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Summary of Sophocles' "Oedipus the King"

Summary of Sophocles' Oedipus the King

Characters

Oedipus- King of Thebes
Creon- brother of Jocasta
Jocasta- wife of Oedipus
Tiresias- blind prophet

Prologue

Oedipus asks the priest why the people seem so worried. The priest tells Oedipus that Thebans are becoming poverty-stricken due to bad crops, sick animals, babies dying in the womb, and the fever demon overtaking the city. They want Oedipus to fix everything like he did with the Sphinx. Oedipus tells them that he feels their pain, and he is worried about the city as well. He had already sent Creon, Jocasta's brother to Pythia to find out what the oracle of Apollo says to do. Oedipus vows to do whatever Apollo bids him to do.

Just then Creon returned. The oracle told Creon that Thebes needs to banish or kill the man who killed King Laius. Oedipus questions Creon about the untimely demise of their former King. The conversation goes as follows:

Oedipus: where was he killed?

Creon: While on a pilgrimage.

Oedipus: was he alone?

Creon: all of his companions were killed, except for one. The only thing that the surviving man would say was that it was brigands.

Oedipus: There is no way a brigand would be so bold unless he was hired by someone who wanted the King dead.

Creon: that is what we originally suspected, but our grief prohibited us from investigating further.

Oedipus: how could you let the murder of a king go unsolved?!

Creon: the Sphinx of riddles kept them otherwise engaged.

Oedipus vows to find King Laius' murderer: "not for any far-flung friend, / but by myself and for myself I'll break this plague. / For who knows, tomorrow this self murderer / may turn his bloody hands on me. / The cause of Laius therefore is my own" (11).




First Episode

Oedipus sent for Tiresias, the blind prophet of Apollo, in order to help him figure out who killed Laius. When Tiresias arrives it is clear that he does not wish to stay there; he tells Oedipus that he does not want to contribute to his downfall. Oedipus got really angry when Tiresias refuses to tell him what he knows. He accuses Tiresias of being the one who hired the brigands to kill Laius. Tiresias fires back that it is he [Oedipus] who is the reason the city is suffering; the murderer Oedipus is looking for is himself. Oedipus threatens him for speaking lies. Oedipus remembers that it was Creon whose idea it was to send for Tiresias, which leads him to believe that Tiresias and Creon were plotting together to kill Laius, so that Creon could become king. Tiresias denies that he had any plot with Creon. Tiresias told Oedipus that his wise parents bore a fool. Oedipus seizes on this comment and asks who his parents are. Tiresias tells him that "this very day will furnish you a birthday and a death" (25). Tiresias leaves Oedipus with these words: "Oh yes, detected in his very hears of home: his children's father and their brother, son and husband to his mother, bed-rival to his father and assassin" (26).

Second Episode

Creon comes in upset at the Oedipus's charge of his being a traitor. The Chorus tries to calm him down, but they are unsuccessful. Oedipus rushes in angry that Creon would show himself there after what he had done. Creon asks Oedipus why he feels wronged. Oedipus asks if it was not on his advice to send for the seer. Creon said "yes."

Oedipus then asks how long it has been since Laius died. Creon doesn't understand the connection. Oedipus asks if the seer was in practice around the time of Laius's death. Creon said "yes." Oedipus asked if the seer spoke of him. Creon said "no." Oedipus then asks if they did anything to investigate the King's death. Creon said they did a full investigation. Oedipus asks if the seer stepped forward and helped with the investigation. Creon said that he didn't know. Oedipus bluntly tells Creon that if he "were not hand-in-glove with him, he never would have thought of pinning Laius's death on [Oedipus]" (32). Creon told Creon that he had no idea why the seer would make such an accusation. Creon states that it would not benefit him in any way to try to seize the crown, especially since he already enjoys the liberties of a king without having any of the stress that would come with that position. Creon challenges Oedipus to go to Delphi and find out for himself if the prophecy is false. Oedipus tells Creon that his swift thinking means that he is guilty. Creon asks Oedipus what he wants, his banishment. Oedipus tells Creon that he wants him dead. Creon calls him a mad man. The Chorus fetches Jocasta, and she hurries in. She chastises them for making "trifles into tragedies" (36). She tries to dissuade Oedipus's rage. The Chorus tells Oedipus to believe Creon, because he has never lied to Oedipus before.

Creon leaves and Jocasta begs Oedipus to tell her what has upset him so much. He tells Jocasta that the prophet that Creon had him send for told him that he was Laius' murderer. Jocasta tells him about the oracle of Apollo, who came to see her and Laius long ago. He warned them that Laius would be killed by their son, but Laius was killed by brigands where three highways meet. Also, when their son was two days old Laius had the child taken to a trackless hillside and had his ankles riveted together. She tells Oedipus all of this as proof that seers are not always right. Oedipus remembers something, so he asks the specifics about the three highways. She tells him that Laius was murdered in a land called Phocis, where the road from Delphi meets the road that comes from Daulia. He then asks her to describe her former husband; he becomes increasingly frightened by her response. Oedipus asks her if Laius set out as a regular man or as a king with many bodyguards. She told him that he only had five men with him, and the king himself rode in a chariot. He asked her where she got these details from, and she told him that the lone survivor told her. It turns out that when the man saw that Oedipus had taken Laius' place on the throne, he begged Jocasta to let him shepherd's life far from Thebes. Oedipus asks her to send for him.

Jocasta wants to know why he is so upset, and Oedipus tells her his story. When he was younger a man, in a drunken state, told him that his father was not his father. His parents were shocked by the drunkard's accusation, but something inside Oedipus drove him to the oracle of Delphi. The oracle told him that he would mate with him mother to create a child that would make men tremble, and would kill his father. On his way home, he reached the place where the three highways meet. He met a small caravan like the one Jocasta had described, and they tried to run him off of the road. One thing led to another, and he killed the old man in the chariot and the rest of his group.

Third Episode

A messenger comes in while Jocasta is praying to Apollo on behalf of her husband's sanity. The messenger tells her that Oedipus' father is dead. Jocasta is very happy to hear this, because it means that the oracle was wrong; Oedipus did not kill his father. Oedipus is overjoyed to hear this news, but still worried about the prophecy that he will marry his mother. The messenger asked why Oedipus feared a living woman, and Oedipus told him of the prophecy. The messenger told him not to worry, because the man that he thought was his father was not really his father. The messenger tells Oedipus that he found him on a mountain dell of Cithaeron, and gave him to the people that Oedipus thought of as his parents. Jocasta goes pale. The messenger told Oedipus that he found him with his ankles riveted together. Jocasta grows increasingly anxious. The messenger tells Oedipus that he received baby Oedipus from one of King Laius' herdsman. Jocasta begs Oedipus to leave the matter alone, but he refuses and sends for the herdsman.

Fourth Episode

The shepherd comes before Oedipus a little uneasy. He asks the messenger if this was the shepherd that gave him the baby. The messenger said yes. Oedipus wants the shepherd to confirm that he gave the messenger a baby boy, but the man is reluctant to do so. Finally, he admits that he gave the man the baby. Oedipus wants to know where he got the baby. The shepherd hesitantly tells him that the baby boy was the son of King Laius. Oedipus realizes the whole truth of his existence; he killed his father and married his mother.

Epilogue

Oedipus found Jocasta hanging from a noose, dead. He took her down, and removed the golden brooches off of her dress. He rammed the brooches into his eyes repeatedly, blinding himself.

Creon is in power now. Oedipus wants to be exiled to the hills of Cithaeron. Creon tells Oedipus that they must wait to hear what the gods have to say. Oedipus asks Creon look after his children, to which he agrees.

Sources

Sophocles. "Oedipus the King." The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles. Trans. Paul Roche. New York: Plume, 1991. 1-81.

Published on February 3, 2012 by Sophia Brookshire © All Rights Reserved

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