The play opens in front of Oedipus' palace at Thebes. A plague besets the city, and Oedipus enters to find a priest and crowd of children praying to the gods to free them from the curse. A blight, the priest tells Oedipus, has destroyed their crops and livestock - and even rendered their women sterile, unable to have children. The priest implores Oedipus to save the city: “Raise up our city, save it and raise it up” (51). Oedipus tells the collected crowd that even though he knows they are sick, none is as sick and devastated as he: thus clearly identifying himself with Thebes.
Oedipus tells the priest that he has sent Creon to the temple of Apollo to glean from the gods how the city might be saved. Creon then arrives and announces the command from the Oracle: “Drive out a pollution…. Grown ingrained within the land” (98-9) - namely the murderer of Laius.
“Where would a trace / of this old crime be found?” Oedipus asks – Laius was murdered many years ago (108-9). Creon speaks with a messenger who fled in terror from the roadside where Laius was killed. This messenger, in turn, reveals that
…the robbers they encountered
were many and the hands that did the murder
were many; it was no man’s single power.
Oedipus swears to solve the murder, both as part of his duty as king as well as for the good of the city: ‘So helping the dead king I help myself’ (141). All soon exit, save for the chorus. The chorus of children pray to the gods Apollo, Athene, Artemis and Phoebus in the Parode, compare the city of Thebes to a ship whose “timbers are rotten” (169), and beg for help lifting the curse.
Oedipus returns, reiterates his commitment to tracking down the murderer, and commands that anyone who knows the murderer must speak out. He then invokes a curse upon the murderer – “may he wear out his life / in misery to miserable doom” (249). The Chorus advises him to seek Teiresias, a seer, who might be able to better see the purposes of the gods.
Teiresias arrives, led by a little boy, and Oedipus asks him to name the murderer. Teiresias initially refuses, and attempts to leave; Oedipus responds angrily, and Teiresias tells him that even his words “miss the mark” (325). “All of you here know nothing,” Teiresias says, and Oedipus furiously accuses Teiresias himself of being “complotter of the deed” with Creon (348). Teiresias tells Oedipus that Oedipus himself is Thebes’ pollution.
Oedipus rejects Teiresias’ words, and calls him “blind in mind and ears / as well as in your eyes” (371-2) – Teiresias responds simply that these are insults which everyone will soon heap upon Oedipus himself. Oedipus, now suspicious of Creon as a conspirator with Teiresias, outlines his own achievement in solving the riddle of the sphinx. The Chorus attempts to calm down the escalating anger, but Teiresias makes another long speech: Oedipus, he says, does not know where he is, where he lives, whom his parents are, or even who he is, and prophesies that he will be driven out from the city, “with darkness on your eyes.” An argument ensues between Oedipus and Teiresias, in which Teiresias tells him that “in riddle answering you are strongest” (440). Teiresias makes one final prediction: that the murderer will have “blindness for sight” and “beggary for riches”, before being proved both “father and brother” to the children in his house. He and Oedipus exit, leaving the Chorus alone onstage.
The opening of the play treats the murder of Laius as a detective story. Indeed, Oedipus speaks of tracks and traces, and the oracle gives little clue as to the events that will unfold. What Oedipus does as the tragic hero, however, is to speed up this revelation of events. Notable too is the literal plague that affects the city as well as the metaphorical ‘pollution’ within it: namely Oedipus himself. Indeed, in Athenian culture, the incest which Oedipus has committed - as well as the murder of his father - would have been considered both crimes against the natural order and crimes against the gods. Incest, of course, still carries a weighty taboo in most societies today. Because he fathered a child with his mother, he has engendered a plague on Oedipus' kingdom, Thebes, which has rendered the women sterile.
What is key to remember in analyzing this opening section of the play is the first glimpse Sophocles’ gives us of Oedipus’ deeper character. Sophocles starts the tragedy when Oedipus’ fortune is at its very height – he has solved the riddle and is a prosperous, respected king with wife and children. Note how many times in this early section of the play he is referred to as Oedipus the ‘great’. Some commentators have also found in Oedipus an unpleasant arrogance or pride – a sense of self-regard – which might be considered a ‘tragic flaw’ (an idea that seems to come from a mistranslation of the word hamartia meaning ‘mistake’). One might also suggest that Oedipus’ pride is manifest in his identification of himself with Thebes, the city - and of the way he takes up the challenge of finding the murderer in order to secure his own kingship.
This is a compelling reading, but it is similarly important to remember that, even at this first stage of the play, Oedipus’ pride does not bring about any of the events that cause the plague. The murder of Laius, after all, happened many years ago, and he already has four children fathered by his mother. Though Oedipus’ own pride is responsible for his ultimate discovery of what he has done, it does not actually cause it. Oedipus’ so-called ‘tragic flaw’ has surprisingly very little to do with his tragic fate.
The play begins with an idiosyncratic juxtaposition: a chorus of children, against the Chorus of the play itself, comprised of old men from Thebes. This contradiction is later played out in the character of Teiresias, an old man (partially male and partially female in myth) led by a young boy. This immediately raises questions of past and future. These questions are especially important, considering that Sophocles’ deliberately begins his play approximately half-way through the Oedipus myth (see ‘The Oedipus Myth’). One of the ways in which of Oedipus’ unknown past is revealed to shape his future involves a continuation of his tragic lineage - his children turn out to be, in bizarre, self-consuming fashion, the same generation as him.
These revelations lead Oedipus to blind himself, leaving him a helpless old man (led around in the Oedipus at Colonos by a child, like Teiresias) exactly in the manner of the riddle of the Sphinx. In one sense, Oedipus ultimately frees himself from blind youth in order to discover painful wisdom. In another sense, Oedipus also goes backward – and realizes he is a child with a mother, as well as a father with a child.