Table of Contents
Oedipus the King Summary and Analysis
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PLAY:
The Oedipus myth goes back as far as Homer and beyond, with sources varying about plot details. The play that Sophocles presents is merely the end of a dramatically long story, and some plot background must be provided to make the story understandable for modern audiences (please see the section on ‘Oedipus and Myth’ for this full backstory).
The real myth begins a few generations before Oedipus was born. The city of Thebes was founded by a man named Cadmus, who slew a dragon and was instructed to sow the dragon’s teeth in order to give birth to a city. From these teeth sprang a race of giants who were fully armed and angry; they fought each other until only five were left, and these five became the fathers of Thebes.
Ancient Greek audiences would already know the background, and in fact the iety of the Oedipus story Therefore what makes this particular play so great is its lity to present this material in an evocative and powerful manner, in order to nullify reality that most of the audience already knew its contents. Modern audiences ght recognize the name Oedipus from Sigmund Freud’s famous “Oedipus Complex” particularly his theory that young boys lust after their mothers and see their fathers competition for their mothers’ favours.
This theory springs from Jocasta’s comment at killing your father and marrying your mother are the kinds of things men often om of (981). Freud’s theory has been hotly debated and, indeed, is currently dismissed most classical scholars- though the fact that the issue remains the subject of much sichological debate is proof that the Oedipus story continues to be powerful even sousands of years after the advent of Sophocles’ play.
WORD NOTES AND ANNOTATIONS:
Antigone: Antigone’s family is the main subject of Sophocles’ plays in The Oedipus ays Oedipus the King, Oedipus al Colonus and Antigone. She is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta. She has three siblings; one sister Ismene and two brothers Eteocles and is also the niece of Creon, King of Thebes.
Agon: Agon is the Greek word for ‘conflict.”
City Dionysia: Dionysia is a festival held in Athens, which includes a tragedy .
Drive the corruption from the land…” the Greek word for corruption is which literally means a stain. The blood of the murdered man is thought of as something which pollutes not only the killer but all those who come in contact with him. Cross examine: the examination of a witness who has already testified in order to check the witness’s testi,nony knowledge and credibility
Dramatic irony: Dramatic irony is a situation in which the characters on stage do not now something (or some of them do not know something) which the audience does know. Dramatic irony recurs throughout the play Oedipus – for instance, when the Messenger suggests that he never killed the young baby that Jocasta had given him, signifying that he clearly had grown up to become Oedipus the King. Oedipus, however, does not realize this until much later.
Ismene: daughter of Oedipus, sister of Antigone.
Jocasta: wife and mother of Oedipus.
Oikos: ‘Oikos’ is the Greek word for ‘household’ or ‘house’ – often used to mean ‘bloodline’ or ‘family’. It is the opposite of ‘polis’.
Oracle: a priest or priestess acting as a medium through whom advice or prophecy was sought from the gods in classical antiquity.
Pan: a god of the uncultivated upland country.
Polis: Polis is usually translated to ‘city-state’, but as well as literally referring to the , it can also be the Greek word for ‘citizenship’, or ‘body of citizens’.
citySatyr play: The satyr play is the fourth, probably comic, play that would have been performed after a trilogy and written by the same author. The only surviving satyr play is Euripides Cyclops.
Skene: A skene is the permanent stone building at the back of the stage in which costumes and props could be stored, and which served variously as the internal locations that the play might require (houses, tents, etc.).
Thebes: Thebes is city in which the play is set and is often set up in classical literature as the ‘other’ or ‘opposite’ to Athens, where the City Dionysia took place. Teiresias: Tiresias is the blind prophet, led by a small boy, who knows the truth about Oedipus’s parentage. Oedipus calls on him to find Laius’s killer but becomes furiou when Teiresias claims that Oedipus himself is the killer. Tiresias’s words, however prove true ultimately, suggesting that he is a mouthpiece for the Gods and an oracle to be trusted far more than the convictions and hopes of man. Teiresias is often represented as being part-male, part-female in classical literature.
SUMMARY OF THE PLAY:
e dying At the start of the play, the city of Thebes is suffering terribly. Citizens are from plague, crops fail, women are dying in childbirth and their babies are stillborn A group of priests comes to the royal palace to ask for help from Oedipus, their king who once saved them from the tyranny of the terrible Sphinx. Oedipus has already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle of the god Apollo to find out what can be done little background: Before Oedipus arrived in Thebes, the previous king, Laius, was murdered under mysterious circumstances and the murderer was never found.
When Oedipus arrived in Thebes and saved the city, he was made king and married the widowed queen, Jocasta, sister of Creon.) Now Creon returns with the oracle’s news for the plague to be lifted from the city, the murderer of Laius must be discovered and punished. The oracle claims that the murderer is still living in Thebes.
Oedipus curses the unknown murderer and swears he will find and punish him He orders the people of Thebes, under punishment of exile, to give any information they have about the death of Laius. Oedipus sends for Tiresias, the blind prophet, to help with the investigation. Tiresias comes, but refuses to tell Oedipus what he has seen in his prophetic visions. Oedipus accuses Tiresias of playing a part in Laius’s death. Tiresias grows angry and says that Oedipus is the cause of the plague-he is the murderer of Laius. As the argument escalates, Oedipus accuses Tiresias of plotting with Creon to overthrow him, while Tiresias hints at other terrible things that Oedipus has done.
When Tiresias arrives, he seems reluctant to answer Oedipus’s questions, warning him that he does not want to know the answers. Oedipus threatens him with death, and finally Teiresias tells him that Oedipus himself is the killer, and that his marriage is a sinful union. Oedipus takes this as an insult and jumps to the conclusion that Creon paid Tiresias to say these things. Furious, Oedipus dismisses him, and Tiresias goes, repeating as he does, that Laius’s killer is right here before him – – a man who is his father’s killer and his mother’s husband, a man who came seeing but will leave in blindness.
Creon enters, asking the people around him if it is true that Oedipus slanderously accused him. The Chorus tries to mediate, but Oedipus appears and charges Creon with treason. Jocasta and the Chorus beg Oedipus to be open-minded: Oedipus willingly relents and allows Creon to go. Jocasta asks Oedipus why he is so upset dhe tells her what Tiresias prophesied. Jocasta comforts him by telling him that wre is no truth in oracles or prophets, and she has proof. Long ago an oracle told Laius at his own son would kill him, and as a result he and Jocasta gave their infant son to shepherd to leave out on a hillside to die with a pin through its ankles.
Yet Laius was led by robbers, not by his own son, proof that the oracle was wrong. But something sout her story troubles Oedipus; she said that Laius was killed at a place where three Mads meet, and this reminds Oedipus of an incident from his past, when he killed a ranger at a place where three roads met. He asks her to describe Laius, and her escription matches his memory. Yet Jocasta tells him that the only eyewitness to mus’s death, a herdsman, swore that five robbers killed him. Oedipus summons this itness. While they wait for the man to arrive, Jocasta asks Oedipus why he seems so oubled Oedipus tells her the story of his past.
Once when he was young, a man he et told him that he was not his father’s son. He asked his parents about it, and they enied it. Still it troubled him, and he eventually went to an oracle to determine his ue lineage. The oracle then told him that he would kill his father and marry his other. This prophecy so frightened Oedipus that he left his hometown and never turned. On his journey, he encountered a haughty man at a crossroads – and killed ne man after suffering an insult. Oedipus is afraid that the stranger he killed might have been Laius.
If this is the case, Oedipus will be forever banished both from Thebes the punishment he swore for the killer of Laius) and from Corinth, his hometown. If his eyewitness will swear that robbers killed Laius, then Oedipus is exonerated. He rays for the witness to deliver him from guilt and from banishment. Oedipus and ocasta enter the palace to wait for him.
hat S Jocasta comes back out of the palace, on her way to the holy temples to pray for edipus. A messenger arrives from Corinth with the news that Oedipus’s father Polybus dead. Overjoyed, Jocasta sends for Oedipus, glad that she has even more proof in the selessness of oracles. Oedipus rejoices, but then states that he is still afraid of the rest the oracle’s prophecy: that he will marry his mother. The messenger assures him he need not fear approaching Corinth – since Merope, his mother, is not really his other, and moreover, Polybus was not his father either.
Stunned, Oedipus asks him ow he came to know this. The messenger replies that years ago a man gave a baby to im and he delivered this baby to the king and queen of Corinth – a baby that would Tow up to be Oedipus the King. The injury to Oedipus’s ankles is a testament to the ruth of his tale, because the baby’s feet had been pierced through the ankles. Oedipus e asks the messenger who gave the baby to him, and he replies that it was one of Laius’s n servants. Oedipus sends his men out to find this servant.
The messenger suggests that – locasta should be able to help identify the servant and help unveil the true story of S Oedipus’s birth. Suddenly understanding the terrible truth, Jocasta begs Oedipus not to carry through with his investigation. Oedipus replies that he swore to unravel this mystery, and he will follow through on his word. Jocasta exits into the palace.
Oedipus again swears that he will figure out this secret, no matter how vile the answer is. The Chorus senses that something bad is about to happen and join Jocasta’s cry in begging the mystery to be left unresolved. Oedipus’s men lead in an old shepherd, who is afraid to answer Oedipus’s questions. But finally he tells Oedipus the truth. He did in fact give the messenger a baby boy, and that baby boy was Laius’s son- the same son that Jocasta and Laius left on a hillside to die because of the oracle’s prophecy.
Finally the truth is clear – devastated, Oedipus exits into the palace. A messenger reveals that he grabbed a sword and searched for Jocasta with the intent to kill her. Upon entering her chamber, however, he finds that she has hanged herself. He takes the gold brooches from her dress and gouges his eyes out. He appears onstage again, blood streaming from his now blind eyes. He cries out that he, who has seen and done such vile things, shall never see again. He begs the Chorus to kill him. Creon enters, having heard the entire story, and begs Oedipus to come inside, where he will not be seen.
Oedipus begs him to let him leave the city, and Creon tells him that he must consult Apollo first. Oedipus tells him that banishment was the punishment he declared for Laius’s killer, and Creon agrees with him. Before he leaves forever, however, Oedipus asks to see his daughters and begs Creon to take care of them. Oedipus is then led away, while Creon and the girls go back in the palace. The Chorus, alone, laments Oedipus’ tragic fate and his doomed lineage.
Oedipus asks the priests why they have come. He knows that the city is sick with plague. He tells them they can trust him to help in any way he can. In a moving speech, a priest tells Oedipus the city’s woes: the crops are ruined, cattle are sick, women die in labour and children are stillborn, and people are perishing from the plague. The priest begs Oedipus to save Thebes, just as Oedipus once saved it from the Sphinx. The protagonist, in course of his investigation of the murder, quarrels with Tiresias, the true servant of gods.
Hot-tempered and suspicious, Oedipus quarrels also with Creon, the true servant of the State. A messenger comes from Corinth. Jocasta realises the truth and goes to hang himself. Oedipus, misunderstanding the situation, persists in his inquiry, and the chorus rashly exults in the hope of discovering that some great, perhaps divine, parents is his. Jocasta tells a story from her past: When Laius and Jocasta were still married, an oracle told Laius that he would be killed by his own son.
In response, when Jocasta and Laius’s son was three-days-old, his ankles were pinned together and one of Laius’s servants left him to die on a mountain. Laius was not killed by his son, but instead by strangers, at a place where three roads meet. So, Jocasta concludes, seers do not know what they are talking about. Owing to the revelations of the messenger, a shepherd is brought from Cithaeron. Oedipus in his turn realises the truth – that he is the son of Laius and Jocasta – and rushes out to blind himself.
Oedipus: Oedipusis the eponymous hero of the play. Long before the play begins, Oedipus became king of Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx. His sharp mind and quickness to action have made him an admired and successful leader. “Here I am myself
you all know me, the world knows my fame:
I am Oedipus”.
Indeed, the story of Oedipus, the myth, was of course very old in Sophocles’ time and very known to the audience.
Creon: Creon is the brother of Jocasta. Whereas Oedipus is the charismatic leader who speaks openly in front of his people, Creon is more political and perhaps more scheming. Creon is offended and alarmed when Oedipus accuses him of treason, but he speaks calmly and tries to show the error of the accusation by appealing to Oedipus’s sense of reason.
At the end of the play, however, he is more than willing to step into the power vacuum after Oedipus’s terrible fate has been revealed. Even then, however, he cautiously makes sure to follow the dictates of the gods, rather than to trying to resist fate as Oedipus has done.
Tiresias : The blind prophet or seer. He knows that the terrible prophecy of Oedipus has already come true, but doesn’t want to say what he knows.
Jocasta: Wife of Oedipus. Also, mother of Oedipus. When the play begins, she no longer believes in the prophecies of seers.
The Chorus: In this play, the chorus represents the elder citizens of Thebes, reacting to the events of the play. The chorus speaks as one voice, or sometimes through the voice of its leader. It praises, damns, cowers in fear, asks or offers advice, and generally helps the audience interpret the play.
The messenger :The messenger from Corinth informs Oedipus that King Polybius and Queen Merope of Corinth were not his actual parents. The messenger himself gave Oedipus as a baby to the Corinthian king and queen. He got the baby from a Theban shepherd whom he met in the woods. Oedipus’s ankles were pinned together at the time-in Greek, the name “Oedipus” means “swollen ankles.”
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