Oedipus the King by Sophocles

King Oedipus, aware that a terrible curse has befallen Thebes, sends his brother-in-law, Creon, to seek the advice of Apollo. Creon informs Oedipus that the curse will be lifted if the murderer of Laius, the former king, is found and prosecuted. Laius was murdered many years ago at a crossroads.

Oedipus dedicates himself to the discovery and prosecution of Laius’s murderer. Oedipus subjects a series of unwilling citizens to questioning, including a blind prophet. Teiresias, the blind prophet, informs Oedipus that Oedipus himself killed Laius. This news really bothers Oedipus, but his wife Jocasta tells him not to believe in prophets, they’ve been wrong before. As an example, she tells Oedipus about how she and King Laius had a son who was prophesied to kill Laius and sleep with her. Well, she and Laius had the child killed, so obviously that prophecy didn’t come true, right?

Jocasta’s story doesn’t comfort Oedipus. As a child, an old man told Oedipus that he was adopted, and that he would eventually kill his biological father and sleep with his biological mother. Not to mention, Oedipus once killed a man at a crossroads, which sounds a lot like the way Laius died.

Jocasta urges Oedipus not to look into the past any further, but he stubbornly ignores her. Oedipus goes on to question a messenger and a shepherd, both of whom have information about how Oedipus was abandoned as an infant and adopted by a new family. In a moment of insight, Jocasta realizes that she is Oedipus’s mother and that Laius was his father. Horrified at what has happened, she kills herself. Shortly thereafter, Oedipus, too, realizes that he was Laius’s murder and that he’s been married to (and having children with) his mother. In horror and despair, he gouges his eyes out and is exiled from Thebes.

  • Oedipus emerges from his palace at Thebes. Outside are a priest and a crowd of children. Oedipus is the King, in case you didn’t get that from the title. Everyone else is, in short, “suppliant.”
  • Oedipus has heard rumors that a curse is afflicting Thebes. After briefly congratulating his own greatness, he asks the priest what’s up.
  • The priest responds that basically everything that could be wrong in the city is wrong: crops are dying, cattle are dying, people are dying, and there’s generally low morale.
  • Because Oedipus is the boss man, the priest asks him to please take care of this mess.
  • We learn that Oedipus has saved the city once before by lifting a curse put on it by the Sphinx.
  • Oedipus reveals he already knew that the city was in a bad state, so he sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to Apollo (or at least to Apollo’s oracle) to get more information.
  • In the midst of this conversation, Creon returns with news from Apollo.
  • Creon tells Oedipus that Apollo told him that in order to lift the curse on the city, the men that murdered the city’s former king, Laius, must be banished or killed.
  • Well, where was the criminal investigation unit when the murder went down? Turns out the Sphinx had previously warned against inquiring into the murder. Talk about mixed signals. So thus far, no one’s busted out the cavalry to hunt the murderers down.
  • Oedipus repeatedly congratulates himself and promises to deal with the murderers and save the city.
  • Everyone exits except the Chorus, an ever-present group of wise and gossip-prone observers. They, unfortunately, do not sing.
  • The Chorus then recounts the multiple problems the city faces including infertility, plague, famine and no one’s Xboxes are working. The lamentation is split into two voices, the “Strophe” and the “Antistrophe.” This is a Greek tool where the Chorus is made up of two halves so it can sort of converse with itself. Like a duet made of lots of people. Anyway, the Chorus begs for help.
  • Oedipus reenters and demands that anyone with information about the former king’s murder speak up. He curses the murderer.
  • The Chorus responds that they know nothing and suggest Oedipus ask the blind prophet, Teiresias (which we think is a major case of irony) for his knowledge.
  • Oedipus, ever-prepared, informs the Chorus that, quite conveniently, Teiresias is already on his way.
  • Teiresias shows up immediately.
  • Oedipus briefly explains to him the city’s situation and Apollo’s advice. Then Oedipus asks for help.
  • Teiresias says with great foreboding (and foreshadowing), “You do NOT want to hear what I have to say.” Roughly speaking, anyway. Teiresias continues to insist that it is better for him to leave rather than speak.
  • Oedipus, however, demands that Teiresias tell him what he knows.
  • Oedipus works himself into an angry rage and then busts out an insult we think you should add to your personal repertoire: “You would provoke a stone!.” Oh, diss.
  • Teiresias grumbles “fine” and reveals that Oedipus himself was the one who killed the former king.
  • Then Oedipus says, “What? I didn’t hear you.”
  • Teiresias tells him for the second time.
  • Most mysterious of all, according to Teiresias, Oedipus is committing “the worst of sins” with the people “he loves the most.” More foreshadowing. Teiresias tells Oedipus that he is a threat to himself, in the “stop asking questions” kind of way.
  • Oedipus responds that he thinks Teiresias and Creon are simply framing him in order to seize the throne. He then taunts Teiresias about his blindness, which is not only politically incorrect but makes him out to be a total jerk.
  • The Chorus freaks out and tells the men they aren’t solving anything by arguing. Let’s just call them “reality-check Chorus.”
  • Teiresias tells Oedipus he’s majorly, grossly cursed and will end up blinded, poor, and alone. This is the worst psychic reading ever. He then casually mentions Oedipus’s parents and informs Oedipus that he “shall learn the secret” of his marriage.
  • Then, right before he leaves, he says (in cryptic language) that Oedipus is married to his mother. Well, he says that Oedipus is “a son and husband both,” which maybe isn’t so cryptic after all, unless you’re Oedipus.
  • The Chorus talks about the fight between Oedipus and Creon. The Strophe says whoever he is, the murderer needs to get out of Thebes, and fast. The Antistrophe which, don’t forget, is made up of the city’s citizens, declares that it can’t believe Oedipus is at fault until they see the glove on his hand, so to speak. Both halves of the Chorus agree that they have no idea whether or not to believe Teiresias.
  • Creon arrives, having overheard that Oedipus accused him of conspiring to steal the throne. Rumor, apparently, travels almost as fast in Thebes as in high school.
  • Oedipus enters again and accuses Creon to his face. Creon wants the opportunity to respond, but Oedipus won’t shut up.
  • Finally, Creon gets a word in. He explains that, as Oedipus’s brother-in-law, he has everything he could want without any of the stress of being in charge. Basically, no one wants to shoot the Vice President. In ancient Greece.
  • Oedipus continues to make accusations and says he’ll have Creon killed.
  • Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife and Creon’s sister, comes in. She is horrified at her husband and brother’s fighting, and also at the death threat.
  • Jocasta and the Chorus urge Oedipus to listen to Creon’s honest appeals and spare his life.
  • Creon storms off.
  • Jocasta asks Oedipus what’s going on. He explains he’s been accused of killing Laius. He leaves out the “you might be my Mom” part.
  • Jocasta responds that such prophecies are ridiculous. As an example, Jocasta says that her son by Laius was prophesized to kill his father, but that they killed the child as a baby to prevent it. Plus, Laius was killed by foreign highway robbers, none of which could possibly have been his son.
  • Oedipus, hearing the story, flips out. Suddenly, he worries that he might be the murderer after all. He asks Jocasta lots of questions about the murder’s whereabouts and other details.
  • Confused, Jocasta reveals that one of Laius’s servants survived the incident at the crossroads.
  • Oedipus insists that the servant be summoned for questioning.
  • Oedipus tells Jocasta that as a child, a man once told him that his mother and father were not his real parents. It was also prophesized that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother.
  • The plot is thickening considerably.
  • Oedipus also reveals that he killed several men in a small incident at a crossroads. Oops. He hopes to find out from the servant whether the King’s murderers were many or just one man. Oedipus utters the incredibly wise statement, “One man can not be many.” Well, now we know why this guy is king. In other words, he’s saying if it was a sole murderer, that will confirm his guilt. (You know, in case the repeated prophecies, overwhelming evidence, and sinking stomach feeling were not enough).
  • Jocasta reminds Oedipus that even if he did kill Laius, he is not Laius’s son, since their only child was killed.
  • The Chorus pleads with the gods for mercy.
  • Jocasta, completely frazzled, makes an offering to the gods and prays for Oedipus to keep his temper and wits.
  • The Chorus asks a lot of questions, mostly revolving around the one big question of “what is going on?”
  • Conveniently, a messenger shows up from Corinth and informs Jocasta and Oedipus that Oedipus’s father, the King of Corinth, has died of natural causes. Jocasta interprets the King’s natural death as proof that the prophecy about Oedipus killing his father was false. Phew.
  • Jocasta pulls an, “I was right and you were wrong,” and Oedipus is all, “Yeah, yeah, I know.”
  • Oedipus, however, is still worried about the sleeping with his mother part of the prophecy. Jocasta tells Oedipus that if he just stops thinking about it, it will go away. We wish this still worked today.
  • The messenger questions Oedipus about the prophecy and his fears. The messenger tells Oedipus that the King of Corinth (Polybus) and his wife, Merope, were not Oedipus’s real parents. Unable to have a child themselves, they adopted Oedipus. Yet another “uh-oh” moment.
  • Turns out, Oedipus (as an infant) was given to the messenger with his feet pierced and tied. This is apparently why he is named “Oedipus,” which means “screwed-up foot” in Greek (roughly speaking).
  • The messenger got the infant Oedipus from a shepherd who, conveniently, is still alive and within bellowing distance of the rest of our cast.
  • Jocasta urges quite energetically that Oedipus drop the issue before he discovers more than he bargained for.
  • Oedipus says, “No,” and insists on his talking to the shepherd.
  • Jocasta makes reference to seeing Oedipus for the last time and runs off wailing.
  • Oedipus assumes she’s ashamed of his low birth (since as an infant he was found in some rather raggedy swaddling clothes) and vows to set things right.
  • The old shepherd shows up.
  • Oedipus questions the old shepherd. Like Teiresias, this guy refuses to speak. Oedipus has his servants twist the old man’s arms to try to force him to talk.
  • The man folds like a bad poker hand, revealing that Jocasta was the mother of the child that he discovered and gave to the messenger. Jocasta wanted the child taken away because it had been prophesized that the boy would kill his father and sleep with his mother.
  • FINALLY, Oedipus pieces things together and realizes that Jocasta is his mother. As predicted by the prophecy, he has slept with his mother and killed his father.
  • Oedipus runs out, saying, quite eloquently, “O, O, O.”
  • The Chorus, expectedly, laments the tragedy.
  • Another messenger arrives and announces that Jocasta, disgusted with herself for sleeping with her own son, has hung herself. She’s dead.
  • Oedipus finds that he has lost both his wife and mother. He very dramatically rushes to her dead body, tears the broaches from her dress (which have sharp, phallic pins on them) and gouges out his eyes.
  • Oedipus staggers outside all bloody and gross.
  • The Chorus is startled (understatement of the year) and feels bad for him (understatement of the century).
  • Oedipus explains that he gouged his eyes out because there was no longer anything pleasant for him to see. We’re just amazed that the man can manage to stand around and explain things at this point.
  • Oedipus asks the Chorus to help send him out of Thebes or kill him. He wishes he had died as a child.
  • Creon enters and Oedipus asks to be sent away. Oedipus feels it is his fate to stay alive so that he can suffer.
  • Oedipus asks Creon to take care of his daughters, but not his sons because they can take care of themselves.
  • Creon leads Oedipus out of the room while Oedipus continues to beg for his exile.


Character Analysis

The Mystery of Oedipus’s Hamartia

You could wallpaper every home on Earth with the amount of scholarly papers written on Oedipus. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But, in truth, there is a whole lot of disagreement about one central aspect of Oedipus’s character. Scholars have been talking smack to each other for centuries over an essential question: what is Oedipus’s hamartia, often called a tragic flaw? Aristotle tells us in his Poetics that every tragic hero is supposed to have one of these, and that the hamartia is the thing that causes the hero’s downfall. Aristotle also cites Oedipus as the best example ever of a tragic hero. Why then is it so unclear to generation after generation, just what Oedipus’s hamartia is? Let’s take a stroll though some of the major theories and see what there is to see.

Theory # 1: Determination

It’s true that if Oedipus wasn’t so determined to find out the identity of Laius’s real killer he would never have discovered the terrible truth of his life. Can you really call this a flaw, though? Before you go all Judge Judy on the guy, there’s another way to think about this. Oedipus is really exemplifying a prized and admirable human trait: determination. Why is it that we praise Hemingway’s Old Man and Homer’s Odysseus for the same determination for which we condemn Oedipus?

Furthermore, the reason Oedipus is dead set on solving the mystery is to save his people. Creon brings him word from the Oracle of Delphi that he must banish the murderer from the city or the plague that is ravaging Thebes will continue. It seems like Oedipus is doing exactly what a good ruler ought to do. He’s trying to act in the best interest of his people.

Theory #2: Anger

OK it’s definitely true that our buddy Oedipus has a temper. Indeed it was rash anger that led to him unknowingly kill his real father, King Laius, at the crossroads. The killing of his father is an essential link in Oedipus’s downfall, making his violent temper a good candidate for a tragic flaw.

Of course, Oedipus has a pretty good case for self defense. There he was – a lone traveler, minding his own business. Then, out of nowhere, a bunch of guys show up, shove him off the road, and hit him in the head with whip. If we were Oedipus, we’d be angry too.

Killing all but one of them seems like an overreaction to modern audiences, but Oedipus’s actions wouldn’t have seemed as radical to an ancient Greek audience. They lived in violent times. A man had the right to defend himself when attacked, especially when alone on a deserted road.

Within the play we see Oedipus’s anger when he lashes out at both Creon and Teiresias for bringing him bad news. This time he just talks trash, though. We don’t see any ninja-style violence. What’s most important to notice is that these angry tirades don’t do the most important thing for a hamartia to do – they don’t bring on Oedipus’s downfall. He just rants for a while and threatens to do bad things but never does. These tirades don’t cause anything else to happen. In fact they seem like a pretty natural reaction, to a whole lot of very bad news. Notice too, that anger in no way causes Oedipus to sleep with Jocasta, which is an important part of his downfall.

Theory #3: Hubris

Hubris is translated as excessive pride. This term inevitably comes up almost every time you talk about a piece of ancient Greek literature. There’s no denying that Oedipus is a proud man. Of course, he’s got pretty good reason to be. He’s the one that saved Thebes from the Sphinx. If he hadn’t come along and solved the Sphinx’s riddle, the city would still be in the thrall of the creature. It seems that Oedipus rightly deserves the throne of Thebes.

Many scholars point out that Oedipus’s greatest act of hubris is when he tries to deny his fate. The Oracle of Delphi told him long ago that he was destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus tried to escape his fate by never returning to Corinth, the city where he grew up, and never seeing the people he thought were his parents again. Ironically, it was this action that led him to kill his real father Laius and to marry his mother Jocasta.

It’s undeniable that by trying to avoid his fate Oedipus ended up doing the thing he most feared. This is probably the most popular theory as to Oedipus’s hamartia. We would ask a rather simple question, though: what else was Oedipus supposed to do? Should he have just thrown up his hands and been like, “Oh well, if that’s my fate, we should just get this over with.” This thought is ridiculous and more than a little twisted. It hardly seems like the moral we’re supposed to take from the story. Is it really a flaw to try to avoid committing such horrendous acts?

Theory #4: We’ve got hamartia all wrong

Though hamartia is often defined as a tragic flaw, it actually has a much broader meaning. It’s more accurately translated as an error in judgment or a mistake. You can still call it hamartia even if the hero makes these mistakes in a state of ignorance. The hero doesn’t necessarily have to be intentionally committing the so-called “sin.” Hmm, does that sound like anybody we know?

The word hamartia comes from the Greek hamartanein, which means “missing the mark.” The hero aims his arrow at the bull’s eye, but ends up hitting something altogether unexpected. Oedipus is the perfect example of this. The target for Oedipus is finding Laius’s murderer in order to save Thebes. He does achieve this, but unfortunately brings disaster on himself in the process. Oedipus aim’s for the bull’s eye but ends up hitting his own eyes instead.

Sure, Oedipus has some flaws. Just like the rest of us, he’s far from perfect. There’s a strong argument, though, that ultimately the man is blameless. Some say that all this talk or tragic flaws was later scholars trying to impress a Christian worldview onto a pagan literature. The Greeks just didn’t have quite the same ideas of sin that later societies developed.

The reason that Aristotle admired Oedipus the King so much is that the protagonist’s downfall is caused by his own actions. We are moved to fear and pity at the end of the play not because Oedipus is sinful, but because he’s always tried to do the right thing. The terrible irony is that his desire to do the right thing that brings about his destruction. When Oedipus gouges out his eyes at the end of the play, he symbolically becomes the thing he’s always been: blind to the unknowable complexity of the universe.


Character Analysis

Creon is portrayed as a pretty stand-up guy. He shows himself to be honest, forthright, and even tempered. The best example of Creon’s reasonable nature happens when Oedipus accuses him of conspiracy. Instead of getting all mad and talking junk to his paranoid brother-in-law (and nephew), Creon offers a rational explanation as to why he has no desire for Oedipus’s crown.

For one, Creon already has all the power he wants. Because he is the brother of Oedipus’s wife, he basically has the same amount of status as Oedipus. Everybody sucks up to him to try and get to the king. If Creon had the crown he would have basically the same amount of power but ten times the headache. Who would want that? In this scene, Creon’s rationality stands out in stark contrast to Oedipus’s angry paranoia.

Creon’s argument is also strengthened by the fact that he’s the one who gave Oedipus the crown in the first place. After the death of Laius, Creon was the King of Thebes. When the Sphinx started tormenting his city, he proclaimed that anybody who could solve her riddle could have his crown and the hand of his sister, Jocasta. Oedipus solved the riddle, and Creon proved to be a man of his word. A person who was truly power hungry would’ve gone back on his promise.

In the last scene of Oedipus the King, Creon also shows himself to be quite forgiving. Rather than mocking Oedipus, who has just accused him of some pretty terrible things, Creon is gentle. He brings the mutilated and grieving Oedipus inside, away from the public eye and also promises to care for the fallen king’s children. In the end, it is only at Oedipus’s request that Creon banishes him from Thebes.


Character Analysis

Teiresias is kind of a cranky old fellow. We can see why. Though he’s blind, he can see better than any of those around him. He’s in tune with the mind of Apollo and receives visions of the future. Teiresias is also gifted in the magic art of augury, or telling the future from the behavior of birds. You might think these are pretty awesome skills, but it’s probably difficult when everybody around you is doomed to shame, death, or mutilation. Not to mention, it must be annoying that whenever Teiresias does drop a little knowledge, people don’t believe him. Both Jocasta and Oedipus are skeptical of his prophecies. Oedipus even goes so far as to accuse Teiresias of treason.

The blind seer only shows up for one scene in Oedipus the King, but it really packs a punch. Indeed it’s the first real scene where we see any conflict, and as such, is necessary for keeping the audience interested in the play. In this scene, Oedipus gets angry at Teiresias because the prophet won’t reveal the identity of Laius’s murderer. It’s clever of Sophocles to use this scene to show Oedipus’s temper. Up until now the king has behaved rationally. He allows the Chorus to speak their mind and is doing his best to save his people. If we didn’t see his anger here and later with Creon, we might not believe that Oedipus is capable of the multiple murders at the crossroads.

Probably the most interesting thing about this interchange is Teiresias’s attitude towards the art of prophecy. Oedipus has good reason to be angry at him. King Oedipus has in front of him a man with the knowledge needed to save Thebes, but Teiresias won’t reveal the necessary information. Instead he tells Oedipus that there’s no point in revealing the truth, because everything that’s going to happen is just going to happen anyway. Really? So, what is the point of prophets?

Teiresias’s ironic attitude, toward revealing prophecy makes him symbolic of the whole conundrum of the play. Is Oedipus responsible for his actions? Yes, Oedipus causes his own downfall, but if he was doomed by the gods from the beginning, is it really his fault? This debate didn’t stop with the Greeks – it manifested itself once again in Christian thought, but was defined in terms of predestination vs. free will. Is our fate decided from birth or do we have a choice? This unanswerable question will most likely bug us humans till the end of our days.


Character Analysis

Jocasta is the Queen of Thebes, but it’s just not as glamorous as it sounds. By all accounts, it seems like her first marriage with King Laius was a happy one. That is, until he received the prophecy that he was destined to be murdered by his own son. This, of course, is what caused Jocasta and Laius to pierce and bind their one and only child’s ankles and send him off to a mountainside to die. (In Ancient Greece, it was common to abandon unwanted children rather than kill them. That way the child’s fate was in the hands of the gods, and the parent wasn’t considered directly responsible for its death.)

Sometimes Jocasta is criticized for her distrust of prophecies. It’s an understandable prejudice, though. Jocasta doesn’t know that the prophecy Laius received came true – she believes her son to be dead and her husband to have been murdered by a band of thieves. This seemingly disproves the prophecy that said Laius would die by his son’s hand. As far as Jocasta knows, she abandoned her baby boy to exposure, starvation, and wild beasts for nothing. She has very good reason to be more than a little skeptical of prophets.

It’s important to note that though Jocasta is critical of prophecy, she isn’t necessarily sacrilegious. In fact, within the play we see her praying to the god Apollo, making offerings, and asking for his protection. No other character, besides the Chorus, goes as far. In a way you could see her as one of the more pious characters onstage. (Not that it does her any good.) It seems that it isn’t the gods themselves that Jocasta is skeptical of, but instead their supposed servants – men like Teiresias.

Jocasta realizes before Oedipus that he is her son, and that they have committed incest. When she hangs herself with bed sheets, it is symbolic of her despair over her incestuous actions. Interestingly, Jocasta plays both a spousal and maternal role to Oedipus. She loves Oedipus romantically, but like a parent, she wishes to protect Oedipus’s innocence from the knowledge of their relationship.

Like Oedipus, Jocasta commits most of her “sins” in ignorance. Yes, she did abandon Oedipus purposely when he was a baby, but even Oedipus says he wishes he had died on that mountainside.

The Chorus

Character Analysis

The Chorus is roughly like the peanut-gallery (it’s even occasionally told to shut up). Sophocles uses this group of Thebans to comment on the play’s action and to foreshadow future events. He also uses it to comment on the larger impact of the characters’ actions and to expound upon the play’s central themes. In Oedipus the King we get choral odes on everything from tyranny to the dangers of blasphemy.

Sophocles also uses the Chorus at the beginning of the play to help tell the audience the given circumstances of the play. We hear all about the terrible havoc that the plague is wreaking on Thebes. By describing the devastation in such gruesome detail, Sophocles raises the stakes for his protagonist, Oedipus. The people of Thebes are in serious trouble; Oedipus has to figure out who killed Laius fast, or he won’t have any subjects left to rule.

Unlike his contemporary Euripides, Sophocles was known to integrate his choruses into the action of the play. In Oedipus the King we see the Chorus constantly advising Oedipus to keep his cool. Most of the time in ancient tragedies choruses do a lot of lamenting of terrible events, but do little to stop them. Amazingly, though, the Chorus in Oedipus the King manages to convince Oedipus not to banish or execute Creon. Just imagine how much worse Oedipus would have felt if he’d killed his uncle/brother-in-law on top of his other atrocities.

The Chorus in Oedipus the King goes through a distinct character arc. They begin by being supportive of Oedipus, believing, based on his past successes, that he’s the right man to fix their woes. As Oedipus’s behavior becomes more erratic, they become uncertain and question his motives. The fact Oedipus doesn’t start lopping off heads at this point is pretty good evidence that he’s not a tyrant. In the end, the Chorus is on Oedipus’s side again and laments his horrific fate.

Like most all ancient Greek tragedians, Sophocles divides his choral odes into strophe and antistrophe. Both sections had the same number of lines and metrical pattern. In Greek, strophe means “turn,” andantistrophe means “turn back.” This makes sense when you consider the fact that, during the strophe choruses danced from right to left and during the antistrophe they did the opposite. Sophocles may have split them into two groups, so that it was as if one part of the Chorus was conversing with the other. Perhaps the dualities created by strophe and antistrophe, represent the endless, irresolvable debates for which Greek tragedy is famous.

Oedipus the King Plot Analysis

Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.

Initial Situation

Oedipus is aware that there is a curse on Thebes and has Creon gather insight into how to lift it

These are the circumstances at the beginning of the play. At first, it seems like this us just another “Thebes has a problem, Oedipus makes it go away,” deal.


No one wants to provide any information to Oedipus about Laius’s murder.

Oedipus struggles to get Teiresias, the messenger, and the shepherd to talk. He’s desperate to solve the mystery but he keeps being urged to drop it.


Oedipus begins to realize that he is somehow implicated in Laius’s murder.

The more Oedipus learns, the more he wants to know. Although he is inching closer to the truth, he is damaging himself in the process.


Oedipus realizes he’s slept with his mother and killed his father.

In a moment of horror, Oedipus understands what he’s done. This is the emotional and psychological climax of the play.


Oedipus enters his bedroom and sees that Jocasta has hanged herself.

Oedipus sees that Jocasta, too, has realized what they’ve done. The suspense is inherent in the fact that we don’t know if Oedipus, too, will kill himself. Given that this is a Greek tragedy, we’re a little bit scared that everyone involved will suddenly commit suicide as well. It’s quite suspenseful.


Oedipus gouges his eyes out with a brooch from Jocasta’s dress.

With complete knowledge of what he’s done, Oedipus inflicts injury on himself and begs to be exiled from Thebes.


Oedipus is exiled from Thebes.

In the last moments of the play, Oedipus is banished from his home.

Oedipus the King Setting

Where It All Goes Down

In Front of the Palace, Thebes, Ancient Greece

Oedipus the King is set in that doomed city-state called Thebes. Though most Greek playwrights were Athenian, their plays are hardly ever set in their home town. In fact, they weren’t allowed to do so. The tragedies did take on issues current Athenian issues, however. For example some scholars think the plague in Oedipus the King is referencing a recent plague in Athens. It seems, though, that Athenians preferred a little objective distance when examining their woes.

Athenians also liked objective distance in terms of time. Tragedies were almost always set in Greece’s distant past. Sophocles and his buddies adapted their stories from their peoples’ rich oral tradition. These tales of gods and heroes had been handed down for generations. Oedipuswas an ancient figure even to the ancient Greeks.

Some the earliest written references to the tragic king can be found in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. What’s interesting is that in Homer’s version of the tale, Oedipus continues to rule Thebes after the horrible truth is revealed. There’s no blinding or exile. It’s important to realize that none of the ancient stories were set in stone. Sophocles’s audience expected him to mutate the myth to his own ends. They enjoyed watching the way the playwright adapted the tales in order to examine both universal truths and topical Athenian issues.

On the micro level, the play is set in front of the palace of Thebes. This was the same place from which Oedipus’s father Laius once ruled. Oedipus sleeps in the same bed in which he was most likely conceived. It’s more than a little ironic that Oedipus meets his downfall in the same place from which he sprung.

Oedipus the King Questions

Bring on the tough stuff – there’s not just one right answer.
  1. Discuss the conflict between fate and destiny on one hand and free will on the other. Which dominates? How does each character grapple with their limited free will?
  2. How does Oedipus see himself? How is this similar or different from how he is perceived by others?
  3. What function does off-stage action have in the Oedipus trilogy? Why, for example, does Sophocles sometimes have messengers describe actions that have occurred rather than portraying events directly?
  4. What are some examples of dramatic irony (when we know stuff the character doesn’t yet realize) in Oedipus the King?

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