Oedipus Rex

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Editors: David M. Galens and Lynn M. Spampinato
Date: 1998
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 1. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 20
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Oedipus Rex

SOPHOCLES c. 430, B.C.

Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex is probably the most famous tragedy ever written. It is known by a variety of title (the most common being Oedipus Rex), including Oedipus the King and Oedipus Tyrannus. Sophocles, first produced the play in Athens around 430 B.C. at the Great Dionysia, a religious and cultural festival held in honor of the god Dionysus, where it won second prize. In the play Oedipus, King of Thebes, upon hearing that his city is being ravaged by fire and plague, sends his brother-in-law Creon to find a remedy from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. When Creon returns Oedipus begins investigating the death of his predecessor, Laius, and discovers through various means that he himself was the one who had unknowingly killed Laius and then married his own mother, Jocasta. Jocasta commits suicide, Oedipus blinds himself, takes leave of his children, and is led away. Aristotle praises the play in his Poetics for having an exemplary, well-constructed plot, one which is capable of inspiring fear and pity not only in its audience but especially in those who have merely heard of the story. Following Aristotle’s appraisal, many prominent authors including Voltaire, Frederich Nietzsche, and Sidmund Freud reacted at length to the play’s themes of incest and patricide. In the twentieth century, the most influential of these thinkers, Freud, showed that Oedipus’s fate is that of every man; the “Oedipus Complex” is the definitive parent-child relationship. Throughout history, writers have drawn upon the myth of Oedipus, Page 203  |  Top of Articleand dramatists, composers, and poets, including Pierre Corneille, Fredrich von Schiller, Heinrich von Kleist, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky, and Jean Cocteau, have both written on, translated, and staged the tragedy; contemporary filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Woody Allen have directed self-consciously autobiographical versions of Oedipus Rex.


Sophocles was born in Colonus, Greece, c. 496 B.C. and died in Athens c. 406 B.C. The son of an armor manufacturer, he was a member of a family of considerable rank, was well-educated, and held a number of significant political positions in addition to being one of the best dramatists in his age—an age in which his dramatic peers included the famed playwrights Euripides and Aeschylus. Sophocles studied under the musician Lampras and under Aeschylus, later becoming his rival. He lived and wrote during an era known as the Golden Age of Athens (480-406 B.C.); in 480 and 479 B.C. the city had won the battles of Salamis and Plataea against Persian invaders, thereby inaugurating what would become a definitive period in the history of Western literature and society, famed for its flourishing political and cultural life. The Golden Age lasted until Athens’s humiliating defeat to Sparta in 404 B.C., after 27 years of war between the two city-states (commonly referred to as the Peloponnesian War).

In many ways, the dramatic arts stood at the center of the cultural achievements of the Golden Age, and the popularity and success of the plays of Sophocles were evident in his own day. His works were produced at the Great Dionysia in Athens, an annual festival honoring the god Dionysus and culminating in the famous dramatic competitions. Sophocles won first prize over twenty times in the competition, beginning with Triptolemos in 468 B.C., the first year that Aeschylus lost the contest to him. Euripides lost to Sophocles in 438 B.C. Unfortunately, Triptolemos is one among many of Sophocles’s lost plays. He is purported to have written over one hundred tragedies yet only seven have survived to the modern era: Ajax (c. 450 B.C.); Antigone (c. 442 B.C.); Ichneutai (translated as The Trackers, c. 440 B.C.); The Trachiniae (c. 440-430 B.C.); Oedipus The King (c. 430-426 B.C.); Electro

Sophocles Sophocles

(c. 425-510 B.C.); Philoctetes (409 B.C.); and Oedipus at Colonus (c. 405 B.C.).

While there is some dispute among scholars as to their actual relationship, three of Sophocles’s surviving works are thought to comprise a trilogy. Known as the Theban Trilogy the plays are Antigone, Oedipus The King, and Oedipus at Colonus. All of these plays draw upon the ancient story of Oedipus, King of Thebes. The sources for Sophocles’s version of this legendary tale are thought to include Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, two ancient epic poems entitled the Oedipodeia and the Thebais, and four plays by Aeschylus, including Seven against Thebes.

In addition to being a dramatist and a public official, Sophocles also was a priest of the god Amynos, a healer. He married a woman named Nicostrata and had two sons, Iophon and Agathon.



Oedipus Rex begins outside King Oedipus’s palace, where despondent beggars and a priest have gathered and brought branches and wreaths of olive Page 204  |  Top of Articleleaves. Oedipus enters and asks the people of Thebes why they pray and lament, since apparently they have come together to petition him with an unknown request. The Priest speaks on their behalf, and Oedipus assures them that he will help them. The Priest reports that Thebes has been beset with horrible calamities—famine, fires, and plague have all caused widespread suffering and death among their families and animals, and their crops have all been destroyed. He beseeches Oedipus, whom he praises for having solved the riddle of the Sphinx (an action which justified his succession to King Laius, as Jocasta’s husband and as king) to cure the city of its woes. Oedipus expresses his profound sympathy and announces that he sent Creon, the Queen’s brother, to Delphi to receive the Oracle of Apollo, in order to gain some much-needed guidance.

Creon arrives and Oedipus demands, against Creon’s wishes, that he report the news in front of the gathered public. Creon reports that the gods caused the plague as a reaction against the murder of their previous king, Laius, and that they want the Thebans to “drive out pollution sheltered in our land”; in other words, to find the murderer and either kill or exile him (Laius had been killed on the roadside by a highwayman). Oedipus vows to root out this evil. In the next scene, the chorus of Theban elders calls upon the gods Apollo, Athena, and Artemis to save them from the disaster.

Act I

Declaring his commitment to finding and punishing Laius’s murderer, Oedipus says that he has sent for Teiresias, the blind prophet. After much pleading and mutual antagonism, Oedipus makes Teiresias say what he knows: that it was Oedipus who killed Laius. Outraged at the accusations Oedipus calls him a “fortuneteller” and a “deceitful beggar-priest.” Both are displaying what in Greek is called orge, or anger, towards each other. Oedipus suspects the seer of working on Creon’s behalf (Creon, as Laius’s brother, was and still is a potential successor to the throne). Teiresias thinks the king mad for not believing him and for being blind to his fate (not to mention ignorant of his true parentage). Oedipus then realizes that he does not know who his real mother is. Teiresias is led out while saying that Oedipus will be discovered to be a brother as well as a father to his children, a son as well as a husband to the same woman, and the killer of his father. He exits and the Chorus enters, warning of the implications of the decisive, oracular charges against Oedipus.

Act II

Creon expresses great desire to prove his innocence to Oedipus, who is continues to assert that Creon has been plotting to usurp the throne. Creon denies the accusations, saying he is quite content and would not want the cares and responsibilities that come with being king. Oedipus calls for his death. Jocasta, having heard their quarrel, enters and tries to pacify them, and the Chorus calls for proof of Creon’s guilt before Oedipus punishes him. Jocasta reminds Oedipus of Apollo’s oracle and also of the way Laius died. She recounts the story as it was told to her by a servant who was there at the crossroads where a charioteer and an old man attacked a man who in turn killed them. Hearing the tale, Oedipus realizes that he was the murderer and asks to consult the witness, the shepherd, who is sent for. The Chorus expresses its trust in the gods and prays to Heaven for a restoration of faith in the oracle.


Jocasta prays to Apollo to restore Oedipus’s sanity, since he has been acting strange since hearing the manner in which Laius’s died. A messenger tells her that King Polybos (the man Oedipus believes to be his father) has died and that the people of Isthmus want Oedipus to rule over them. Oedipus hopes this news means that the oracle is false (he hasn’t killed his father since Polybos has died of old age), but he still fears that he is destined marry his mother. The messenger tells him that Polybos was not his father and that he, a shepherd, had been handed the child Oedipus by another shepherd, one of Laius’s men. Jocasta tries to intervene and stop the revelations, but Oedipus welcomes the news.

Act IV

The shepherd enters and tells Oedipus, after a great deal of resistance, that he is Laius’s son and that he had had him taken away to his own country by the messenger so as to avoid his fate. The chorus bewails the change in Oedipus from revered and fortunate ruler to one who has plunged into the depths of wretchedness.

Act V

A second messenger reports that Jocasta has just committed suicide, having realized that she was Page 205  |  Top of Articlemarried to her son and thus had given birth to his children. He also reports that the king, suffering intensely upon hearing the news of his identity, blinded himself with the Queen’s brooches. Oedipus has also requested that he be shown to the people of Thebes and then exiled; he comes out, bewildered and crying, asking for shelter from his painful memory, which cannot be removed as easily his eyes could be.

In the darkness of his blindness he wishes he were dead and feels the prophetic weight of the oracle. His blindness will allow him to avoid the sight of those whom he was destined to wrong and toward whom he feels immense sorrow and guilt. He asks Creon to lead him out of the country, to give Jocasta a proper burial, and to take care of his young daughters, Antigone (who comes to play a central role in the play named after he) and Ismene. In an extremely moving final moment with his children (who, he reminds himself, are also his siblings), Oedipus hears them and asks to hold their hands for the last time. He tells them they will have difficult lives and will be punished by men for sins they did not commit; for this reason he implores Thebes to pity them. He asks Creon again to exile him, and in his last speech he expresses regret at having to depart from his beloved children. The Chorus ends the play by using Oedipus’s story to illustrate the famous moral that one should not judge a man’s life until it is over.


Chorus ofTheban Elders

Unlike the chorus in Antigone, whose Ode on Man historically has been regarded as a model expression of Athenian individualism, the chorus in this play has no famous statement, though its role is not insignificant. The Theban elders of the chorus are considered to be fairly representative men of Thebes who honor and respect the king and the gods; their odes reveal both a strong attachment to the king as well as a grounding in religious culture. In The Idea of a Theater, Francis Fergusson likens the chorus’ role to that of a character who provides a broader context for the action of the play as a whole: “the chorus’ action is not limited by the sharp, rationalized purposes of the protagonist; its mode of action, more patient, less sharply realized, is cognate with a wider, if less accurate, awareness of the scene of human life.”


Creon is the brother of Laius. Before the play begins Oedipus sent him on a mission to receive the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, and he returns with its news during the prologue. With great hesitation he reports that “The god commands us to expel from the land of Thebes/An old defilement we are sheltering.” He says that in order to rid the city of its woes, Oedipus must find the murderer of King Laius, his predecessor. Oedipus feels threatened by Creon and believes that he covets the throne (by some accounts Creon was to have been the next ruler following his brother’s death, and he is thus filled with resentment).

When Teiresias tells the unbelieving Oedipus what he will come to know his true identity and responsibility for his father’s murder, Oedipus immediately assumes that Teiresias is working for Creon, trying to get him the throne. Creon takes these accusations seriously and wishes to clear his name: “The fact is that I am being called disloyal/ To the State, to my fellow citizens, to my friends.” Creon defends himself to Oedipus in the next scene, saying that he has no desire to become king and that Oedipus harms himself and the state in leveling such accusations. Oedipus grows more incensed and calls for Creon’s death; only the pleading of Jocasta and a member of the chorus prevent him from acting. At the end of the play, after Oedipus has blinded himself, Creon becomes king and acts with compassion towards the repentant Oedipus, leading him into the palace and then, as Oedipus requests—and Apollo has ordained—into exile.


Jocasta is Oedipus’s wife and mother; she is also the mother of his children. Her first entrance onstage occurs when Oedipus and Creon are in the midst of arguing; Jocasta storms in and demands that they resolve their petty personal dispute because the country’s troubles are far more urgent: “Poor foolish men, what wicked din is this?/With Thebes sick to death, is it not shameful/That you should rake some private quarrel up?” She pleads

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  • There is an outstanding sound recording from 1974 of the opera-oratorio adaptation of Oedipus Rex by Igor Stravinsky and Jean Cocteau; the text is translated by e. e. cummings. It is available from Columbia Music.
  • Oedipus Rex was adapted as a film by Tyrone Guthrie, starring Douglas Campbell, Donald Davis, Eleanor Stuart, and Douglas Rain, Motion Pictures, 1957. The translation is by poet William Butler Yeats.
  • The play was also adapted for film by Pier Paolo Pasolini, starring Franco Citti, Silvano Mangano, Julian Beck, and Pasolini himself as the High Priest, Euro International Films, 1967. This epic film was shot in Morocco. Its interpretation of the Oedipus story is bleak, emotionally demanding, and self-consciously autobiographical.
  • Another film version from the 1960s is that of Philip Saville, starring Christopher Plummer, Lilli Palmer, Orson Welles, and Donald Sutherland, Universal, 1968.
  • Rainer Simon, a German filmmaker, directed Der Fall Dipus, or The Oedipus Case. Set in summertime Greece when a foreign military detachment camp out near Thebes and film the Oedipus story, the film stars Sebastian Hartmann, Tatiana Lygari, and Jan-Josef Liefers, 1990, Toro Film.
  • The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) adapted the play for film, starring Michael Pennington, Claire Bloom, and John Gielgud, 1991, Films for the Humanities, British Broadcasting Corporation. Excellent performances from the principal actors as well as from the chorus; staging is minimal but sufficient.
  • Oedipus Rex was adapted as a film for the Living Literature: The Classics and You series, Lesson No. 5., 1994, available from RMI Media Productions.
  • Two half-hour, made-for-video stage performances of the play are available from Children’s Television International (The Play Series, volume 2) and Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation (The EBE Humanities Program, Drama Series).
  • Far from a literal translation of the play is Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks, a short comedy about a Jewish New York attorney, Sheldon Mills, who is constantly being nagged, followed, and publicly humiliated by his overbearing mother, Sadie Millstein. The film stars Allen, Julie Kavner, Mia Farrow, and Mae Questel, 1989, Touchstone Pictures; it is the third segment in an anthology film entitled New York Stories.

with Oedipus to believe Creon’s good intentions towards him and their hostilities momentarily abate. She assures Oedipus that the oracle proclaiming Laius’s murder by his own son was false, since Laius was killed by highwaymen and his son had been left “to die on a lonely mountainside.” Rather than placating Oedipus, her words haunt him, he recalls “a shadowy memory,” and asks her to give details about Laius’s death. The surviving witness to the crime, tells Jocasta, had come to her when Oedipus was made king and asked her if he could be sent far away; she granted him his wish and now is asked by Oedipus to recall this witness—a shepherd—to the palace to testify about the murder.

Jocasta tells Oedipus not to trust in the truth of oracles. When the messenger arrives to tell of Polybos’s death, Jocasta is hopeful that she can allay Oedipus’s fears about fulfilling the prophecy. Later in the same scene she tries to stop him from questioning the messenger regarding his true father: “May you never learn who you are!” In her final Page 207  |  Top of Articlespeech she calls Oedipus “miserable” and says she will have no other name for him. Towards the end of the play a second messenger reports that she has hanged herself, giving a moving account of her wailing and physical expressions of grief during her last moments. Thornton Wilder, the American playwright, eloquently described Sophocles’s artistry in portraying Jocasta in American Characteristics and Other Essays: “The figure of the Queen is drawn with great precision, shielding her husband form the knowledge she foresees approaching; alternately condemning and upholding the authority of the oracles as best suits the direction of the argument at the moment, and finally giving up the struggle.”


The messenger enters in Scene III and tells Oedipus that King Polybos of Corinth, who Oedipus had believed to be his father is dead. Oedipus also learns from this messenger that Polybos was not his father; the messenger himself had been given Oedipus as an infant by one of Laius’s men and that he had untied Oedipus’s bound ankles. He causes the shepherd who left Oedipus to die (having been given him by Jocasta, his mother) to come in and testify that Oedipus is Laius’s son.

Messengers were common devices used in Greek drama. They were often used to relate action that occurred offstage or to summarize events that have taken place between acts or scenes.


Oedipus, the title character, is the protagonist of the play. His name means “swell-foot” or “swollen-foot.” One of the most famous dramatic characters in the history of Western literature, he was singled out by Aristotle in his Poetics as the right kind of protagonist because he inspires the right combination of pity and fear. “This is the sort of man who is not pre-eminently virtuous and just, and yet it is through no badness or villainy of his own that he falls into the misfortune, but rather through some flaw in him; he being one of those who are in high station and good fortune, like Oedipus and Thyestes and the famous men of families such as these.” Oedipus’s fatal flaw, the technical Greek term for which is hamartia, can be thought of as a character fault or a mistake, or more like an Achilles heel rather than a flaw for which he can be held directly responsible. A hereditary curse has been placed on his family, and he unknowingly has fulfilled the terms of the prophecy that Laius’s son would kill him and marry his wife.

The play’s action is concerned with the gradual and delayed revelation of the fulfillment of this oracle. It specifically focuses on Oedipus’s quest for knowledge, on the one hand, and, on the other, the other characters’ resistance to discovering the truth; Jocasta tries to protect her husband/brother from the facts and the shepherd cannot be forced to speak until his life is at stake. Oedipus impatiently confronts Creon and Teiresias with their hesitation to answer his summons to the palace to share their knowledge with him and the public. Connected with this frustration is a feature of Oedipus’s personality for which he is somewhat more responsible; Oedipus is also said to suffer from a character flaw known as hubris, or pride, and his cruel treatment of Creon and Teiresias in the aforementioned situations evidences this trait. He insists on hearing the truth, again and again, in the face of reluctant tellers who are scared for their lives, for his life, and for the future of Thebes.

Perhaps it is Oedipus’s pride which rounds him out and allows Aristotle to hold him up as a well-fashioned character, since without it he would seem too virtuous and the tragedy would be too “unlikely.” Oedipus’s speech is also given a good dose of irony in the play. For example, when he calls for an investigation of Laius’s murder and says “then once more I must bring what is dark to light,” he is also foreshadowing his future blinding, since his investigation will reveal the dark secret of his parentage, metaphorically enlightened by the truth but literally blinded by it as well. When he curses the murderer of Laius he is cursing himself and predicts his own exile and consequent life of “wretchedness.” Oedipus is wise (he has solved the riddle of the Sphinx), revered by his subjects, and dedicated to the discovery of truth. He wants to rid Thebes of the plague (pollution, a common theme in Greek drama) that is decimating its population. Fate and the gods, however, have other things in store for Oedipus, and his helplessness and utter ruin at the play’s conclusion are a painful spectacle.


After Oedipus’s opening lines, the Priest of Zeus is the next character in the play to speak, and he does so as a religious leader and elder representative of the people of Thebes. Standing before the king’s palace, surrounded by the Theban people, the priest informs Oedipus (and the audience) of the misery-laden condition of Thebes: a plague is killing many of the city’s human and animal populations and fires are destroying the lands and its crops. Page 208  |  Top of ArticleHe praises Oedipus, who has solved the riddle of the Sphinx, for his wisdom and ability to improve their lives, and asks of him, on behalf of the people, swiftly and decisively to act and end the suffering.

Second Messenger

The second messenger appears in the last scene to announce and describe Jocasta’s suicide. He also relates Oedipus’s discovery of her body and his subsequent blinding. He predicts future sorrows for a people whose kings descend from this polluted line. The second messenger also announces Oedipus’s entry onstage after his self-mutilation: “You will see a thing that would crush a heart of stone.”

Shepherd of Laius

The old shepherd is summoned by Oedipus so that he can discover his true parentage. The shepherd reveals his information only after Oedipus threatens his life if he remains silent. He admits to receiving the infant he gave to Polybos’s messenger from Laius and Jocasta. Oedipus realizes his identity and his crimes of patricide and incest after hearing the shepherd’s story.


Teiresias, a blind prophet and servant of Apollo, twice was asked by Oedipus to come to the palace to discuss the crisis in Thebes. In the first act of the play he finally appears, revealing the reasons for the city’s devastation, knowledge that he is reluctant to reveal to Oedipus for fear of making him miserable. Oedipus, feeling himself to be betrayed by the prophet’s resistance, verbally abuses Teiresias (“You sightless, witless, senseless, mad old man!”) and accuses him of working on behalf of the “usurper” Creon.

Reluctantly, Teiresias tells Oedipus that he should not mock him so quickly; in a famous moment of foreshadowing, he tells the king that it is he who is blind: “But I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind:/You cannot see the wretchedness of your life,/Nor in whose house you live, no, nor with whom.” Significantly, Teiresias is also the first character in the play to question Oedipus’s assumption that he knows his parentage and to tell him that he has committed atrocities that he does not yet know are his own. He tells Oedipus that he will become blind and poor, that Oedipus is himself Laius’s murderer, and that he will learn that he has fathered children with his mother. While Teiresias’s presence on stage is brief, as a prophet representing the god Apollo he remains one of the most powerful characters in the play; in addition, the Athenian audience would have recognized him from Homeric mythology (in The Odyssey the title character must go down into the underworld to gain information from the dead prophet).


Oedipus Rex is the story of a king of Thebes upon whom a hereditary curse is placed and who therefore has to suffer the tragic consequences of fate. During a time of plague, fires, and other forms of decimation, Oedipus decides to take action to restore life and prosperity to his kingdom, only to discover through this quest that his identity is not what he thought. He learns that he has killed his father, married his mother, and had children with her; his wife-mother Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus blinds himself and goes into exile; his uncle Creon becomes King of Thebes.

Knowledge and Ignorance

Oedipus’s desire to gain knowledge that will help to rid Thebes of its pollution is evident from the beginning of the play. When the priest comes to him to ask for help, Oedipus has already begun the process of searching for solutions; he has sent Creon to Delphi to learn from Apollo what measures should be taken. When Creon enters, Oedipus begins questioning him intensely, declares a search for Laius’s murderer, and asks for Teiresias’s assistance as well as that of others; when a member of the chorus offers information Oedipus says “tell me. I am interested in all reports.” His strong belief that the search for the truth will lead to a successful cleansing of Thebes is juxtaposed with the reluctance on the part of other characters to deliver their knowledge. Most fear retribution, since their knowledge points to Oedipus as the source of Thebes’s troubles. This belief should also be understood in the context of Oedipus’s ignorance and final, tragic discovery of his identity; by demanding that others tell him all they know he is forced to confront the hideous facts of his patricide and incest.

Choices and Consequences

Another theme in the play is the distinction between the truthfulness of oracles and prophecies of the gods (fate), as opposed to man’s ability to influence his life’s trajectory through his own actions (free will or self-determinism). While arguments

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  • In his Third Letter on Oedipus, Voltaire, a French Enlightenment philosopher and writer, expressed incredulity at the fact that Oedipus, upon discovering that the shepherd who witnessed Laius’s murder was still alive, decides to consult an oracle rather than actively to seek the testimony of this witness. How does Voltaire’s questioning of Oedipus’s decision-making reveal the differences in religious belief between Athenian society in the fifth century B.C. and the Enlightenment? Research the status of belief in oracles in Athenian culture and compare it to the debates between the Jesuits and Jansenists in Voltaire’s France. Discuss this difference in the context of Oedipus Rex.
  • During the fifth century in Athens, the skill of sophistry—the ability to be a rhetorically persuasive public speaker, and to gain political power through the effectiveness of one’s speech performances—was becoming an increasingly important aspect of civic culture. One of the most famous sophists, Protagoras, is famous for saying “Man is the measure of all things,” and this statement is indicative of the sophists’ attitude toward man’s potential to learn to excel at rhetoric and thereby win court cases, for example, even if their causes are unjust. Research this aspect of Athenian society, and juxtapose the powers of rhetorical persuasion with the treatment of fate in Oedipus Rex. You might wish to start by looking at the well-known first choral ode in Antigone, which warns against the kind of over-confidence in man’s abilities that Athens was famous for. How does Sophocles use oracular knowledge to comment on man’s belief that he can master the universe through knowledge?
  • Oedipus Rex was written in Athens shortly after its war with Sparta—commonly referred to as the Peloponnesian War—broke out in 431 B.C. Investigate the war-torn environment in Athens during Sophocles’s day by reading Book II of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, paying close attention to Pericles’s funeral oration in the middle of the book. Imagine what it would have been like to have been an audience member for opening night, 426 B.C., of Oedipus Rex, and write a journal entry from the perspective of such a person.
  • Were a person in contemporary America to unwittingly commit the crimes of Oedipus, to what kind of moral scrutiny would they be subjected? Do you think it’s fair that a person is punished for a crime they did not realize they were committing? How might contemporary society (as opposed to Athenian culture) deal differently with this issue?

exist regarding the predominance of these schools of thought, Oedipus Rex emphasizes the eventual and tragic triumph of the former over the latter. Despite his best efforts to be a good and wise king and to substantiate his claims about the evil machinations of Creon and Teiresias, fate works against him and finally shows that he was wrong to believe in a conspiracy. For example, when Oedipus wishes to punish Creon, he expresses to a member of the chorus his intention to shape his policy in forcefully self-determining language: “Would you have me stand still, hold my peace, and let this man win everything, through my inaction?” Again, Oedipus struggles against the oracle that predicts his hand in his father’s death and boldly asserts that it is wrong when Polybos’s death is reported:“Polybos/ Has packed the oracles off with him underground./ They are empty words.” But the oracle remains true, and Oedipus is helpless in the face of its powerful prophecy.

Public vs. Private Life

The extent to which Oedipus desires public disclosure of information is particularly striking in Page 210  |  Top of Articlethe play’s first scenes. He asks the priest and Creon to speak publicly about the troubles of Thebes and to offer possible clues and solutions in front of his subjects, in spite of their reservations. Creon asks: “Is it your pleasure to hear me with all these/ Gathered around us? I am prepared to speak,/But should we not go in?” Oedipus consistently refuses to hide any knowledge he will receive and wants his informers to adopt a similar attitude. When Teiresias refuses to answer Oedipus’s call and later resists revealing the king’s dark truth, Oedipus grows impatient, hostile, and abusive. Teiresias would like to keep his information to himself, as will the shepherd in a later scene, but Oedipus will hear nothing of it. In addition, Jocasta is inclined to evade or gloss over the truth as it is about to be revealed from various people. She views the matter a private one and tries to protect Oedipus from the disastrous disclosures. Oedipus, however, refuses to tolerate a world in which secrets exist. He publicly learns the truth—at the expense of his sanity and happiness. His desire for a Theban society that fosters truth and openess is an admirable one, one that albeit contributes to his demise.


The Genre of Greek Tragic Drama

Ever since Aristotle’s high praise regarding its structure and characterization in his Poetics, Oedipus Rex has been considered one of the most outstanding examples of tragic drama. In tragedy, a protagonist inspires in his audience the twin emotions of pity and fear. Usually a person of virtue and status, the tragic hero can be a scapegoat of the gods or a victim of circumstances. Their fate (often death or exile) establishes a new and better social order. Not only does it make the viewer aware of human suffering, tragedy illustrates the manner in which pride (hubris) can topple even the strongest of characters. It is part of the playwright’s intention that audiences will identify with these fallen heroes-and possibly rethink the manner in which they live their lives. Theorists of tragedy, beginning with Aristotle, have used the term catharsis to capture the sense of purgation and purification that watching a tragedy yield in a viewer: relief that they are not in the position of the protagonist and awareness that one slip of fate could place them in such circumstances.


The dramatic structure of Greek drama is helpfully outlined by Aristotle in the twelfth book of Poetics. In this classical tragedy, a Prologue shows Oedipus consulting the priest who speaks for the Theban elders, the first choral ode or Parodos is performed, four acts are presented and followed by odes called stasimons, and in the Exodos, or final act, the fate of Oedipus is revealed.


Tragedies in fifth-century Athens were performed in the marketplace, known in Greek as the agora. The dramatic competitions of the Great Dionysia, Athens’s annual cultural and religious festival, were held in a structure made of wood near the Acropolis. The chorus performed on a raised stage. There were no female actors, and it is still unknown (though much speculated upon) whether women attended these performances. It is also noteworthy that the performance space was near the Pnyx, the area in which the century’s increasingly heated and rhetorically sophisticated political debates took place—a feature of Athenian cultural life that suggests the pervasive nature of spectacles of polished and persuasive verbal expression.

The Chorus

The Greek chorus, like the genre of tragedy itself, is reputed to be a remnant of the ritualistic and ceremonial origins of Greek tragedy. Sophocles added three members of the chorus to Aeschylus’s twelve. In terms of form, the choral ode has a tripartite structure which bears traces of its use as a song and dance pattern. The three parts are called, respectively, the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode; their metrical structures vary and are usually very complex. If the strophe established the dance pattern, in the antistrophe the dancers trace backwards the same steps, ending the ode in a different way with the epode.

With respect to content, the choral odes bring an additional viewpoint to the play, and often this perspective is broader and more socio-religious than those offered by individual characters; it is also conservative and traditional at times, potentially in an effort to reflect the views of its society rather than the protagonist. The Chorus’s first set of lyrics in Oedipus Rex, for example, express a curiosity about

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Christopher Plummer stars as Oedipus in 1967 version of Oedipus Rex Christopher Plummer stars as Oedipus in 1967 version of Oedipus Rex Universal/The Kobal Collection

Apollo’s oracle and describes the ruinous landscape of Thebes. Its second utterance reminds the audience of the newness of Teiresias’s report: “And never until now has any man brought word/Of Laius’s dark death staining Oedipus the King.” The chorus reiterates some of the action, expressing varying degrees of hope and despair with respect to it; one of its members delivers the play’s final lines, much like the Shakespearean epilogue. Sometimes the chorus sings a dirge with one or more characters, as when it suggests to Oedipus not to disbelieve Creon’s protestations of innocence.


The play’s action occurs outside Oedipus’s palace in Thebes. Thebes had been founded, according to the myth, by Cadmus (a son of Agenor, King of Phoenicia) while searching for his sister Europa, who had been abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. A direct line of descent can be traced from Cadmus to Oedpius; between them are Polydorus, Labdacus, and, of course, Laius.

Imagery and Foreshadowing

Associated with knowledge and ignorance are the recurring images of darkness and light in the play, and these images work as examples of a kind of foreshadowing for which the play is justly famous. When the play begins, the priest uses this set of contrasts to describe the current condition of Thebes: “And all the house of Kadmos is laid waste/All emptied, and all darkened.” Shortly after this moment, Oedipus promises Creon: “Then once more I must bring what is dark to light,” that is, the murder of Laius will out and Oedipus will be responsible for finding and exposing the culprit(s). Metaphorical and literal uses of darkness and light also provide foreshadowing, since it is Oedipus’s desire to bring the truth to light that leads him to a self-knowledge ruinous and evil enough to cause him to blind himself. After the shepherd reveals his birth he declares, “O Light, may I look on you for the last time!” In saying this he sets up for the audience, who are, presumably, familiar with the legend of Oedipus, his subsequent actions. The second messenger describes his command to himself as he proceeds to perform the gruesome task: “From this hour, go in darkness!” thereby enacting both a literal and metaphorical fall into the dark consequences of his unbearable knowledge. These are but a few examples of how imagery and foreshadowing as techniques can meet, overlap, and mutually inform one another in the play; through subjective interpretation, many more may be found.

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Sophocles lived and worked in a time of great cultural significance, not only in the history of Athens but the greater sense of Western democratic culture. Wars with Persia and Sparta, the development of democratic culture, public architectural projects, and theatrical entertainments, as well as the rise of a distinctively rhetorical culture (a culture based on the strength of language and writing) are important features of the Athens during Sophocles’s life, known as the Golden Age of Athens.

Soon after Cleisthenes established democracy in Athens in 507 B.C., Athens was threatened by outside enemies. At the beginning of the fifth century B.C., the Persians, led by Darius, crossed the Aegean to conquer Athens. After its triumph over Miletos in 494, the Persian army began to be defeated, with Athens winning the decisive victory at Marathon in 490. The battles of Salamis, Platea, and Mycale in 480-79 were also won by Athens, and the Persian forces (led by Xerxes I) finally lost the war. The Athenians prided themselves on their victory over Xerxes; roughly fifteen years after Sophocles’s birth, Athens had become an Empire in its own right, forming the Delian League in 478-77. From 492-60 the city-state was led by Pericles, a populist leader who is famous today for his military skill, his rhetorical prowess, and his public building projects—including the Parthenon. Sophocles himself took part in some of Pericles’s projects and in the city’s military life, aiding Pericles in the Samian war (441-39), becoming an ambassador some years later, and joining the ruling council in 413.

Although the Persian threat had subsided, a new threat arose: the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and other states under their leadership began in 432. Thucydides, an Athenian general and historian noted for his impartiality and accuracy, tells the story of this war in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Athens, defeated in Sicily in 413, surrendered to Sparta (which was being supported by Persia) in 404, the year after Sophocles died.

In the midst of all this war, Athenian democracy flourished during Sophocles’s lifetime, its commercial enterprises along the eastern Mediterranean coastline were successful and its cultural life enjoyed immense nourishment and development. Greek religious life centered around the shrines frequented by worshippers of Apollo at Delphi, Apollo and Artemis at Delos, and Zeus at Olympia. Festivals were often held at the shrines and athletic competitions, dance, song, and theatrical performances also took place. Intellectually, Athens was thriving—its mathematicians and scientists, after the work of Pythagoras and Xenophanes during the previous century, began to make new discoveries in arithmetic and geology; Pericles, who studied sophistry with Zeno, brought the skill of oratory to new, unprecedented heights, and his support of the plastic and literary arts allowed Athenians to enjoy the lasting achievements of their contemporaries. While public building was interrupted by the Persian war, it resumed with vigor in the latter half of the fifth century, with the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and, in Athens, the Temple of Athena Nike, as well as the Parthenon, Propylaea, and the Erechtheum. Pericles saw to it that elaborate public building projects motivated artists of his time to achieve greatness for their city.

Greek drama also flourished. Pericles provided entertainments and pageantry, granting allowances for public festivals so that all men could attend them. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were the three great dramatists of the age; Sophocles competed successfully with both his teacher Aeschylus and with his contemporary, Euripides, in the annual tragic competitions of the Great Dionysia. Some of the drama of this period concerned specific political issues, such as Phrynichos’s Capture of Mileros (493) and Aeschylus’s Persians (472). Other plays, like Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Oedipus Rex address broader questions about mythological leaders and their relationships to the gods, fate, and their native Greek cultural heritage. While critics have argued that readers are not meant to draw any parallels between the plague-ridden Thebes in which Oedipus Rex takes place and the plague in Athens in 430-29 B.C., it is not difficult to surmise that an audience for whom the experience of such devastation was familiar would have felt particular connections with their own situation.


The history of the critical reception to Oedipus Rex begins with Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who in his Poetics inaugurated the history of formalist and structural analysis of literature, two important cornerstones for the enterprise of the critical interpretation of literature. In some ways it can be regarded as the first book of literary criticism, and its significance for the subsequent study of the works of

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  • Fifth Century B.C.: The development of trial by jury in the law courts and the art of sophistry as practiced by philosophers such as Zeno, led to the creation of the first hired lawyers. The ability to persuade a public audience was an important feature of cultural life, and philosophers tutored leaders such as Pericles in oratorical skills.

    Today: Rhetorical efficacy remains the chief attribute of today’s courtroom lawyers. The public has limited access to these trials unless they garner media attention, as, for example, did the infamous trial of former football star O. J. Simpson, who was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her acquaintance Ronald Goldman.

  • Fifth Century B.C.: In one of many bids for popularity, Athens ruler Pericles spent extraordinary sums of money to support the arts through pageants, processions, public banquets, and monetary allowances for theatrical performances. The theater was associated with the cultural and religious festivals of the Great Dionysia, in whose annual competitions Sophocles won over twenty first-place awards.

    Today: Public funding for the arts constitutes less than one percent of the federal budget, and the Republican leaders in Congress have proposed to eliminate this public source of support in favor of a privatized system of grants generated by donations from actors and other private citizens. While the theater continues to be a popular form of entertainment, the festivals surrounding public performances are rarely state-funded.

  • Fifth Century B.C.: There was a great conflict leading to a long war between Athens and Sparta, the most powerful city-states, and the two supported radically different governmental structures—Athens was a democracy; Sparta, an oligarchy (absolute rule by a committee).

    Today: Until the early 1990s, the two largest global powers, the capitalist, democratic United States and the communist U.S.S.R., were fighting the Cold War, with both sides building up conventional weaponry and nuclear arms. The U.S.S.R. fell because of inner strife, and the Cold War mentality gave way to an understanding of the potential for global peace, on the one hand, and the escalation of more localized, civil strife, on the other.

  • Fifth Century B.C.: Scientific advancement and great progress in mathematics coincided with a belief, in the words of Protagoras, that “man is the measure of all things,” and that people can control their own destinies, mastering the universe through the power of knowledge.

    Today: Developments in artificial intelligence and bioengineering lead to difficult, controversial issues about the potential for computers and robots to “think,” and about the ethics of such techniques as cloning.

Sophocles in general and Oedipus Rex in particular is enormous, due to the exemplary status he granted the play, as the greatest tragedy ever written. He gave it high praise for its outstanding fulfillment of the requirements he set out for tragedy, including reversal of situation, characterization, well-constructed plot, and rationality of action.

Oedipus Rex contains an excellent moment of “reversal” in the scene in which the messenger comes to tell Oedipus of the death of Polybos, whom he believes to be Oedipus’s father. According to Aristotle, because Oedipus learns from him inadvertently that Polybos is not his father, “by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect.” Aristotle also praised the play for its characterization of the hero, who causes the audience to feel the right mixture of “pity and fear” while observing his actions. The hero should not be too Page 214  |  Top of Articlevirtuous, nor should he be evil: “there remains, then, the character between these two extremes—that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.”

The plot receives commendation by Aristotle for its ability to stir the emotions of not only its audience members but, even more significantly, those who merely hear the story: “he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.” In addition, Oedipus Rex succeeds in shaping the action in such a way that its ramifications are unknown until after the event itself occurs: “the deed of horror may be done, but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or friendship be discovered afterwards . . . here, indeed, the incident is outside the drama proper.” Lastly, Aristotle remarks that he prefers the role of the chorus in Sophocles to that of Euripides, and that the Oedipus Rex excludes from the play proper any irrational elements, such as Oedipus’s ignorance of the mode of Laius’s death. This last point is taken up by Voltaire, who subjected the play to intense questioning on the basis of the improbability of aspects such as this one.

After Aristotle, the major figures who have analyzed the play include those dramatists, from antiquity to the present, such as Seneca, Corneille, Dryden, and Hofsmannsthal, who respectively translated the play into Latin, French, English, and German. Poets and dramatists are themselves acting as critics when they embark on projects of translation, even if they have not given explicit accounts of how and why they have proceeded. Implicitly, these works ask their readers to attempt to answer these questions for themselves, and a short list of the variations on Sophocles’s play should begin to generate such study. In 50 A.D, the Roman writer Seneca, for instance, decided to add an unseen episode narrated by Creon in which the ghost of Laius identifies his murderer to Teiresias.

In the 1580s in England the Tudor university dramatist William Gager sketched out five scenes for an unfinished version of the play, combining elements of Seneca’s Oedipus and his Phonecian Women with scenes of his own creation; the first original scene is a lament of a Theban citizen for his dead father and son, to whom he seeks to give a proper burial in the midst of the plague-ridden city. His Jocasta kills herself because of her sons’ fratricidal struggle for power. In 1659 Corneille prefaced his neo-Classical version of the play with a notice that he has reduced the number of oracles, left out the graphic description of Oedipus’s blinding because of the presence of ladies in the audience, and added the happy love story of Theseus and Dirce in order to satisfy all attendees. He keeps Seneca’s additional scene but makes Laius’s speech more vague. Dryden, two decades later, self-consciously drew upon Corneille’s subplot but changing its ending to an unhappy one. Like Corneille he laments the fact that audiences demand such light entertainment accompanying their experience of great tragic drama.

In the next century, translators and commentators in England and France beginning with Voltaire and including Pierre Brumoy, Thomas Maurice, and R. Potter brought unique perspectives to the play. Voltaire believed the play to be defective in ways that many scholars expected from the Enlightenment thinker. Following Aristotle and going much further in his skeptical stance, in 1716 Voltaire criticized the lack of plausibility in Oedipus’s ignorance of the manner of Laius’s death: “that he did not even know whether it was in the country or in town that this murder was committed, and that he should give neither the least reason nor the least excuse for his ignorance, I confess that I do not know any terms to express such an absurdity.” Another famous criticism of his concerns the fact that Oedipus, upon learning that the shepherd who knows his origins is still alive, chooses to consult the oracle “without giving the command to bring before him the only man who could throw light on the mystery.” In contradistinction to Voltaire, in the middle of the eighteenth century Brumoy movingly expressed his satisfaction with the play. Of the opening scene he wrote:“This is a speaking spectacle, and a picture so beautifully disposed, that even the attitudes of the priests and of Oedipus express, without the help of words, that one relates the calamities with which the people are afflicted, and the other, melted at the melancholy sight, declares his impatience and concern for the long delay of Creon, whom he had sent to consult the Oracle.” Brumoy also recognizes that the play’s values are pagan rather than Christian, and specifically he emphasizes the influential classical notion of destiny; after him, the English translators Thomas Maurice (1779) and R. Potter (1788) did the same.

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German authors, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, dominate the reception history of Oedipus in the nineteenth century.


Jennifer Lewin

In this essay Lewin argues that the story of Oedipus qualifies as the greatest of all tragedies.

Oedipus Rex is arguably the most important tragedy in all of classical literature. Ever since Aristotle used it in his Poetics in order to define the qualities of a successful tragedy, its strengths have been emphasized again and again by countless notable authors whose remarks illuminate the play’s historical reception as much as they help us to understand the broader critical climate in which they wrote. When Freud, for example, helped to shape the direction of twentieth-century thought with his 1900 The Interpretation of Dreams, his coinage of the term “Oedipal Complex” was an integral part of his definition of dreams and imaginative literature as representations of wishes that usually remain hidden during normal social interaction. For Freud, then, Oedipus’s predicament dramatizes the desire of every man to marry his mother and kill his father, but whereas most people tend to harbor or hide these feelings, Oedipus unknowingly acts them out. While still remaining extremely controversial, his theory’s suggestive placement of Oedipus in closer psychological proximity to his readers throughout history raises fundamental questions about possible relationships between literature and reality. Other twentieth century scholars have occupied themselves less with these issues than with local readings of the play’s characters, its plot, structure, and, finally, what it can teach its readers about religious values and human knowledge in fifth-century Athenian culture, a moment of great historical importance for its artistic achievements as well as its political culture.

The character of Oedipus has historically inspired a combination of fascination and repulsion. It is generally acknowledged, however, that he is to be admired for many reasons, and especially for demonstrating, as a responsible leader, his desire—from the very opening lines of the play—for honesty and directness in approaching the problem of Thebes’s plague. In the Prologue, when he asks the priest to speak for the petitioners before him, he does so with majestic generosity: “Tell me, and never doubt that I will help you/In every way I can; I should be heartless/Were I not moved to find you suppliant here.” The Priest responds to him with equal magnanimity, praising Oedipus for his past achievements (he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, sent to Thebes as divine punishment for Laius’s sins) and pleading for the help that the capable Oedipus has proven he can provide. Oedipus’s position of power in relation to the Priest is extraordinary; as C. H. Whitman pointed out in Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism, pagan culture customarily reversed those roles: “The appeal of the priest, with its moving yet dignified description of the general suffering, is especially remarkable in that it is an inversion of the usual situation, in which the secular ruler consults the priest or seer about divine things, as Oedipus later consults Teiresias.”

The scene establishes Oedipus as a ruler not with divine intuition (the Priest also says “You are not one of the immortal gods, we know”) but with the intellectual prowess to ameliorate Thebes’s grave situation. A later exchange between Creon and Oedipus and the first scene’s dialogue between Teiresias and Oedipus, in which Oedipus presses both figures publicly to utter the oracular knowledge they possess (but are extremely reluctant to offer) show Oedipus as extremely eager to gain the knowledge that will help to rid Thebes of its ills. In her recent study of Sophocles, Prophesying Tragedy Tragedy: Sight and Voice in Sophocles’s Theban Plays, Rebecca Bushnell agrees that the play establishes Oedipus as someone “who believes in speaking freely . . . but he is not content merely to speak himself; he also forces others to speak.” Oedipus shows fearlessness in the face of turmoil, and his unstoppable quest for public utterance of the truth of the oracle leads him, tragically, to the knowledge that he has fulfilled its terms. His perception of his responsibilities as king, however, have led him to be compared to Pericles, the ruler when Sophocles lived and wrote, remembered for heroically facing the most famous epoch of war and civil strife in Athenian history.

Oedipus has also been noted for possessing a less desirable quality related to his desire for disclosure, and that quality, hamartia, is an ancient Greek concept that E. R. Dodds, in Greece and Rome, classified as “sometimes applied to false moral judgments, sometimes to purely intellectual error.” Hamartia can be understood to refer to the all too human limitations possessed by the tragic hero, his faults that make him less than perfect but not

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  • Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, produced posthumously by his grandson in 401 B.C., tells the story of Oedipus’s wanderings after going into exile. He was attended by Antigone, his daughter, to Colonus, and there Theseus protected him until he died. Before he died he cursed his sons Eteocles and Polyneices that they should kill each other, and after Eteocles had ruled for a time he refused to surrender the throne to his brother, who gathered seven champions known as the Seven against Thebes. They attacked the city at each of its seven gates. The brothers died in battle. Oedipus at Colonus is the second play in the trilogy of Theban plays, which also includes Antigone (the final play) and Oedipus Rex.
  • In Antigone, the title character (Oedipus’s daughter) and her uncle, Creon the king of Thebes, quarrel because the king will not permit the burial rite to be performed for her brother, Polyneices, who was condemned as a traitor. Creon punishes Antigone for her attempts to bury her brother by sealing her alive inside a stone tomb. She hangs herself, and her husband-to-be Haemon, Creon’s son, stabs himself next to her body.
  • The History of the Peloponnesian War, by the Athenian citizen and general Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.), is a careful, compelling, and often first-hand account of the war between Athens and Sparta (431-404 B.C.), which occurred during the heyday of Sophocles’s career.
  • Written in the first century A.D., the lives of Athenian leaders presented in Plutarch’s The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives include Theseus, Pericles, Alcibiades, and Lysander; these last three figures played key roles in Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and their lives provide an instructive political and cultural context for Sophoclean drama.
  • Democracy, Ancient and Modern (1973), by M. I. Finley, traces the history of democratic culture from fifth-century Athens to the present day. It compares the political, social, and economic structures as well as the role of the arts and literature in different historically significant democracies.
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written c. 1600, recounts the story of a young man whose father has died and his brother Claudius has assumed the throne, marrying his widow Gertrude. The ghost of king appears to his son, Hamlet, and urges him to avenge his death; Hamlet is obsessed with the memory of his father’s death and is repulsed at the thought and sight of his mother’s hasty remarriage; he wants to kill his uncle, Claudius, but does not succeed in finding the right opportunity until the final scene, when most of the main characters die in the tragedy’s final blood bath. Since Freud, the mother-son relationship in the play has been historically considered to be driven by the son’s Oedipus complex.
  • My Oedipus Complex, a short story by Frank O’Connor (published in 1956), sets the Oedipus story in Ireland during World War I. While his father is away fighting in the war, a young boy, the first-person narrator, develops a misunderstood attraction toward his mother, a situation which becomes complicated by his father’s return home and the parents’ decision to have another child. An ironic but very touching version of the myth, complete with a happy ending.

blameworthy in any moral sense. While he may have flaws (like the heel of Achilles), we cannot attribute his downfall to them. Oedipus’s impatience with Teiresias’s attempt to withhold the contents of the oracle, for example, led him to suspect the prophet of conspiring against him on behalf of Creon. He calls Teiresias a “sightless, witless, senseless, mad old man.”

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A. J. A. Waldock related Oedipus’s hamartia to his approach to oracular knowledge. In his Sophocles the Dramatist, Waldock wrote:“he was in fault for not perceiving the truth, now he is in fault because he is too urgent to see it.” In other words, Oedipus’s eagerness to use his mind to act upon and thereby to solve every problem he encounters, when taken to its logical extreme, leaves no room for the gods’ influence over the fate of man, an idea considered somewhat heretical in a culture which places much emphasis on and had faith in the role of the gods in shaping man’s destiny. Readers such as W. P. Winnington-Ingram, in Sophocles: An Interpretation, have criticized Oedipus because he “trusts his intellect too much and must learn how fallible it is.”

Ultimately, while we can regard Oedipus as both admirable for his leadership skills and noble intentions and imperfect for his overconfidence and harsh treatment of others, he is a figure whose fate inspires pity and terror because of his ability to endure misfortune. He blinds himself in an act of self-punishment and self-protection, since he is deeply horrified by his own crimes and unwilling to face others’ gazes: “After exposing the rankness of my own guilt,/How could I look men frankly in the eyes?” Rather than ending his life, Oedipus lives to bear the weight of two curses, one imposed on his family line by the gods and the other self-imposed when he announces his intention to send Laius’s murderer into exile. Dodds nicely captured the pathos of his suffering: “Oedipus is great, not in virtue of a great worldly position—for his worldly position is an illusion which will vanish like a dream—but in virtue of his inner strength: strength to pursue the truth at whatever personal cost, and strength to accept and endure it when found.”

Notably, the end of the play does not show Oedipus leaving Thebes; although we see him ask Creon again and again to lead him into exile, the play ends with him being led into the palace, into a private space and away from a public domain polluted by his presence. In a detailed discussion of the last scene, M. Davies wrote in an issue of Hermes that it leaves our vision of Oedipus as a commanding figure very much intact: it “shows him still acting spontaneously like a king, in the old imperious manner, although the once equivalent temporal power has now fallen away.”

In order to understand both the protagonist and the play itself in the larger context of fifth-century Greece, it is important to consider the conflicting roles of oracular knowledge and Athenian self-confidence in their culture’s perception of man’s place in the universe. At the time of the Peloponnesian War, oracular knowledge was often doubted because the oracles came from Apollo’s shrine at pro-Spartan Delphi; the messages often reflected an anti-Athenian bias. In an essay on Oedipus Rex in Homer to Brecht: The European Epic and Dramatic Traditions, Paul Fry noted that “around 427 B.C., when the play was first acted, the priests of Apollo were out of favor because Apollo’s oracles considering the Peloponnesian War were all pro-Spartan.”

While this historical fact does not mean that the Priest and Teiresias would have been ridiculous figures for the play’s first audiences, it does mean that Oedipus’s skepticism would have been understood and sympathized with. In the context of the very different times of turmoil that the play depicts, however, Oedipus’s disbelief may have appeared slightly more threatening, since, as Bushnell argued, Oedipus has no system of belief other than his own intellectual power with which to replace oracular knowledge: ‘ Tiresias’s arrival initiates the conflict between Apollo’s signs and Oedipus’s voice—a conflict that strikes at the roots of the city’s order, which is based on the cooperation between sacred and secular interests . . . Oedipus seems to threaten directly the stability that the fulfillment of oracles represents, without establishing any new structure.” In the plot thus conceived, Apollo’s oracle is truth and Oedipus chastises himself for having believed otherwise: “Oedipus, damned in his birth, in his marriage damned,/Damned in the blood he shed with his own hand!” As an efficacious tool by which to shape human destiny, the power of oracular knowledge is retained by the gods, while Oedipus is able to reach lyrical heights in expressing the tragic consequences of being confined in such a world.

In ancient Athens, dissatisfaction with oracular knowledge was coupled with a growing sense that, in the words of Protagoras, “man is the measure of all things.” Self-confidence in man’s ability to order and rule his world reached even new heights under the leadership of Pericles, whose extensive training in sophistry and lack of fear in the gods led him to be a highly persuasive thinker who inspired in his subjects a sense of man’s ability to accomplish limitless goals. For Sophocles’s contemporaries, Oedipus’s intellectual prowess was probably strongly reminiscent of Pericles—his eloquence and devotion to his country in a time of upheaval were legendary, and his investment in public building Page 218  |  Top of Articleprojects (the Parthenon among them) employed laborers and inspired artists to create beautiful memorials to their epoch.

While Oedipus’s affection for Thebes is of a very different nature, his expression of care is moving: “Let me purge my father’s Thebes of the pollution/Of my living here, and go out to the wild hills,/To Kithairon, that has won such fame with me,/The tomb my mother and father appointed for me,/And let me die there, as they willed I should.” His desire to “purge [his] father’s Thebes” and move mentally and physically towards death provides a powerfully cathartic closure for the play. In The Birth of Tragedy, the philosopher Nietzsche wrote of the spirituality of this final scene, its ability to leave audiences with a sense of rejuvenation: “Sophocles understood the most sorrowful figure of the Greek stage, the unfortunate Oedipus, as the noble human being who, in spite of his wisdom, is destined to error and misery but who eventually, through his tremendous suffering, spreads a magical power of blessing that remains effective even beyond his disease.”

Source: Jennifer Lewin, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Janet M. Green

In this essay, educator and critic Green discusses symbolism in Oedipus Rex and offers her interpretation of the play’s climactic scene.

In the fall 1992 issue of The Explicator, Bernhard Frank presented an unusual interpretation of the dramatic climax of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex In the scene, reported by the Second Messenger, Oedipus, horrified by the truth and distraught by his discovery that Jocasta has hanged herself, first lowers his queen/mother/wife to the ground and then plunges the long pins of her robe’s brooches into his eyes. Professor Frank suggests that Jocasta’s rope is an umbilical cord, that here we have a “role reversal,” in which Jocasta becomes “the dead infant Oedipus should have been, if the tragedy was to have been averted.” Then, in “another stage of the role reversal,” he blinds himself. He is not castrating himself—a Freudian theory that Frank rightly rejects—but in the persona of Jocasta he “rapes his own eyes with her ‘phalluses’.”

It is sometimes tempting in literary criticism to seek in a thrusting instrument a sexual parallel, but one should carefully base such a parallel on hints and statements in the text. I do not find suggestions in Oedipus Rex for Frank’s interpretation of the blinding scene, which raises several difficulties. For example, there are many nonsexual references to “eyes” and “sight” in the play. In fact, “seeing” could be called a unifying metaphor. Why should this passage, with no hint from the translators, be read as having such powerful sexual meaning? Oedipus’s beard, into which the blood gushes, is identified as “the pubic region, as it were, of his pierced eyes. It is Jocasta’s twofold revenge, reciprocating his off—repeated coital act.” This reading poses considerable anatomical difficulties. Then, too, how can Jocasta at one moment represent her dead son and at the next a raging rapist? What is one to make of the blood that gushes forth? (Herman Melville symbolizes a bloody beard successfully in his poem, “The Portent,” about the mutilation of John Brown’s corpse.)

The Frank essay also considers the use of the brooches highly significant, inasmuch as Oedipus could have used “any nearby object for the purpose.” But not just “any nearby object” is agreeable for blinding oneself, and probably weapons did not lie scattered about a queen’s apartment as part of the decor. When Oedipus asks the Chorus for a sword with which to pursue Jocasta, the Frank essay concludes that in his frenzy, Oedipus “intends to thrust his sword into her offending womb, which ironically would emulate the sexual act one last time.” What the text really says, however, is this: “From one to another of us he went, begging a sword, / Hunting the wife who was not his wife, the mother / Whose womb had carried his own children and himself.”

Across the fiery enthusiasms of Professor Frank fall the long and soothing shadows of Aristotle and Sophocles. Aristotle’s famous definition of tragedy, in The Poetics, stresses that pity and fear will be evoked by action of “a certain magnitude.” His frequent praise of Oedipus Rex proves that Sophocles’ masterpiece met his highest standards. We can therefore safely conclude that the emotions Aristotle thought that the play produced were pity and fear—not disgust and revulsion, which would be our more likely reactions to the interpretation that Professor Frank suggests.

Sophocles’ treatment of blindness in the drama accords with Aristotle’s reading of the play. It has far greater meaning than that of a symbolically achieved sexual act. Spiritual blindness is equated with obduracy and arrogance—hubris—and towards the end of Oedipus Rex, the physical blinding Page 219  |  Top of Articleis already encouraging new insight, awareness, and compassion. When Oedipus could see, he beheld the piercing light of Greece, but he had then less understanding of his fate, less inner vision, and less humility than he is beginning to achieve after he loses that flooding, outer light. The resemblance between Oedipus and the blinded Gloucester in King Lear often comes to mind. Gloucester says,“I stumbled when I saw.” And when Lear observes, “[Y]et you see how this world goes,” Gloucester answers, “I see it feelingly.”

Light, to the ancient Greeks, was beauty, intellect, virtue, indeed represented life itself. The Choragos asks Oedipus, “What god was it drove you to rake black / Night across your eyes?” And Oedipus replies in anguish:

Apollo, Apollo, Dear
Children, the god was Apollo.
He brought my sick, sick fate upon me.
But the blinding hand was my own!
How could I bear to see
When all my sight was horror everywhere?

We have in the drama, then, not just bitter irony played out by incredible coincidence, nor the story of a proud man rightly humbled. We have a powerful statement that the inscrutable gods exert extreme power over the unjust and the just, who suffer alike from their mysteriously random power. We do not need to make Oedipus’s self-blinding into a sexual symbol or allegory to feel his baffled woe. Surely, enough sorrow is here to achieve the effect that Aristotle underlines so often and Sophocles creates with such skill.

Source: Janet M. Green, review of Oedipus Rex, in the Explicator, Vol. 52, no. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 2-3.

Martin Kallich

In this excerpt, Kallich explains the myth of Oedipus and how it is represented in Sophocles’s dramatic work.

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Source: Martin Kallich, “Oedipus: From Man to Archetype” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 3, no. 1, 1966, pp. 33-35.


Aristotle. The Poetics, translation by W. Hamilton Fyfe, Heinemann (London), 1927.

Aristotle’s important discussion of effective tragic form includes many references to the exemplarity of Sophocles’s play, and provides a useful understanding of classical poetic theory.

Bates, William Nickerson. Sophocles: Poet and Dramatist, Oxford University Press (London), 1940.

In a chapter on Oedipus, Bates summarizes the plot and offers general, laudatory remarks on Sophoclean tragedy, followed by discussions of the protagonist and Jocasta.

Bowra, C. M. Sophoclean Tragedy, Clarendon Press (Oxford), 1944.

Bowra’s focus is on the role of Apollo and the gods in the play, offering a historical reading that contextualizes the oracle in Athenian society.

Bushnell, Rebecca W. Prophesying Tragedy: Sight and Voice in Sophocles’s Theban Plays, Cornell University Press, 1988.

Bushnell compellingly argues that Oedipus’s desire to speak and his aversion to silence together create a character whose faith in the efficacy of human words unsuccessfully challenges oracular knowledge.

Davies, M. “The End of Sophocles’s O.T.” in Hermes, Vol. 110, 1982, pp. 268-77.

Davies argues that the last scene of the play, in which Creon ushers Oedipus into the palace but does not send him into exile as some have assumed, shows us that neither character has changed psychologically as a result of the reversals of fortune in the play. Oedipus still understands himself in the majestic terms of a king, and Creon remains cautious and concerned.

Dawe, R. D., editor. Sophocles: The Classical Heritage, Garland (New York), 1996.

This collection of criticism of the play includes excerpts for the works of Aristotle, Corneille, Voltaire, and modern theorists as well. Also contains a few discussions of performances of the play from the Italian Renaissance to the present day.

Dodds, E. R. “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex” in Greece and Rome, Vol. 13, 1966, pp.37-49.

Dodds’s famous and generous account of three popular but misguided undergraduate interpretations of the play is extremely useful in helping to sort out the play’s attitudes towards oracular knowledge and human culpability.

O’Brien, Michael J., editor. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex, Prentice-Hall, 1968.

O’Brien’s indispensible collection of essays includes notable excerpts from the work of Francis Fergusson, Bernard Knox, Richard Lattimore, and Victor Ehrenberg, as well as a smattering of quotations from Plutarch, Longinus, Freud, and Marshall McLuhan.

Fry, Paul H. Homer to Brecht: The European Epic and Dramatic Traditions, edited by Michael Seidel and Edward Mendelson, Yale University Press, 1977, pp. 171-90.

Fry’s introductory lecture for undergraduates focuses on the riddle of the Sphinx, Oedipus, and the problem of knowledge, and the pathos generated by the punishment of the gods.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex, translation by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, [New York], 1949.

This volume also contains Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone: all three translations are considered standard ones.

Waldock, A. J. A. Sophocles the Dramatist, Cambridge University Press, 1951.

Waldock challenges Bowra’s discussion of the play, claiming that its plot does not center around the role of the gods in human life but rather the consequential pain of ambitious desires to gain knowledge.

Whitman, C. H. Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism, Harvard University Press, 1951.

Whitman compares Oedipus to Pericles, the Athenian leader and general, and also discusses the play in general terms. A balanced though dry antidote to the polemical tones of Bowra and Waldock.

Wilder, Thornton. American Characteristics and Other Essays, Harper and Row (New York), 1979.

Wilder provides learned reflections on the play’s treatment of the oracle and discusses the attractiveness of myth-making for Western writers.

Winnington-Ingram, W. P. Sophocles: An Interpretation, Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Offers detailed account of the second choral ode, or second “stasimon,” in order to demonstrate the usefulness of close attention to commonly neglected aspects of the play.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy, Macmillan, 1907.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692600020