USU 1320
Ancient Literature and Language
©Damen, 2004

A Guide to Writing in History and Classics


Click here for a copy of the slides and notes presented during the lecture in class (Chapter 8.I)


Chapter 8: Sophocles and Oedipus the King

I. Introduction

A. Sophocles' Life and Work

Sophocles belongs to the generation of Athenian playwrights who followed in Aeschylus' wake and built upon his successes. Born around 495 BCE and dying in 406, Sophocles' life encompassed almost the entirety of the fifth century, the Golden Age of Classical Athens. And indeed, if anyone was, Sophocles was Athens' "golden boy."

His father was very wealthy, leaving his son well enough off that Sophocles never had to work a day in his life. As a handsome youth, he was chosen to lead the singing and dancing at the ceremony celebrating the Greeks' victory in the Second Persian War (481-479 BCE). While still a young playwright, he defeated the veteran Aeschylus in a dramatic competition and went on to win an unprecedented number of playwriting victories at the City Dionysia. At an early age he retired from acting in his own plays—he had a weak voice which didn't carry well in the enormous arenas that housed Greek drama—and so in many ways he invented the modern playwright, that is, a person who sits in the theatre and watches his own plays instead of acting in them as all of Sophocles' predecessors had done. Finally, he's credited with other innovations, too, such as scene-painting and bringing on stage for the first time a third speaking actor, though evidence suggests it was actually Aeschylus who first utilized a third performer (see above, Chapter 7).

Sophocles' accomplishments in life were not limited to the theatre. In 443 BCE he served as the Imperial Treasurer of Athens, a high honor, and was twice elected to the board of Strategoi ("Generals") who ruled the city. After his death the Athenians declared him a hero—being dubbed a "hero" is the highest distinction a mortal could attain in ancient Greek society—and in this capacity he was given the name Dexion, meaning "The Receiver", because he had received the holy snake of Asclepius, the god of healing, when it was first brought to Athens and had as yet no temple. All in all, Sophocles led a charmed life of which he clearly made the most.

People today find Sophocles' language much less daunting in general than Aeschylean verse, at least on the surface, which accounts to some extent for his continuing popularity. But it's important not to confuse simplicity of expression with simpleness of thought. Where Aeschylus sought density of word and image, cramming as much poetry and meaning as possible into every line, Sophocles strove for a clarity of language with great density of content. For instance, Aeschylus took a straightforward idea like the prophetess who can see her own death approaching and spun it out into a complicated web of interconnecting visions and expressions, some barely comprehensible. Sophocles, conversely, took complex ideas like Oedipus' misfortunes and fate and, using irony, distilled them down to powerful simple words saturated with layers of meaning. The ostensible simplicity of Sophocles' poetry makes it easy sometimes to overlook the power in his carefully chosen and positioned words.

B. Oedipus the King

No play shows better Sophocles' mastery of dense expression than Oedipus the King, a veritable study in double meaning. Over and over, the characters in this play make statements which the viewer who is aware of the outcome will know have greater meaning than the speakers on stage intend them to have. Thus, like a gathering of Olympian deities, the audience in the Theatre of Dionysus look down from their mountain vantage upon the hapless mortals below struggling vainly against fate and, because the viewers know where the characters will end up ultimately, they can see how the gods work, how impossible it is for humans to escape their destiny.

1. The Oedipus Myth

The myth of Oedipus revolves around a man destined by the gods to suffer the most horrible fate. Oedipus' story takes place, for the most part, in the city of Thebes in northern Greece, where he was born. When he was still in his mother's womb, Oedipus' parents Laius and Jocasta asked the oracle of Apollo at Delphi about their unborn child. The oracle's reply was terrifying, that the boy would grow up to marry his mother and kill his father.

Because of this horrifying portent, Jocasta and Laius did what many people with unwanted children did in antiquity. They had the baby's feet spiked—Oedipus' name means in Greek "swollen foot," the result of this injury—and ordered a faithful herdsman who worked in the mountains near Thebes to carry the child off into the wild and abandon it, an act called exposure. With this, they thought they had sidestepped fate but, in fact, their actions proved to be part of its unfolding.

The herdsman felt pity for the helpless babe so, instead of leaving it to rot in the wild or serve as fodder for wild animals, he handed it over to another herdsman from the neighboring city of Corinth. This man, in turn, gave it to his king and queen, Polybus and Merope, who were childless and raised Oedipus as their own. Thus, the boy grew up in Corinth believing himself the natural-born offspring of the royal family, until one day when he heard from a visiting stranger that he wasn't the legitimate son of Polybus and Merope. After his parents refused to tell him one way or the other, Oedipus stormed off to Delphi to demand the truth of Apollo. As before, the oracle delivered its gruesome verdict on his fate.

Stunned by the revelation that he was destined one day to marry his mother and kill his father, he vowed never to return to Corinth but instead headed down a different road leading out of Delphi and ended up eventually near Thebes. As he approached the city, he came to an intersection where three roads converged, and encountered there an old man riding along the path who refused to give way. Their quarrel quickly escalated to violence, and in the primordial act of road rage he knocked the obstructive gaffer out of his wagon, killing him.

When he reached Thebes, Oedipus discovered a city under siege. A horrendous monster called the Sphinx ("Strangler") was choking the city off from the rest of the world. It refused to let anyone pass who couldn't answer its riddle: "What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?" Being naturally quick-witted, Oedipus figured out that the answer was Man, who crawls when young, walks upright as an adult and uses a cane in old age. In shock and rage, the Sphinx threw itself off a cliff.

Oedipus entered Thebes a triumphant savior, winning both throne and queen. His wife was, of course, the newly widowed Jocasta, and as was later revealed, his own mother. When the full truth about Oedipus' birth at long last came to light and she realized that through her actions her son-and-husband had committed unspeakable acts, Jocasta killed herself. Soon thereafter, blinded and forlorn, Oedipus went into exile from Thebes. So goes Sophocles' version of the myth.

But that's not the only incarnation of this legend in ancient literature. To appreciate Sophocles' play fully, it's necessary to experience it the way the ancient audience did, knowing no more about the plot than what the audience at the premiere entered the Theatre of Dionysus knowing. And that was probably somewhat less than the story above, only the basic skeleton of a myth in which a powerful Theban king named Oedipus turned out to be responsible for what was to the ancients, no doubt, the most horrific crimes imaginable. But most likely they didn't know how, when and why Oedipus did what he did, because the details of any story told on the Greek stage were at the individual playwright's discretion whose originality and genius were measured in the way he deployed those particulars.

The same was indeed true of all Greek myths and dramas. Contrary to common opinion, ancient Greek tragedians were free to add elements into a story or alter the plot as long as they stayed within the general parameters outlined in the traditional version of a myth. That is, as long as Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, the playwright could, for the most part, sculpt the story his own way. In this case, there's evidence Sophocles has designed a remarkably inventive, indeed revolutionary approach to the standard way the myth of Oedipus ran in his day.

We get some sense of this from earlier versions of the myth. In the age before Sophocles, Aeschylus had written dramas based on Oedipus' life. Unfortunately, only the final play of Aeschylus' trilogy about Laius' family and offspring survives, and that tells us remarkably little about the first two in which Oedipus' story played out. Nevertheless, it seems safe to say the Aeschylean Oedipus was a rather unsavory character who clung to power despite the gods' clear enmity.

Long before Aeschylus even, Homeric audiences evidently listened to the tales of Oedipus' woes. While the full story of his tragedy doesn't appear in Homer as such or in any surviving text of Greek epic, the oral bard recapitulates the myth briefly when Odysseus visits the Underworld and sees Oedipus' mother and wife Jocasta, whom he calls Epicaste, among the ghosts of the dead (Odyssey 11.271-80):

I saw the mother of Oidipous, Epicaste,
whose great unwitting deed it was
to marry her own son. He took that prize
from a slain father; presently the gods
brought all to light that made the famous story.
But by their fearsome wills he kept his throne
in dearest Thebes, all through his evil days,
while she descended to the place of Death,
god of the locked and iron door. Steep down
from a high rafter, throttled in her noose,
she swung, carried away by pain, and left him
endless agony from a mother's Furies. (trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

So, according to Homer, Oedipus lived out his "evil days" in Thebes even after the revelation of his great crime. The epic tradition suggests, in fact, he died there (Iliad 23.678-80):
Euryalus alone stood up to face him, well-built son
of Lord Mekisteus Talaionides,
who in the old days came to Thebes when Oidipous
had found his grave. (trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

Several of the details included here directly contradict the story of Oedipus as Sophocles tells it, which shows the variability allowable in Greek myth. Nevertheless, the general theme of parricide and incest remains at the core of the tale.

Another character who appears often in this myth and whom the classical Athenian audience, no doubt, came into the theatre expecting to see in Sophocles' play was Jocasta's brother Creon ("King"). The latter, according to tradition, ruled Thebes during the brief transitional period between the mysterious disappearance of Laius and Oedipus' arrival, at the time when the Sphinx was besieging the city. But that is probably all the viewers came into the theatre expecting, the basic framework of a tale in which the king of Thebes marries his own mother and kills his father and she commits suicide when the truth comes out.

2. The Plot of Oedipus the King

One of the most intriguing aspects of this play is its plot, often heralded as the first great detective story. Sophocles has ingeniously scrambled the plot elements so that the dramatic climax will shock even those who know the story well. Here are the basic elements of the plot arranged in order chronologically:

1. FIRST ORACLE: At or before Oedipus' birth an oracle tells Laius and Jocasta that their child "will marry his mother and kill his father."

2. EXPOSURE: The cursed baby is "exposed," left to die on Mount Cithaeron near Thebes.

3. (a) RESCUE and (b) ADOPTION of the baby: A Corinthian shepherd takes Oedipus to Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth who adopt the baby and pass him off as their own child.

TIME PASSES: Oedipus grows up in Corinth.

4. THE STRANGER: A visitor to Corinth tells Oedipus that he is not the biological son of Polybus and Merope, the people he believes are his parents.

5. SECOND ORACLE: Oedipus goes to Delphi to learn the full truth from Apollo's oracle. There he receives a shocking reply to the question of his parentage, that he will marry his mother and kill his father.

6. FLIGHT FROM CORINTH: Thinking Polybus and Merope are his true parents, Oedipus avoids returning to Corinth and instead heads for Thebes.

7. MURDER: Oedipus meets and kills an old man at a crossroads. This man turns out to be his biological father Laius.

8. SPHINX: Oedipus proceeds on to Thebes which the monstrous Sphinx is at that moment besieging. Oedipus solves its famous riddle, saves Thebes and is given the kingdom and queen in marriage as his reward. The queen is Jocasta, his really widowed mother.

TIME PASSES: Oedipus rules Thebes. He and Jocasta have four children.

9. PLAGUE: Apollo sends a plague on Thebes. Jocasta's brother Creon brings back a THIRD ORACLE that demands expiation for Laius' murder. The god demands that the murderer be discovered and rooted out.

10. REVELATION OF THE TRUTH: When investigation shows that Oedipus is the culprit, Jocasta commits suicide. Oedipus blinds himself and goes into exile.

In spite of all these plot elements, the dramatic setting of the play encompasses only elements 9 and 10, from the plague to the final revelation of the truth. That is, by the time in which the play takes place, all the other elements (1-8) have already happened and are revealed to the audience through exposition (the process of informing the viewers about the background of the plot).

But that exposition, especially the order in which Sophocles presents the first eight elements, is a hallmark of this play, artfully circuitous in its design much like a well-written murder mystery. The play opens with element 9 (Plague). Soon thereafter, element 8 (Sphinx) is mentioned but then Sophocles holds back the exposition and allows much time to pass on stage as Oedipus quarrels with first Teiresias and then Creon. Finally, in the middle of the play Jocasta casually mentions elements 1 and 2, the first oracle and the exposure of her baby, which inspires Oedipus to narrate elements 4-7, how he left Corinth and murdered the old man on the road.

With that, the only missing element in the prehistory of the plot is 3, the dramatic linchpin identifying the accursed child as Oedipus. This element is divided into (a) the baby's rescue and (b) its adoption. Contrary to chronological order, the Corinthian messenger first reveals 3b, Oedipus' adoption. Then after yet another delay encompassing more than a hundred lines, the old herdsman to whom Laius had entrusted the task of exposing the new-born Oedipus confesses at last that he saved the baby. With that, the final element 3a, Oedipus' rescue, is made known, and the full truth, element 10, is revealed.

So, the elements come in this order: 9, 8, 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 3b, 3a, 10. This lurching about in the plot gives the viewers much the same sense of confusion the characters are experiencing as the play proceeds, which helps the audience feel as if they're participating in the process of uncovering the truth, the way a good detective story does. Yet unlike the characters on stage but instead more like readers and gods, the viewers sit safe above the din and disaster unfolding below them, hovering just close enough to the tragedy to feel its heat but not be singed.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

third speaking actor
Oedipus the King


Polybus and Merope



II. Oedipus the King

The exact date at which Oedipus the King premiered is unknown, but it's a good guess it was soon after 430 BCE in the wake of a terrible plague which first struck the Athenians that year. Over the course of the next half decade, this epidemic claimed a quarter to a third of the population of Athens, including the great statesman Pericles whose death was, without doubt, one of the most devastating consequences of the Peloponnesian War in its early days. The play appears in many ways to reflect that tragic turn of events, especially at the outset of the drama.

Before Oedipus speaks the opening words of the play, it's clear that other characters have already entered the stage silently, mourners led by a priest grieving those who have died in the plague ravaging Thebes. Because a devastating disease wasn't traditionally part of this legend—Sophocles is the first author known to include a plague in the Oedipus myth—it's likely the ancient audience at the premiere was at first confused by this grim procession. Appropriately for this tale, Sophocles is presenting his viewers with a riddle, one he's content to leave unanswered for the moment.

It's important to note that these mourners are not the main chorus of the play who, in fact, enter later (151). Instead, they are a secondary, non-speaking chorus which includes at least a few children (1, 18, 58, 142, 147). Since one aspect of the plague is that women are barren, it's appropriate that children should be part of this embassy of mourners coming to beseech Oedipus' help.

There can be little doubt that confusing the audience by putting in front of them this sad, silent parade is exactly what Sophocles means to do. From a dramatic perspective it's, in fact, a very good idea. Unlike the modern theatre in which the house lights come down informing the audience that the play is about to begin, Greek theatre took place outdoors in a huge arena. The only way playwrights had of showing their viewers that the drama was underway was to start the action. They couldn't, therefore, put crucial information in the first lines, because the audience would still be settling down and might miss it. One way around this problem was to open the play with a silent spectacle of some sort which let the audience know the drama was about to begin.

A. Notes

Begin reading Sophocles' Oedipus the King, with one eye on the notes below.

Line Numbers (in Sophocles)

1-150 Oedipus in his first speech asks the very question the audience would like to have answered: "Why are all these suppliants at my door?" He and the audience will have to wait until line 25 to have the answer to this question. Sophocles leaves the audience on tenterhooks for a while before he unveils his secret.

When a character calls himself, as Oedipus does, a person "whom all men call the Great" (8) and is later called "Greatest in all men's eyes" (40), it's a safe bet in a Greek tragedy that he'll be humbled somehow. Oedipus' hubris, evidenced through his overt glorification, is a good sign his high esteem will eventually lead to his ruin.

Ismenus (22) is the name of the river which runs through Boeotia (the area around Thebes).

"A blight is on the fruitful plants of the earth, . . ." (25). It now becomes clearer what Sophocles is up to. There's a plague on the land of Thebes, almost certainly a dramatic reflection of the terrible disease which had recently struck Athens. The sight of suppliants begging their gods and rulers for help must surely have been a painfully vivid memory for the Athenians. One reason, then, that Sophocles has added the plague to the Oedipus legend is, no doubt, because of the currency it held for his audience. How he intends to integrate the epidemic into the legend is, however, still unclear at this moment in the play.

The Sphinx is first mentioned here (36). This mythical and mysterious beast, a winged half-lion half-woman, was born of Echidna, a half-nymph half-snake demoness which mated with Typhoeus, a Titan that sported a hundred burning snake-heads (Hesiod, Theogony 820-1022). From their monstrous union came Orthus, merely a two-headed dog—it must have been somewhat of a disappointment to its chthonic parents—and the Sphinx, in turn, was born from the union of Echidna and Orthus, that is, mother and son. Ironically, then, Oedipus who will himself mate with his own mother kills another product of a maternal incest, the Sphinx. Thus, Thebes is rescued from one incestuous beast only to be plagued with another.

By the mere mention of the Sphinx in the first scene of the play, Sophocles clues his Greek audience into the specific situation of the drama. That is, Oedipus has already solved the riddle, been made king, and married Jocasta. It's a good guess, too, they've already had children. Because of the respectful treatment he receives from the Priest, the viewers may also gather that he has a reputation for intelligence and authority. This shows how Sophocles can compress much information into a few, very simple-sounding phrases.

The priest says, ". . . let us never speak about your reign as of a time when first our feet were set secure on high, but later fell to ruin" (49-50). This is just one of many instances of irony found in this play. Because the audience knows that Oedipus will fall—and fall hard!—when the truth that he married his mother and killed his father is revealed, it's highly ironic, then, that the Priest should use these particular words to implore Oedipus to save the city. Oedipus will, in fact, save the city but only by having his reign remembered as one in which the Thebans "fell to ruin" when their king was banished for murder and incest.
Elsewhere in this scene, Oedipus' words are also ironical:

". . . yet there is not one of you, sick though you are, that is as sick as I myself." (60-61)

"O holy Lord Apollo, grant that his news too may be bright for us and bring us safety." (80-81)

"Whoever he was that killed the king may readily wish to dispatch me with his murderous hand so helping the dead king I help myself." (139-141)

Indeed, the early scenes of this play are a veritable study in irony.

Note that from the start Oedipus insists on conducting his business in the open: "Speak it to all." (93) The public nature of his inquiry will contribute to his downfall. By insisting on free and open speech, his terrible secret will be made known to all.

151-215 The chorus enters and sings the parodos (the first choral song of the tragedy). They can't have been on stage in the first scene or they wouldn't ask, "What is the sweet spoken word of God from the shrine of Pytho (i.e. the priestess of Apollo at Delphi) rich in gold that has come to Thebes?" (151-3). They would have heard the message Creon delivered from Delphi in that scene. Also, Oedipus summarizes what happened there for them in his next speech (216-275), which he wouldn't have to do if they'd been present on stage. Contrary to the stage directions provided by some translators, it's more likely that the chorus enters after the Priest and the secondary chorus of children have left the stage.

It's also possible that Oedipus remains on stage during the parodos. The opening line of his speech after this song, "For what you ask me . . ." (216), seems to indicate that he has heard the questions posed by the chorus during their song.

In the parodos the chorus hymns many gods and begs for help against the plague. Note the relative simplicity of this song to Aeschylus' longer odes and complex imagery. The beauty of Sophoclean choruses is based largely on their directness of emotion and phrasing. The "Lycean King" mentioned in the last verse (204) is Apollo, and the "God with the turban of gold" (209) is Dionysus.

216-299 It's again ironic that Oedipus demands to know who among the Thebans can identify the murderer of Laius (223-6), when the viewers know that he himself is the assassin. The irony is only intensified when one realizes that Oedipus is hailed as the great solver of the Sphinx' riddle. He outwitted that monster by figuring out that the answer to its question was himself ("Man"), but now that he faces a second riddle—"Who is the murderer of Laius?"—he's unable to deduce that the answer is still the same, himself ("Oedipus").

In all honesty, the irony gets a little heavy-handed at times in this play. Oedipus' curse on the murderer of Laius (246-8) is so fraught with double meaning that it verges on the comical—more than once I've seen audiences laugh at this scene—and to make matters even worse, Sophocles has Oedipus say: "If with my knowledge he lives at my hearth I pray that I myself may feel my curse" (249-50). Onto this, Oedipus adds, "I fight in (Laius') defense as for my father" (264-5). The great modern playwright George Bernard Shaw once called the Sophoclean irony "a stupidity too dense to be credible as such." It's a point well taken.

300-461 Teiresias is a blind seer or prophet who shows up in quite a few Greek tragedies. He's the descendant of the Spartoi, the native inhabitants of Thebes. Like many wizards, magicians and witch-doctors in literature—Merlin and Gandalf, for example—Teiresias lives for many generations and appears in a wide range of Greek myths.

The myth of how he became blind is quite a story. As a young man he came upon two snakes mating and killed the female. Immediately the gods in anger transformed him into a woman. Several years later, "She-resias" came upon the same situation, two snakes mating, and killed the male, making her a man again. When asked whether men or women experience more pleasure in sex, Teiresias said women have nine or ten times more fun. This infuriated Hera—it's hard to believe she ever found any pleasure in love—and so she blinded Teiresias for his presumption.

In Sophocles' play, Teiresias knows that Oedipus is the murderer of Laius, the very man he seeks. But he's disinclined to tell him the truth because the king is quite hot-headed and may punish him. He tries at first to dissuade Oedipus from pursuing this investigation, but that only infuriates the king and precipitates the very sort of quarrel Teiresias is trying to avoid.

Sophocles adds a nice touch at 326-7. Oedipus has to tell Teiresias that everyone is kneeling before him, since, of course, the blind prophet cannot see it for himself.

The Teiresias-Oedipus scene is a beautifully constructed agon. Oedipus gets mad at Teiresias and demands to be told the truth, demonstrating how quick to anger Oedipus is by nature—here's a brief glimpse of the man who killed Laius on the road—but Teiresias refuses. Oedipus blows up and accuses Teiresias of hiding the truth in order to protect himself (348-9): "[If] you had eyes I would have said alone you murdered him." Teiresias loses his patience and fires back (353): ". . . you are the land's pollution." In this context Teiresias' words seem more like an angry retort than a revelation of truth. At least, that's the way Oedipus reads it, and presumably the chorus also. So, even when directly confronted with the facts, Oedipus, the great riddle-solver, doesn't see the answer staring him in the face, a craftily engineered scene.

The fight rages on. Teiresias repeats his charges (362) and goes on to add incest to the roster (366-7). These seem to Oedipus like empty insults meant only to inflame him. He responds with one of the most memorable lines in all of Greek tragedy (371):

tuphlos ta t'ota ton te noun ta t'ommat' ei.
Blind in ears and mind and eyes are you.

The barrage of t's make it seem like Oedipus is stuttering with rage.

Teiresias' words at 408 imply that Oedipus is a tyrannos ("tyrant"). This is, of course, another Sophoclean irony. The Greek word is a technical term referring to a foreign intruder who usurps a throne. In one way, Oedipus is, in fact, a "tyrant"—he came from outside Thebes and took the throne—but, as we and Teiresias know, Oedipus is not really a foreigner. He was born in Thebes and is a native, even if he doesn't know it. By having Teiresias call Oedipus this particular name at the beginning of his longest speech, Sophocles reminds his audience that Oedipus, who is both native and foreigner to his people, both son and husband to Jocasta, both father and brother to his children, blurs definitions and renders the most basic of words and relationships meaningless. This time the irony is subtle and powerful.

At the end of the scene (454) Teiresias predicts that Oedipus will end up blind—an interesting threat to hear from a person lacking sight—drawing a contrast even more interesting. Before the audience stands a man who can't use his eyes but can see the truth (Teiresias). This person warns that both blindness and understanding will soon come upon a man who has vision but who can't see the truth (Oedipus). It's as if Teiresias were saying to Oedipus, "Your punishment will be that you will become ‘me'!"

462-512 "The sons of Labdacus and Polybus" (491) are the Thebans and the Corinthians.

513-633 The false condemnation of religion as a harbor for greedy and corrupt charlatans is a common motif in Sophocles. It appears in full force again in another of Sophocles' plays, Antigone. In this drama, Oedipus accuses Creon of complicity with Teiresias, both of them working together to make the public believe Oedipus deserves blame for inciting the plague. Always in Sophocles, the character condemning religion proves in the end to be wrong.

Note the irony when Oedipus says: "And you are wrong if you believe that one, a criminal, will not be punished only because he is my kinsman" (551-2). The criminal is, of course, a kinsman of Oedipus, the closest kin a man can have, himself.

In answering Oedipus' charges, Creon uses a type of argument popular in Athenian law courts, the "argument from likelihood." Creon asks Oedipus why he (Creon) would hurt Oedipus when, as the king's brother-in-law, he's presently in everyone's favor (596-8). We would say that Creon has no motive to hurt Oedipus. Of course, he neglects to mention that he would inherit the throne of Thebes if Oedipus were forced out, as in fact he does at the end of the play.

634-862 Sophocles adds a poignant and ironic touch to Jocasta's initial appearance on stage. When she first enters (634), she scolds Oedipus like a child and orders Creon and her husband inside the house as if she were sending both to their rooms. That is, Oedipus' interaction with his wife resembles a mother-son relationship—which, of course, it is.

But Sophocles has saved his best irony for later in the Oedipus-Jocasta scene. After Oedipus complains that Creon has plotted with Teiresias to spread lies and accuse him of murdering Laius—out of deference to his wife, he doesn't mention the charge of incest—Jocasta tells him to discount prophets and their babbling (707ff.). She cites as an example an oracle which came long ago to her first husband Laius, that he would die one day at the hands of his own son, but as far as anyone knows, robbers killed the former king. She then adds that the son she bore was exposed on Cithaeron where presumably he died. It's a brilliant way to introduce this crucial piece of information. By mentioning the exposure and death of her baby—the child whom the audience knows is Oedipus, the man standing in front of her—Jocasta intends to discredit prophesy and oracles in general. Instead, her words confirm it in the most terrible way imaginable.

It's also worth stopping for a moment and noting that none of what's happened to Oedipus would have taken place if this oracle had never come, the one that warned Laius and Jocasta about their unborn child. He wouldn't have been exposed as a baby, nor would he have been raised in Corinth. Truly a self-fulfilling prophesy, it leaves us with the unavoidable impression that the gods are incalculably cruel, punishing mortals for merely seeking their assistance. It's hard to imagine a darker and more gruesome comment on the hopelessness of the human condition.

Apparently never before having heard from his wife about this oracle and the exposed baby—and isn't that a little odd, given that they've lived together as man and wife for so long?—Oedipus turns the subject of their discussion to Laius and how he died. He questions Jocasta about what exactly happened: where did the murder take place? and when? what did Laius look like? how many people were with him? did anyone witness his death? Jocasta says that only one person survived the scene of the murder and, when he returned and saw Oedipus on the throne, he asked to be sent away as a shepherd. This revelation inspires Oedipus to tell his own story, a tale he has also apparently failed to relate to Jocasta since marrying her well over a decade ago.

According to Oedipus, he had once learned from the oracle that he was destined to marry his mother and kill his father. Believing Polybus to be his natural father, he fled his home in Corinth. On the road he encountered an old man and, after exchanging insults and blows, killed him and his party. The only fact obstructing Oedipus' identification as the murderer of Laius is that it was reported a band of men killed the old king, whereas Oedipus worked alone.

Note that, when Oedipus relates what the oracle told him, the phrasing is clearly designed to mislead and confuse him. The Pytho claims he'll one day marry his mother and kill his father (791-3). By reversing the order in which the acts will actually take place, the oracle makes it seem as if Oedipus is going to fight his father for his mother's hand and kill him in order to win her, implying a much more grievous sin than the actual crime-to-be. Thus, while technically not lying about the future, the oracle is diabolically constructed to misdirect Oedipus about the upcoming events of his life, as was the nature of oracles so often in antiquity (see Apollo in Chapter 3, An Introduction to Classical Mythology).

At the end of the scene (857-8) Jocasta notes that, even if Oedipus had killed Laius, he can't have been his son since Laius' son was exposed and left for dead on Cithaeron. Therefore, the oracle is still wrong, and she will never again "look to the right hand or the left." This refers to the ancient practice of telling the future and reading the gods' will by watching which birds flew on one's left or right side. For instance, the sudden appearance of a bird on one's right signified to the Greeks the gods' confirmation of a statement (see Homer, Iliad 13.821-3, 24.295ff.).

863-910 In this song the chorus carries out the theme of the preceding scene, questioning the function of religion and outlining their feelings about hubris. In doing so, they confront one of life's eternal dilemmas: if the gods are good, why do evils prevail in the world? While he states the question with great eloquence, Sophocles offers no answer to this fundamental question here. The chorus notes only the apparent failure of religion: "Apollo is nowhere clear in honor; God's service perishes."

The opening of the second verse presents a notorious problem. The manuscripts of the play read "Insolence (hubris) breeds the tyrant (tyrannos)" (873), but the text should perhaps read the other way around, "Tyranny breeds insolence." A small confusion in the Greek words could explain this corruption. In general, it makes far better sense that there are two abstract nouns—tyranny and insolence, not tyrant and insolence—and that the transgression of tyranny leads to the sin of insolence. If so, Sophocles' words come close to our proverb, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." This also makes good sense in light of what the chorus has just seen. Oedipus the tyrant is pushing the limits of his power (hubris) in order to pursue his personal agenda.

911-1085 A messenger enters—he's often called the "Corinthian messenger" to distinguish him from the messenger in the next-to-last scene who's commonly referred to as the "Second Messenger"—and he brings news of Polybus' death and Oedipus' nomination to the throne of Corinth. He's full of glee, not because of Polybus' demise, but at Oedipus' elevation to the kingship of his homeland. He thinks he brings Oedipus good news, but later in the scene when he reveals that Oedipus never was Polybus' real son but instead an adopted child, he accidently brings to light a crucial element in Oedipus' unfolding tragedy.

Aristotle, the great philosopher of the next century, noted this in his essay about Greek theatre, The Poetics (Chapter 11), our earliest surviving philosophical work treating dramatic criticism:

In Oedipus, for example, the messenger who came to cheer Oedipus and relieve him of his fear about his mother did the very opposite by revealing to him who he was . . . (trans. T.S. Dorsch).

This sort of peripeteia (lit. "turn-around," i.e. sudden reversal of fortune) is one of the things Aristotle admired in tragedy, in this tragedy particularly.

Like many ancient Greek writers, Sophocles is prone to punning. The ends of the Corinthian messenger's first three lines (924-926) are a notable example, in which Sophocles plays on Oedipus' name. To understand the puns, one must look at the Greek text:

Ar'an par'humon, o xenoi, mathoim' hopou,
Could from you, o strangers, I learn where

ta tou tyrannou domat'estin Oidipou?
The tyrant's palace is, Oedipus'?

malista d'auton eipat' ei katisth' hopou.
First tell me this, if you know where.

The ends of these three lines mean, respectively: ". . . I learn where (mathoim'hopou, 924)," ". . . Oedipus' (Oidipou, 925)," ". . . you know where (katisth'hopou, 926)." The first and last lines (924/926) are obviously connected. Both are ways of saying "know where" in Greek. Like the Greek word for "where" (pou), Oedipus' name in this case also ends in -pou. Moreover, the first half of his name sounds very much like another Greek form oid- which means "see, know"—it's related to the Latin base vid- ("see") seen in our words video and visual—so the Corinthian messenger is evidently punning on Oedipus' name by breaking it down as if it meant "see/know-where," not "swollen foot." Sophocles underscores this wordplay by putting above and below it in the same metrical position (i.e. at the end of the poetic line) two other expressions which connote "know-where" in Greek (mathoim'hopou, katisth'hopou). Thus, in Sophocles' original the verses sounds as if the messenger is saying: "Might I from you, strangers, learn where / Is the palace of the tyrant See-where! / Please tell me it, if you know where." Beneath this silliness, however, lurks a dreadful irony, of course. "See-where" is a poor name for a man who doesn't "see where" he lives, rules and—worst of all!—sleeps.

Oedipus' initial joy at his Corinthian step-father's natural death and the knowledge that he didn't kill him makes a wonderful contrast to his consternation in the next scene in which he will discover his true identity. This is what the Greek philosopher Aristotle called the "proper" form of discovery in which the new information brings about a change in the plot and the characters' emotions.

At 980-1 Jocasta makes her famous and often quoted statement about men who dream about sleeping with their mothers. Many a Freudian interpreter has pointed to this as evidence of some sort of Sophoclean psychoanalysis. Too bad they fail to continue with Jocasta's speech (982-3): "But he to whom such things are nothing bears his life most easily." The great classical scholar A.E. Housman called the Oedipus complex "an ugly phrase . . . unfortunate and misleading."

At 1036 Sophocles acknowledges the real derivation of Oedipus' name, "swollen foot," when he has the messenger say, "So that from this (i.e. having his foot pierced when he was exposed as a baby) you're called your present name."

Note Jocasta's silence as Oedipus interrogates the Corinthian messenger about the rescue of baby Oedipus on Cithaeron (988-1055). This is an excellent example of how reading a dramatic text is no substitute for seeing the play performed on stage. As Oedipus pumps the messenger for information, he doesn't realize the full impact of what he's saying because he doesn't know the details of his exposure as a baby on the mountain. But Jocasta does! If this were a movie, the camera would focus not on the characters who are speaking (Oedipus and the messenger) but Jocasta who says nothing and at the same time is the only person in the scene who knows what's really going on. Her silence is a deafening scream of pain.

It seems clear that Sophocles has composed the drama with the idea that the majority of his audience understands Oedipus is Jocasta's son. For those in the know this scene oozes with irony and double meaning, but for those who aren't aware of this, it constitutes equally effective theatre. A friend of mine once attended a production of Oedipus and sat in front of a woman who about midway through this scene gasped, turned to her companion and said, "Oh my god, she's his mother!" Clearly the scene works quite well for the uninitiated, making it hard to believe Sophocles didn't have both sorts of viewer in mind when he wrote the play.

Jocasta breaks off her conversation with Oedipus and rushes off stage, screaming "Unhappy Oedipus" (1071-2), a far cry from the "Great Oedipus" in the opening of the play (8, 40). The chorus asks, "Why has the queen gone . . .?" Oedipus assumes that she's haughty and doesn't want to learn about her husband's low-class birth. We know, however, that she's realized the truth about who he really is and rushes off to hang herself. In this detail, Sophocles adheres to traditional myth since we can see from The Odyssey that suicide was this character's fate since at least Homer's day.

But there's another reason for Jocasta to run off stage. Oedipus has for some time been demanding to see the herdsman who witnessed Laius' murder and who turns out also to have been the man entrusted many years ago with exposing Laius and Jocasta's new-born son. Thus, in two different ways that herdsman is the missing link in Oedipus' story so it's crucial he appear.

But Sophocles already has three speaking characters on stage, the maximum he's allowed in the classical Greek theatre. If the herdsman is to appear, one of the other characters has to exit. Obviously, it can't be Oedipus. The Corinthian messenger could depart, except that he's also the man to whom the herdsman gave the baby. Thus, he's needed to identify the herdsman and so he must also stay. That leaves Jocasta, whose departure is required for the play to continue. Sophocles covers this necessity well by inventing a compelling reason for her character to leave the stage, but that doesn't change the fact Jocasta has to exit. The number of actors available to Sophocles demands it.

1086-1185 After a brief choral song—this ode allows the Jocasta-actor the time he needs to change mask and costume and reappear as the Herdsman—the climax of the play comes swiftly and mercilessly as Oedipus joins Jocasta in realizing their true relationship. When he roughs up the old herdsman in violent determination to learn the truth, Sophocles shows us again the Oedipus who murdered Laius in the heat of anger, the same angry man who threatened the blind Teiresias earlier in the play.

At the climax of the scene Sophocles does something out of the ordinary in Greek theatre. He breaks up the careful ordering of the stichomythia, making Oedipus and the herdsman share a portion of each line. Stichomythia, as we noted above in Chapter 6, helped the ancient audience see which character was speaking on stage, but Sophocles evidently decided he could afford to discard that convention briefly at this point in the drama, because during this exchange—it's the climax of the tragedy, after all—he was all but guaranteed to have his audience's full and undivided attention. For these few lines his viewers will surely be able to follow an unpredictable exchange of dialogue because they're so caught up in the action. To ensure they can, however, Sophocles lays out a clear pattern of questions and answers which help to show who's speaking.

During this brief passage of irregular stichomythia, note also that, as he slowly realizes the horrible truth, Oedipus' questions become shorter and shorter (1173-6). In the original Greek, his share of the first line is five words ("She gave it to you?"), then four ("To do what with it?"), then two ("She was so hard -- its mother"), and finally only one ("Which?"). For the first time in the play, words fail Oedipus. As the truth dawns, he's literally breathless.

1186-1222 Sophocles has saved the best ode of the play for the climax. What can one say after witnessing such a revelation? Almost anything is anticlimactic. Thus, the chorus extends Oedipus' suffering to the whole of humanity. Their sentiment derives from the ancient Greek truism: Count no man happy until he's dead. That is, bad luck can strike anywhere any time, and no one's guaranteed a happy life until it's over. Their final comment, ". . . and so now I lull my mouth to sleep with your name," seems to mean that, whereas the chorus praised Oedipus before, henceforth their prayer will be not to be like him.

1223-1530 The Second Messenger's report describing Jocasta's suicide and Oedipus' self-blinding and the ensuing scenes of grief and despair which conclude the tragedy will seem over-drawn to many of us who are used to a brief denouement after the climactic scene of a play. But the Greeks evidently relished more tortuous, if not torturous finales. From the number of protracted scenes involving wailing and mourning that cap ancient dramas, it seems safe to gather that Athenian audiences in antiquity enjoyed a good communal cry.

At 1371-1374, Oedipus explains the rationale behind his self-blinding: "I do not know with what eyes I could look upon my father when I die and go under the earth, nor yet my wretched mother—those two to whom I have done things deserving worse punishment than hanging." The ancients believed that people entered death in the condition they left life. So, if Oedipus were blind at death, he would be blind in the underworld, too. Thus, he wouldn't have to look upon the parents he's harmed so horribly.

Some today interpret Oedipus' blindness as a metaphor for the recent death of Pericles, Athens' greatest democratic leader, a victim of the plague which first struck the city in 430 BCE. If so, Sophocles seems to be saying that the loss of Pericles has blinded Athens which, like Oedipus, is now doomed to wander aimlessly in the dark.

Near the end of the play (ca. line 1468) Oedipus' little daughters—and sisters!—come on stage to join him in self-imposed exile. At the premiere of the play these were perhaps the same child-actors who had earlier appeared in the first scene as suppliants and have now changed into the masks and costumes of Antigone and Ismene, Oedipus' children. Note that, as before, they remain mute. The young actors portraying these characters do not as yet have voices ready to meet the demands of the Greek theatre.

B. Conclusion: The Nature of Sophocles' Drama

1. Comedy and Character in Oedipus the King

One important element in the genius of this play is Sophocles' use of comic elements. The rescue of the exposed baby, the fortuitous meeting of parent and long-lost child, a daring young man's adventure away from home, his outwitting of a monster and his assumption of a foreign throne are the traditional building blocks of comedies, fairy tales and science fiction epics, less often tragedies. But in spite of the fact the plot has all the makings of a traditional happy ending, Sophocles uses them to construct the most tragic of tragic outcomes, the traditional tale of the "return of the native" in its most horrific incarnation. Oedipus, the native-born son of Thebes, returns home, kills his father and marries his mother. Ignorance makes what should be the happiest of homecomings the most disastrous of reunions. The persistent darkening of comic themes underlies much of the action, verging, frankly, on the perverse.

This inversion fits in with a pattern found elsewhere in Sophocles, an attitude visible through much of his work: the inversion of the audience's expectations about the nature of a character. For instance, in another of Sophocles' plays, The Women of Trachis, he tells the story of Heracles' death, which traditionally in Greek myth comes at the hands of his jealous wife Deianeira. Under normal circumstances, Deianeira's murder of her husband makes her a negative figure in Greek myth, but Sophocles presents the story from the perspective that she was lied to and confused when she committed the crime. As a result, she emerges from Sophocles as a tragic and sympathetic character, hardly the way most jealous wives are presented in ancient Greek literature.

Conversely, in Electra the normally sympathetic title character, the daughter of Agamemnon who waits patiently for her brother to return and wreak vengeance on their murderous mother, is portrayed as a vindictive psychopath. Obsessed with her deceased father and loathing her mother Clytemnestra, Sophocles' Electra goads a reluctant Orestes into committing the ghastly act of matricide. Thus in both cases, Sophocles plays against his ancient viewers' expectation of a character—in particular, whether the figure is likeable or not—dressing up good characters as bad and bad as good.

With that, it's worth exploring the possibility he's tried to do as much with Oedipus the King. Building from a traditionally negative figure—from what we can gather, it certainly sounds like Oedipus was a rather unsavory character in earlier Greek literature—Sophocles has attempted to reform the incestuous monster by making him unaware of his crimes, thus bestowing on him the innocence that accompanies ignorance. It's really the only way a decent man can have committed such ignominious crimes.

Other works from the Classical Age support the assertion that Sophocles has significantly restructured the basic story so as to make Oedipus seem more sympathetic. Besides Aeschylus' Oedipus cited above (I.B.1), the works of Euripides, the other great tragedian of the day, present an Oedipus who is a far less sympathetic figure than the one in Sophocles. For instance, in Euripides' Oedipus the title character doesn't blind himself but is forcibly blinded by Laius' servants working at Creon's bidding. In another play by Euripides, The Phoenician Women, Jocasta doesn't kill herself after she learns about her marriage to her son; instead, her sons lock up the blinded Oedipus in the attic of the palace. At the end of the play he comes out like the proverbial "skeleton in the closet" and only then is the horrible truth finally made public. All of this goes to show that Sophocles' version of this myth wasn't the only one in its day and it shouldn't blind us to other possible interpretations of this myth. A wider perspective also highlights Sophocles' intentions in shaping the tale as he did.

2. Oedipus the King as Experimental Theatre

Seen as an innovative approach to the myth, Oedipus the King proves a bold experiment, a daring attempt to rehabilitate one of Greek myth's most notorious villains, the man who married his own mother and killed his father on his way to becoming the king of Thebes. By keeping from Oedipus the truth about who he really is until much later in the story than usual, Sophocles has turned him from a deceitful power-monger into a hapless victim of fate, in his own words "the child of fortune." And to Sophocles' credit, it almost worked.

But in changing the myth so drastically, the playwright has created several difficulties, some of which challenge the credibility of the plot. The gravest of these is how it's possible that Oedipus and Jocasta have lived together so long without already having discovered the truth, a question Sophocles all but completely ignores. While it seems safe to say that most viewers don't think about the background of a play as they're watching it—when absorbed in the dramatic action as it unfolds on stage, only the sharpest and most critical minds in the audience will wonder what Oedipus was doing the year before—still, that's no excuse. A playwright, even one living as early in the tradition of drama as Sophocles, is obliged to present coherent and logical exposition.

In particular, when Oedipus tells the story about meeting the old man on the road and killing him, that moment contains within it a notable potential for making the inquiring minds among the viewers puzzle over Oedipus' reasons for never having mentioned this before to Jocasta. He certainly doesn't seem shy about telling the story when he finally does. So, what was his hesitation earlier? This type of plot device—"Oh, yeah, I just remembered I killed this old man twenty years ago"—reeks of bad soap opera.

Furthermore, are we to believe that no one in Thebes in the course of two decades has ever put together the coincidence of Laius' murder and Oedipus' first appearance? And why hasn't Jocasta or some other Theban told Oedipus about the exposed child, her son who would incidentally be exactly Oedipus' age if he had lived? It's not nitpicking to note such things, certainly not in a work as heralded as this is. These are fair and important questions to ask about a play so often put on a pedestal and held up as a classic, "the first great detective story."

Nor is it wrong to point out the absurd coincidence that the herdsman is both the man who witnessed Laius' murder and exposed Oedipus on Mount Cithaeron and that the messenger from Corinth turns out to be the very man who took the baby from him. To be frank, it's an appalling compression of the plot for which most playwriting teachers would deduct points, if this were a class assignment. There should be four, not just two, characters here.

Finally, if the Oracle of Delphi tells someone he's going to marry his own mother and kill his father and that someone like any good person seeks to avoid such a horrible fate, can't we expect him to make a point of not killing or marrying anyone significantly older than himself? But Sophocles' Oedipus does both these things within days of receiving the oracle! Should we conclude, then, he's careless or dense? Of course, this isn't a problem if Oedipus is a blasphemous miscreant who revels in defying monsters, wielding power and tempting fate.

All in all, looking under the hood of this drama shows an infernal but sputtering machine, full of daring invention but also difficulties some of which apparently didn't pass unnoticed at the play's premiere. Oedipus the King stands among the few works Sophocles wrote which didn't win him top honors at the Dionysia. Perhaps, the playwright's radical stab at reforming one of Greek myth's most heinous malefactors proved even too much for his adoring Athenian public. Maybe his peers saw through this drama's inconsistencies and sent the message, "Nice try but no goat!" And maybe he got the message, too, because none of his other plays presents any such flawed exposition. If so, Oedipus turns out to be a brilliant but over-bold experiment.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know


Aristotle, The Poetics
comic elements



A Guide to Writing in History and Classics


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