Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

“Children, young sons and daughters of old Cadmus, why do you sit here with your suppliant crowns?”

A dark curse is upon Thebes.  Blighted cattle and plants cover the land, the women are barren and a deadly plague creeps throughout the kingdom, sparing no one in its fatal grasp.  Creon, brother-in-law to King Oedipus, reveals that the curse placed on the kingdom is a result of the murder of its last king, Laius, and until the perpetrator is found, there is no hope of relief from their present woes.  Oedipus, king of Thebes, calls the wisest man to the palace, the blind prophet, Teiresias, to discover the identity of the vile culprit.  
Yet through wise Teiresias and the shepherds of Laius, it is revealed that Oedipus was unwittingly the killer, slaying the king on a road to Thebes, in self-defence and completely unaware of his victim’s identity.  Unbeknownst to Oedipus, he was fulfilling a prior prophecy, that he would kill his father and marry his mother.  And true to prophecy, Oedipus, after freeing Thebes from a different curse by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, became the new king of Thebes and married the current queen, Jocasta, also his mother.

Oedipus after he solves the riddle
of the Sphinx (1808)
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
source Wikipedia

Upon hearing the fulfillment of the curse, a stunned and horrified Oedipus flees, yet soon finds Jocasta has hanged herself with shame and, grabbing the brooches from her garments, dashes his eyes out until blood flows in rivers down his face. At the behest of Oedipus, Creon banishes him from the city.

The sins of murder and incest has blighted the life of Oedipus and the lives of his progeny; his sons will be left without a father or inheritance and his daughters will be ostracized, unable to marry.  His anguished speech carries notes of his misery and devastation:

“What can I see to love?
What greeting can touch my ears with joy?
Take me away, and haste —– to a place out of the way!
Take me away, my friends, the greatly miserable,
the most accursed, whom God too hates
above all men on earth!”

The state of blindness and the character of Oedipus are closely linked. Instead of listening to the wisdom of the blind prophet, Teiresias, Oedipus refuses to believe him, therefore choosing blindness over knowledge.  Later in the play, when he accepts the knowledge of his actions, he physically blinds himself, which echoes his emotional blindness earlier in the story.

Can one commit a crime with complete lack of awareness and still be responsible for the repercussions of his actions?  Is the harshness of Oedipus’ penalty and the suffering he endures from the consequences, a justifiable outcome given the circumstances?  Why does no one in the kingdom disagree with the punishment of Oedipus, and appear more shocked by the unintentional sins than the maiming he inflicts upon himself?

Oedipus Separating from Jocasta
Alexandre Cabanel
source Wikipedia

What we can take away from this drama is helplessness in the hands of fate.  Though everyone pities Oedipus and does not blame him, there is nothing they can do in the face of his punishment.  To the Greeks, fate is supreme and unaffected by human choice; Oedipus attempts to avoid his destiny yet only succeeds in bringing it to fruition.  Finally, we are exposed to a chilling Greek worldview, that we can “Count no mortal happy till he has passed the limit of his life secure from pain.”

Apparently Oedipus Rex, while first chronologically of the three Theban plays, is in fact the second in written order.  I will enjoy trying to find out the common threads between the three, and if I feel there are any inconsistencies due to the fact they were composed out of order.  The next one on the schedule is Oedipus at Colonus where we meet Oedipus in exile.

13 thoughts on “Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

  1. I read this several years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since. So beautifully powerful in its portrayal of fate at its worst… I haven't read the other two plays, so there's no way I can tell whether there are any inconsistencies.

  2. Oedipus' helplessness was very poignant. I am looking forward to visiting him at Colonus. Hopefully he can overcome his tragedy and make the rest of his life useful. But knowing the Greeks, there is probably little chance of that happening. :-Z

    I admit that I have read Antigone before but not with comparison of the plays in mind. I loved it as well, perhaps more than Oedipus Rex but I'll have to re-confirm that opinion when I read it again!

  3. I read this a couple of times. At least two times in college and once after in 2008. It's a great play. I tend to think of the three great Greek playwrights with the following generalization: Sophocles is a master of plot, Aeschylus is a master of poetic language, Euripides is a master of character.

    Oedipus, I think, is a warning against hubris on top of being a reminder of human helplessness against fate. We think we can make things better with our reason and effort, only to find our struggles actually made it worse!

  4. So far I think I like Sophocles best, then next Aeschylus and last, Euripides. But perhaps my ranking's not fair because the only Euripides I've read is The Trojan Women.

    Why did you think Oedipus initially refused to believe Teiresias? Was it because of pride, or was it because his crime and subsequent incest was just to terrible for him to contemplate?

    I also liked that while Oedipus' desire to find the old king's killer stemmed from his wish to end the curse on Thebes, he also seemed to think that it was the right thing to do. Translation is such a difficult medium, so I'm not sure if Sophocles was trying to communicate this feeling, but I certainly felt a nobility in Oedipus.

  5. Well, Oedipus refusal to believe Tiresias can fit in with the theme of hubris I mentioned. I see a lot of overlap with the Hebrew Bible. Both in its exploration of unintentional guilt, which requires some sort of sacrifice (see Leviticus) and Oedipus refusal to believe the prophetic Tiresias is similar to the many instances in the Bible when the general Israelite population or kings refused to heed their prophets.

    I just looked back to what I wrote about The Trojan Women in 2008 when I first read it. I didn't like it much either. Medea and The Bacchae is where Euripides shows how good he can be. You should check those out before giving up on poor Euripides!

    I never thought of this noble side of Oedipus before. Good catch and thought-provoking! I almost want to re-read it again.

  6. Great comments and thanks so much for them. I love the tie-in with the Bible. Oedipus' refusal to believe Teiresias had me a little puzzled. He obviously had a respect for the prophet initially but when he heard his story(which, of course, Teiresias didn't want to give him) his reaction was certainly strong and appeared based more on emotion than reason. This scene also reminded me of The Iliad, where Agamemnon refuses to give Chryseis back to her father, who is a priest of Apollo and the Greeks pay for his stubbornness. Again, another Greek refusing the counsel/request of someone in particular authority.

    I'm glad to hear that The Trojan Women is not his best. I didn't dislike it but it's probably at the bottom of my very short list of Greek literature so far. I wouldn't have given up on him, but I've certainly gravitated more towards Aeschylus and Sophocles because of my experience.

  7. This one is excellent and doesn't take very long to read through. You should give it a try!

    Joining the Classics Club has given me even more focus to read through the classics. Yet it's also made me realize how many there are. It seems like a never-ending journey but I'm sure having fun along the way! 🙂

  8. Antigone is a great play too, but there is something so pathetic in Oedipus' plight! I hope you're able to get around to reading them sooner rather than later.

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