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Free MonkeyNotes Summary-Oedipus Rex by Sophocles-Free Booknotes Synopsis
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The play Oedipus Rex, is not divided into Acts or Scenes. Therefore it becomes important to show some kind of division in the action for convenience in analysis. On the basis of how the action unfolds and also noting the structural format prescribed in ancient texts, Oedipus Rex can be divided into a Prologue; an Exposition (First Episode); Rise of Action (Second Episode); Climax (Third Episode) and Exodus (Fourth Episode). Each episode ends with a stasimon, or a choral ode.



The 'Prologue' of Oedipus Rex, extends from the opening of the play to the opening Choral ode or Parodos (Line 151). In the 'Prologue,' Oedipus comes out of his palace to find a crowd gathered. An old priest gives Oedipus an account of the sufferings of the Thebans and puts forward the request that Oedipus, who had saved them once from the deadly Sphinx, should again rescue Thebes from the clutches of a disastrous plague. Oedipus reassures the Priest, saying that he has already sent his brother-in- law Creon to Delphi to inquire of the oracle what the cause and remedy of this catastrophe is.

At this moment, Creon returns with the news that the gods are angry with Thebes as the murderer of Laius, the previous king of Thebes, is still at large and has not been punished for his crime. When Oedipus questions the Thebans about the details of the murder, they tell him that the former ruler, Laius was murdered on a journey by a band of robbers. Oedipus swears to find the murderer in his kingdom and prosecute him since doing this may also save himself from danger. Therefore, "serving Laius, I serve myself." In this manner, he hopes to save his land.

The opening Choral ode, the Parodos, follows the Prologue. The Parodos is a prayer to the Olympian gods to save Thebes and is chanted by the elders. Not only does it ask the gods to release Thebes from the pestilence but it also expresses a fear that Oedipus' investigation may bring to light information which will be even more destructive.


In the tradition of Greek tragedy, every play often begins with a prologue. In Sophoclean tragedies, the prologues are usually in the form of dialogues. In the Prologue, Sophocles prepares the audience for the action of the play by providing Background Information necessary for the reader to understand the tragedy. Oedipus, the ruler of Thebes, has saved the city before by answering the riddle of the Sphinx and therefore removed a terrible plague. He is again in the same position to save his people from an evil plague, only this time he must figure out what has caused the plague. This investigation will lead to self-knowledge as Oedipus' understanding of who he is and where he came from unravels concurrently with the discovery of who killed Laius, the previous king.

The setting of the play is also presented in the Prologue. In Oedipus Rex, the city of Thebes acts as the background for the action. The desolate and the devastated city, which is in the grip of a deadly plague, is described as a ship which is:

"Storm - tossed, and can no longer raise its head Above the waves and angry surge of death."

This description of the city foreshadows the turmoil that will soon take over Oedipus as he begins to investigate who killed Laius. The mood of the play is set up when Thebes is also compared with Hades, the kingdom of dead. Thus, in the prologue itself, death, destruction and devastation as the leitmotif of the play are presented to the reader as well as suffering which both Oedipus feels for his people's torments.

Another important aspect brought to light in the Prologue is an insight into the character of the play's protagonist, Oedipus. Although he is highly intelligent, Oedipus carries the seeds of his destruction within himself. Character flaws, a necessary ingredient for the tragic hero, are termed as 'hamartia.' In the case of Oedipus, his impulsiveness, explosive temper and arrogance form his character flaws and act as an agent to his tragic downfall. Also, his intelligence and obsession with solving riddles such as who murdered Laius results ironically in the discovery of himself as the murderer. Therefore, his 'hamartia' which is revealed in the prologue when he publicly swears to find and punish Laius' murderer later assists his tragic fall as he lacks the prudence to wait and see who the murderer is.

It is interesting to note that the identity of the actual murderer of the former king, Laius has not yet been ascertained. The explanation offered is that during the time of the assassination, Thebes had been in the midst of another crisis: that of the Sphinx. Therefore the people and everyone concerned had been too occupied to investigate.

One finds that Oedipus is portrayed as a responsible king. The readers learn that he had previously saved his kingdom from the torture of the Sphinx (after which he had been crowned) and now he is completely absorbed in finding the public criminal. He is determined to punish him severely as soon as he will be discovered, as indeed he does later in the play. Without any delay, he has already dispatched Creon for the oracle in order to find a solution to the problem.

The Prologue ends with the opening Choral ode, also called the Parodos. In this Parodos, a prayer is being sent to Apollo, Athena, Atriums, Zeus and Bacchus, asking them to rescue Thebes and drive Laius' murderer out of it. In general, the Parodos expresses the general opinion of the citizens of Thebes. This section also marks a passage of time. While the audience sees Oedipus asking the citizens to assemble, the following section records the moment when they have already assembled to listen to the king.

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