Louis Bouwmeester as Oedipus in a Dutch production of Oedipus Rex, c. 1896
|Mute||Daughters of Oedipus (Antigone and Ismene)|
|Date premiered||c. 429 BC|
|Place premiered||Theatre of Dionysus, Athens|
|Original language||Classical Greek|
Oedipus Rex, also known by its Greek title, Oedipus Tyrannus (Ancient Greek: , pronounced [oidípo:s týrannos]), or Oedipus the King, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed around 429 BC. Originally, to the ancient Greeks, the title was simply Oedipus (), as it is referred to by Aristotle in the Poetics. It is thought to have been renamed Oedipus Tyrannus to distinguish it from another of Sophocles's plays, Oedipus at Colonus. In antiquity, the term "tyrant" referred to a ruler with no legitimate claim to rule, but it did not necessarily have a negative connotation.
Of Sophocles' three Theban plays that have survived, and that deal with the story of Oedipus, Oedipus Rex was the second to be written. However, in terms of the chronology of events that the plays describe, it comes first, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone.
Prior to the start of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus has become the king of Thebes while unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that he would kill his father, Laius (the previous king), and marry his mother, Jocasta (whom Oedipus took as his queen after solving the riddle of the Sphinx). The action of Sophocles's play concerns Oedipus's search for the murderer of Laius in order to end a plague ravaging Thebes, unaware that the killer he is looking for is none other than himself. At the end of the play, after the truth finally comes to light, Jocasta hangs herself while Oedipus, horrified at his patricide and incest, proceeds to gouge out his own eyes in despair.
The misfortunes of Thebes are believed to be the result of a curse laid upon Laius for the time he had violated the sacred laws of hospitality (Greek: xenia).
In his youth, Laius was taken in as a guest by Pelops, king of Elis, where he would become tutor to the king's youngest son, Chrysippus, in chariot racing. Laius seduces or abducts Chrysippus, and rapes him. According to some versions, Chrysippus then kills himself in shame. This terrible act casts doom upon Laius and all those who descend from him. However, many scholars[who?] believe that this tale of Laius' transgressions against Chrysippus were added later to the myth in order to explain the family's curse.
When Laius' son is born, he consults an oracle as to his fortune. To his horror, the oracle reveals that Laius "is doomed to perish by the hand of his own son." Laius binds the infant's feet together with a pin and orders Jocasta to kill him. Unable to do so to her own son, Jocasta orders a servant to slay the infant instead. The servant exposes the infant on a mountaintop, where he is found and rescued by a shepherd. (In other versions, the servant gives the infant to the shepherd.)
The shepherd names the child Oedipus, "swollen foot", as his feet had been tightly bound by Laius. The shepherd brings the infant to Corinth, and presents him to the childless king Polybus, who raises Oedipus as his own son.
As he grows to manhood, Oedipus hears a rumour that he is not truly the son of Polybus and his wife, Merope. He asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents really are. The Oracle seems to ignore this question, telling him instead that he is destined to "mate with [his] own mother, and shed/With [his] own hands the blood of [his] own sire." Desperate to avoid this terrible fate, Oedipus, who still believes that Polybus and Merope are his true parents, leaves Corinth for the city of Thebes.
On the road to Thebes, Oedipus encounters an old man and his servants. The two begin to quarrel over whose chariot has the right of way. While the old man moves to strike the insolent youth with his scepter, Oedipus throws the man down from his chariot, killing him. Thus, the prophecy in which Oedipus slays his own father is fulfilled, as the old man--as Oedipus discovers later--was Laius, king of Thebes and true father to Oedipus.
Arriving at Thebes, a city in turmoil, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a legendary beast with the head and breast of a woman, the body of a lioness, and the wings of an eagle. The Sphinx, perched on a hill, was devouring Thebans and travellers one by one if they could not solve her riddle.
The precise riddle asked by the Sphinx varied in early traditions, and is not explicitly stated in Oedipus Rex, as the event precedes the play. However, according to the most widely regarded version of the riddle, the Sphinx asks "what is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?" Oedipus, blessed with great intelligence, answers correctly: "man" (Greek: anthrôpos), who crawls on all fours as an infant; walks upright in maturity; and leans on a stick in old age.:463
Bested by the prince, the Sphinx throws herself from a cliff, thereby ending the curse. Oedipus' reward for freeing Thebes from the Sphinx is kingship to the city and the hand of its dowager queen, Jocasta. None, at that point, realize that Jocasta is Oedipus' true mother. Thus, unbeknownst to either character, the remaining prophecy has been fulfilled.
Oedipus, King of Thebes, sends his brother-in-law, Creon, to ask advice of the oracle at Delphi, concerning a plague ravaging Thebes. Creon returns to report that the plague is the result of religious pollution, since the murderer of their former king, Laius, has never been caught. Oedipus vows to find the murderer and curses him for causing the plague.
Oedipus summons the blind prophet Tiresias for help. When Tiresias arrives he claims to know the answers to Oedipus's questions, but refuses to speak, instead telling him to abandon his search. Oedipus is enraged by Tiresias' refusal, and verbally accuses him of complicity in Laius' murder. Outraged, Tiresias tells the king that Oedipus himself is the murderer ("You yourself are the criminal you seek"). Oedipus cannot see how this could be, and concludes that the prophet must have been paid off by Creon in an attempt to undermine him. The two argue vehemently, as Oedipus mocks Tiresias' lack of sight, and Tiresias retorts that Oedipus himself is blind. Eventually Tiresias leaves, muttering darkly that when the murderer is discovered he shall be a native citizen of Thebes, brother and father to his own children, and son and husband to his own mother.
Creon arrives to face Oedipus's accusations. The King demands that Creon be executed; however, the chorus persuades him to let Creon live. Jocasta, wife of first Laius and then Oedipus, enters and attempts to comfort Oedipus, telling him he should take no notice of prophets. As proof, she recounts an incident in which she and Laius received an oracle which never came true. The prophecy stated that Laius would be killed by his own son; however, Jocasta reassures Oedipus by her statement that Laius was killed by bandits at a crossroads on the way to Delphi.
The mention of this crossroads causes Oedipus to pause and ask for more details. He asks Jocasta what Laius looked like, and Oedipus suddenly becomes worried that Tiresias's accusations were true. Oedipus then sends for the one surviving witness of the attack to be brought to the palace from the fields where he now works as a shepherd.
Jocasta, confused, asks Oedipus what the matter is, and he tells her. Many years ago, at a banquet in Corinth, a man drunkenly accused Oedipus of not being his father's son. Oedipus went to Delphi and asked the oracle about his parentage. Instead of answers he was given a prophecy that he would one day murder his father and sleep with his mother. Upon hearing this he resolved to leave Corinth and never return. While traveling he came to the very crossroads where Laius was killed, and encountered a carriage which attempted to drive him off the road. An argument ensued and Oedipus killed the travelers, including a man who matches Jocasta's description of Laius. Oedipus has hope, however, because the story is that Laius was murdered by several robbers. If the shepherd confirms that Laius was attacked by many men, then Oedipus is in the clear.
A man arrives from Corinth with the message that Oedipus's father has died. Oedipus, to the surprise of the messenger, is made ecstatic by this news, for it proves one half of the prophecy false, for now he can never kill his father. However, he still fears that he may somehow commit incest with his mother. The messenger, eager to ease Oedipus's mind, tells him not to worry, because Merope was not in fact his real mother.
It emerges that this messenger was formerly a shepherd on Mount Cithaeron, and that he was given a baby, which the childless Polybus then adopted. The baby, he says, was given to him by another shepherd from the Laius household, who had been told to get rid of the child. Oedipus asks the chorus if anyone knows who this man was, or where he might be now. They respond that he is the "same shepherd" who was witness to the murder of Laius, and whom Oedipus had already sent for. Jocasta, who has by now realized the truth, desperately begs Oedipus to stop asking questions, but he refuses and Jocasta runs into the palace.
When the shepherd arrives Oedipus questions him, but he begs to be allowed to leave without answering further. However, Oedipus presses him, finally threatening him with torture or execution. It emerges that the child he gave away was Laius's own son, and that Jocasta had given the baby to the shepherd to secretly be exposed upon the mountainside. This was done in fear of the prophecy that Jocasta said had never come true: that the child would kill his father.
Everything is at last revealed, and Oedipus curses himself and fate before leaving the stage. The chorus laments how even a great man can be felled by fate, and following this, a servant exits the palace to speak of what has happened inside. When Jocasta enters the house, she runs to the palace bedroom and hangs herself there. Shortly afterward, Oedipus enters in a fury, calling on his servants to bring him a sword so that he might cut out his mother's womb. He then rages through the house, until he comes upon Jocasta's body. Giving a cry, Oedipus takes her down and removes the long gold pins that held her dress together, before plunging them into his own eyes in despair.
A blind Oedipus now exits the palace and begs to be exiled as soon as possible. Creon enters, saying that Oedipus shall be taken into the house until oracles can be consulted regarding what is best to be done. Oedipus's two daughters (and half-sisters), Antigone and Ismene, are sent out, and Oedipus laments their having been born to such a cursed family. He asks Creon to watch over them and Creon agrees, before sending Oedipus back into the palace.
The two cities of Troy and Thebes were the major focus of Greek epic poetry. The events surrounding the Trojan War were chronicled in the Epic Cycle, of which much remains, and those about Thebes in the Theban Cycle, which have been lost. The Theban Cycle recounted the sequence of tragedies that befell the house of Laius, of which the story of Oedipus is a part.
Homer's Odyssey (XI.271ff.) contains the earliest account of the Oedipus myth when Odysseus encounters Jocasta (named Epicaste) in the underworld. Homer briefly summarises the story of Oedipus, including the incest, patricide, and Jocasta's subsequent suicide. However, in the Homeric version, Oedipus remains King of Thebes after the revelation and neither blinds himself, nor is sent into exile. In particular, it is said that the gods made the matter of his paternity known, whilst in Oedipus the King, Oedipus very much discovers the truth himself.
In 467 BC, Sophocles's fellow tragedian Aeschylus won first prize at the City Dionysia with a trilogy about the House of Laius, comprising Laius, Oedipus and Seven Against Thebes (the only play which survives). Since he did not write connected trilogies as Aeschylus did, Oedipus Rex focuses on the titular character while hinting at the larger myth obliquely, which was already known to the audience in Athens at the time.
The trilogy containing Oedipus Rex took second prize in the City Dionysia at its original performance. Aeschylus's nephew Philocles took first prize at that competition. However, in his Poetics, Aristotle considered Oedipus Rex to be the tragedy which best matched his prescription for how drama should be made.
Many modern critics agree with Aristotle on the quality of Oedipus Rex, even if they don't always agree on the reasons. For example, Richard Claverhouse Jebb claimed that "The Oedipus Tyrannus is in one sense the masterpiece of Attic tragedy. No other shows an equal degree of art in the development of the plot; and this excellence depends on the powerful and subtle drawing of the characters."Cedric Whitman noted that "the Oedipus Rex passes almost universally for the greatest extant Greek play..." Whitman himself regarded the play as "the fullest expression of this conception of tragedy," that is the conception of tragedy as a "revelation of the evil lot of man," where a man may have "all the equipment for glory and honor" but still have "the greatest effort to do good" end in "the evil of an unbearable self for which one is not responsible. Edith Hall referred to Oedipus the King as "this definitive tragedy" and notes that "the magisterial subtlety of Sophocles' characterization thus lend credibility to the breathtaking coincidences," and notes the irony that "Oedipus can only fulfill his exceptional god-ordained destiny because Oedipus is a preeminently capable and intelligent human being."H. D. F. Kitto said about Oedipus Rex that "it is true to say that the perfection of its form implies a world order," although Kitto notes that whether or not that world order "is beneficent, Sophocles does not say."
The science revolution attributed to Thales began gaining political force, and this play offered a warning to the new thinkers. Kitto interprets the play as Sophocles' retort to the sophists, by dramatizing a situation in which humans face undeserved suffering through no fault of their own, but despite the apparent randomness of the events, the fact that they have been prophesied by the gods implies that the events are not random, despite the reasons being beyond human comprehension. Through the play, according to Kitto, Sophocles declares "that it is wrong, in the face of the incomprehensible and unmoral, to deny the moral laws and accept chaos. What is right is to recognize facts and not delude ourselves. The universe is a unity; if, sometimes, we can see neither rhyme nor reason in it we should not suppose it is random. There is so much that we cannot know and cannot control that we should not think and behave as if we do know and can control.
Fate is a motif that often occurs in Greek writing, tragedies in particular. Likewise, where the attempt to avoid an oracle is the very thing that enables it to happen is common to many Greek myths. For example, similarities to Oedipus can be seen in the myth of Perseus' birth.
Two oracles in particular dominate the plot of Oedipus Rex. Jocasta relates the prophecy that was told to Laius before the birth of Oedipus (lines 711-4):
[The oracle] told him
that it was his fate that he should die a victim
at the hands of his own son, a son to be born
of Laius and me.
that I was fated to lie with my mother,
and show to daylight an accursed breed
which men would not endure, and I was doomed
to be murderer of the father that begot me.
The implication of Laius's oracle is ambiguous. One interpretation considers that the presentation of Laius's oracle in this play differs from that found in Aeschylus's Oedipus trilogy produced in 467 BC. Smith (2005) argues that "Sophocles had the option of making the oracle to Laius conditional (if Laius has a son, that son will kill him) or unconditional (Laius will have a son who will kill him). Both Aeschylus and Euripides write plays in which the oracle is conditional; Sophocles...chooses to make Laius's oracle unconditional and thus removes culpability for his sins from Oedipus, for he could not have done other than what he did, no matter what action he took."
This interpretation is supported by Jocasta's repetition of the oracle at lines 854-55: "Loxias declared that the king should be killed by/ his own son." In Greek, Jocasta uses the verb chrênai: "to be fated, necessary." This iteration of the oracle seems to suggest that it was unconditional and inevitable.
Other scholars have nonetheless argued that Sophocles follows tradition in making Laius's oracle conditional, and thus avoidable. They point to Jocasta's initial disclosure of the oracle at lines 711-14. In Greek, the oracle cautions: "hôs auton hexoi moira pros paidos thanein/ hostis genoit emou te kakeinou para." The two verbs in boldface indicate what is called a "future more vivid" condition: if a child is born to Laius, his fate to be killed by that child will overtake him.
Whatever the meaning of Laius's oracle, the one delivered to Oedipus is clearly unconditional. Given the modern conception of fate and fatalism, readers of the play have a tendency to view Oedipus as a mere puppet controlled by greater forces; a man crushed by the gods and fate for no good reason. This, however, is not an entirely accurate reading. While it is a mythological truism that oracles exist to be fulfilled, oracles do not cause the events that lead up to the outcome. In his landmark essay "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex",E.R. Dodds draws a comparison with Jesus' prophecy at the Last Supper that Peter would deny him three times. Jesus knows that Peter will do this, but readers would in no way suggest that Peter was a puppet of fate being forced to deny Christ. Free will and predestination are by no means mutually exclusive, and such is the case with Oedipus.
The oracle delivered to Oedipus is what is often called a "self-fulfilling prophecy," whereby a prophecy itself sets in motion events that conclude with its own fulfilment. This, however, is not to say that Oedipus is a victim of fate and has no free will. The oracle inspires a series of specific choices, freely made by Oedipus, which lead him to kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus chooses not to return to Corinth after hearing the oracle, just as he chooses to head toward Thebes, to kill Laius, and to take Jocasta specifically as his wife. In response to the plague at Thebes, he chooses to send Creon to the Oracle for advice and then to follow that advice, initiating the investigation into Laius' murder. None of these choices are predetermined.
Another characteristic of oracles in myth is that they are almost always misunderstood by those who hear them; hence Oedipus misunderstanding the significance of the Delphic Oracle. He visits Delphi to find out who his real parents are and assumes that the Oracle refuses to answer that question, offering instead an unrelated prophecy which forecasts patricide and incest. Oedipus' assumption is incorrect, the Oracle does, in a way, answer his question. On closer analysis the oracle contains essential information which Oedipus seems to neglect. The wording of the Oracle: "I was doomed to be murderer of the father that begot me" refers to Oedipus' real, biological father. Likewise the mother with polluted children is defined as the biological one. The wording of the drunken guest on the other hand: "you are not your father's son" defines Polybus as only a foster father to Oedipus. The two wordings support each other and point to the "two set of parents" alternative. Thus the question of two set of parents, biological and foster, is raised. Oedipus' reaction to the Oracle is irrational: he states he did not get any answer and he flees in a direction away from Corinth, showing that he firmly believed at the time that Polybus and Merope are his real parents.
The scene with the drunken guest constitutes the end of Oedipus' childhood. He can no longer ignore a feeling of uncertainty about his parentage. However, after consulting the Oracle this uncertainty disappears, strangely enough, and is replaced by a totally unjustified certainty that he is the son of Merope and Polybus. We have said that this irrational behaviour--his hamartia, as Aristotle puts it--is due to the repression of a whole series of thoughts in his consciousness, in fact everything that referred to his earlier doubts about his parentage.
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The exploration of the theme of state control in Oedipus Rex is paralleled by the examination of the conflict between the individual and the state in Antigone. The dilemma that Oedipus faces here is similar to that of the tyrannical Creon: each man has, as king, made a decision that his subjects question or disobey; and each king misconstrues both his own role as a sovereign and the role of the rebel. When informed by the blind prophet Tiresias that religious forces are against him, each king claims that the priest has been corrupted. It is here, however, that their similarities come to an end: while Creon sees the havoc he has wreaked and tries to amend his mistakes, Oedipus refuses to listen to anyone.
Sophocles uses dramatic irony to present the downfall of Oedipus. At the beginning of the story, Oedipus is portrayed as "self-confident, intelligent and strong willed." By the end, it is within these traits that he finds his demise.
One of the most significant instances of irony in this tragedy is when Tiresias hints at Oedipus what he has done; that he has slain his own father and married his own mother (lines 457-60):
To his children he will discover that he is both brother and father.
To the woman who gave birth to him he is son and husband and to his father, both, a sharer of his bed and his murderer.
Go into your palace then, king Oedipus and think about these things and if you find me a liar then you can truly say I know nothing of prophecies.
The audience knows the truth and what would be the fate of Oedipus. Oedipus, on the other hand, chooses to deny the reality that has confronted him. He ignores the word of Tiresias and continues on his journey to find the supposed killer. His search for a murderer is yet another instance of irony. Oedipus, determined to find the one responsible for King Laius' death, announces to his people (lines 247-53)::466–467
I hereby call down curses on this killer...
that horribly, as he is horrible,
he may drag out his wretched unblessed days.
This too I pray: Though he be of my house,
if I learn of it, and let him still remain,
may I receive the curse I have laid on others.
This is ironic as Oedipus is, as he discovers, the slayer of Laius, and the curse he wishes upon the killer, he has actually wished upon himself. Glassberg (2017) explains that "Oedipus has clearly missed the mark. He is unaware that he is the one polluting agent he seeks to punish. He has inadequate knowledge..."
Literal and metaphorical references to eyesight appear throughout Oedipus Rex. Clear vision serves as a metaphor for insight and knowledge, yet the clear-eyed Oedipus is blind to the truth about his origins and inadvertent crimes. The prophet Tiresias, on the other hand, although literally blind, "sees" the truth and relays what is revealed to him. "Though Oedipus' future is predicted by the gods, even after being warned by Tiresias, he cannot see the truth or reality beforehand because his excessive pride has blinded his vision..." Only after Oedipus gouges out his own eyes, physically blinding himself, does he gain prophetic ability, as exhibited in Oedipus at Colonus. It is deliberately ironic that the "seer" can "see" better than Oedipus, despite being blind. Tiresias, in anger, expresses such (lines 495-500)::11
Since you have chosen to insult my blindness--
you have your eyesight, and you do not see
how miserable you are, or where you live,
or who it is who shares your household.
Do you know the family you come from?
Without your knowledge you've become
the enemy of your own kindred
Sigmund Freud wrote a notable passage in Interpretation of Dreams regarding the destiny of Oedipus, as well as the Oedipus complex. He analyzes why this play, Oedipus Rex, written in Ancient Greece, is so effective even to a modern audience::279-280
"His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours -- because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so."
Freud goes on to indicate, however, that the "primordial urges and fears" that are his concern are not found primarily in the play by Sophocles, but exist in the myth the play is based on. He refers to Oedipus Rex as a "further modification of the legend," one that originates in a "misconceived secondary revision of the material, which has sought to exploit it for theological purposes.":247
The play has been filmed several times, but only twice in English.
The first English-language adaption, Oedipus Rex (1957), was directed by Tyrone Guthrie and starred Douglas Campbell as Oedipus. In this version, the entire play is performed by the cast in masks (Greek: prosopon), as actors did in ancient Greek theatre.
The second English-language film version, Oedipus the King (1968), was directed by Philip Saville and filmed in Greece. Unlike Guthrie's film, this version shows the actors' faces, as well as boasting an all-star cast, including Christopher Plummer as Oedipus; Lilli Palmer as Jocasta; Orson Welles as Tiresias; Richard Johnson as Creon; Roger Livesey as the Shepherd; and Donald Sutherland as the Leading Member of the Chorus. Sutherland's voice, however, was dubbed by another actor. The film went a step further than the play by actually showing, in flashback, the murder of Laius (portrayed by Friedrich Ledebur). It also shows Oedipus and Jocasta in bed together, making love. Though released in 1968, this film was not seen in Europe or the US until the 1970s and 1980s after legal release and distribution rights were granted to video and television.
Park Chan-wook's South Korean film, Oldboy (2003), was inspired by the play while making several notable changes to allow it to work in a modern South-Korean setting. The film even alters the iconic twist, causing many American critics to overlook the connection. It received widespread acclaim, and is seen in South Korea as the definitive adaptation.
The composer Igor Stravinsky wrote the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, which premiered in 1927 at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, Paris. It is scored for orchestra, speaker, soloists, and male chorus. The libretto, based on Sophocles's tragedy, was written by Jean Cocteau in French and then translated by Abbé Jean Daniélou into Latin. The narration, however, is performed in the language of the audience. The work was written towards the beginning of Stravinsky's neoclassical period and is considered one of the finest works from this phase of the composer's career. He had considered setting the language of the work in Ancient Greek, but decided ultimately on Latin because, in his words, "a medium not dead but turned to stone."
Nigerian writer Ola Rotimi adapted Oedipus Rex into a 1968 play and novel, titling it The Gods Are Not to Blame. In 2012, the play was further adapted by Rasheed Otun and titled The Gods Are STILL Not to Blame.
Don Taylor's 1986 translation/adaptation of Oedipus Rex using the English title Oedipus the King formed part of the BBC's Theban Plays trilogy. It starred Michael Pennington as Oedipus, with Claire Bloom as Jocasta, Sir John Gielgud as Tiresias, and John Shrapnel as Creon
In 2017, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a production of Anthony Burgess' translation of the play with Christopher Eccleston as Oedipus and Fiona Shaw as Tiresias/Second Elder. John Shrapnel, who starred as Creon in the 1986 BBC television version, played the First Elder.
Peter Schickele parodies both the story of Oedipus Rex and the music of Stravinsky's opera-oratorio of the same name in Oedipus Tex, a Western-themed oratorio purportedly written by P.D.Q. Bach. It was released in 1990 on the album Oedipus Tex and Other Choral Calamities.
In episode ten of the second season of the Australian satirical comedy show CNNNN, a short animation in the style of a Disney movie trailer, complete with jaunty music provided by Andrew Hansen, parodies Oedipus Rex. Apart from being advertised as "fun for the whole family," the parody is also mentioned at other times during that same episode, such as in a satirical advertisement in which orphans are offered a free "Oedipus Rex ashes urn" as a promotional offer after losing a relative.