38 pages 1 hour read


Oedipus Rex

Fiction | Play | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex, first performed in the early-to-mid 400s BCE, is one of the most famous and influential tragedies left to us from the ancient Greek tradition. Based on the myth of Oedipus, whose cursed fate was to marry his mother and kill his father, the play explores themes of destiny, free will, and literal and metaphoric vision and blindness.

This guide uses the 1984 Penguin edition of The Three Theban Plays, translated by Robert Fagles. Please note that the text of Oedipus Rex begins on page 160 of this edition.

Plot Summary

The great city of Thebes is in trouble. A plague has descended, and nothing—from grain in the fields to babies in the womb—will grow. The citizens make a wailing procession to the palace of their king, Oedipus, who rose to power after the unsolved murder of the former king, Laius. Oedipus consoles his people: He has sent to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi to ask what they can do about their suffering. The answer returns via his brother-in-law Creon: Laius’s murderer is somewhere in their midst, so they must drive him out.

Oedipus rains curses on the head of the unknown murderer, and vows to find him. He summons the blind prophet Tiresias, who speaks for Apollo. Tiresias at first refuses to talk, but, when Oedipus accuses him of the murder, he rounds on the king and tells him that Oedipus himself is the murderer. Paranoid that Tiresias is the pawn of Creon, Oedipus storms off in a rage before he can hear the kicker: Laius was his actual father, so in marrying Laius’s widow Jocasta, Oedipus has married his own mother.

Creon confronts Oedipus, angry that Oedipus believes Creon is guilty of plotting against him. The two men squabble until Jocasta separates them. When she hears what’s wrong, she assures Oedipus that prophecies are meaningless. She and Laius themselves once received a prophecy that their son would kill Laius and marry Jocasta, so they drove a stake through their baby’s ankles and left him to die, and voila! No prophecy! But Oedipus seems taken aback by this information. He gets even more nervous when a messenger arrives to tell him about the death of Polybus—Oedipus has always believed Polybus was his father, but now it turns out that Polybus was not related to Oedipus by blood. Through questioning a series of messengers and eyewitnesses, Oedipus slowly unearths the terrible truth: He is Laius’s and Jocasta’s abandoned son, and he has fulfilled the prophecy point by point.

Jocasta, in despair, hangs herself. Lamenting over her body, Oedipus takes the pins from her dress and pokes out his own eyes.

The blinded Oedipus presents himself to his horrified people. Creon takes charge of the kingdom and asks the gods what should become of Oedipus. Oedipus makes (and is granted) one final request: to embrace his little daughters before he meets the next chapter of his fate. 

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