Last Updated on March 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805
Oedipus Rex, the second of Sophocles’s Theban plays, begins at the royal house of Thebes. Oedipus, the king of Thebes, enters accompanied by priests and a procession of inhabitants, who appeal to him as their leader to rid the city of a terrible plague.
In the opening lines of the play, Oedipus asks the assembly what is going on and why the citizens are bent in prayer, calling out for Apollo to cure the plague. He proudly asserts his identity and says that he has come to hear the truth for himself. Addressing a Priest, Oedipus asks him to speak on behalf of the people and tell him what ails them. He is willing, he states, to do anything to resolve their misery.
The Priest appeals to Oedipus as their great leader, again noting how both young and old have congregated before the temples of Athena and Apollo in their despair. He describes how the plague that has consumed the city of Thebes is destroying crops and cattle, as well as women and children, bringing fresh suffering to the inhabitants. While the Priest acknowledges that Oedipus cannot compare with the gods, the king is nevertheless considered to be knowledgeable in this matter, as he saved the city once before from the curse of the Sphinx, whose riddle he solved. The Theban people believe that Oedipus has the support of the gods, and the Priest begs him to save them once again so that his reign as king can be favorably remembered.
In response, Oedipus again notes the scale of their suffering and claims that has personally felt the pain of all his people as he has struggled to seek a solution. He has already sent his wife’s brother, Creon, to seek the guidance of Apollo from the oracle at Delphi, and Oedipus now wonders aloud why Creon has not already returned bearing news. At this point, the Priest interrupts him to observe Creon’s arrival with news from the Delphic oracle.
Creon arrives wearing the laurel wreath worn by those who have sought help from the oracle and says that he brings good news. Dismissing this vague response, Oedipus demands to hear the word of the god Apollo and, when Creon invites him to speak privately on the matter, forces him to deliver his message in public before the assembly. Reluctantly, Creon tells him that Apollo’s command is for corruption to be rooted out by bringing the murderer of the former king, Laius, to justice. The killer, he says, is still residing in Thebes.
Confused, Oedipus asks how Laius died, and Creon explains that he was murdered on his way to consult an oracle, although only one man survived the attack to tell the tale. Oedipus is outraged and vows to bring the killer to justice. Before entering the palace with Creon, Oedipus ominously declares that this course of action will either be his triumph or his downfall. The Priest makes a final appeal to Apollo and exits in procession.
Here, the Chorus enter the stage, comprising citizens of Thebes who appeal to the gods and describe the anguish of the people. First they appeal to Zeus for news from Delphi, and next they ask Apollo what price they must pay to end this misery. The Chorus then call upon Athena and Artemis, asking each of the gods in turn to defend them from this unending grief. With detailed description, they recount the unending anguish of the people and depict the mounting death toll, which fills the streets with corpses. Once more, they appeal to Athena, asking the goddess to expel this god of death and war to the depths of the ocean or the furthest borders of the Black Sea. With a final appeal to the gods, the Chorus now await the entrance of Oedipus to respond to their supplication.
Oedipus enters the scene and reacts to the Chorus as if addressing the entire city of Thebes. He announces that if anyone knows the truth of who murdered Laius, they should identify themselves to avoid an even harsher punishment. When there is no reply, however, Oedipus goes on to state that if anyone is withholding information on this case, they will be banished from the city of Thebes. He publicly condemns the unknown murderer and goes so far as to condemn himself, if the man who killed Laius is residing in his own house. Oedipus claims he will seek to avenge the death of Laius as if he were his own father and calls upon the gods to strike down any who disobey his orders.
While the Leader of the Chorus claims that Apollo should name the killer, Oedipus refuses to try to compel the gods, and therefore they call upon the blind prophet Tiresias to speak on the gods’ behalf.
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