Oedipus Rex

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Oedipus Rex Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.

Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex has captivated drama enthusiasts and psychology scholars alike for centuries. Sigmund Freud borrowed the name Oedipus when theorizing the Oedipal Complex, which is when a male harbors sexual fantasies for his mother. In Sophocles’s play, Oedipus marries his mother and sires children by her. This tragedy is about more than psychological disorders, however; it is about prophesies, and what happens when mortals try to refute them.

The play opens in the city of Thebes. Oedipus rules the city, alongside his wife, Jocasta. They have two daughters, Ismene and Antigone. He is beset with a problem—the people of Thebes are sick, poor, and dying. To find a solution, he sends Creon, his brother-in-law, to the shrine of Apollo. Creon returns to inform Oedipus that the bad blood must be removed from Thebes for the city to heal. The bad blood comes from the murder of Laios, the former king of Thebes.

Oedipus inquires why the people of Thebes never looked into Laios’ death, and learns they were too concerned with the Sphinx to focus on that. The Sphinx had parked herself outside Thebes, and would kill anyone who could not answer the following riddle:

What crawls on four legs in the morning, walks on two legs in the afternoon, and three in the evening?

Oedipus swears to the people he will find the culprit in Laios’ murder. He calls upon a blind prophet named Tiresias for aid and advice. Tiresias reluctantly informs Oedipus it is he who is the bad blood; he who killed his father and sleeps with his mother. Oedipus, shocked and angered by this, is convinced that Creon got Tiresias to say these things to take the throne in Thebes.

Creon defends himself, claiming that not only did he not ask Tiresias to lie for him, but he has no interest in ruling Thebes. Jocasta enters and Creon leaves. Oedipus confides his woes to his wife, and she tries to comfort him by telling him not to place stock in the words of the oracle. She tells him the oracle once prophesied that her son would kill his father and sleep with her; she assures Oedipus this never happened. She adds that she and Laios had a son, but knowing the prophecy, Laios bound the child’s feet and abandoned him in the wild.

Oedipus is not soothed by this information and continues to question Jocasta about Laios. He asks when and where the old king died and what he looked like. Jocasta tries to reassure Oedipus, telling him there is a survivor who had been with Laios. Oedipus sends for him, feeling more and more concerned. He tells Jocasta about his own upbringing while they wait. The oracle at Delphi told him that he was to murder his father and share his mother’s bed, so he left his home in Corinth to prevent so horrible a fate. On his way to Thebes, he was attacked by a group of men, and killed all but one.

Oedipus’s ruminating is interrupted by a Corinthian, who has come to beg Oedipus to return home to rule because his father has died. Oedipus refuses, certain that if he does, he will hurt his mother. He tells the Corinthian this is why he cannot return home, but the Corinthian explains that Merope and Polybus, the parents who raised Oedipus, were not his real parents, but had accepted Oedipus as a gift from him. He’d been given Oedipus as a baby, with his feet bound, by a herdsman near Mount Kithairon. At this point, the survivor arrives and corroborates this story, as he was the herdsman who gave the baby Oedipus to the Corinthian.

The realization that Oedipus killed his biological father, Laios, and slept with his biological mother, Jocasta, has grim ramifications. Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself with her pin. He exiles himself from Thebes and leaves the city—and his daughters—in Creon’s care. Oedipus wends his way back to where his story began, at Mount Kithairon.

Oedipus Rex is the first in a series of plays known as the Theban Plays. The others include Oedipus at Colonus, in which Oedipus travels with his daughter Antigone to Colonus, where he dies, and Antigone, which chronicles her return to Thebes and her suicide, which leads to two other suicides—those of Creon’s son and Creon’s wife.

Sophocles remains one of the foremost ancient Greek playwrights. Alongside the Theban Plays, four other of his plays survive. While not many of his complete works survive, there are more than one hundred fragmentary plays attributed to Sophocles.