Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus

Oedipus, hearing that there is a group of suppliants outside the palace, comes out and asks the the priest, their leader, what the trouble is. The priest replies that the city of Thebes is in the grip of a plague; because Oedipus saved the city from the Sphinx before, and is especially favored by the gods, they are asking him for help (1-57). Oedipus answers that he knows about the plague; he has sent Creon, his brother-in-law (and uncle, though he does not know this) to Delphi to ask the oracle what to do. Creon is seen returning at that moment (58-86). Oedipus questions Creon about the oracle. Creon explains that the gods are angry at Thebes because a murderer is making the city ritually unclean, causing a pollution. The oracle also said that the murderer is the one who killed Laius, Oedipus' predecessor as king of Thebes. Oedipus vows to find the murderer and expel the pollution (87-150). The chorus (old men of Thebes) sings an ode invoking the aid of Apollo, Athena, and Artemis; the ravages of the plague are described, and Ares, god of war, is blamed (151-215). Oedipus calls upon the citizens of Thebes to provide information about the murderer; he curses the killer and those who shelter him (216-275). The chorus and Oedipus agree that they should consult Teiresias, the blind seer (276-299). Oedipus questions Teiresias, who clearly knows something, but is reluctant to speak. Oedipus angrily insists (300-349). Teiresias names Oedipus as the pollution, and hints at ongoing crimes; Oedipus does not believe him, and theorizes that Creon has put Teiresias up to this accusation as a way to get rid of Oedipus and rule Thebes himself (349-403). Teiresias defends himself, suggesting that Oedipus is figuratively blind now, and will be literally blind later. The seer hints darkly about what the future holds for Oedipus. Finally he plainly states that Oedipus has murdered his father and married his mother (403-461). The chorus sings an ode musing on the identity of the murderer; without any evidence against Oedipus, the chorus pledges not to condemn him, since although the gods are infallible, prophets make mistakes (462-512).

Creon returns to defend himself from the charge of treason. Oedipus repeats the charge, adding that he thinks Creon is the killer of Laius. In a tense stichomythy, Oedipus tries to learn more about the crime, and wonders why Teiresias did not name him at once, if he knew (543-582). In his own defense, Creon claims he would rather enjoy power by proxy than be king himself and live in fear of plots (583-615). Jocasta arrives, interrupting Oedipus' threats against Creon (616-634). Jocasta and the chorus convince Oedipus to spare Creon. Creon leaves, and Oedipus explains the situation to Jocasta (635-706). As evidence of the unreliability of oracles, Jocasta tells how Laius was told that that his son would kill him, and how he exposed the baby boy on a hillside; the oracle must have been false, because Laius was killed at a crossroads by robbers (707-725). Reminded by the reference to the crossroads, Oedipus questions Jocasta about Laius, remembering an old man he killed at a crossroads, and beginning to realize what really happened (725-770). Oedipus reveals that while a young man at Corinth he heard rumours that he was not the son of Polybus and Merope; Apollo's oracle told him he would kill his father and have children by his mother; on the way to Thebes, he quarreled with and killed a man who (he now realizes) was Laius. But Oedipus still does not know the whole truth; he and Jocasta will wait to speak with Laius' servant, who witnessed the murder (770-861). The chorus sings an ode, affirming its faith in Zeus and divine justice, but expressing doubt about Apollo and his oracles (862-910).

A messenger from Corinth arrives and announces that Polybus is dead of natural causes; Oedipus and Jocasta gleefully accept this as evidence that the oracle which said Oedipus would kill his father was false (910-975). Oedipus points out that Merope is still alive, and fears that that part could still come true, but Jocasta is confident that he can avoid this. Overhearing the exchange, the messenger reveals that Oedipus is not the son of Polybus; he himself gave Oedipus, who had been exposed as a baby on Mt. Cithaeron, to Polybus. He got Oedipus from a servant of Laius, a shepherd, who turns out to be the same man who was eyewitness to Laius' murder; Oedipus is more anxious than ever to question this man. Jocasta realizes the whole truth, but does not reveal her knowledge. When she fails to get Oedipus to call off the investigation, she exits into the palace (976-1073). Oedipus confidently asserts that he is not afraid to learn the truth about his lineage. The chorus sings a short hymn to Mt. Cithaeron and Apollo, and speculates that Oedipus may be the son of some mountain nymph (1074-1109). The shepherd arrives, and reluctantly (since he knows the truth) admits that he was assigned to expose the baby son of Laius and Jocasta, but instead gave him to the Corinthian; the light dawns on Oedipus at last (1110-1185). The chorus sings an ode about the transitory nature of human happiness, using Oedipus as an example (1186-1223). A messenger comes out of the palace. He describes the despair of Jocasta, and how Oedipus, after discovering that Jocasta had hanged herself, gouged out his own eyes. The messenger says that Oedipus intends to exile himself from Thebes, but wants first to face the citizens (1224-1297). Oedipus reappears with his eyes mutilated, and he and the chorus sing in lamentation; Oedipus blames Apollo; the chorus suggests that he would be better off dead (1298-1368). Oedipus counters that blindness is appropriate, since he cannot see the results of his actions, which he recounts in agony. He asks the chorus to kill him; it points out that Creon is coming. Since Creon is the new king of Thebes, Oedipus' future is up to him (1370-1421). Creon arrives. He refuses to exile Oedipus, but instructs him to ask the gods what to do. Oedipus asks Creon to bury Jocasta, and to let him touch his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. The two girls come out, and Oedipus laments over their poor prospects for the future, commending them to Creon's care. As the play ends, the chorus pronounces the Solonian axiom that no one should be judged fortunate until after his life has ended (1422-1530).

© 1995 David L. Silverman. All rights reserved.