Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King

Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King Summary and Analysis of First Stasimon, Second Episode, Second Stasimon and Third Episode (462-1086)

The Chorus wonders who the murderer might be and suggests that now would be time for him to “run / with a stronger foot / than Pegasus” (467-9) as the fates run up “terribly close on his heels” (472). The Chorus also proclaims itself in “terrible confusion”, and doesn’t understand why Teiresias might have attacked Oedipus’ “popular fame” (493). Furthermore, they side with Oedipus, asserting that they would never agree with someone who finds fault with their King, particularly since he solved the riddle of the Sphinx.

Creon enters, having heard the king accused him of wrongdoing. Oedipus enters and further indicts him as the murderer himself, guilty of crafting a plot against him. Creon mocks Oedipus as “obstinacy without wisdom” (549) – but Oedipus replies that his public interest supersedes his private: “you are wrong if you believe that one / a criminal, will not be punished only / because he is my kinsman” (551-3). Oedipus’ belief at this stage is that Teiresias is a vicious liar, and as he was sent by Creon, Creon must be involved in the plot against him.

He and Creon argue, and Creon tells him that they searched for information about Laius’ death but found none. Creon, moreover, informs Oedipus that he is happy with his life and has no reason to plot against him – and reminds Oedipus in a long speech that since there is no proof against him, Oedipus cannot cast such damaging aspersions until fully supported. Creon then tells him that ‘in time you will know all with certainty” (613). Oedipus refuses to listen, and Creon finishes his diatribe by accusing the king of ruling unjustly.

Jocasta enters and berates the two men for airing their private griefs when there is a public crisis. The men repeat their arguments, and she begs Oedipus to believe Creon and to be merciful. The Chorus joins in her pleas, and Oedipus reluctantly lets Creon go. At this stage, each of the brothers-in-law think the other is the murderer of Laius.

Jocasta reveals that an oracle once came to Laius and told him that he would be killed by his son, though she too reiterates that Laius “was killed by foreign highway robbers / at a place where three roads meet” (715-6). She tells Oedipus that, three days after his birth, Laius pierced the ankles of the child and had him cast forth “upon a pathless hillside” (720). This news worries Oedipus, for some reason. He asks exactly where the crossroads was that Laius was killed – Jocasta tells him, and describes Laius. “I think I have / called curses on myself in ignorance”, says Oedipus (744-5), fearing he has killed his father. They send for the herdsman who escaped from the murder-scene at the crossroads.

Oedipus then tells Jocasta of Polybus and Merope, his father and mother and king and queen of Corinth. A drunken man, he says, accused him of being a bastard at a feast - and he confronted his parents with this to no avail. Eventually he went to an oracle, which did not tell him of his parentage, but warned him he would sleep with his mother and murder his father. Oedipus then fled Corinth, and at a crossroads, fell into an argument with an old man in a coach. Oedipus “struck him backwards from the car” (811) and killed him. Oedipus now fears that he has killed Laius, his father, and married Jocasta, his mother, but waits for the herdsman to arrive. Oedipus hopes that the herdsman will say that many people killed Laius - for he alone killed the man at the crossroads.

The Chorus criticizes pride, but at the same time hopes for the preservation of the “eager ambition that profits the state” (881). Jocasta returns with garlands for the Theban Elders hoping to go to the temple. A messenger enters from Corinth bringing the news that Polybus, King of Corinth, is dead – and that Oedipus has been chosen as the Corinthian king. Jocasta is delighted, for, if Polybus is Oedipus’ father, the oracle must be false: he has not died at Oedipus’ hands, but rather of sickness. Oedipus reenters, and laughs delightedly, telling the Corinthian messenger of the tragic prophecy he has avoided. The messenger tells Oedipus he had no need to worry: for he was not the son of Polybus and Merope. Rather, it was he - this very messenger - that took the baby from the shepherd, who found him as a baby in the mountains, with his ankles pierced. Oedipus suddenly realizes that the plot has thickened - and he may still be guilty.

Oedipus immediately sends for the shepherd. Jocasta begs him not to “hunt this out”, despite the “clues” Oedipus has suddenly uncovered. It is clear that she has realized what has happened, and she exits. The Chorus ask where she has gone, and Oedipus, calling himself a child of Fortune, boldly challenges the heavens: “Break out what will!” (1077).


Everyone is still in the dark as to the true nature of the curse on the kingdom. Only Jocasta, who has gone into the house, has suffered the awful realization of the truth, and her immediate response is to commit suicide to absolve herself of guilt. Oedipus’ long recounting of past history reveals the way that Sophocles has started his play, effectively halfway through the story - precisely, in fact, at the point of greatest prosperity for his protagonist (a fall from great height – since Aristotle, and carried on via Chaucer in The Monk’s Tale – is traditionally part of the tragic construction). The story of the play is much like, then, a detective story: for Oedipus must work backwards in time, creating an emphasis in the early part of the play, and now again, on finding clues and following according lines of inquiry. The criminal Oedipus is seeking, however, is himself.

A central inconsistency appears in the play at this point. The herdsman and Jocasta both believe Laius to have been killed by several people at the crossroads: the story, in the end, reveals that Oedipus himself alone killed Laius. How can Laius have been supposedly killed by one person – and also by many people? Some critics, notably Frederick Ahl, in his Sophocles' Oedipus: Evidence and Self-Contradiction (Ithaca, 1992), have argued that Oedipus did not in fact kill his father, and is talked into taking responsibility for the crime. This is not a particularly convincing interpretation – and one far more likely presents itself both in the play itself and as a device in Greek tragedy as a whole.

Oedipus is searching for Laius’ murderer - and thus is the detective seeking the criminal. Yet in the end, these two roles merge into one person – Oedipus himself. The Oedipus we are left with at the end of the play is similarly both father and brother. Sophocles’ play, in fact, abounds with twos and doubles: there are two herdsmen, two brothers (Oedipus and Creon), two daughters and two sons, two opposed pairs of king and queen (Laius and Jocasta, and Polybus and Merope), and two cities (Thebes and Corinth). In so many of these cases, Oedipus’ realization is that he is either between – or, more confusingly, some combination of – two things. Thus the conflict between “the one and the many” is central to Sophocles’ play. “What is this news of double meaning?” Jocasta asks (939). And indeed, throughout Oedipus, it is a pertinent question.

Yet another of Oedipus’ dual roles involves that of king and man. As King of Thebes, as he states at the start of the play, it is his duty to work to rid Thebes from the dreadful plague which blights it, and – as it turns out – this ends up being an unconscious self-sacrifice. Yet Oedipus, by demanding that Creon exile him from Thebes, does remove the plague (himself) from the city. Ultimately, then, his public role is given priority of his private one. This is further evidenced by the death of his wife (and the later death of his two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles) – in exactly the way that Creon’s public decision brings about the implosion of his family in Sophocles’ Antigone.

Yet significantly, Oedipus does free the city of Thebes from the plague exactly as he initially promises. So though the play is a tragedy in the light of Oedipus' demise, there is a possibility that, for any Athenian who was public-minded enough to see the play from Theban perspective, Oedipus Rex might in some sense be a play with a happy ending.