Oedipus Rex Summary
Oedipus Rex is a Greek tragedy that tells the story of King Oedipus of Thebes, who is fated to kill his father and marry his mother.
- Thebes is struck by a plague that will only be lifted if the man who killed the former king is exiled. The prophet Teiresias claims the murderer is Oedipus.
- An oracle told Queen Jocasta that her son would kill her husband, so she left her infant child—Oedipus—to die. Oedipus survived and unknowingly killed his father before marrying Jocasta and becoming king.
- When they realize the truth, Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus blinds himself and goes into exile.
Last Updated on January 22, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975
Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex begins as a Priest of Apollo asks King Oedipus of Thebes to help end the plague that is ravaging the city. In response, Oedipus reveals that he has already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to consult with the oracle of Apollo at Delphi on the matter. Creon returns with the message that in order for the plague to end, the murderer of Laius, the previous king of Thebes, must be brought to justice. According to the oracle, the murderer still resides within the city. Oedipus, who arrived in Thebes after Laius’s death, asks Creon for the details of the murder. Creon explains that Laius was killed by thieves while on his way to consult an oracle. Oedipus vows to exact revenge against the murderer and end the plague.
In order to find the murderer, Oedipus summons the blind prophet Teiresias. When Oedipus asks about the identity of the murderer, Teiresias is cryptic at first. He laments that there is little point in knowing the truth when the truth will bring nothing but misery. However, when Oedipus insults Teiresias and accuses him of the murder, Teiresias angrily reveals that Oedipus himself killed Laius. Oedipus assumes that Teiresias is working on behalf of Creon to dethrone him, and he angrily rebukes the prophet. He accuses Teiresias of being talentless and boasts that he was the one who saved Thebes. When Oedipus arrived, Thebes was held captive by a sphinx. In order to make her leave, Oedipus solved her riddle. After successfully freeing the city, Oedipus was made king. Teiresias angrily rebukes Oedipus for not trusting in his skills as a prophet, and he enigmatically reveals that Oedipus’s parents trusted his talents. As Teiresias departs, he delivers one final prophecy: Oedipus is both the father and brother of his children, implying that he has married his mother.
After Teiresias leaves, Oedipus angrily confronts Creon, whom he believes is conspiring against him. He tells Creon to either leave Thebes or die. Their argument is interrupted by the arrival of Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife and Creon’s sister. She scolds them for arguing when there are more important matters to attend to. Creon departs, leaving Jocasta and Oedipus to discuss the conflict. Jocasta chides Oedipus for baselessly accusing Creon of treason and advises him to distrust prophecies. As evidence, she cites Teiresias’s prophecy that her former husband, King Laius, would be killed by his own son. In response, Jocasta and Laius sent their child away to die on a mountain. Laius was later killed by thieves on his way to visit a prophet.
Jocasta’s recounting of Laius’s murder startles Oedipus. He recalls his journey to Thebes, in which he participated in an incident similar to the murder Jocasta describes. He begins to fear that he truly is the man who murdered Laius. He tells Jocasta to send for the only survivor from Laius’s traveling party. When Jocasta questions Oedipus further, he explains the circumstances that brought him to Thebes. Oedipus was raised in Corinth by King Polybus and Queen Merope. One day, he overheard someone say that Oedipus was not truly their son. To obtain answers, Oedipus visited the oracle of Delphi, who did not confirm his parentage but instead foretold that Oedipus would murder his father and marry his mother. In order to circumvent the prophecy, Oedipus fled Corinth. On his way to Thebes, in the same location where Laius was murdered, he encountered a traveling party who threatened to run him off the road. In retaliation, Oedipus killed them all, save for one survivor, who got away. Oedipus is troubled by the connections between Laius’s murder and his own actions. Jocasta urges him to avoid assumptions until he has had the chance to the talk to the survivor.
Soon after, a messenger arrives from Corinth to inform Oedipus that King Polybus is dead. Oedipus and Jocasta take this news as further proof that prophecies are inaccurate, because Oedipus was prophesied to be his father’s murderer. However, the messenger then reveals that Polybus was not Oedipus’s real father. Instead, the messenger, who was previously a shepherd, received the baby Oedipus from one of Laius’s herdsman. Oedipus asks Jocasta if she could identify the herdsman, but she begs Oedipus not to pursue this line of inquiry. Assuming that Jocasta is simply embarrassed to be married to someone of unroyal ancestry, Oedipus continues his inquiry and calls for the herdsman to be brought before him. Jocasta then departs, promising to be “silent evermore.”
The herdsman then arrives and confirms that he gave the infant Oedipus to the messenger. However, upon being questioned about the infant’s origins, he remains stubbornly silent. When Oedipus threatens to have him killed, the herdsman reluctantly admits that the infant was Laius and Jocasta’s son. Laius and Jocasta told the herdsman to kill the child, who was prophesied to murder his father and marry his mother. However, the herdsman took pity on the infant Oedipus and instead gave him to the messenger, believing that the child could do no harm if he was raised in another city.
Oedipus, realizing that he has indeed murdered his father and married his mother, runs offstage in grief. A second messenger then enters the stage and reports on what has happened inside the palace. Jocasta, no longer able to deny the truth, hanged herself. Oedipus, upon finding her dead, used the pins of her dress to blind himself. An inconsolable Oedipus then re-enters the stage and bemoans the tragedy of his life. When Creon arrives, Oedipus asks to be exiled for his sins. He also asks Creon to look after his young daughters, Antigone and Ismene. As Oedipus is led away, the Chorus laments his fate. Oedipus’s story continues in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus.