Sophocles wrote “Oedipus the King” for the annual festival where playwrights competed for prizes. It was a major civic occasion, with attendance expected. Sophocles the writer is phenomenally good, especially considering his era. His writing is tight, with each phrase contributing to the whole. He is full of succinct observations on life. And despite the limits of the form, he often manages to make his characters seem like real individuals.
The title of our play is often given in its Latin translation “Oedipus Rex”, rather than in its original Greek (“Oedipus Tyranneus”), since the Greek term for king is the English “tyrant” which means a monarch who rules without the consent of the people. As the play opens, the priest of Zeus and a bunch of non-speaking characters (old people, children) appear before King Oedipus with tree-branches wrapped with wool. It was evidently the custom to do this in front of a god’s altar when you wanted something urgently. Oedipus greets them as a caring, compassionate leader.
The priest explains (really for the audience’s benefit) that Thebes is suffering from a plague. Plants, animals, and people are all dying. The people know Oedipus is not a god, but they believe that some god inspired him to solve the riddle of the sphinx and save the town. And since Oedipus has been king, he has done a splendid job. So now people look to him to find a cure for the plague. Oedipus explains (really for the audience’s benefit) that he has sent Creon (Jocasta’s brother) to the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi to get an answer.
He’s late returning, but as soon as he gets back, Oedipus promises to do whatever the oracle says. Just then, Creon arrives. Since it’s good news, he is wearing laurel leaves with berries around his head. Creon says, “All’s well that ends well. ” (The Greeks loved irony. ) Apollo said that the killer of Laius must be found and banished, and the plague will end. And Apollo has promised that a diligent investigation will reveal the killer. Oedipus asks to review the facts. All that is known is that Laius left for Delphi and never returned. (Don’t ask what Oedipus did with the bodies of Laius and his crew.
There was no immediate investigation, because of the sphinx problem. One of Laius’s men escaped, and walked back to Thebes. (Don’t ask what Oedipus did with Laius’s horses and chariot. ) By the time he got back, Oedipus was being hailed as king. The witness said Laius was killed by a gang of robbers. (We can already figure out why the witness lied. And we’ll learn later that he asked immediately to be transferred away from Thebes, and has been gone ever since. ) Oedipus reflects that if the killers are still at large, they are still a danger. He decides to issue a policy statement to help find the killer.
The chorus, in a song, calls on the various gods (including Triple Artemis, in her aspects as huntress, moon-goddess, and goddess of dark sorcery), to save them from the plague and from the evil god Ares, who is ordinarily the god of war but is here the god of general mass death. Oedipus issues a policy statement, that whoever comes forward with information about the murder of Laius will be rewarded, and that if the killer himself confesses, he will not be punished beyond having to leave the city permanently. On the other hand, if anyone conceals the killer, Oedipus says he will be cursed.
Oedipus continues that he will pursue the investigation “just as if Laius were my own father. ” (The Greeks loved irony. ) The Chorus says that Apollo ought to come right out and say who the murderer is. (The Chorus’s job is to say what ordinary people think. ) Oedipus says, “Nobody can make the gods do what they don’t want to. ” The chorus suggests bringing in the blind psychic, Teiresias. Especially, they hope he can find the missing witness to the killing. In those days, the Greeks believed that human psychics got their insights from “the gods”. There are other stories about Teiresias.
As a young man, he ran into some magic snakes and got his gender changed for seven years. This enabled him to tell whether the male or the female enjoys sex more. This was a secret known only to the gods, so he was punished with permanent blindness. Teiresias comes in. Oedipus asks his help finding the killers, ending up by saying, “The greatest thing you can do with your life is to use all your special talents to help others unselfishly. ” Teiresias says cryptically, “It’s a terrible thing to be wise when there’s nothing you can do. ” (As A. A. Milne would say later, and perhaps Oedipus too, “When ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise. Teiresias says, “I want to go home. ”
Oedipus calls him unpatriotic. Teiresias says, “Your words are wide of the mark (hamartia)”. Our expression in English is “You’re missing the point”. (Originally an archery target was a point. ) We’ll hear about hamartia again. Teiresias continues to stonewall, and Oedipus gets very angry. Finally Teiresias gives in, says Oedipus is the killer, and adds that he is “living in shame with his closest relative. ” Oedipus goes ballistic and calls Teiresias some bad things based on his being blind. Teiresias says, “You’ll see soon.
Oedipus understandably thinks this is a poltical trick to smear him, with Teiresias and Creon in cahoots. Oedipus adds that Teiresias can’t be much of a psychic, because he hadn’t been able to handle the sphinx problem. The Chorus tells both men to cool down. Teiresias leaves, predicting disaster. Soon Oedipus will learn the truth and be a blind exile, leaning on his staff. The Chorus sings about the oracle at Delphi, which was supposedly the center of the world. “Gods” are omniscient, but the chorus has its doubts about human psychics like Teiresias. Especially, they cannot believe Oedipus is a killer.
Creon comes in, incensed that Oedipus would accuse him of trying to smear him. The Chorus says Oedipus is simply angry. Creon says he must be nuts. The Chorus says that to the king’s faults and misbehavior, they are blind. (“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” — the norm in a non-democracy. ) Oedipus comes in and accuses Creon directly of planning a coup, using a smear by a crooked psychic as an excuse. They exchange angry words. Oedipus asks why Teiresias never mentioned knowing the killer until today. Creon can’t explain this. He defends himself from the accusation of planning a coup. ) Being king is too much trouble. (2) Creon has other worthwhile things to do. (3)
Creon has everything he needs. (4) Creon has political influence anyway. (5) Creon is well-liked and isn’t going to do an obvious wrong. “You build a good reputation over a lifetime. A single bad action ruins it. ” The Greeks loved irony. Oedipus isn’t satisfied. He says he wants Creon executed for treason. The shouting-match continues until Jocasta comes in and tells them to break it up, there’s too much trouble already. The Chorus says it agrees, and tells Jocasta that both men are at fault.
Creon leaves, and Jocasta asks what’s happened. The Chorus talks about what a fine king Oedipus has been, and says, “Let’s forget the whole business with Teiresias’s prophecy. ” The Chorus uses a variant of the proverb, “Let sleeping dogs lie. ” It’s better not to ask about things that can make trouble. The Greeks loved irony. Oedipus talks about it anyway. Jocasta says, “Well, I don’t believe in psychics. I’ll prove it. Laius and I were told that our baby would kill him and marry me. But this never happened, because we left the baby to die in the woods.
And the witness said that Laius was killed at that place where three roads meet by robbers. ” “Uh-oh”, says Oedipus. “Which three roads? ” The Greeks loved irony. Jocasta says, “It’s where the roads from Thebes, Delphi, and Daulis meet. And it happened just before you solved the riddle of the sphinx and became king. ” Oedipus is upset. He asks Zeus (chief god), “What are you doing to me? ” He asks Jocasta for a description. Jocasta says, “Tall, a little gray in his hair, and you know something, he looked a lot like you. ” The Greeks loved irony. Oedipus continues his questioning.
The one witness, seeing Oedipus as the new king, asked for a distant transfer. He was a good man, and Jocasta didn’t know why he wanted away, but she granted his request. Oedipus tells his story. He was going to the oracles to find out whether he was adopted. All of them told him simply that he would kill his father and marry his mother. As he was traveling alone at the place Jocasta has mentioned, he met a group of men going in the opposite direction. The men, including the leader, started insulting him. Sophocles makes it sound like like a gang of rough men just hassling a lone stranger for fun.
One of the men shoved Oedipus. Oedipus punched him back. The leader struck Oedipus treacherously on the back of the head with the horse staff, Oedipus turned and hit the leader in the chest with his own staff, knocking him out of the chariot. Then Oedipus managed to kill them all except for the one who ran away. It was justifiable, self-defense. But Oedipus is devastated. He says he must be the killer of Laius, and he is ashamed that he has been having sex with his victim’s wife. Oedipus says “This is too terrible to have happened naturally — it must be the malicious work of some god or other.
He says he will simply leave the city, now, and let the plague end. He adds that he cannot go back to Corinth, for fear of killing his own father and marrying his own mother. The Chorus is deeply sympathetic to Oedipus, and appreciative of his willingness to go voluntarily into exile to save the city. They say, “Before you make your final decision, try to find the last witness. Maybe he will exonerate you. ” And Oedipus notes, “The witness did say it was robbers, plural. ” Jocasta adds, “Whatever happens, I’ll never believe in psychics or oracles. Laius was prophesied to die by the hand of his own child. ”
The Chorus sings a puzzling song about how (1) we have to obey the gods; (2) the gods’s best gift is good government; (3) if the government is bad, there is no reason to be good; (4) nobody believes in oracles any more. Jocasta comes in, having visited the local shrines and left little offerings, and asks people to join her in praying for the distraught Oedipus. He’s our leader, and we need him now. She prays to Apollo to make this disastrous situation better. The Greeks loved irony. Just then, a messenger comes in from Corinth. He says “Lucky Jocasta, you lucky wife! ” (Actually, “Blessed is your marriage bed! The Greeks loved irony. )
The king of Corinth has died, and the Corinthians have chosen Oedipus to be their new king. (Greek city-states were often elective monarchies. ) Jocasta says, “Great news. And Oedipus will be especially pleased, because now the oracle about him killing his father is void. You see, I was right not to believe in oracles. ” The Greeks loved irony. Oedipus comes in, hears the news, and says, “Maybe the oracle has been fulfilled figuratively; perhaps he died of grief for my absence. But I’m still worried about marrying my mother. ” Jocasta says, “Forget it.
Life is governed by chance, not destiny. Maybe you’ll dream about marrying your mother. You should ignore dreams. ” Oedipus is still worried. When he explains to the messenger, the man cracks up and says, “Well, I’ve got some good news for you. You don’t have to worry about marrying the lady you’ve called mother… because you’re adopted! ” All hell breaks loose. Oedipus questions the messenger, and learns the messenger had been herding sheep, had met a shepherd who had found Oedipus, had taken the baby, had taken the pin out of his ankles, and had given him to the king and queen of Corinth to raise as their own.
Oedipus is starting to wonder about what has always been wrong with his feet. Oedipus says, “It’s time to clear this up. Send for the other shepherd. ” Jocasta realizes exactly what has happened. Jocasta begs Oedipus NOT to pursue the matter. Oedipus says he has to know. (If Oedipus wasn’t so intent on getting to the truth, there’d be no play. ) Jocasta runs out horribly upset. Oedipus is a little slower, and thinks, “Perhaps she’s upset to find out I’m not really of royal blood. But what the heck — I’m ‘Destiny’s child’ — and that’s something to be proud of!
I’m me. ” The Greeks loved irony. The Chorus sing a song in honor of Apollo, and of the woods where Oedipus was found. The say the spot will become famous. Perhaps Oedipus is the child of nymphs and satyrs. The Greeks loved irony. The other shepherd is brought in. He already has figured things out, and pretends he doesn’t remember. Then he begs the other messenger to be quiet. But Oedipus insists on the truth. It comes out. Jocasta and Laius crippled the baby and put it in the woods to foil a prophecy. Oedipus had, indeed, always wondered what was wrong with his feet.
Now everybody knows the truth. Oedipus rushes out. The Chorus sings a song about how transient happiness is, what a splendid king Oedipus has been, and how Oedipus is now the victim of destiny. The next scene is an extremely graphic account, by an eyewitness. Jocasta ran into the bedroom, screaming. She locked the door from inside. A few minutes later, Oedipus came in, and broke down the door with what seemed to be supernatural strength. He found Jocasta dead, hanging. Oedipus took the body down, then removed the pin that held up her dress.
He stabbed it again and again into his eyes, saying he has looked at his mother’s naked body when he shouldn’t, and he has learned what he now wishes he hadn’t. The blood didn’t merely dribble, as after a single needlestick. It gushed on both sides. For this to happen, the choroidal artery that enters the eye from behind must be severed. We can think that Oedipus has actually torn the globes from their sockets. Oedipus now begs to be taken out of the city (so that the plague will end), but he has no strength and no guide. Oedipus comes in. Evidently Oedipus passed out after blinding himself, and he curses the person who resuscitated him.
The Chorus asks, “How were you able to rip out your eyeballs? ” Oedipus replies, “Apollo gave me the strength to do it. ” Creon is the new king. He is not angry, merely kind. He helps Oedipus up and out of the city, guided by his two daughters. Staff in hand, Oedipus himself is the answer to the riddle of the sphinx. Oedipus says that some incredible destiny must surely await him. But the Chorus ends with a reflection on how transient human happiness often us: “Don’t say anybody is fortunate until that person is dead — the final rest, free from pain. ”
What is Sophocles saying? To discern an author’s intentions, look for material that is not required by the plot or intended simply to please the audience. In retelling the story of Oedipus, Sophocles goes beyond mere irony. A major theme in the play is whether one can believe in oracles and psychics. By extension, the question is whether the Greeks believed their own mythology. Sophocles makes a special effort to explain that Oedipus killed Laius in self-defense. More generally, Sophocles goes out of his way to present Oedipus as an extremely capable, beloved administrator.
Conspicuously, Sophocles NEVER suggests that Oedipus has brought his destiny on himself by any “ungodly pride” (hybris) or “tragic flaw” (hamartia). The last lines seem ambiguous. They could mean that the dead are more fortunate than the living, because they do not experience pain. Is life really that bad? “The gods” made the prophecies that led Oedipus into disaster. The sphinx appeared (she must have been sent by the gods), and Oedipus solved her riddle (the chorus says he must have been guided by the gods. ) Teiresias could not solve the riddle, or detect the killer — thanks to “the gods”.
At the beginning, Apollo’s oracle simply says, “Find the killer” — leading to the cruel ironies of the play. Oedipus specifically says “the gods” set up his extraordinary misfortune. And at the end, Apollo merely gives Oedipus the strength to carve his own eyes out of their sockets. In other words, Sophocles says that Oedipus’s frightful misadvanture is the intentional work of “the gods”. At the end, everybody says this. Pure and simple. Nobody even asks why. The Golden Age of Athens was a time for thinkers, scientists, inventors, and for people to share ideas freely.
Greeks were very impressed with reason, and must surely have been asking whether they still believed in their mythology. “Social conservatives” prosecuted Socrates for expressing doubts about “the gods”, but only because they thought this would corrupt the minds of young people. (Does this sound familiar? ) People have often noted that comedy and melodrama have arisen independently in many cultures, but that tragedy has its unique beginnings in Athen’s golden age — the first time that we hear people asking the tough questions about what they really believed.
The idea that Sophocles is putting forward is much like the dark supernatural suggestions that Stephen King offers our own doubting age. Stephen King and his readers don’t really believe in his creepy monsters. And I don’t know whether Sophocles really believed the message of “Oedipus the King”. Sophocles is saying, “Maybe the gods do exist… and are consciously and elaborately MALICIOUS. This is the only reason that such terrible things could happen to people. “