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THE PLAY - BACKGROUND
THE LEGEND OF OEDIPUS
The classical legend of Oedipus first appears in Greek literature as early as the writings of Homer (700 B.C.), author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It would have also been well known to the Athenians of Sophocles' time from popular poems and short stories of the period. Fix the legend in your mind before you look at the way Sophocles presented it.
It was prophesied that Laios and Iocaste, king and queen of Thebes, would give birth to a child who would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. Fearing this dreadful prophecy, the parents nailed their first son's feet together-hence the name Oedipus, which means "swollen-foot"- and left him to die on a lonely mountainside outside the city. However, he was found by a wandering shepherd who took the baby to the nearby city of Corinth. There he was adopted by the childless King Polybos and Queen Merope, who raised him as a prince in the royal household. He never knew they weren't his real parents.
When he was a young adult, Oedipus first heard the prophecy. Assuming that this applied to Polybos and Merope, the only parents Oedipus had ever known, he fled Corinth and wandered around Greece. During his wandering he met a group of travelers and killed an old man who, unknown to him, was his real father, King Laios. Later Oedipus arrived at Thebes and met the Sphinx, a monster who guarded the gates of the city. When Oedipus correctly answered the riddle asked by the Sphinx, he was rewarded with the title of king of Thebes and was given the hand of the recently widowed queen, Iocaste. Needless to say, no one knew that she was his real mother. They had four children-Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles, and Polyneices.
As the king of Thebes, Oedipus ruled in wealth and prosperity for some time. Soon, however, a mysterious plague swept the city. The sacred oracles foretold that the plague could be removed only by the discovery of Laios' murderer. Oedipus sends Creon, his brother-in-law, to Delphi to consult the oracles and find out the identity of the murderer. This is how Oedipus discovers his own identity and that of his parents, and discovers his sins. In his despair, he blinds himself, and Iocaste hangs herself. Oedipus is exiled, and Creon takes over the throne of Thebes. Oedipus wanders through Greece for twenty years, accompanied by his daughter Antigone. Finally he finds himself outside Colonus, where he asks for sanctuary. He is tired and he wants someplace to die in peace. Theseus, king of Athens, grants Oedipus sanctuary there.
Meanwhile, there has been another prophecy: Whatever city has the grave of Oedipus will be assured of eternal prosperity. Creon hears the prophecy and tries to get Oedipus to return to Thebes-he even tries force-but Oedipus refuses and dies at Colonus.
There has been a power struggle going on back at Thebes. Oedipus and Iocaste's two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, have been named corulers of Thebes, but each wants the throne for himself. Polyneices assembles an army and attacks the city. Eteocles, aided by Creon, tries to resist the onslaught. At the end of this bloody battle for power Eteocles and Polyneices both lie dead, and Creon regains his throne.
Creon decrees that Eteocles, defender of Thebes, is entitled to a state funeral, but Polyneices, who attacked his own city, may have no funeral rites whatsoever. This was a grave and shocking punishment, which would prevent Polyneices' spirit from entering the afterworld.
Antigone is a loyal sister to Eteocles and Polyneices. In defiance of Creon's edict she buries Polyneices. As punishment, Creon condemns her to death. No more is heard of Ismene, and so ends the House of Oedipus.Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version