Summary and Analysis: Oedipus the King
As the play opens, Oedipus, king of Thebes, receives a group of citizens led by an old priest. The priest describes the plague that is destroying the city — a blight on the land causing famine and sickness. Recalling Oedipus' early triumph over the Sphinx, the priest begs the king to save Thebes once more.
Oedipus expresses his sympathy and concern, and announces that he has already sent his brother-in-law Creon to the oracle in an effort to end the plague. As Oedipus speaks, Creon returns with the oracle's message: The plague will end when the murderer of Laius (the former King) is killed or banished.
Oedipus immediately swears to take action to find the murderer and save the city.
The first scene presents the problem of the play and indicates the direction of the tragedy to follow. Note especially the dramatic irony of Oedipus' determination to find and punish the murderer of Laius. Sophocles' audience already knows that Oedipus is himself the murderer, but the characters onstage have no idea of the truth.
The oracle — and Oedipus himself — identify the king with the land, so that calamity or corruption in the king causes famine in his domain. This principle existed in many ancient cultures. In some early societies, a famine or pestilence on the land was enough to arouse people to kill their king and choose another — hopefully purer — ruler whose ascent to power could restore the fertility of the land.
The "wasteland" of Thebes — with its hunger, disease, and death — must therefore be the responsibility of the king. Oedipus takes up the challenge, believing he can purge the land by punishing another — unconscious that he himself is the source of corruption.
In this first scene, Oedipus seems outwardly the ideal king, revealing his intelligence, responsibility, and energy — attributes that Athenians prized as their own particular virtues. But his overly eager insistence that Creon announce the oracle's words publicly betrays a certain arrogance about his abilities.
As the play unfolds, then, both Oedipus' virtues and his weaknesses will lead to his ultimate downfall. The audience can see that Oedipus' sense of responsibility for his city-state drives his search for the truth, and because of this the hero gains sympathy — even when he is at his most arrogant, and especially at his fall from power.
Thebes chief city of ancient Boeotia, in eastern central Greece. Here, the location of the tragedy.
Zeus the chief deity of Greek mythology, son of Chronus and Rhea and husband of Hera.
Athena the goddess of wisdom, skills, and warfare.
Apollo the god of music, poetry, prophecy, and medicine in Greek and Roman mythology. Here, Apollo is most important as the source of the prophecies of the oracle.
Cadmus a Phoenician prince and founder of Thebes; he kills a dragon and sows its teeth, from which many armed men rise, fighting each other, until only five are left to help him build the city.
Sphinx a winged monster with a lion's body and the head and breasts of a woman. Here, the monster who plagued Thebes by devouring anyone who could not answer her riddle.
Delphi a town in ancient Phocis, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus; seat of the famous ancient oracle of Apollo.
oracle among the ancient Greeks and Romans, the place where or the medium by which deities were consulted. Also, the revelation or response of a medium or priest.