Summary and Analysis
Oedipus the King, Lines 1 – 525 Summary and Analysis
Oedipus: the King of Thebes, who is married to Jocasta, his mother
Priest: a priest of Zeus, the king of the gods
Creon: the brother of Jocasta, the mother of Oedipus
Chorus: a group of Theban elders and their Leader, whose commentary helps the audience understand the events on stage
Tiresias: the blind prophet who sees the future
The play opens during the plague years in Thebes. Miserable and dying, the people don’t know what to do about their condition. Nothing—not even prayers to the gods—is helping.
Oedipus is a great and kind king, and he feels the pain of his people. Approaching the faithful but despairing worshippers at his altar, he asks what he can do. A priest of Zeus, the king of all the gods, details the despair of the people. Death is everywhere. Crops, livestock, people—all are being stricken. Despite the devastation, the priest still has faith in the gods and in his king, and having made offerings at the altar he now begs Oedipus to do something.
The king says that he has already done something—he has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the Oracle at Delphi for advice. As omnipresent in ancient Greek affairs of state as political pundits are today, the Oracle at Delphi combined the role of a religious shrine with that of a modern-day spin doctor. The Oracle’s pronouncements were taken seriously by many powerful people, and it is a sign of humility and of respect for the gods that Oedipus sends for its advice.
Creon returns, and Oedipus immediately asks for news. Creon hints that it would best be delivered in private, but Oedipus insists on having Creon tell his news publicly. The news seems simple enough, at first. The Oracle has said that the murder of the previous king, Laius, must be avenged.
The complicated part is how to do this. The crime has gone unsolved for many years, and any clues the murderer left have long since disappeared. Oedipus mocks the people for having let such a crime go unsolved and unpunished. He vows to find the killer, serve justice, and stop the plague.
In a long speech, the Chorus mourns the dead, and begs the gods for help.
Oedipus hears the fervent prayers, and tells the Chorus to look to him for deliverance. He announces his intention to find and punish whoever killed Laius, and he warns of terrible punishments for anyone who hides the truth.
The Leader of the Chorus suggests that the blind prophet Tiresias might be able to help, and the ever-vigilant Oedipus says a message has already been sent to him. This is an early foreshadowing of the interplay between sight and blindness that builds throughout the play. It is one of the play’s central ironies that the blind old man is the first to see the truth.
For all his strength, intelligence, and wisdom, Oedipus is blind to the central and most tragic facts of his life—that he is the man who murdered his father and that he has taken his mother as his wife. Although he has constructed his life to avoid the fate that was foretold for him, he has failed to see that all his efforts have only led him closer to fulfilling that grim prophecy.
When the Leader sees Tiresias coming, he announces that the prophet is the man who will convict the old king’s murderer. He speaks more profoundly than he knows.
Oedipus welcomes the prophet, with praise for his powers and his knowledge. But the seer is...
(The entire section is 1444 words.)
Oedipus the King, Lines 526 – 1,165 Summary and Analysis
Jocasta: the Queen of Thebes, who is married to her son, Oedipus
A Messenger: a messenger from Corinth
This section begins with a long song from the Chorus, whose faith in the power of prophecy and in Oedipus, their King, is being sorely tested. One thing is certain—that someone who committed the terrible crime of murdering Laius is loose in the city and fate lies in wait to punish him, the Chorus says. But the prophet Tiresias, who has always been reliable, is now making terrible accusations against a king who has been brave, just and wise, casting the Chorus into turmoil. Deciding to put off any decision, the Chorus demands proof before accepting the charges Tiresias has made.
The gods, who know the truth, could supply the truth the Chorus seeks, but Zeus and Apollo are keeping what they know to themselves. While the Chorus waits for the gods to speak, the members hope that Oedipus turns out to be innocent.
Creon enters then, proclaiming his innocence. Angry and feeling wronged, he wants to confront his brother-in-law over the charges of conspiracy and treason that Oedipus has publicly hurled at him and Tiresias. The Leader of the Chorus advises calm, saying Creon should consider overlooking the incident. But that is not going to happen, because Oedipus enters and repeats the charge.
The two men interrogate each other, trying to prove guilt and innocence, and Creon cleverly argues that he doesn’t want the throne. Being the king’s brother-in-law gives Creon all the prestige and wealth of the ruler with none of his responsibilities, Creon says. The Leader of the Chorus hears reason in what Creon says, and suggests that Oedipus is being hasty in condemning his relative. Oedipus rejects this advice, saying he wants Creon dead. The two men resume their argument, and the Leader of the Chorus attempts to intervene when Jocasta enters.
Jocasta is Creon’s sister and the wife of Oedipus, and she breaks up the fight between them by shaming them into silence. She gets from each man a brief version of his side of the story, and then she asks Oedipus to believe her brother’s denials and to spare his life. The Chorus sides with Jocasta and Creon, and says that Oedipus would do well not to execute a kinsman on a whim. Oedipus yields, but without grace. Creon leaves, muttering prophetically that Oedipus is the type of man who goes too far. Oedipus and Jocasta quarrel over Creon, and the Chorus interrupts them, saying there is trouble enough in Thebes without the royal couple fighting and making things worse.
The Chorus gives Oedipus and Jocasta some privacy, and the Queen asks the King why he is so upset. Oedipus says that Creon has schemed with Tiresias to pin the murder of Laius on him.
Trying to calm her husband, Jocasta says that she and Laius long ago outwitted the gods and their prophets, and that he need not fear them either. Proclaiming victory over everything sacred, Jocasta tells Oedipus how she and her first husband, Laius, cheated fate. It was prophesied that their son would kill his father, and Jocasta and Laius undid that foretelling by abandoning their infant boy to starve on a mountainside Everything turned out fine, Jocasta says, and there’s nothing to worry about now.
Instead of calming Oedipus, his wife’s narrative makes him more upset. Pieces of memory begin forming themselves into frightening shapes in his mind. As he quizzes Jocasta on the details of the former king’s murder that filtered back to the palace, Oedipus begins to suspect that he murdered Laius. Jocasta tells Oedipus not to jump to conclusions, and they agree to send for the old, freed slave who is the murder’s sole surviving witness.
Oedipus then delivers a long, soul-searching speech. He still believes himself to be the son of the Corinthian king, Polybus, but he is bothered by a dim memory of a drunken reveler at a banquet saying otherwise. At the time, his parents denied that he was adopted, and he believed them.
He continues his history with the story of his visit to the Oracle at Delphi, where he heard for himself the prophecy that he would kill his father and wed his mother. A loving son to the only parents he has ever known, and a bold and intelligent man who believes he can use his powers to thwart fate, Oedipus fled and never returned.
Wandering, Oedipus soon meets and kills an old man and the escorts accompanying him. The confrontation begins as an ordinary roadside fight over who has the right-of-way, but it escalates quickly into murder. The old man started the fight, according to the version of events that Oedipus remembers. By nearly running Oedipus off...
(The entire section is 1945 words.)
Oedipus the King, Lines 1,166 – 1,680 Summary and Analysis
A Shepherd: the shepherd saves Oedipus, when, as a baby he is abandoned with his feet bound on a barren mountainside
A Messenger: the messenger from the palace sees a grim sight
Antigone: the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, who are mother and son
Ismene: Antigone’s sister
Jocasta asks Oedipus to drop the idea of locating the shepherd who saved him from abandonment, but he won’t hear of it. As deaf to her pleas as he is blind to the truth about himself, he vows to discover his origins. Leaving the stage with a cry of anguished grief, Jocasta worries the Leader of the Chorus, who suggests to Oedipus that the...
(The entire section is 1175 words.)
Oedipus at Colonus Lines 1 – 524 Summary and Analysis
Oedipus: the former King of Thebes
Antigone: the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta
A Citizen: a citizen or free man of Colonus
Chorus: a group of elders from Colonus and their Leader, whose commentary helps the audience understand the events on stage
Ismene: the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta
The play begins with Oedipus, who was once a mighty king, as a broken, blind, exiled wanderer. Antigone, a young woman who is both his daughter and his sister, serves Oedipus as his eyes, his guide and his only companion.
After long years of wandering and begging, Oedipus has learned humility. He is...
(The entire section is 2236 words.)
Oedipus at Colonus Lines 525 – 1,192 Summary and Analysis
Theseus: the King of Athens, which includes Colonus
Creon: the King of Thebes, and the brother of Jocasta
Now that the Leader has gathered his courage and agreed to help Oedipus, the next step is to make amends to the goddesses whose ground was trespassed upon. This section begins with Oedipus and the Leader acting as tutor and teacher in a complex religious ritual meant to soothe the Eumenides into forgiveness. The complicated ritual involves sacred water, tufts of wool cut from a young lamb and olive branches. Olives were one of the crops that Greek traders sold on their land-and-sea routes, and it was also a basic element of the...
(The entire section is 2243 words.)
Oedipus at Colonus Lines 1,193 – 1,645 Summary and Analysis
Polynices: the son of Oedipus and Jocasta
Imagining glorious victory for the Athenians and crushing defeat for the enemy, the Chorus describes images of war. The battle-lust ends suddenly, when the Leader tells Oedipus that Ismene and Antigone are in sight.
The two women appear, accompanied by Theseus, their rescuer, and they rush into their father’s embrace. Oedipus thanks Theseus, and praises him in general and Athens in particular for showing a blind, broken old man the first truth and justice he has seen in all his wanderings. Theseus modestly accepts the praise, and reaffirms his promises of protection. He declines to boast of the...
(The entire section is 1699 words.)
Oedipus at Colonus Lines 1,646 – 2,001 Summary and Analysis
A Messenger: a messenger who delivers news
The rumbling sounds of thunder off in the distance are the sign that Oedipus has been waiting for. He believes that his death is imminent, and he asks that Theseus be brought to him immediately. The Chorus is awestruck by the booming thunder and the sizzling lightning, and the men ask what will happen and where will it end? Calmly and with great certainty, Oedipus turns to his daughters and tells them that his time on earth is expired. As he speaks, the weather redoubles its force. The Chorus trembles, praying for mercy.
The divine force unleashed in the skies frightens even Oedipus, and he fears...
(The entire section is 1076 words.)
Antigone Lines 1 – 376 Summary and Analysis
Antigone: the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, who are mother and son
Ismene: Antigone’s sister
Chorus: a group of Theban elders and their leader, whose commentary helps the audience understand the events on stage
Creon: the King of Thebes, the uncle of Antigone and Ismene
A Sentry: a soldier
The play opens when Eteocles and Polynices, the two sons of the ill-fated Oedipus and Jocasta, have just killed each other in battle. The two young men, Antigone’s brothers, ended their lives fulfilling the curse called down on them by their father, when they denied him aid in his exile—to kill and be killed,...
(The entire section is 1055 words.)
Antigone Lines 377 – 827 Summary and Analysis
Haemon: the son of Creon, he is to be married to Antigone
This section opens with a long speech by the Chorus that celebrates the powers of humanity but warns that justice and the gods are mightier.
After this meditation, Antigone enters, accompanied by a sentry. The Sentry immediately announces that she’s been caught burying the body of Polynices, and asks for Creon. The king enters, and the Sentry proudly says that he’s free and clear of this whole business, now that the prisoner has been caught giving funeral rites to Polynices. Astonished, the king demands details. The Sentry lays out the case against the prisoner. Furious now, the...
(The entire section is 1122 words.)
Antigone Lines Lines 828 – 1,213 Summary and Analysis
Tiresias: the blind prophet who sees the future
Creon and Haemon argue bitterly over Antigone, and the young man accuses his father of profaning justice and the gods. The king is furious, and says that Haemon will never marry Antigone because she will soon be joining the dead. Haemon says that her death will kill another—a desperate proclamation of his love that Creon hears as a threat against the crown. In anger and sorrow, Haemon flees the palace.
The Leader of the Chorus asks Creon about Ismene and Antigone, and the king says that Ismene is, after all, innocent. But the king plans a living burial for Antigone in a tomb of rock....
(The entire section is 992 words.)
Antigone Lines 1,214 – 1,470 Summary and Analysis
A Messenger: a man who delivers news
Eurydice: the wife of King Creon, the mother of Haemon
When the Leader of the Chorus tells Creon that Tiresias has always been a truthful man, the king agrees. Suddenly confessing himself to be shaken and torn by the blind old man’s warning, Creon asks for advice. The Leader of the Chorus tells Creon to free Antigone from her walled burial vault and to build a proper tomb for her brother. Creon says he will do these things.
The Chorus speaks now, invoking the god Dionysus and preparing for festivities in his name. Creon has repented his wrath and his decree, the natural order of things is...
(The entire section is 1145 words.)