Summary of the Oedipus Story

Pre Story
The story of Oedipus begins when Oedipus is born to Laius and Jocasta of Thebes and the oracle claims that Laius will be doomed to be murdered by his own son. Upon hearing this, Laius binds the feet of Oedipus of so he cannot crawl and instructs Jocasta to kill Oedipus. Instead she gives him to a servant who, disobediently, leaves the infant in the mountains. Next, he is rescued by a shepherd and brought to Corinth where the royal family takes him in as their own, under King Polybus. Later, as a young man, he is told by the Oracle at Delphi that he will marry his mother and kill his father. Terrified, Oedipus flees Corinth for Thebes. On the road, at a three way crossroads, he encounters his true father, Laius, as they dispute over which chariot has the right of way. Oedipus throws him to the ground and kills him along with his other attendants, except one who escapes back to Thebes to report on what happened. Shortly thereafter, Oedipus solves the riddle of the sphinx that had been plaguing Thebes and as reward, he is given Jocasta’s hand in marriage. Though Sophocles’s account does not give the details of the riddle, a later rendition recounts that the riddle asks: what creature walks on all fours in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three and night -with the answer being “man” who crawls as a baby, walks upright as a man, and uses a cane when elderly.

Oedipus the King
The play by Sophocles begins with Oedipus “the Greatest” stepping outside of the palace at Thebes to find his people in longing. He asks a priest to speak on behalf of the people since he is older and he mentions that their polis has undergone a pestilence and plague. Oedipus says twice that he has “pity” for his people, and then he mentions that he sent Creon, his uncle, to the temple of Apollo to ask for guidance on how he might lead the people out of this plague.

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808) Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Creon returns with news that they must banish a man of “blood by blood, since it is murder guilt” that has taken hold of the city (101). When Oedipus asks who is to be banished, Creon responds that the god claims that it must be the old murderer of the former King Laius. Oedipus asks where to find this murderer, to which Creon responds:

“The clue is in this land;
that which is sought is found;the unheeded thing escapes:
so said the god”

Oedipus asks why they didn’t look for the murderer before, while Laius was away for diplomacy and never returned, and Creon says it was because they had more pressing concerns with solving the riddle of the Sphinx. With that, Oedipus says he will call up the council with the intent of renewing his country and ending the plague. The Council then advises that he speak with Tiresias, the blind prophet, who at first refuses to reveal to Oedipus the truth, and then after Oedipus taunts him and accuses him of committing the act of murder, Tiresias says it is Oedipus that kills Laius, and he foretells that Oedipus will also marry his own mother.

Oedipus curses Tiresias and who believes that Tiresias and Creon are in the throws of a conspiracy against him. When Creon returns to defend himself, the Chorus tries to prevent Oedipus from condemning Creon to death. Jocasta appears and tries to resolve the dispute. Jocasta tries to instill a sense of skepticism toward prophets by reminding Oedipus that Laius once was told he would be killed by his own son, but this clearly never came true as Laius was killed at a crossroads between Corinth and Thebes -this sets Oedipus to wondering -he starts to question whether Tiresias’s prophecy is true or not.

An old messenger appears from Corinth who announces that old Polybus has died and this eases Oedipus until he discovers that the messenger was the one who recovered the infant from Cithaeron. He suddenly realizes that he has met his own fate, after Jocasta fled begging him not to keep seeking answers. She hangs herself in her room. Upon finding this, Oedipus grabs a sword to blind himself and tries to exile himself from the city but Creon prevents him saying they should ask the god first. Oedipus asks Creon to look after his children. The play closes with the Chorus warning that even the rich and powerful can fall victim to a horrible fate -none are exempt.

Oedipus at Colonus
Oedipus is led by Antigone and later his daughter Ismene appears as they rest upon a rock, however a Chorus of Athenians warn them that they have transgressed sacred grounds for the Eumenides (recall the Oresteia). Oedipus is then taken in by King Theseus and they learn of the feud between Oedipus’s two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, and also of the prophecy of where Oedipus dies and how it will have an influence on the city. Polynices was banished by Eteocles and appears before Oedipus before deciding to muster an army and attack his brother for control of Thebes. Oedipus sees a rainstorm that he interprets to mean his death and he lets Theseus go with him to the secret spot where he will die (only Theseus may be allowed to know). Antigone begs Theseus to tell her where he lies, but Theseus does not budge so Antigone hopes to return to Thebes to prevent the Seven Against Thebes as Polynices attacks.

This final part details the hubris of Creon as he refuses to bury Polynices’s body, despite a warning from the gods and also from Tiresias. A series of events causes him to lose his children and his wife kills herself. The play ends with Creon realizing his fate, but he retains his power.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore and David Grene edition with translations by Elizabeth Wyckoff, David Grene, and Robert Fitzgerald.

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