Summary and Analysis: Oedipus the King
With the people of Thebes assembled before him, Oedipus calls upon anyone who knows the murderer of Laius to come forward with the truth. As an incentive, the king promises leniency — exile, not death — to the murderer and a reward to anyone providing information. When no one steps forward, Oedipus curses the murderer and anyone who shelters him — including himself.
The blind prophet Tiresias arrives, reluctantly obeying Oedipus' summons. The king asks for Tiresias' help in finding the murderer, but the prophet refuses. Furious, Oedipus accuses Tiresias of taking part in the murder. In response, Tiresias states flatly that Oedipus himself murdered Laius.
The quest for truth collapses into a battle of wits and words, with Oedipus bragging of his victory over the Sphinx instead of pursuing the murderer of Laius. In a rage, Oedipus declares that Tiresias and Creon must be plotting against him. Tiresias replies with dark hints of Oedipus' corruption and his fate. At last, the furious Oedipus orders Tiresias away.
Oedipus' address to the people of Thebes offers yet another opportunity for dramatic irony. Describing himself as "a stranger to the story" (248) of the king's murder, Oedipus nevertheless declares that he will fight for Laius "as if he were my father" (301).
The double identity of Oedipus as both son and murderer of Laius reverberates through this episode, especially in the revelations of Tiresias. The blind prophet's clear assertion that Oedipus is the murderer, as well as his subtler references to Oedipus' marriage, should end all suspense in the drama. And yet the tension heightens when the prophecy evokes Oedipus' fury, leading to the angry confrontation between the prophet and the king.
As a prophet who is both blind and clairvoyant, Tiresias represents the ambiguous nature of all spiritual power. Prophecies, like the words of the oracle, tend to be apparent only in hindsight. But Tiresias' words — ". . . you are the murderer you hunt." (413) — are uncompromising, and Oedipus' angry refusal to accept them constitutes a rejection of the prophetic power. Sophocles' audience would have understood immediately that Oedipus was rejecting a long-respected conservative tradition in the Greek city-states.
The ridicule of the prophet and his prophecy reflects a change in Athens during the fifth century B.C., when the proponents of reason began to challenge the authority of spiritual power. Sophocles expresses his own conservative views on prophecy by setting up the double irony of a blind man who can see the future and a seeing man who is nevertheless blind to his own past and present — blind even to his own identity.
Oedipus' metaphorical blindness to the truth, intensified by his anger, provides further dramatic irony, while foreshadowing the king's literal blindness at the end of the drama. Another ironic twist emerges when Oedipus blames Creon for scheming with Tiresias in an attempt to overthrow him and steal his crown. The king cannot guess that as events turn, Creon will succeed him and he will have to beg his fate from Creon.
Labdacus, Polydorus, and Agenor the ancestors of Laius, the former king of Thebes, and of Oedipus, his son.
infamy disgrace, dishonor.
Cithaeron the mountain range between Thebes and Corinth. Here, the place where Oedipus was abandoned.