. Sophocles was
highly influenced by Homer, keeping with the concept of
looking backward to Greece's history for inspiration
during the Classical Period in which Sophocles lived. He
studied under the playwright Aeschylus whom he beat in a
drama contest. Sophocles was active in Athenian politics
and culture as a diplomat, a general, and a priest. He
became Treasurer of the Dalian Confederation and
collected taxes from states ruled by Athens. He was a
general in multiple wars and conducted negotiations in the
Peloponnesian War. Of his 120 plays, only 7 complete
tragedies survived. He has won many awards as a notable
playwright and an important part of Athenian history.
Historical information about the literary era:
In this time in Athens, a plague caused major
suffering around the time of the Peloponnesian War.
This plague is reflected in the setting of Oedipus Rex
and the plague of Thebes. In terms of literary styles
of the era, the Classical Period involved looking into
the past for inspiration, namely to authors like Homer
who wrote the first epic poem. This period evolved
from music and dance from ceremonies honoring
Dionysus in Athens. This period featured drama and
tragedy, a genre developed by Aeschylus, Sophocles,
and Euripides. Comedy also evolved in this period,
and a notable Comic was Menander. Most works in
this era feature economy of words, direct expression,
subtlety of thought, and attention to form.
Characteristics of the Genre:
A tragedy includes a tragic hero who has
characteristics such as noble status, a tragic flaw or
hamartia, and an inflated ego or hubris. He usually
commits an unintentional crime and later takes
responsibility for his actions. He then undergoes a
reversal or fall, often causing him to make a
discovery on his metaphorical or physical quest. The
audience reading/watching a tragedy will undergo
catharsis and experience fear, pity, and awe. Some
common motifs of classical tragedies like Oedipus
Rex include savior versus destroyer, blindness versus
sight, the role of the gods, the search for truth, and
wisdom gained through suffering.
Plot Summary: In the opening scene, the people of Thebes gather around Oedipus at his altar and have the priest request
Oedipus's aid. The land is barren and the death toll is unbelievable due to the plague. Oedipus vows to save the city by
whatever means necessary. He has sent his brother-in-law Creon to the Delphic Oracle to hear from the gods the way to
protect the people of Thebes and eliminate the plague. He returns with a message from Apollo that to rid the land of the
plague, the murderer of Laius must be discovered and killed, and that the murderer is in the city at present. Oedipus
promises his people that he will personally drive out the murderer, not knowing that it was he who did it.
Oedipus next consults the blind prophet Tiresias. Tiresias can see the truth but chooses to keep it from Oedipus, knowing
that it will only bring more pain. Oedipus, in his recklessness, insults the respected prophet and accuses him of the
murder. This brings Tiresias to exclaim the true prophecy that Oedipus is the murderer. Oedipus disregards this entirely
and then goes on to accuse Creon and Tiresias of conspiracy. Before Tiresias leaves he reveals the full prophecy, that the
murderer is the son and husband to the same woman, an unspeakable sin.
Oedipus argues viciously with Creon, the brother of his wife Jocasta. She reassures Oedipus that no prophecies come
true because the prophecy that Laius would be killed by his son was not fulfilled. She believes that her son died in the
forest immediately after birth. She recalls that Laius was killed by thieves at a three way crossroads on his way from the
Delphic Oracle. Oedipus is weary of this story as it sounds familiar to him, and he prods Jocasta to describe more of it to
him. As she does, he realizes that it was he who murdered Laius on the road in a fit of rage and self-defense. Oedipus
explains that he was searching for truth behind a rumor he had heard about his birth and that he was not the son of the
king and queen of Corinth. At the oracle he was told his fate, that he would murder his father and marry his mother.
A messenger tells Oedipus that he was not the birth child of Polybus and Merope, the king and queen of Corinth, and
that a shepherd had brought Oedipus to them when he was an infant. Oedipus tracks down this shepherd and questions
him despite Jocasta's warnings. When the shepherd arrives Jocasta leaves, fearing the truth of her situation. Oedipus
pressures the shepherd and threatens him, causing him to reveal that the baby that was brought to Corinth was the son of
Laius and that Laius and Jocasta were trying to get rid of him for fear that the prophecy of Laius's murder by the hands
of his son would come true. Oedipus deduces that he indeed was the child of Laius and Jocasta and that he was also the
murderer of Laius. Jocasta hangs herself in her bedroom upon piecing together the truth. Oedipus, in despair, gauges his
eyes out with her pins. Oedipus asks for exile and for Creon to care for Oedipus's children. Creon obliges and takes the
throne as king of Thebes.
1. Oedipus
Role in the Story
1. King of Thebes
2. Priest
2. Priest of Zeus,
messenger for the
3. Creon
3. Brother of
Jocasta, next King
of Thebes
4. Chorus/Leader 4. Elders of Thebes
5. Tiresias
5. Blind prophet
6. Jocasta
6. Queen of
Thebes, Oedipus's
mother and wife
7. Messenger
7. Bearer of news
8. Shepherd
8. Witness, catalyst
1. Oedipus is the central character and tragic
hero of the play. He serves as the
protagonist. He is simultaneously his own
and his city's savior and destroyer. His
pursuit for the truth and his foretold fate lead
to his downfall as well as Jocasta's.
2. The role of the Priest of Zeus is to unravel
Oedipus's flaws to the audience. He brings
bad tidings to Oedipus and sets the stage for
the tragedy, Oedipus's position of power,
and Oedipus's impulsiveness.
3. Creon serves as a foil to Oedipus and acts
as the voice of reason in many cases. His
calmness highlights Oedipus's urgency and
4. The Chorus and Leader argue both points
of view when discussion scenes. They
highlight different aspects of the plot and
can progress the plot through foreshadowing
and characterization.
They contribute to the audience's catharsis
as they undergo some sort of catharsis as
well, going from admiring Oedipus to
fearing for him to pitying him while also
being relieved that his prophecy was
fulfilled and that the gods remain true to
their word.
5. Tiresias plays a symbolic role through his
attitude of revealing the prophecy to
Oedipus. He makes Oedipus mad by initially
not revealing the necessary information to
save Thebes; this causes Oedipus to act
impulsively and ultimately leads to
Oedipus's downfall.
6. Jocasta progresses the play by learning
and projecting that the prophecy of her
husband and son came true. She plays both a
spousal and maternal role to Oedipus. She
also demonstrates despair over her
incestuous actions by hanging herself in her
7. The messenger is the catalyst for Oedipus
the King’s downfall. He informs Oedipus
about his “father’s” death, and that they
aren’t his actual parents. The messenger
gave Oedipus to Polybus and Merope when
Oedipus was a baby because he didn’t want
him to die in the forests like Laius decreed.
8. The shepherd was the one who in a way
allowed the entire play to occur. He did not
kill Oedipus as a child but instead brought
1. reckless, arrogant,
frantic, ignorant
2. messenger,
3. diplomatic, eventempered, calm,
4. wise,
emotional, pensive
5. physically blind,
6. pious,
sacrilegious, loving
7. kindhearted,
8. cowardly, timid,
him to a different city where he was raised
and fulfilled his prophecy.
The classical tragedy by Sophocles is set in the
ancient city of Thebes. Thebes is presented in a
time of major drought and famine. The people
and the land are plagued and barren. Nobility is
important, and there is a very well defined social
structure. Society has also defined rules of
conduct and morality, much like those of present
times. The play begins years after a major
prophecy was decreed at the Oracle of Delphi.
The prophecy was that King Laius, who was
punished for sinning against a child by not being
allowed to procreate with his wife, Jocasta, will
have a son illegally. It was believed that this son
would grow up to murder Laius and “lay with”
Jocasta. Because of this prophecy, Laius and
Jocasta decided to expel the infant to the woods;
what they didn’t know was that the shepherd who
was asked to leave the child actually brought him
to a different city. The play begins after the
prophecy has been fulfilled, and major plot points
develop around the discovery that the prophecy
did indeed come true.
Significance of the opening scene:
The opening scene of Oedipus the King has Oedipus standing
before the people of Thebes asking them why they are at his
altar and why they are praying before him. Oedipus then has the
priest speak for the people, and the priest explains that Thebes
is suffering. Oedipus is characterized here as arrogant and
prideful as well as impulsive and reckless when he immediately
promises to discover the source of the plague and to destroy
him, unknowing that the source is Oedipus himself. This scene
opens with dramatic irony that is present throughout most of the
play. A message from Apollo calls for the death of whomever
killed King Laius. The audience knows that it was Oedipus, so
the stage is set for the audience to experience catharsis, as they
already fear for his life.
Significance of the closing scene:
The closing scene is tragic and horrid. By this point, Oedipus
has uncovered the truth of his sins and leaves Thebes as a
broken, blind man in exile. Creon does not hesitate to exile
Oedipus but does allow for Oedipus to see his children one final
time. This scene solidifies Oedipus's role as a tragic hero. His
hamartia is marked here by the fulfillment of the prophecy and
his tragic downfall from nobility to exile. The closing scene
also instigates catharsis in the audience or readers. It elicits awe
at Oedipus’s strength in taking responsibility for his actions,
and it causes the readers to feel a significant amount of pity for
the man whose life went from being a glorious one to being a
shameful and miserable one. This scene brings out fear in the
audience by conveying the idea that no man is safe from
downfall; if it can happen to a king it can surely happen to a
common man.
1. The scars on Oedipus's feet symbolize the mark on Oedipus's life that he will suffer in the end as he did in the
beginning. They also show that Oedipus was chosen to have the fate that he had.
2. Oedipus's name is a symbol itself, meaning literally "Swollen Foot," because it is the key to his true identity.
This helps create dramatic irony because the audience knows the story behind the scars but Jocasta cannot see
the connection.
3. Tiresias is a major archetype as an all-knowing prophet who sees figuratively but not literally. His physical
blindness allows him to see deeper things such as the truth behind Oedipus's destiny. He attempts to protect
himself and Oedipus by withholding the message, knowing that the outcome will be grim.
4. In terms of the Aristotelian theory of tragedy, Oedipus is a tragic hero because he appears perfect but has
tragic flaws. Aristotle points out that Oedipus' tragic flaw is his hubris, or excessive pride, and selfrighteousness and recklessness. He also points out certain characteristics that qualify one as a tragic hero. Using
Oedipus as an ideal model, Aristotle says that a tragic hero must be an important or influential man who
commits an error in judgment, and who must then suffer the consequences of his actions. The tragic hero must
learn a lesson from his errors in judgment, his tragic flaw, and become an example to the audience of what
happens when great men fall from their high social or political position. So Oedipus fulfills this archetype.
5. Oedipus was blind in more than one way. He was blind to the truth about his own life. Oedipus had no idea
that his real parents were Laius and Jocasta. He was so blind that he got mad at anyone who was foolish enough
to suggest such an idea. As more and more of the story started to fall into place, Oedipus was forced to open his
eyes to the truth. Oedipus did kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus was the person causing the bad
times in Thebes. As soon as Oedipus knew and accepted the truth and began to see figuratively, he blinded
himself physically. This play explores the archetypical difference between seeing literally and seeing
Possible Themes/Topics for Discussion:
1. The search for truth - Oedipus goes to great lengths to find the truth. He elicits it multiple times from
unwilling messengers, and each piece of the puzzle that he learns causes more pain to him. The majority of
Oedipus's personal journey is the discovery of the reality of his life and the way it impacts his present.
Ultimately, knowledge in this case is damaging, and Oedipus could learn that sometimes knowledge is better
left undiscovered. The final scene in which he comes to a full realization and stabs his eyes out is an example
of this lesson. He is noble in this quest, and his determination and ability to fully accept the consequences of
his actions is admirable.
2. Fate versus free will - Oedipus was destined from birth to murder his father and sleep with his mother.
This theme is demonstrated throughout the play, namely in the way that Oedipus reacts upon discovering
different portions of his destiny. For instance, when in the end he gouges his eyes out with pins, it is
allegedly his own personal reaction out of free will to do so. However, it is questionable as to whether he
was destined from birth to be blinded and exiled as a man for his arrogance and sins. Some argue that he
could have realized his flaws and his excessive pride prior to his epic downfall even though he was never
faced with any negative consequences up until then. Rather, he faced positive consequences and was able to
gain more and more power. This idea also blurs the line as to whether it was his decisions or his destiny that
led him to his ultimate personal defeat.
3. The danger of memories - Oedipus delves too deep into his past to be able to escape. This culminates in
the suicide of Jocasta and his downfall. If Oedipus had learned that some memories are better left in the past
and that sometimes forgiveness as well as taking responsibility for one's actions is necessary, he might have
been able to move on. His excessive pride leads to his inability to do this.
4. Wisdom through suffering – Oedipus, Tiresias, and Jocasta both exemplify this theme. Through their
incredible suffering in their discovery of the truth, they have both gained wisdom and personal strength.
Jocasta and Tiresias had gained wisdom prior to the start of the play, Jocasta through the loss of her husband
and the perceived loss of her son, and Tiresias through his blindness. Jocasta had learned the importance of
love and to hold on to her love, so when she met Oedipus, though it was not technically her choice to marry
him, she loved him deeply, as well as her children she had with him. Tiresias is also wise, likely due to his
inability to see leading him to rely on other instincts and allowing him to not be deceived by his sense of
sight. Oedipus though is the main sufferer, and through his terrible realizations and his brutal self-mutilation
and immediate exile he made great strides in learning about himself. He relinquishes his pride when he
speaks with Creon and surrenders his power, and he relies instead on love, as seen when he calls for his
daughter in the closing scene.
5. Blindness – This suffering leads to the final theme, blindness. Tiresias, though physically blind, is
considered a “seer.” His heightened senses allow him a supernatural ability to predict the future and to see
into people’s characters and motives. Oedipus also eventually gains this ability of heightened morality and
sight without seeing when he blinds himself. It took him losing his sight to be able to truly see who he was
and why the way he was living was wrong.
Describe the author’s style:
Sophocles writes the play in a poetic form, using
iambic pentameter in some of the dialogue and
lyric and iambic trimeter in other instances. He
often includes dramatic irony and foreshadowing
through repetition of the prophecy by many
different messengers. Additionally, he writes with
precise and extensive imagery and other forms of
figurative language such as clever metaphor to
deliver a picture for the reader and to establish
characterization on a more personal, relatable level.
Example that illustrates style:
"I thought it wrong, my children, to hear the truth from
others, messengers. Here I am myself--you all know me, the
world knows my fame: I am Oedipus" - Oedipus (Sophocles
1427). This quote demonstrates the poetic nature of the play
as well as an aspect of the adherence to the definition of a
tragedy as it includes him taking responsibility.
1. "Drive the corruption from the land, don't harbor it
any longer, past all cure, don't nurse it in your soil—
root it out!" (Sophocles 1429)
Significance in demonstrating theme:
1. This is a message from Apollo delivered by Creon.
This institutes the dramatic irony that is present
throughout the play. It also initiates the downward
spiral on which Oedipus proceeds to travel as he
vows to personally drive out the murderer to alleviate
the pain of the people of Thebes. This again relates to
the search for knowledge and the inability to let the
past remain in the past.
2. “You pray to the Gods? Let me grant your
prayers.” -Oedipus (Sophocles 1433)
2. This quote is significant because it emphasizes
how highly Oedipus thinks of himself. In the play, it
defines his hubris because he views himself as more
authoritative and righteous than the gods themselves.
This demonstrates the theme of the limits of free will.
Although Oedipus views himself as more powerful
and important than a god, he is actually a puppet to
the prophecy that has been bestowed upon him by the
gods since his birth.
3. “I curse myself as well…if by any chance he
proves to be an intimate of our house, here at my
hearth, with my full knowledge, may the curse I just
called down on him strike me!”
- Oedipus (Sophocles 1434)
3. This demonstrates the theme of free will versus
fate. He curses the man who caused the fate of
Thebes and his downfall and ironically curses himself
justly. In trying to boast and brag about his abilities,
he reinforces his future self-harm, bringing into
question the validity of free will or whether he was
destined from the start to curse himself to fulfill the
prophecy his father's sins set upon him. It also
demonstrates the style with which Sophocles wrote,
featuring intense dramatic irony.
4. "You with your precious eyes, you're blind to the
corruption of your life, to the house you live in, those
you live with—who are your parents? Do you know?
All unknowing you are the scourge of your own flesh
and blood, the dead below the earth and the living
here above, and the double lash of your mother and
your father's curse will whip you from this land one
day, their footfall treading you down in terror,
darkness shrouding your eyes that now can see the
light!" (Sophocles 1438)
4. This quote demonstrates the extent to which the
prophecy will ruin Oedipus's life. It also shows his
arrogance and ignorance in terms of not being willing
to accept the truth and instead referring back to his
noble status. Oedipus therefore is a tragic hero since
he demonstrates incredible hubris, and this quote
proves this. It also relays the prophecy in different
terms. It also relates to the theme of the quest for
5. "What good were eyes to me? Nothing I could see
could bring me joy." -Oedipus (Sophocles 1463)
5. This is significant because Oedipus realizes the
truth of his actions, and through blindness, he is now
able to truly see. This is the point when Oedipus
defends his decision to humble himself through
blindness since he could not “see” before. This
demonstrates the themes of wisdom through suffering
and blindness. It takes Oedipus the entire play to
accept the truth, which he was blind to until this