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Background[edit source | editbeta]
As is the case in most climactic drama, much of what constitutes the myth of Oedipus takes place before the opening scene of the play.
In his youth, Laius was a guest of KingPelops of Elis, and became the tutor of Chrysippus, youngest of the king's sons, in chariot
racing. He then violated the sacred laws of hospitality by abducting and raping Chrysippus, who according to some versions killed
himself in shame. This cast a doom over Laius and his descendants.
The protagonist of the tragedy is the son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. After Laius learns from an oracle that "he is
doomed/To perish by the hand of his own son", he tightly binds the feet of the infant together with a pin and orders Jocasta to kill the
infant. Hesitant to do so, she orders a servant to commit the act for her. Instead, the servant takes the baby to a mountain top to die
from exposure. A shepherd rescues the infant and names him Oedipus (or "swollen feet"). The shepherd carries the baby with him
toCorinth, where Oedipus is taken in and raised in the court of the childless King Polybus of Corinth as if he were his own.
Painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres depicting Oedipus after he solves the riddle of the Sphinx.
The Walters Art Museum.
As a young man in Corinth, Oedipus hears a rumour that he is not the biological son of Polybus and his wife Merope. When Oedipus
questions the King and Queen, they deny it, but, still suspicious, he asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents really are. The Oracle
seems to ignore this question, telling him instead that he is destined to "Mate with [his] own mother, and shed/With [his] own hands the
blood of [his] own sire". Desperate to avoid his foretold fate, Oedipus leaves Corinth in the belief that Polybus and Merope are indeed
his true parents and that, once away from them, he will never harm them.
On the road to Thebes, he meets Laius, his true father. Unaware of each other's identities, they quarrel over whose chariot has right-of-
way. King Laius moves to strike the insolent youth with his sceptre, but Oedipus throws him down from the chariot and kills him, thus
fulfilling part of the oracle's prophecy. He kills all but one of the other men.
Shortly after, Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, which has baffled many a diviner: "What is the creature that walks on four legs in
the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?" To this Oedipus replies, "Man" (who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks
upright later, and needs a walking stick in old age), and the distraught Sphinx throws herself off the cliffside. Oedipus's reward for
freeing the kingdom of Thebes from her curse is the kingship and the hand of Queen Dowager Jocasta, his biological mother. The
prophecy is thus fulfilled, although none of the main characters knows it.
his parentage. Instead of answers he was given a prophecy that he would one day murder his father and sleep with his mother. Upon
hearing this he resolved to leave
Fate and free will[edit source | editbeta]
Fate is a theme that often occurs in Greek writing, tragedies in particular. The idea that attempting to avoid an oracle is the very thing
which brings it about is a common motif in many Greek myths, and similarities to Oedipus can for example be seen in the myth of the
birth of Perseus.
Two oracles in particular dominate the plot of Oedipus the King. In lines 711 to 714, Jocasta relates the prophecy that was told
to Laiusbefore the birth of Oedipus. Namely:
(The oracle) told him
that it was his fate that he should die a victim
at the hands of his own son, a son to be born
of Laius and me.
The oracle told to Laius tells only of the patricide; the incest is missing. Prompted by Jocasta's recollection, Oedipus reveals the
prophecy which caused him to leave Corinth (791-93):
that I was fated to lie with my mother,
and show to daylight an accursed breed
which men would not endure, and I was doomed
to be murderer of the father that begot me.
The implication of Laius's oracle is ambiguous. A prominent school of thought argues that the presentation of Laius's oracle in this play
differs from that found in (e.g.) Aeschylus's Oedipus trilogy produced in 467 BCE. Helaine Smith argues:
Sophocles had the option of making the oracle to Laius conditional (if Laius has a son,
that son will kill him) or unconditional (Laius will have a son who will kill him). Both
Aeschylus and Euripides write plays in which the oracle is conditional; Sophocles...
chooses to make Laius's oracle unconditional and thus removes culpability for his sins
from Oedipus, for he could not have done other than what he did, no matter what action he took.
This interpretation has a long pedigree and several adherents.
It finds support in Jocasta's repetition of the oracle at lines 854–55:
"Loxias declared that the king should be killed by/ his own son." In the Greek, Jocasta uses the verb chrênai: "to be fated, necessary."
This iteration of the oracle seems to suggest that it was unconditional and inevitable. Other scholars have nonetheless argued that
Sophocles follows tradition in making Laius's oracle conditional, and thus avoidable. They point to Jocasta's initial disclosure of the
oracle at lines 711–14. In the Greek, the oracle cautions: hôs auton hexoi moira pros paidos thanein/ hostis genoit emou te kakeinou
para. The two verbs in boldface indicate what is called a "future more vivid" condition: if a child is born to Laius, his fate to be killed by
that child will overtake him.
Whatever the meaning of Laius's oracle, the one delivered to Oedipus is clearly unconditional. Given our modern conception
of fate andfatalism, readers of the play have a tendency to view Oedipus as a mere puppet controlled by greater forces, a man crushed
by the gods and fate for no good reason. This, however, is not an entirely accurate reading. While it is a mythological truism that
oracles exist to be fulfilled, oracles do not cause the events that lead up to the outcome. In his landmark essay "On Misunderstanding
the Oedipus Rex",
E.R. Dodds draws a comparison with Jesus's prophecy at the Last Supper that Peter would deny him three times.
Jesusknows that Peter will do this, but readers would in no way suggest that Peter was a puppet of fate being forced to deny
Christ. Free willand predestination are by no means mutually exclusive, and such is the case with Oedipus.
The oracle delivered to Oedipus what is often called a "self-fulfilling prophecy", in that the prophecy itself sets in motion events that
conclude with its own fulfilment.
This, however, is not to say that Oedipus is a victim of fate and has no free will. The oracle inspires a
series of specific choices, freely made by Oedipus, which lead him to kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus chooses not to return
to Corinth after hearing the oracle, just as he chooses to head toward Thebes, to kill Laius, to marry and to take Jocasta specifically as
his bride; in response to the plague at Thebes, he chooses to send Creon to the Oracle for advice and then to follow that advice,
initiating the investigation into Laius's murder. None of these choices is predetermined.
Another characteristic of oracles in myth is that they are almost always misunderstood by those who hear them; hence Oedipus's
misunderstanding the significance of the Delphic Oracle. He visits Delphi to find out who his real parents are and assumes that the
Oracle refuses to answer that question, offering instead an unrelated prophecy which forecasts patricide and incest. Oedipus's
assumption is incorrect: the Oracle does answer his question. Stated less elliptically, the answer to his question reads thus:
Polybus and Merope are not your parents. You will one day kill a man who will turn out to be your real father. The woman you will
eventually marry is your real mother.
State control[edit source | editbeta]
The exploration of this theme in Oedipus the King is paralleled by the examination of the conflict between the individual and the state
inAntigone. The dilemma that Oedipus faces here is similar to that of the tyrannical Creon: each man has, as king, made a decision that
his subjects question or disobey; each king also misconstrues both his own role as a sovereign and the role of the rebel. When
informed by the blind prophet Tiresias that religious forces are against him, each king claims that the priest has been corrupted. It is
here, however, that their similarities come to an end: while Creon, seeing the havoc he has wreaked, tries to amend his mistakes,
Oedipus refuses to listen to anyone.
Sight and blindness[edit source | editbeta]
Literal and metaphorical references to eyesight appear throughout Oedipus the King. Clear vision serves as a metaphor for insight and
knowledge, but the clear-eyed Oedipus is blind to the truth about his origins and inadvertent crimes. The prophet Tiresias, on the other
hand, although literally blind, "sees" the truth and relays what is revealed to him. Only after Oedipus has physically blinded himself does
he gain a limited prophetic ability, as seen in Oedipus at Colonus. It is deliberately ironic that the "seer" can "see" better than Oedipus,
despite being blind. In one line (Oedipus the king, 469), Tiresias says:
"So, you mock my blindness? Let me tell you this. You [Oedipus] with your precious eyes, you're blind to the corruption of your life
..."(Robert Fagles 1984)
Film versions[edit source | editbeta]
The play has been filmed several times, twice in English, as well as presented many times on television. The 1957 film version, directed
by Tyrone Guthrie, starred Douglas Campbell as Oedipus, and had the cast performing the entire play in masks, as in ancient Greek
theatre. The second English language film version, directed by Philip Saville and released in 1968, was filmed in Greece. This one
showed the actors' faces and boasted an all-star cast, including Christopher Plummer as Oedipus, Lilli Palmer as Jocasta, Orson
Welles as Tiresias, Richard Johnson as Creon, Roger Livesey as the Shepherd, and Donald Sutherland as the Leading Member of the
Chorus. Sutherland's voice, however, was dubbed by another actor. The film went a step further than the play, however, by actually
showing, in flashback, the murder of Laius (Friedrich Ledebur). It also showed Oedipus and Jocasta in bed together, making love. Made
in 1968, this film was not seen in Europe and the U.S. until the 1970s and 1980s after legal release and distribution rights were granted
to video and TV. In 1967 Pier Paolo Pasolini directed Edipo re, a modern interpretation of the play. In Colombia, director Jorge Ali
Trianaadapted the story with Gabriel García Márquez as Oedipus Mayor (in Spanish Edipo Alcalde) bringing it to the real Colombian
Instrumentation[edit source | editbeta]
The work is scored for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets in B-flat and A (3rd doubling clarinet in E-flat),
2bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 4 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, tambourine, "military" snare drum, bass
drum,cymbals, piano, harp and strings.
Synopsis[edit source | editbeta]
Act 1[edit source | editbeta]
The Narrator greets the audience, explaining the nature of the drama they are about to see, and setting the scene: Thebes is suffering
from a plague, and the men of the city lament it loudly. Oedipus, king of Thebes and conqueror of the Sphinx, promises to save the
city.Creon, brother-in-law to Oedipus, returns from the oracle at Delphi and declaims the words of the gods: Thebes is harboring the
murderer of Laius, the previous king. It is the murderer who has brought the plague upon the city. Oedipus promises to discover the
murderer and cast him out. He questions Tiresias, the soothsayer, who at first refuses to speak. Angered at this silence, Oedipus
accuses him of being the murderer himself. Provoked, Tiresias speaks at last, stating that the murderer of the king is a king. Terrified,
Oedipus then accuses Tiresias of being in league with Creon, whom he believes covets the throne. With a flourish from the
Act 2[edit source | editbeta]
Jocasta calms the dispute by telling all that the oracles always lie. An oracle had predicted that Laius would die at his son's hand, when
in fact he was murdered by bandits at the crossing of three roads. This frightens Oedipus further: he recalls killing an old man at a
crossroads before coming to Thebes. A messenger arrives: King Polybus of Corinth, whom Oedipus believes to be his father, has died.
However, it is now revealed that Polybus was only the foster-father of Oedipus, who had been, in fact, a foundling. An ancient shepherd
arrives: it was he who had found the child Oedipus in the mountains. Jocasta, realizing the truth, flees. At last, the messenger and
shepherd state the truth openly: Oedipus is the child of Laius and Jocasta, killer of his father, husband of his mother. Shattered,
Oedipus leaves. The messenger reports the death of Jocasta: she has hanged herself in her chambers. Oedipus breaks into her room
and puts out his eyes with her pin. He departs Thebes forever as the chorus at first vents their anger, and then mourns the loss of the
king they loved.
Analysis[edit source | editbeta]
Many insights to this opera are found in Leonard Bernstein's analysis of it in his sixth and last Norton lecture from 1973.
stated that Oedipus Rex is the most "awesome product" of Stravinsky's neoclassical period. Much of the music borrows techniques
from past classical styles and from popular styles of the day as well.
However, Stravinsky purposely mismatches the text subjects
(in Latin) with its corresponding musical accompaniment. Bernstein refers to this as a "black joke", creating a chilling effect that is fully
consistent with neoclassic musical style.
Nearly all of Oedipus' arias liberally use appoggiaturas, undoubtedly a stylistic homage to Italian opera.
Bernstein even goes
so far as to link the opening four-note motif sung by the chorus to a specific sung quote in Verdi's Aida.The idea parallel of "power and
pity" reigns in both operas even though the specific subject matters are quite different.
Creon is the brother of Laius. Before the play begins Oedipus sent him on a mission to receive the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, and he
returns with its news during the prologue. With great hesitation he reports that "The god commands us to expel from the land of
Thebes/An old defilement we are sheltering.'' He says that in order to rid the city of its woes, Oedipus must find the murderer of King
Laius, his predecessor. Oedipus feels threatened by Creon and believes that he covets the throne (by some accounts Creon was to
have been the next ruler following his brother's death, and he is thus filled with resentment).
Jocasta is Oedipus's wife and mother; she is also the mother of his children. Her first entrance onstage occurs when Oedipus and
Creon are in the midst of arguing; Jocasta storms in and demands that they resolve their petty personal dispute because the country's
troubles are far more urgent: "Poor foolish men, what wicked din is this?/With Thebes sick to death, is it not shameful/That you should
rake some private quarrel up?" She pleads with Oedipus to believe Creon's good intentions towards him, and their hostilities
momentarily abate. She assures Oedipus that the oracle proclaiming Laius's murder by his own son was false, since Laius was killed by
highwaymen, and his son had been left "to die on a lonely mountainside." Rather than placating Oedipus, her words haunt him, he
recalls "a shadowy memory,'' and asks her to give details about Laius's death. The surviving witness to the crime, tells Jocasta, had
come to her when Oedipus was made king and asked her if he could be sent far away; she granted him his wish and now is asked by
Oedipus to recall this witness—a shepherd—to the palace to testify about the murder.
Oedipus, the title character, is the protagonist of the play. His name means "swell-foot" or "swollen-foot." One of the most famous
dramatic characters in the history of western literature, he was singled out by Aristotle in his Poetics as the right kind of protagonist
because he inspires the right combination of pity and fear. "This is the sort of man who is not preeminently virtuous and just, and yet it
is through no badness or villainy of his own that he falls into the misfortune, but rather through some flaw in him; he being one of those
who are in high station and good fortune, like Oedipus and Thyestes and the famous men of families such as these." Oedipus's fatal
flaw, the technical Greek term for which is hamartia, can be thought of as a character fault or a mistake, or more like an Achilles heel
rather than a flaw for which he can be held directly responsible. A hereditary curse has been placed on his family, and he unknowingly
has fulfilled the terms of the prophecy that Laius's son would kill him and marry his wife.
Teiresias, a blind prophet and servant of Apollo, twice was asked by Oedipus to come to the palace to discuss the crisis in Thebes. In
the first act of the play he finally appears, revealing the reasons for the city's devastation, knowledge that he is reluctant to reveal to
Oedipus for fear of making him miserable. Oedipus, feeling himself to be betrayed by the prophet's resistance, verbally abuses
Teiresias ("You sightless, witless, senseless, mad old man!" ) and accuses him of working on behalf of the "usurper" Creon.
Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King Summary
When the play opens, Thebes is suffering a plague which leaves its fields and women barren. Oedipus, the king of
Thebes, has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the house of Apollo to ask the oracle how to end the plague. Creon
returns, bearing good news: once the killer of the previous king, Laius, is found, Thebes will be cured of the plague
(Laius was Jocasta's husband before she married Oedipus). Hearing this, Oedipus swears he will find the murderer
and banish him. The Chorus (representing the people of Thebes) suggests that Oedipus consult Teiresias, the blind
prophet. Oedipus tells them that he has already sent for Teiresias.
When Teiresias arrives, he seems reluctant to answer Oedipus's questions, warning him that he does not want to
know the answers. Oedipus threatens him with death, and finally Teiresias tells him that Oedipus himself is the killer,
and that his marriage is a sinful union. Oedipus takes this as an insult and jumps to the conclusion that Creon paid
Teiresias to say these things. Furious, Oedipus dismisses him, and Teiresias goes, repeating as he does, that Laius's
killer is right here before him - a man who is his father's killer and his mother's husband, a man who came seeing but
will leave in blindness.
Creon enters, asking the people around him if it is true that Oedipus slanderously accused him. The Chorus tries to
mediate, but Oedipus appears and charges Creon with treason. Jocasta and the Chorus beg Oedipus to be open-
minded: Oedipus unwillingly relents and allows Creon to go. Jocasta asks Oedipus why he is so upset and he tells her
what Teiresias prophesied. Jocasta comforts him by telling him that there is no truth in oracles or prophets, and she
has proof. Long ago an oracle told Laius that his own son would kill him, and as a result he and Jocasta gave their
infant son to a shepherd to leave out on a hillside to die with a pin through its ankles. Yet Laius was killed by robbers,
not by his own son, proof that the oracle was wrong. But something about her story troubles Oedipus; she said that
Laius was killed at a place where three roads meet, and this reminds Oedipus of an incident from his past, when he
killed a stranger at a place where three roads met. He asks her to describe Laius, and her description matches his
memory. Yet Jocasta tells him that the only eyewitness to Laius's death, a herdsman, swore that five robbers killed
him. Oedipus summons this witness.
While they wait for the man to arrive, Jocasta asks Oedipus why he seems so troubled. Oedipus tells her the story of
his past. Once when he was young, a man he met told him that he was not his father's son. He asked his parents
about it, and they denied it. Still it troubled him, and he eventually went to an oracle to determine his true lineage.
The oracle then told him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. This prophecy so frightened Oedipus that
he left his hometown and never returned. On his journey, he encountered a haughty man at a crossroads - and killed
the man after suffering an insult. Oedipus is afraid that the stranger he killed might have been Laius. If this is the
case, Oedipus will be forever banished both from Thebes (the punishment he swore for the killer of Laius) and from
Corinth, his hometown. If this eyewitness will swear that robbers killed Laius, then Oedipus is exonerated. He prays
for the witness to deliver him from guilt and from banishment. Oedipus and Jocasta enter the palace to wait for him.
Jocasta comes back out of the palace, on her way to the holy temples to pray for Oedipus. A messenger arrives from
Corinth with the news that Oedipus's father Polybus is dead. Overjoyed, Jocasta sends for Oedipus, glad that she has
even more proof in the uselessness of oracles. Oedipus rejoices, but then states that he is still afraid of the rest of the
oracle's prophecy: that he will marry his mother. The messenger assures him that he need not fear approaching
Corinth - since Merope, his mother, is not really his mother, and moreover, Polybus wasn't his father either. Stunned,
Oedipus asks him how he came to know this. The messenger replies that years ago a man gave a baby to him and he
delivered this baby to the king and queen of Corinth - a baby that would grow up to be Oedipus the King. The injury
to Oedipus's ankles is a testament to the truth of his tale, because the baby's feet had been pierced through the
ankles. Oedipus asks the messenger who gave the baby to him, and he replies that it was one of Laius's servants.
Oedipus sends his men out to find this servant. The messenger suggests that Jocasta should be able to help identify
the servant and help unveil the true story of Oedipus's birth. Suddenly understanding the terrible truth, Jocasta begs
Oedipus not to carry through with his investigation. Oedipus replies that he swore to unravel this mystery, and he will
follow through on his word. Jocasta exits into the palace.
Oedipus again swears that he will figure out this secret, no matter how vile the answer is. The Chorus senses that
something bad is about to happen and join Jocasta's cry in begging the mystery to be left unresolved. Oedipus's men
lead in an old shepherd, who is afraid to answer Oedipus's questions. But finally he tells Oedipus the truth. He did in
fact give the messenger a baby boy, and that baby boy was Laius's son - the same son that Jocasta and Laius left on
a hillside to die because of the oracle's prophecy.
Finally the truth is clear - devastated, Oedipus exits into the palace. A messenger reveals that he grabbed a sword
and searched for Jocasta with the intent to kill her. Upon entering her chamber, however, he finds that she has
hanged herself. He takes the gold brooches from her dress and gouges his eyes out. He appears onstage again, blood
streaming from his now blind eyes. He cries out that he, who has seen and done such vile things, shall never see
again. He begs the Chorus to kill him. Creon enters, having heard the entire story, and begs Oedipus to come inside,
where he will not be seen. Oedipus begs him to let him leave the city, and Creon tells him that he must consult Apollo
first. Oedipus tells him that banishment was the punishment he declared for Laius's killer, and Creon agrees with him.
Before he leaves forever, however, Oedipus asks to see his daughters and begs Creon to take care of them. Oedipus
is then led away, while Creon and the girls go back in the palace. The Chorus, alone, laments Oedipus' tragic fate and
his doomed lineage