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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

EXODUS (continued)

The Chorus recoils in dismay, but the messenger continues his story, piling one grim detail on top of another. Oedipus struck at his eyes many times until the blood splattered down his face and beard. Finally he burst his eyeballs and "red hail" filled the room. The messenger turns to the audience and says that Oedipus is even now calling for someone to lead him to the gates of Thebes. He has decided to exile himself from the city so that no one can look on the man who murdered his father and married his mother. The messenger warns the audience that this tragic spectacle is so horrible it would "crush a heart of stone."

Now you are prepared to see Oedipus yourself. The central door of the palace slowly swings open and Oedipus staggers to the stage. Blood is still dripping from his face, and he leans heavily on a wooden staff for support. The terrifying sight of the once proud and noble king entering in bloodstained shame shocks the Chorus, and this reaction suggests how the audience should react. Turning back to Oedipus at last, the Chorus asks the audience what madness or demon could have caused Oedipus' life to be filled with such punishment. It seems to be even greater than his crime deserves. In the quiet moment that follows, Oedipus moves slowly toward the audience to speak.

Oedipus is a changed man. Some see him as shattered, a ruin of himself; others find something grand in his humility. He pleads with the gods to help him find a safe haven in the world. He prays for understanding of what the gods have done to him. Yet he still curses his fate. He wonders what will become of him and his children.


Oedipus and the Chorus exchange dialogue in a series of strophe and antistrophe. In these alternating lines of speech Oedipus and the Chorus set forth the moral lesson of the play. You learn what Oedipus has learned from his fate. This exchange also helps Oedipus and the Chorus reconcile their past differences of opinion and move toward a single spiritual view.

Oedipus speaks first in each strophe and antistrophe. He recalls with sorrow the events of his life and thanks the Chorus for being faithful and supportive even now. He takes responsibility for blinding himself, saying he couldn't bear to see "horror everywhere" in his actions. Physically helpless now, he begs the audience to forgive him and lead him away from Thebes. He then laments that he was ever saved from death by the shepherd, saying that if he had died as an infant

This weight of monstrous doom
Could not have dragged me and my darlings down.

Notice that he mentions his children, who are inextricably tangled in his fate.

The Chorus speaks last in each strophe and antistrophe. It reminds the audience of the incidents that have led up to the terrible spectacle they now see before them. It declares that Oedipus is a sad example of excessive pride (hubris) that leads to destruction, pain, and remorse. The audience is warned never to commit such fearful acts themselves. Finally, the Chorus questions whether perhaps Oedipus should have killed himself when he discovered his true identity. Surely Oedipus would be better off dead than alive and blind.

In the second segment of the Exodus the Chorus, which is undecided about Oedipus' future, continues to debate the facts of the case. After all, the Chorus must give a final verdict, and it doesn't want to be hasty in its judgment. This allows you, too, to turn over in your mind the significance of what Oedipus has done.

In the third segment of the Exodus Oedipus nobly assumes all responsibility for what he has done. He tells the audience that his sense of moral outrage and repulsion made him blind himself. Self-punishment was necessary, he says, because the horrible crimes he committed against the gods and against the city of Thebes demanded severe penalties. In his eyes at least, his ignorance of his parentage is no excuse for the shameful deeds he performed. Oedipus justifies choosing blindness rather than death by saying

I could not make my peace
By strangling my own life.
He has to live in order to suffer, to pay for his sins.

As the Chorus pauses to consider these moral arguments, Oedipus continues to plead his case. Oedipus tells the Chorus that neither his children, the city of Thebes, nor the gods could ever have been purified if he hadn't blinded himself; his public responsibility looms large here. He calls himself a "defilement" for having doubted the oracles' prophecy and pleads with the Chorus to exile him.

Oedipus also addresses the audience and asks for their forgiveness. He unflinchingly lists his crimes: first, marriage to his mother; second, murdering his father; third, the act performed in his mother's bed, which was so horrible no tongue could repeat it. Incest seems to be the worst crime of all in his eyes.

The fourth segment of the Exodus begins with the entrance of Creon. Creon has returned from Thebes to be the new ruler of the city. The Chorus tells Oedipus that Creon is the best one to judge his punishment, because he is the only one left to protect the city now that Iocaste is dead and Oedipus is disgraced.

Here is another moment of dramatic irony in the play. Recall that Oedipus banished Creon earlier and refused to listen to his pleas of innocence. Now Creon is the one who will judge Oedipus and decide his punishment. He seemed like a good man before, but perhaps power will change him. He had a strong sense of justice before, but perhaps that will now make him hungry for revenge on Oedipus.

The first thing Creon does when he enters is to kindly inform Oedipus that he doesn't come to mock or reproach him in front of the Chorus and the audience. His first concern is for Oedipus' suffering, and he orders servants to take Oedipus into the palace as quickly as possible, to make his suffering less public. Oedipus refuses to leave, however, and bravely asks that Creon exile him to a place where no human voice is ever heard. Creon hesitates to grant Oedipus' request. He says the gods' will in this matter has not yet been revealed to him. Naturally, after what has happened to Oedipus, Creon is anxious not to go against the gods. Ironically, Creon was the one who brought the oracles' message to Oedipus in the beginning of the play. Oedipus reminds Creon that the law of the gods is very clear in this case: the murderer-especially a parricide-must be cast out and destroyed.

Creon finally agrees that Oedipus is correct in his understanding of the gods' law, but he still hesitates to exile Oedipus. Why the delay? Some readers see Creon as a hard but fair judge who is trying to decide the right punishment for Oedipus, which could be death rather than exile. Others see him as a vengeful man who is already becoming a tyrant. Yet others think he can't make up his mind because he's overwhelmed with pity-as the Chorus is.

NOTE:

In Antigone, Sophocles' play about Oedipus' daughter, this question of Creon's character plays an important role. Creon, now king of Thebes, regrets that he didn't have Oedipus killed when he had the chance. He also blames Antigone for inheriting her father's "stubborn" nature and refusing to honor his laws. He also fears that Antigone is really the ghost of Oedipus, who has come back to haunt him. Eventually Antigone kills herself just like her mother did, by hanging herself.

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