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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

SCENE II (continued)

Ignoring the pleas of the Chorus to remain silent, Oedipus tells Iocaste that Creon must have hired that "damnable soothsayer" to make false accusations against him. Surprisingly, Iocaste is delighted to hear this news. She tells Oedipus to set his mind at rest. She can offer proof that soothsayers shouldn't always be taken seriously.

NOTE:

Iocaste's role in this scene is very important to the development of the plot. Although she has acted out of innocence, Iocaste encourages Oedipus to deny the wisdom of soothsayers and to pursue the truth on his own. Inevitably, of course, this will lead him to discover that he is the murderer. Remember this scene when Iocaste appears later and again innocently suggests that Oedipus send for the shepherd who was witness to the attack on Laios. She is the key to the story; without her unknowing help, the awful truth of the prophecy could not be exposed.

Now Iocaste gives her "proof" that soothsayers can't be taken seriously. She begins a long story by telling Oedipus that, years ago, an oracle once told Laios, her former husband and king, that he would be killed by his own son. Believing the oracles, Laios pierced his infant son's ankles together and had him taken into the countryside to be left to die. Later, when Laios was an old man, he was killed not by his son but by barbarians, while he was on a holy pilgrimage. This, Iocaste claims, should be enough to convince anyone what prophets and prophecies are worth. But her innocent anecdote is full of a significance she doesn't notice.


When Iocaste finishes her story there is a moment of stunned silence. Oedipus suddenly demands to know where and when Laios was killed. He is strangely frightened by Iocaste's response that Laios was killed a short time before Oedipus came to Thebes, at Phokis, where the road divides the towns of Delphi and Daulia. Imagine the anguished look on Oedipus' face as he tries to understand the story he just heard. A shadowy memory crosses his mind; he senses that something is wrong. He suddenly cries out:

Ah, what net has God been weaving for me?

Does he already understand the connection, or is he just unsettled by vague fears? Either way, from this point on Oedipus is obsessed with the specific details of Laios' death. He demands to know what Laios looked like, and what his features were like. When Iocaste tells him that Laios was similar in height and weight to himself, Oedipus trembles with fear. Something is stirring his memory. Perhaps he is recalling the "curse" he had pronounced on the murderer of Laios in the previous scene. He admits as much, and more, when he says that he himself "may be accurst / By my own ignorant edict," and that he is "not sure that the blind man can not see." Perhaps Teiresias really was speaking truth.

NOTE:

Most readers point to this recognition scene as the first time Oedipus suspects himself as Laios' murderer. Keep this in mind as Oedipus has other scenes of recognition later in the play. Why does it take Oedipus so long to realize the truth? Is he too proud and self-confident to see his role in Laios' murder? Or is he so frightened that he keeps hoping to avoid the truth by dismissing it? You need to ask yourself these questions as you try to understand his later refusals to come to grips with the prophecy given him by Teiresias.

Iocaste also appears to be frightened in this scene. Perhaps she is just reacting to Oedipus' fear, but she tries to calm him by revealing that the story she told of Laios' murder was hearsay. The person who told her about the incident was a faithful servant, the sole survivor of Laios' band of men who were attacked by barbarians. The servant had escaped and returned to Thebes several months after the murder of Laios. But when he saw Oedipus on the throne, for some reason the servant begged Iocaste to send him away from the palace. She did so without question, and the servant left for the wild frontier to live out his life as a shepherd.

Again, Iocaste's innocent information triggers an urgent response from Oedipus. He insists that the shepherd be brought to Thebes immediately. Iocaste hesitates. Perhaps she's simply upset by Oedipus' reaction; perhaps she, too, is beginning to sense that these stories all fit together in some disastrous way. You might even wonder whether Iocaste knows more than she's telling, to protect herself or Oedipus. The mystery has mushroomed, becoming a complicated tangle of details to unravel. And the characters' tense, anxious reactions only impress on you how much they have at stake here.

Now it's Oedipus' turn to tell a long story. At last you learn about his life before solving the riddle of the Sphinx and becoming king of Thebes. Oedipus says he was born in neighboring Corinth. His father was Polybos and his mother was Merope, wealthy citizens of Corinth. He recalls that one night at a feast, a drunken friend of the family blurted out that Oedipus was not his father's son. Although he was still a young child, Oedipus was troubled by the accusation, as probably any child would be; he spent hours thinking about what the man had said. As he grew older, lingering doubts remained about his parentage. Finally, when the suspicions and doubts built up into an obsession, Oedipus left his parents and went to Delphi to consult the oracles about his birth. The oracles told him he would

lie with [his] own mother, breed
Children from whom all men would turn their eyes;
And that [he] should be his father's murderer.

When he heard this prophecy, Oedipus fled Delphi and vowed never to return to Corinth to tempt the oracles' prediction. Oedipus tells Iocaste that as he was wandering along the road to Thebes he met a hostile band of travelers at the crossroad near Cithaeron. One of the men-who resembled Iocaste's description of Laios-struck Oedipus on the head as they passed. Infuriated, Oedipus picked up a club and struck the old man with such force that he died. Although the old man was paid back, Oedipus was so furious at the insult he also attacked the other men in the band-killing them all, he thought, with savage blows of the club. When his anger ceased, Oedipus continued his journey to Thebes. It was there that he met the Sphinx, solved the riddle, and was named king. His marriage to Iocaste soon followed, and he saw it as a reward from the gods for his courage and wisdom.

NOTE:

The first part of Oedipus' narrative is the historical legend familiar to the Athenian audience. They knew, for example, that Oedipus was rescued by a shepherd and later taken to Corinth, where he grew up thinking Polybos and Merope were his parents. They also knew that he might murder Polybos and marry Merope as the prophecy had suggested. The second part of Oedipus' narrative, however, mixes historical legend and Sophocles' own addition to the story. Sophocles added three elements to the legend: 1. a detailed account of Oedipus' unpredictable tendency toward violence; 2. Oedipus' admission that there was a similarity between the old man he killed and Laios; and 3. the suggestion that Oedipus recognizes, for the first time in the story, his personal involvement in the murder of Laios.

At the conclusion of his story Oedipus recoils in horror at what he himself has said, and admits to Iocaste

Think of it: I have touched you with these hands,
These hands that killed your husband. What defilement!

At this point Oedipus finally acknowledges that he must be the murderer of Laios. He is, therefore, the cause of the plague (notice he uses the same word "defilement" that the oracles used in telling Creon what caused the plague). The original problem is solved, then; but before you can even think about whether Oedipus should exile himself, you are urged on by a host of other unsettled questions growing out of the original mystery. What is this prophecy about Oedipus? Whose son is he? What happened to Iocaste's baby, and why did the shepherd beg to leave Thebes when he saw Oedipus? Sophocles uses this moment to slow the action of the play so the audience can consider these questions. Just as Oedipus pauses to pray to the gods to exile him from Thebes, the Chorus moves toward the audience to speak.

The Chorus begs Oedipus not to flee Thebes, reasoning that he should hear the shepherd tell his story of the murder of Laios before assuming any guilt. Apparently the Chorus is still somewhat on Oedipus' side. Perhaps his mood has changed, from anger to personal concern, and the Chorus' sympathy shifts back toward him, forgetting his rash banishment of Creon.

Taking heart from the Chorus' speech, Oedipus suggests a possible "happy ending" for himself. He reasons that if the former servant, now living as a shepherd, can prove that Laios was killed by a gang and not by a single man, then Oedipus still could be innocent. He's immediately persuaded by his own argument, and is anxious that the shepherd be sent for at once. This moment may revive your hope to avert tragedy, but its an ironic hope. This shepherd's news will reveal more than Oedipus bargains for.

Iocaste is uneasy, unwilling to pin everything on the shepherd's story. Somehow her reluctance sharpens your fear that his answers will not be comforting. She tells Oedipus that the shepherd is now an old man and can't possibly remember the details of the murder. Furthermore, the shepherd has already told everyone that Laios was killed by a gang, so he isn't going to change his story and now say Laios was killed by a single man. Further, she protests loudly, the shepherd couldn't show that Laios' death fulfilled the oracles' prophecy, because

My child was doomed to kill him; and my child-
Poor baby!- it was my child that died first.

Iocaste's anxiety may show her weakness and confusion, or it may show her love for Oedipus, rising to a desperate pitch.

Oedipus rejects Iocaste's views, saying that even though she may be right, the shepherd is the only man alive who can shed any light on the circumstances of Laios' death. Iocaste reluctantly agrees, and a servant is sent to bring the shepherd to Thebes. Oedipus and Iocaste retreat to the palace to wait. The Chorus moves toward the audience to sing the next choral ode.

The scene began with a confident and arrogant Oedipus having complete faith in his innocence and righteousness. Now Oedipus suspects that he may have been guilty of the murder of Laios. He is less sure of himself; his pride and self-confidence are shaken. But he's still hunting down the truth, while Iocaste watches fearfully. Imagine their moods as they disappear into the palace. You turn to the Chorus, to mull over what has just happened.

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