Oedipus Rex Study Guide
Introduction to Oedipus Rex
Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus the King, is a play by ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles. It is a part of a sequence of plays, written during the fifth century BCE, based on the myths of Oedipus and the misfortunes that befell the House of Laius. Chronologically, Oedipus Rex is the first play in the sequence, and it depicts the tragic revelation that Oedipus, the King of Thebes, has unknowingly murdered his biological father and married his biological mother. In his grief over discovering his incest and patricide, Oedipus blinds himself. The subsequent plays in the trilogy, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, explore the aftermath of Oedipus’s downfall and the fate of Thebes following the loss of its king.
Sophocles debuted Oedipus Rex at the Dionysia festival of Athens in 429 BCE, winning second prize in the theatrical competition. Sophocles was perhaps the most celebrated tragedian of Athens during his lifetime, and Oedipus Rex is regarded as one of his best works. In his seminal work of dramatic theory, Poetics, fourth century BCE philosopher Aristotle referred to the play as an example of a perfectly structured tragedy, and modern scholars often regard Oedipus Rex as one of the finest works of extant ancient Greek drama.
Much of Oedipus Rex’s enduring popularity can be attributed to its characterization. Greek tragedies often relied on archetypal characters, who were given limited opportunities to change or grow. However, Sophocles infused a greater degree of emotion and depth into his works, and Oedipus’s downfall is rendered all the more tragic as a result. Furthermore, although it remains true to its ancient Greek theological origins, Oedipus Rex asks questions with timeless relevance, interrogating themes of fate, free will, ignorance, and individual accountability.
A Brief Biography of Sophocles
Sophocles (c. 497/6–406/5 BCE) was a Greek playwright who changed Greek drama by lessening the role of the chorus. Although the device was still used in the playwright’s works, its size and importance was significantly reduced when he introduced the third actor. This revolutionary change was so popular that even his revered predecessor, Aeschylus, adopted the convention. Eschewing the poetic roots of tragedy, Sophocles also changed Greek drama by defining it as what happens between people. Sophocles’s most famous character, Oedipus, typified the idea of the protagonist who has a “tragic flaw”—the very human quality of misjudging one’s place in the world. Whether the incest, suicides, and murders that befell Oedipus and his clan were Oedipus's fault or a cruel twist of fate, they firmly established the importance of Sophocles in the evolution of Greek tragedy. His plays, particularly Oedipus Rex and Antigone, are frequently read and studied today.