Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
When Thebes is struck by a plague, the people ask King Oedipus to deliver them from its horrors. Creon, the brother of Jocasta, Oedipus’s queen, returns from the oracle of Apollo and discloses that the plague is punishment for the murder of King Laius, Oedipus’s immediate predecessor, to whom Jocasta was married. Creon further discloses that the citizens of Thebes need to discover and punish the murderer before the plague can be lifted. The people mourn their dead, and Oedipus advises them, in their own interest, to search out and apprehend the murderer of Laius.
Asked to help find the murderer, Teiresias, the ancient, blind seer of Thebes, tells Oedipus that it would be better for all if he does not tell what he knows. He says that coming events will reveal themselves. Oedipus rages at the seer’s reluctance to tell the secret until he goads the old man to reveal that Oedipus is the one responsible for Thebes’s afflictions because he is the murderer, and that he is living in intimacy with his nearest kin. Oedipus accuses the old man of being in league with Creon, whom he suspects of plotting against his throne, but Teiresias answers that Oedipus will be ashamed and horrified when he learns the truth about his true parentage. Oedipus defies the seer, saying he will welcome the truth as long as it frees his kingdom from the plague. Oedipus threatens Creon with death, but Jocasta and the people advise him against doing violence on the strength of...
(The entire section is 958 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Oedipus Rex Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Act I Summary
Oedipus Rex begins outside King Oedipus's palace, where despondent beggars and a priest have gathered and brought branches and wreaths of olive leaves. Oedipus enters and asks the people of Thebes why they pray and lament, since apparently they have come together to petition him with an unknown request. The Priest speaks on their behalf, and Oedipus assures them that he will help them. The Priest reports that Thebes has been beset with horrible calamities—famine, fires, and plague have all caused widespread suffering and death among their families and animals, and their crops have all been destroyed. He beseeches Oedipus, whom he praises for having solved the riddle of the Sphinx (an action which justified his succession to King Laius, as Jocasta's husband and as king) to cure the city of its woes. Oedipus expresses his profound sympathy and announces that he sent Creon, the Queen's brother, to Delphi to receive the Oracle of Apollo, in order to gain some much-needed guidance.
Creon arrives and Oedipus demands, against Creon's wishes, that he report the news in front of the gathered public. Creon reports that the gods caused the plague as a reaction against the murder of their previous king, Laius, and that they want the Thebans to "drive out pollution sheltered in our land"; in other words, to find the murderer and either kill or exile him (Laius had been killed on the roadside by a highwayman). Oedipus vows to root out this...
(The entire section is 454 words.)
Act II Summary
Creon expresses great desire to prove his innocence to Oedipus, who continues to assert that Creon has been plotting to usurp the throne. Creon denies the accusations, saying he is quite content and would not want the cares and responsibilities that come with being king. Oedipus calls for his death. Jocasta, having heard their quarrel, enters and tries to pacify them, and the Chorus calls for proof of Creon's guilt before Oedipus punishes him. Jocasta reminds Oedipus of Apollo's oracle and also of the way Laius died. She recounts the story as it was told to her by a servant who was there at the crossroads where a charioteer and an old man attacked a man, who in turn killed them. Hearing the tale, Oedipus realizes that he was the murderer and asks to consult the witness, the shepherd, who is sent for. The Chorus expresses its trust in the gods and prays to Heaven for a restoration of faith in the oracle.
(The entire section is 163 words.)
Act III Summary
Jocasta prays to Apollo to restore Oedipus's sanity, since he has been acting strange since hearing the manner in which Laius's died. A messenger tells her that King Polybos (the man Oedipus believes to be his father) has died and that the people of Isthmus want Oedipus to rule over them. Oedipus hopes this news means that the oracle is false (he hasn't killed his father since Polybos has died of old age), but he still fears that he is destined to marry his mother. The messenger tells him that Polybos was not his father and that he, a shepherd, had been handed the child Oedipus by another shepherd, one of Laius's men. Jocasta tries to intervene and stop the revelations, but Oedipus welcomes the news.
(The entire section is 126 words.)
Act IV Summary
The shepherd enters and tells Oedipus, after a great deal of resistance, that he is Laius's son and that he had had him taken away to his own country by the messenger so as to avoid his fate. The chorus bewails the change in Oedipus from revered and fortunate ruler to one who has plunged into the depths of wretchedness.
(The entire section is 60 words.)
Act V Summary
A second messenger reports that Jocasta has just committed suicide, having realized that she was married to her son and thus had given birth to his children. He also reports that the king, suffering intensely upon hearing the news of his identity, blinded himself with the Queen's brooches. Oedipus has also requested that he be shown to the people of Thebes and then exiled; he comes out, bewildered and crying, asking for shelter from his painful memory, which cannot be removed as easily his eyes could be.
In the darkness of his blindness he wishes he were dead and feels the prophetic weight of the oracle. His blindness will allow him to avoid the sight of those whom he was destined to wrong and toward whom he feels immense sorrow and guilt. He asks Creon to lead him out of the country, to give Jocasta a proper burial, and to take care of his young daughters, Antigone (who comes to play a central role in the play named after her) and Ismene. In an extremely moving final moment with his children (who, he reminds himself, are also his siblings), Oedipus hears them and asks to hold their hands for the last time. He tells them they will have difficult lives and will be punished by men for sins they did not commit; for this reason he implores Thebes to pity them. He asks Creon again to exile him, and in his last speech he expresses regret at having to depart from his beloved children. The Chorus ends the play by using Oedipus's story to illustrate the famous...
(The entire section is 280 words.)