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Chapter 19

Oedipus the King—

Oedipus the King
• Written by Sophocles, this version appeared between
429 and 425 B.C.E.
• In Athens, which was then fighting the Peloponnesian
War and had just suffered a plague.
• Only one of many versions of the story of Oedipus.
• The most influential play for the study of Greek myth, in
part because it influenced Sigmund Freud.
• The audience knew the basic story, but Sophocles told it
in a new way, adding characterization and details like the
The Greek Theater
Audience sat here. Chorus danced here, serving as
a link between the private
world of the individuals who lived
inside the house and the public
world represented by the
audience, which stood for the city.

Stage represented
the front of a house.
The Chorus
• Fifteen characters, with a leader.
• Performed two very different roles:
– Sang odes.
– Functioned as a character through the leader.
• Had a special relationship with the main
• Provided scenery and background information
through its odes.
• Reacted to the events of the play, rarely acting.
The Hero’s Tragic Flaw
• This idea comes from Aristotle, who wrote
in the late fourth century B.C.E., more than a
hundred years after Sophocles’ play.
• Aristotle never used the word “hero” in his
discussion of the play.
• Hamartia, which is usually translated as
“flaw” or even “tragic flaw,” more properly
describes a change of fortune.
Structure of a Greek Play
• Opening scene
• The chorus files into the orchestra.
• Episode 1
• Choral ode
• Episode 2
• Choral ode
• Episode 3
• Choral ode
• Episode 4
• Choral ode
• Episode 5
• Epilogue
Opening Scene
• Oedipus speaks to the suppliants.
• The high priest describes the plague.
• Oedipus explains that he has already sent
Kreon to Delphi.
• Oedipus and Kreon: news from Apollo.
The murder of Laios must be avenged.
• Oedipus:
– “Now I am here.
– I will begin the search again,
– I will reveal the truth, expose everything, let it all be seen.”
Parodos: Chorus Files In
Starts with a solemn prayer that says in part:
“…I call to Apollo who hurls light
from deep in the sky…
come in our suffering as you came once before
to Thebes o bright divinities and threw your saving light against the god of grief o

Ends as follows with a prayer to Bacchus, a deity who is a

“native son”:
“god of joy god of terror
be with us now your bright face
like a pine torch roaring
thrust into the face of the slaughtering war god
blind him
drive him down from Olympus
drive him away from Thebes forever”
Episode 1
• Oedipus curses the murderer.
• Oedipus baits Teiresias, who responds
with harsh words:
I say you,
you are the killer you’re searching for. ...
you do not see yourself, you do not see
the horror shadowing every step of your life,
the blind shame in which you live, ...”
Choral Ode 1
The chorus thinks about the murder it
has been reminded of:
“his hands dripping with blood
he should run now flee ...
how can I judge
what the god Apollo says
trapped hoping confused
I do not see what is here now
when I look to the past I see nothing”
Episode 2
• Oedipus confronts Kreon.
• Oedipus and the Chorus: don’t banish Kreon.
• Oedipus and Jocasta:
– Oedipus describes leaving Corinth, killing the old man at the
– Jocasta explains that prophecies are meaningless; describes
exposing her baby because a prophecy said it would murder its
father; says Laius died at the crossroads.
• Oedipus tells the story of his attempt to escape from the
prophecy dogging him, and remembers killing a man at
the crossroads.
Choral Ode 2
The chorus is reminded of the evils of pride,
and fears for Oedipus:
“o god shatter the tyrant
but let men compete let self-perfection grow
let men sharpen their skills
soldiers citizens building the good city
protect me always always the god I will honor …”
Jocasta joins their prayer, saying,
“We are afraid when we see Oedipus confused and
frightened – Oedipus, the only man who
can pilot Thebes to safety.”
Episode 3
• Oedipus, Jocasta and the messenger from Corinth
– Oedipus learns the king of Corinth is dead.
– But he is not Oedipus’ father.
– The messenger got him from a shepherd.
– Jocasta tries to persuade Oedipus to stop his questioning.
– When he won’t, she rushes off:
“God help you, Oedipus –
you were born to suffer, born
to misery and grief.
These are the last last words I will ever speak, ever Oedipus.”
• Oedipus sends for the shepherd.
Choral Ode 3
The chorus seeks a benign explanation
for the parentage of Oedipus:
“Oedipus son
who was your mother
which of the deathless mountain nymphs who lay
with the great god Pan
on the high peaks he runs across
or with Apollo ...”
Episode 4
• Oedipus and the shepherd – Oedipus learns that
he is the child of Laius and Jocasta, and that he
has killed his father and married his mother. He
makes a long lamenting speech about this, in
lyric language very much like that of a choral
“I, Oedipus, I
am the child
of parents who should never have been mine –
Choral Ode 4
The chorus sings about the sad fate of
humans, and grieves over the tragic career of
“no happiness lasts nothing human lasts ...

I grieve for you

wail after wail fills me and pours out
because of you my breath came flowing back but now
the darkness of your life
floods my eyes”
Episode 5, Part 1
• The servant reports to the chorus leader about the death
of Jocasta and the self-blinding of Oedipus.
“Then she collapsed, sobbing, cursing the bed where she held both
men in her arms ...
ripped off the gold brooches she was wearing ... tilted his face up and
brought them right down into his eyes
and the long pins sank deep, all the way back into the sockets”
• Oedipus and the chorus alternate in a dirge:
Chorus: “horror horror o what suffering
men see but none is worse than this Oedipus ...”
Oedipus: “What force, what tide breaks over my life?
Pain, demon stabbing into me
leaving nothing, nothing, no man I know”
Episode 5, Part 2
• Oedipus justifies his actions:
“I did what I had to do. No more advice.
How could my eyes,
when I went down into that black, sightless place beneath the earth,
the place where the dead go down, how,
how could I have looked at anything,
with what human eyes could I have gazed
on my father, on my mother –”
• Oedipus and Kreon: though humbled, Oedipus still gives
the orders:
“Drive me out of Thebes, do it now, now –
drive me someplace where no man can speak to me,
where no man can see me anymore ...
Banish me from Thebes....
No. You will not take my daughters. I forbid it.”
Trivial Choral Conclusion
• Perhaps this short conclusion is not by
“Happiness and peace, they were not yours
unless at death you can look back on your life
and say
I lived, I did not suffer.”
Oedipus as a Hero
• Oedipus’ personality (not its flaws) marks him as what
we could call a “go-getter,” and he is admirable as such.
He causes his own fate: by fleeing Corinth, by
investigating the murder of Laius, by cursing the
murderer, by investigating his own heritage:
The curse: “My word for him is nothing.
Let him be nothing.... Drive him from your homes. Let him have no
home, nothing.
No words, no food, shelter, warmth of hand, shared worship.
Let him have
The investigation: “I am the man I am. I will not stop
until I discover who my parents are.”
Theology of Oedipus the King
• The play is a reinforcement of the power of the oracle of Apollo.
• Oedipus belittles the skill of Teiresias, Apollo’s priest, but Teiresias is proven correct.
• The chorus bases its faith on the condemnation of the murderer:
“if such acts are honored
I will never go to the holy untouchable stone
navel of the earth at Delphi.”

• Oedipus and Jocasta claim faith in alternate religion, the worship of chance or
fortune, a cult popular in Sophocles’ time:
“Why should men be afraid of anything? Fortune rules our lives.
Luck is everything. Things happen. The future is darkness.
No human mind can know it.”

• Sophocles represents Kreon and later Oedipus as practicing Socratic questioning, a

technique taught by the Sophists who rejected the gods and said “man is the
measure of all things.”
• Oedipus’ view of theology is not upheld: it is the traditional religion, the worship of
Apollo, that prevails. Human beings are not in charge. The gods are.