What is the significance of the opening scene of Oedipus Rex?

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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.

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The opening scene establishes Oedipus as a proud king. He tells his subjects—calling them his "children"—that his pain is so much greater than theirs is. It is as though he takes some kind of pride in the fact that he feels more pain than they. He says, "Your sorrow touches each man severally, / Him and none other, but I grieve at once / Both for the general and myself and you." He insists that he doesn't need prompting from them in order to move him to find the cause of their great suffering, telling them, "ye rouse no sluggard from day-dreams." Again, he insists that he is not a lazy king, dreaming away; he is active and careful and purposeful. Oedipus is like a proud father, insisting that his children have no need to speak to him about fulfilling his obligations to them. Further, the scene establishes Oedipus as a reasonably intelligent and able leader. He has exercised enough forethought to have already sent his brother-in-law (and uncle), Creon, to the oracle to find out what can be done to help his countrymen. His high opinion of himself as a leader, therefore, seems to be at least somewhat confirmed by his actions so far.

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The opening scene of Oedipus Rex is Oedipus standing before the people of Thebes, asking why are they are mourning.  Speaking on behalf of the people, a priest explains to Oedipus that they (the people) are suffering - from famine, hunger, death, and sorrow.  Oedipus decrees (in front of everyone) that he helped them once (speaking of solving the riddle of the sphynx) so certainly he will help them again.  He promises to do whatever it takes to find the source of all this strife, and then eliminate it.

The significance of this is that this is the very scene where Oedipus dooms himself.  First, he brags about how great and powerful he is as their king (his tragic flaw: hubris).  Then, he promises to seek out the source of the problem (which turns out to be himself) and promises to get rid of it (which means he must learn that his fate to kill his father and marry his mother has come true and then eliminate himself from the kingdom - through banishment or death).  This scene sets the tone of dramatic irony immediately.  We, the audience, know the doom that awaits this powerful king.  Oedipus is unaware of all of this.  He does not even know of the fate spoken over him as a child, let alone that it came true even when his parents attempted to prevent it.  Now, all we must do is watch (or read on) to witness what we know is inevitable destruction.  What a hook!

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