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.

Frequently Asked Questions about Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex

The unfortunate Oedipus in Sophocles's play Oedipus Rex learns far too late that he has fulfilled a prophecy made at his birth. He has killed his father and married his mother. Of course, he...

Latest answer posted April 1, 2021, 5:20 pm (UTC)

4 educator answers

Oedipus Rex

After Oedipus blinds himself, there is some conflict between the king and the Chorus. The Chorus think, quite reasonably, that blinding himself has only made a terrible situation even worse and...

Latest answer posted September 14, 2020, 12:02 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

A messenger delivers the news to the audience regarding Oedipus's reaction to finding Jocasta dead. The messenger relates that Oedipus rushed to the chamber of Jocasta and burst through the oak...

Latest answer posted September 14, 2020, 12:52 pm (UTC)

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Oedipus Rex

The priest of Zeus to whom Oedipus speaks in the opening scene of the play refers to the “God of Plague,” whom he believes is responsible for the failed harvest, famine, and disease that are...

Latest answer posted September 14, 2020, 11:32 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

After Oedipus's exile, Creon becomes the ruler of Thebes. He is Jocasta's brother, which makes him both Oedipus's brother-in-law and his uncle. Creon takes over because neither of Oedipus's sons is...

Latest answer posted September 14, 2020, 11:15 am (UTC)

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Oedipus Rex

The date usually given for the first public performance of Oedipus Rex is 429 BCE, but this date is purely conjectural, since no records exist from that time attesting to the actual date of the...

Latest answer posted September 14, 2020, 2:30 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

Much of the plot of Oedipus Rex resembles a murder mystery: Oedipus, the king of Thebes, learns that the plague ravaging the city is the result of the murderer of Thebes's former king, Laius, still...

Latest answer posted September 13, 2020, 11:43 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

The great tragic irony in Oedipus the King is that Oedipus spends most of the play relentlessly hunting for the man who has brought the plague upon Thebes, when the man he is looking for is...

Latest answer posted September 14, 2020, 11:31 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

It is actually Laius, Oedipus’s birth father, who is cursed and is responsible for the curse on his descendants, and this results in Oedipus’s tragic fate. When Laius’s father, Labdacus, the king...

Latest answer posted September 14, 2020, 1:34 pm (UTC)

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Oedipus Rex

Oedipus killed his birth father, Laius, at a triple crossroads, where roads from Thebes, Delphi, and Daulis met. He had just been to Delphi, where he consulted a famous prophet, the Delphic Oracle....

Latest answer posted September 14, 2020, 11:11 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

Jocasta's brother's name is Creon. Early in the play, Creon is away from Thebes, as Oedipus has sent him to the oracle at Delphi in order to find out what Oedipus, the king, will need to do to end...

Latest answer posted September 13, 2020, 11:30 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

As one can see from Oedipus Rex and countless other Greek tragedies, the ancient Greeks placed great importance on prophecies. It was widely believed that expert prophets were able to divine the...

Latest answer posted September 13, 2020, 11:47 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

Oedipus is a good, responsible ruler. As the play opens, a procession from his kingdom comes to see him. He asks them what is wrong, and they tell him of the plague besetting them. In his speech in...

Latest answer posted September 13, 2020, 11:44 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

Oedipus sends Creon to Delphi in order to consult the oracle and find out why a blight (or disease) has come on the crops, the herds of cows and sheep, and even women who are pregnant. The priest...

Latest answer posted September 13, 2020, 11:48 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi prophesied that any son born to Laius, king of Thebes, would kill him. When Oedipus was born, therefore, Laius and his wife, Jocasta, gave the boy to a shepherd with...

Latest answer posted September 13, 2020, 11:13 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

When she first married Oedipus, Jocasta was not at all aware that her new husband was her long-lost son. Even at the start of the play, she is still ignorant of this information. Jocasta is secure...

Latest answer posted September 13, 2020, 11:27 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

Oedipus's mother, Jocasta, kills herself because she figures out the truth: Oedipus is actually her son, which means not only that she has had sex with her own child, but also that their children...

Latest answer posted September 13, 2020, 12:00 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

The principal lesson of Oedipus Rex is that there is no escape from the workings of fate. Tragedy overtakes the best and wisest of humanity. King Laius attempted to ensure that he would not be...

Latest answer posted September 13, 2020, 11:32 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

Sophocles is often regarded as one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived. He wrote well over a hundred plays, only seven of which survive. Oedipus Rex is one of them and is arguably his most...

Latest answer posted September 13, 2020, 12:13 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus the King, is an ancient Greek tragedy written by Sophocles. It tells the story of Oedipus—the tragic king of Thebes who, desperate to stop a twisted prophecy from coming to...

Latest answer posted September 13, 2020, 12:23 pm (UTC)

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