Important themes of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles include fate versus free will and conflicts between personal and public responsibility, as well as the devastating consequences of incest. Sophocles’s play is often thought of in relationship to Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the last of these themes, but the ancient Greek tragedy incorporates that theme within broader considerations of natural and social relationships. Although Oedipus has become king by unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother, much of the play focuses on his efforts as the leader of Thebes to free his people from the plague. His situation is contrasted with that of his parents, who made a difficult decision to sacrifice him for what they believed was the good of their kingdom.
Among twentieth-century works, Eugene O’Neill incorporated various aspects of Greek tragedy into several of his themes. Desire Under the Elms, set in the nineteenth century, addresses the theme of paternal and social responsibility as contrasted to personal desire. It includes a sexual relationship between stepson and stepmother. Rather than a king, the father character is a wealthy New England farmer.
A contemporary work that locates Oedipus in the nineteenth century is Rita Dove’s play The Darker Face of the Earth. She adapts the story to a setting on a Southern US plantation, and the “plague” is the institution of slavery. The son of a white planter’s daughter and an enslaved Black man is cast out of the family, as Oedipus is, but in this case he is sold as a slave.