DATE: before 424 – the plague at the start of the play may reflect the plague that struck Athens early in the War (430–425); most scholars argue for 429 or 427–5.
COMPETITION: Sophocles’ presentations finished second to Philokles.
CHARACTERS: Oedipus, Priest, Kreon, Teiresias, Jokasta, messenger from Corinth, Theban herdsman, Messenger; Antigone, Ismene (silent)
CHORUS: elders of the city of Thebes SETTING: before the royal palace at Thebes
Oedipus, the great and prosperous king of Thebes, has in all ignorance committed the horrible crimes of killing his father (Laios) and marrying his mother (Jokasta). The play opens many years after Oedipus, by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, had saved Thebes and become its king. A plague on fertility has struck Thebes, and Kreon (Jokasta’s brother) brings from the oracle of Apollo at Delphi the proclamation that the murderer of Laios must be discovered and driven out. Oedipus pronounces a formal curse on that man. Teiresias enters reluctantly and after an angry exchange declares that Oedipus himself is the guilty party. Oedipus concludes that Kreon and Teiresias are conspiring against him, and Jokasta intervenes as the two quarrel. Her comments about the unreliability of oracles and the history of Laios lead Oedipus to suspect that he may indeed have killed Laios, in self-defence, at a place where three roads meet. They send for a herdsman who survived the encounter, but in the meantime a messenger from Corinth arrives to announce the death of Oedipus’ “father” and in trying to remove his fear concerning his mother reveals that Oedipus was not the son of Polybos and Merope of Corinth. The messenger in fact had received the infant Oedipus from a Theban herdsman, the very same man whom they have summoned concerning the murder of Laios. This herdsman reluctantly reveals that Oedipus was the son of Laios and Jokasta. Jokasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself now that he sees the horrible truth.
Aristotle regarded this as one of the greatest of classical tragedies. In no other play does the theme of knowledge, carried by the imagery of light and dark, operate so strongly, and with it the powerful dramatic irony (“I will fight for Laios as if he were my father”) that underpins this tragedy. Sophocles creates a moral universe not of crime and punishment, but where an essentially innocent man suffers dreadfully. Oedipus’ “guilt” is not one of character – he is essentially a great man – but intellectual – he thinks he knows when he does not. The first syllables of his name relate to the Greek verb oida (“I know”). The very economy of the plot adds to the horror: the same man who took Oedipus as a child will reveal the dreadful truth in the end. More than one scholar has seen an Athenian dimension: Knox that Oedipus represents Athens, Ewans that he recalls Perikles, and Wiles that “there is no room in a democratic society for such as Oedipus.” The god beneath this play is Apollo, god of light and knowledge, whose oracles provide the motivating action for the plot.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005