Oedipus the King, Lines 1 – 525 Summary and Analysis
Oedipus: the King of Thebes, who is married to Jocasta, his mother
Priest: a priest of Zeus, the king of the gods
Creon: the brother of Jocasta, the mother of Oedipus
Chorus: a group of Theban elders and their Leader, whose commentary helps the audience understand the events on stage
Tiresias: the blind prophet who sees the future
The play opens during the plague years in Thebes. Miserable and dying, the people don’t know what to do about their condition. Nothing—not even prayers to the gods—is helping.
Oedipus is a great and kind king, and he feels the pain of his people. Approaching the faithful but despairing worshippers at his altar, he asks what he can do. A priest of Zeus, the king of all the gods, details the despair of the people. Death is everywhere. Crops, livestock, people—all are being stricken. Despite the devastation, the priest still has faith in the gods and in his king, and having made offerings at the altar he now begs Oedipus to do something.
The king says that he has already done something—he has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the Oracle at Delphi for advice. As omnipresent in ancient Greek affairs of state as political pundits are today, the Oracle at Delphi combined the role of a religious shrine with that of a modern-day spin doctor. The Oracle’s pronouncements were taken seriously by many powerful people, and it is a sign of humility and of respect for the gods that Oedipus sends for its advice.
Creon returns, and Oedipus immediately asks for news. Creon hints that it would best be delivered in private, but Oedipus insists on having Creon tell his news publicly. The news seems simple enough, at first. The Oracle has said that the murder of the previous king, Laius, must be avenged.
The complicated part is how to do this. The crime has gone unsolved for many years, and any clues the murderer left have long since disappeared. Oedipus mocks the people for having let such a crime go unsolved and unpunished. He vows to find the killer, serve justice, and stop the plague.
In a long speech, the Chorus mourns the dead, and begs the gods for help.
Oedipus hears the fervent prayers, and tells the Chorus to look to him for deliverance. He announces his intention to find and punish whoever killed Laius, and he warns of terrible punishments for anyone who hides the truth.
The Leader of the Chorus suggests that the blind prophet Tiresias might be able to help, and the ever-vigilant Oedipus says a message has already been sent to him. This is an early foreshadowing of the interplay between sight and blindness that builds throughout the play. It is one of the play’s central ironies that the blind old man is the first to see the truth.
For all his strength, intelligence, and wisdom, Oedipus is blind to the central and most tragic facts of his life—that he is the man who murdered his father and that he has taken his mother as his wife. Although he has constructed his life to avoid the fate that was foretold for him, he has failed to see that all his efforts have only led him closer to fulfilling that grim prophecy.
When the Leader sees Tiresias coming, he announces that the prophet is the man who will convict the old king’s murderer. He speaks more profoundly than he knows.
Oedipus welcomes the prophet, with praise for his powers and his knowledge. But the seer is strangely reticent. He wishes only to go back home, without speaking.
At first cajolingly and then angrily, Oedipus insists on hearing what Tiresias has to say. Tiresias says that Oedipus is the cause of the plagues, and that the king is the murderer. In a rage, Oedipus rejects Tiresias and his vision, and accuses the seer of conspiring with Creon against the throne.
The Leader of the Chorus tries to smooth over the situation, but it’s too late. Tiresias answers Oedipus furiously, saying that the king can see far less than a blind man can. The section ends with mutual threats and insults.
Discussion and Analysis
This storyline and its...
(The entire section is 16,132 words.)