What is the significance of the opening scene of Oedipus Rex?
The opening scene of Sophocles's play Oedipus Rex takes the audience to a city in crisis. The city's ruler wants to resolve the crisis, but he cannot do this until he understands its root cause. This simple context—a man looking for the answer to a problem—is the frame for the horror that follows.
When Oedipus arrives on scene, he says to the suppliants, "Be sure that I will gladly give you all my help." He does not know what that may entail, but he is a generous ruler and does not want his people to suffer. The suppliants respond with warm praise, saying to Oedipus that he has "uplifted our life" in his time as their king. They plead with him to "uplift" them once again and deliver them from the plague that stalks the city:
Let us not remember of your reign that we were first restored and then cast down: lift this state so that it falls no more!
Oedipus again assures the suppliants that he will do whatever he can. In fact, he has already sent his relative, Creon, to consult with the oracle of Apollo (the god of plagues) to see what the god advises in this case. Creon is taking his time getting back to Thebes, but once he arrives, Oedipus promises to take all necessary action to end the plague, and in so doing, he makes a fateful statement:
I would be no true man if I did not perform all that the god reveals.
When Oedipus says these words, he effectively "signs a blank check" for the events that follow. He is confident that, whatever action is required, he can perform it without undue negative consequence to himself. Indeed, he's certain that taking the required action will benefit everyone involved, himself as well as his subjects:
I will dispel this taint not on behalf of far-off friends, but for my own benefit [...] I will leave nothing untried.
The Chorus does not share Oedipus's certainty. They are fearful that any benefit that comes from following Apollo's advice will come at a high price:
I am on the rack, terror shakes my soul [...] wondering what debt [Apollo] will extract from me, perhaps unknown before, perhaps renewed with the revolving years.
Oedipus repeats his promise to do whatever is necessary to end the plague, and adds that if he himself is somehow to blame then "may [he] suffer the same things which [he has] just called down on others." Oedipus only wants to do what is right by his subjects, and will not exempt himself, their king, from any punishment Apollo may require. Alas, by making these promises, Oedipus seals his own doom. The opening scene therefore strongly foreshadows the fallout from Oedipus's generous but reckless words.