The trilogy containing Oedipus Rex took second prize in the City Dionysia at its original performance. Aeschylus's nephew Philocles took first prize at that competition. However, in his Poetics, Aristotle considered Oedipus Rex to be the tragedy which best matched his prescription for how drama should be made.
Many modern critics agree with Aristotle on the quality of Oedipus Rex, even if they don't always agree on the reasons. For example, Richard Claverhouse Jebb claimed that "The Oedipus Tyrannus is in one sense the masterpiece of Attic tragedy. No other shows an equal degree of art in the development of the plot; and this excellence depends on the powerful and subtle drawing of the characters." Cedric Whitman noted that "the Oedipus Rex passes almost universally for the greatest extant Greek play..." Whitman himself regarded the play as "the fullest expression of this conception of tragedy," that is the conception of tragedy as a "revelation of the evil lot of man," where a man may have "all the equipment for glory and honor" but still have "the greatest effort to do good" end in "the evil of an unbearable self for which one is not responsible. Edith Hall referred to Oedipus the King as "this definitive tragedy" and notes that "the magisterial subtlety of Sophocles' characterization thus lend credibility to the breathtaking coincidences," and notes the irony that "Oedipus can only fulfill his exceptional god-ordained destiny because Oedipus is a preeminently capable and intelligent human being." H. D. F. Kitto said about Oedipus Rex that "it is true to say that the perfection of its form implies a world order," although Kitto notes that whether or not that world order "is beneficent, Sophocles does not say."
The science revolution attributed to Thales began gaining political force, and this play offered a warning to the new thinkers. Kitto interprets the play as Sophocles' retort to the sophists, by dramatizing a situation in which humans face undeserved suffering through no fault of their own, but despite the apparent randomness of the events, the fact that they have been prophesied by the gods implies that the events are not random, despite the reasons being beyond human comprehension. Through the play, according to Kitto, Sophocles declares "that it is wrong, in the face of the incomprehensible and unmoral, to deny the moral laws and accept chaos. What is right is to recognize facts and not delude ourselves. The universe is a unity; if, sometimes, we can see neither rhyme nor reason in it we should not suppose it is random. There is so much that we cannot know and cannot control that we should not think and behave as if we do know and can control.