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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles-Online Book Summary
Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version



Oedipus the King begins at the point in the legend where Oedipus, king of Thebes, is trying to rid his city of the plague. Oedipus sends Creon to the oracles at Delphi to find out the solution to the city's woes. Creon is away for quite a while, and he returns accompanied by Teiresias, the blind prophet. They report the oracles' statement: the plague will end only when Laios' murderer is discovered. Sophocles shows you the chain of events that finally unmasks Oedipus as the murderer. That Oedipus acted unknowingly is irrelevant; he feels he must be punished for his heinous crime, and so in his despair he blinds himself. His wife and mother Iocaste hangs herself. Creon ascends the throne of Thebes, and Oedipus goes into exile.


The play begins with the Prologue, a tradition in classical Greek theater. Here the dramatic tone of the story is set and a problem is presented. The audience gets basic facts that are necessary to understand what's going to happen next.

At the beginning of the Prologue a crowd of suppliants bearing crowns of olive leaves and fig branches lie despairingly on the steps of the palace of Oedipus, king of Thebes. Their low moans of sorrow drift upward to the palace windows and draw Oedipus forth. He stands on stage, a towering figure, compassionate and understanding. He addresses his loyal followers grandly, confidently, as if they were his children:

tell me what preys upon you,
Whether you come in dread, or crave some blessing:
Tell me, and never doubt that I will help you
In every way I can.

A priest of Thebes, wise and solemn, slowly advances toward Oedipus. He is hesitant and cautious before this famous person. You realize that Oedipus isn't looked up to just because he's the king; he's genuinely admired and respected. The priest speaks urgently, informing the king that the city of Thebes, once prosperous, is now in ruin. A mysterious, unnatural plague has settled on the countryside, causing unborn children to die, and the cattle to get sick. Perhaps today you'd look to science for a solution to such a calamity. In Sophocles' time, however, there would have been no doubt in anyone's mind that there are religious causes for this misery.

It appears that these people have come to seek comfort and advice from Oedipus, the "wisest in the ways of God." Oedipus, after all, solved the riddle of the Sphinx. Surely, they feel, Oedipus can now find a remedy for the plague. Only Oedipus can restore Thebes to its former glory.


The Sphinx was a monster who proposed a riddle to the people of Thebes and killed all who could not solve it. Oedipus gave her the correct answer, and she killed herself. The riddle asked by the Sphinx was: "Who moves on four in the morning, on two at noon, and three in the evening?" The correct answer, given only by Oedipus, was "man." He moves on all fours as a baby, walks upright in his prime, and uses a cane as an old man.

Oedipus is genuinely touched by the spectacle of his suffering "children." He promises to investigate the unknown cause of the deadly plague. In fact, like any effective leader, he's already taken action. He explains that he's sent Creon, brother of his wife, Queen Iocaste, to the sacred city of Delphi to ask the oracles for a pledge that might yet save the city from destruction. Oedipus is worried, however, that Creon has been gone too long. Just then, Creon rushes in with a troubled expression on his face.


The Greeks believed in the oracles, who lived in Delphi, about fifty miles from Thebes. Creon's hurried there to ask the holy oracles to interpret what the plague meant.

At first Creon hesitates to speak before the anxious crowd. He suggests to Oedipus that it would be more appropriate if they withdrew to the palace to speak in private. Oedipus, however, commands Creon to let everyone hear what the oracles have said. Creon unfolds a tale of woe and misery in guarded, almost evasive language:

The god commands us to expel from the land of Thebes
An old defilement we are sheltering.


Oedipus has taken a risk here. Some readers think that he is showing excessive pride and self-confidence when he demands that Creon tell the crowd what the oracles have said. Others think that he is merely being a fair, honest ruler who deals openly with his subjects. Think about our own political leaders: A public press conference, with its impromptu questions and answers, is far riskier than a prepared speech delivered from notes.

Oedipus is stunned by Creon's speech. What defilement does he mean? At the king's urging Creon continues his story in plain, direct words:

It was
Murder that brought the plague-wind on the city.

This revelation drops like a ticking bomb among the Theban citizens. But Oedipus, a man of action, immediately presses for more specific information. He demands that Creon name the man responsible for the crime but Creon can only repeat the story of the crime as it was told to him by the oracles: Laios, who was king of Thebes before Oedipus, went on a religious pilgrimage. On the road he was brutally attacked by a band of highwaymen. The former king and his servants, save one who escaped to spread word of the crime, were killed or left to die. Directly following Laios' murder, new problems arose in Thebes, and there was never a chance to hunt down the killers and avenge the murder.

Oedipus is outraged by this tale, and he resolves to avenge the murder of Laios personally. He has several motives for this: 1. personal safety: the murderer could reappear at any moment to kill him as well; 2. public duty: as king he must avenge the city and the city's god; 3. moral concern: for everyone's sake it will be good to be rid of evil.


Sophocles is already developing his definition of the relationship between the individual and the state. A stable political order benefits each person living in it. Sophocles is also developing his definition of a king's responsibility to his kingdom. Oedipus' personal and public roles can't be separated, for both affect his subjects. Think of how you react today when a politician is caught in a scandal. Why do you become more outraged by that than when private citizens commit similar crimes?

The Prologue concludes, however, with a note of joyous celebration. The suppliants and priests gather up their ceremonial olive boughs and fig branches. They rejoice, certain that Oedipus will expose the murderer and save the city from inevitable ruin. Oedipus himself exits proudly, reminding his followers that he will do all he can to unmask the murderer:

We shall be saved-or else indeed we are lost.

Imagine the tone of voice you think Oedipus uses here-urgency and doubt, or self-confidence. Some readers see him as arrogant, too sure of his power-and heading for a fall. Others say he's a concerned, strong leader, at the peak of power, just before cruel fate pulls him down.

Up to this point the play has simply created the central situation. Remember that the audience in Athens knew the story of Oedipus from the legend, just as you might know the legend of Johnny Appleseed or Superman. What they were looking for was not a tantalizing plot, but a commentary on human nature, politics, and ethical questions. The rest of the play, therefore, will identify the murderer and punish the crime.


Remember that the legend of Oedipus began before he was born with a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Watch how and when Sophocles brings in this important information. Sophocles skilfully weaves together the present and the past as Oedipus nears his fateful doom. In the scenes that follow, watch how Sophocles uses dramatic irony to foreshadow the tragic decline of Oedipus: Look for those speeches by Oedipus in which there seems to be an extra meaning that you understand because you know the story, but Oedipus doesn't understand yet.

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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles-Study Guide

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