Summary of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex

The play ‘Oedipus Rex’ is also called ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’. It is considered as the masterpiece of the master-craftsman, Sophocles. It deals with that period of the life of King Oedipus when he became the King of Thebes and husband of Jocasta. It is at this time that he comes to know that he has murdered his father, Laius and married his mother, Jocasta. The disclosure of this hideous truth leads him to blind himself and Jocasta to commit suicide.


Oedipus was the King of Thebes. He is introduced to the audience at the very beginning of the play. He had come outside his palace to meet a group of citizens led by a priest, named Zeus. During this meeting, the priest told King Oedipus that the citizens of Thebes were in great distress. The suffering of the people was the result of some unknown curse. the repercussions of the curse were so terrible that the land of Thebes had become barren. There was no fodder for the herds of sheep. The women of the city were giving birth to dead children. There was an epidemic of plague and a large number of people were falling victims to it. Therefore, the priest requested the King to help his citizens to come out of this terrible situation.

King Oedipus told the priest that he was aware of the sufferings of his people. That is why he had sent Creon, his brother-in-law, to Delphi to find out the cause of the sufferings of the citizens and the solution to overcome it. At that very moment, Creon appeared on the scene. He told the King that the people of Thebes were suffering because the murderer of the former King Laius was living in the city without getting any punishment for his crime. Morally, it was unbecoming for Oedipus as well as the citizens of Thebes to allow the murderer to escape unpunished for his heinous crime. Therefore, the Thebans should take revenge for the murder of King Laius.

When Oedipus heard the story of the murder of King Laius, he enquired about the circumstances in which King Laius was killed. Creon told him that Laius was murdered by a stranger when Laius was on a journey. But the murder of King Laius was not investigated properly because at that time Thebans were facing a serious threat caused by Sphinx, a monster. The monster used to kill those who failed to solve his riddles. Here the audiences also come to know that it was Oedipus who had solved the riddle and rescued the city from the clutches of Sphinx. As a reward for his bravery, Oedipus was made the King of Thebes and was married to Jocasta, the widow of Laius. After listening to Creon’s account, Oedipus declared that he would find out the murderer and punish him for his crime.

After consultation with Creon and other courtiers, Oedipus sent two messengers to Teiresias, the blind prophet, requesting him to come to Thebes and help the people to come out of their sufferings. Accordingly, Teiresias arrived there. King Oedipus asked Teiresias about the murderer of King Laius. Teiresias told the gathering that he knew the murderer well but he will not disclose his name. Oedipus requested Teiresias once again. Teiresias was not ready to tell truth. Finally, Oedipus got irritated and called Teiresias ignorant. He also added that though Teiresias considered himself a clever and wise person, in reality, he had failed to solve the riddle of Sphinx. On the contrary, Oedipus himself had solved that riddle and saved the city from the atrocities of Sphinx. Teiresias listened to these words calmly. His silence enraged King Oedipus. Then Oedipus said that as Teiresias was not ready to announce the name of the murderer, he suspected that Teiresias himself might be the man behind the murder of King Laius. Listening to these words, Teiresias got very angry and announced that Oedipus was the real culprit who had murdered King Laius. It was because of Oedipus alone that the city of Thebes was suffering the pangs of hell.

When Creon came to know about the real culprit, he was disappointed. It led to the conflict between Oedipus and Creon. Oedipus even accused Creon of planning to murder him as he wanted to become the king of Thebes. Creon tried to clarify his position by saying that he has no interest in becoming king because kingship brings with it many anxieties and responsibilities. However, Oedipus was so angry that he wanted to punish Creon for his conspiracy. Even Jocasta tried to defend her brother, Creon. But Oedipus was not ready to listen to anybody. He wanted to banish Creon from Thebes. Finally, several requests from Jocasta, Creon and others pacified Oedipus and so he allowed Creon to live in Thebes. Still, he ordered Creon to get out of his sight and never to show him his face.

After Creon’s departure, Jocasta asked Oedipus the reason for his quarrel with Creon. Thereupon Oedipus told Jocasta that Creon had made the prophet, Teiresias, announce that Oedipus was the murderer of Laius. When Jocasta heard about Teiresias, she told Oedipus not to worry about the prophecy as there can’t be any truth in it. To explain her point, Jocasta narrated to him a prophecy of the life of King Laius. As per that prophecy, it was said that Laius would be killed by his own son. Therefore, after the birth of a son to Laius and Jocasta, Laius had tied together both the legs of three days’ old child and ordered to put it on a mountain cliff so that the child would die. The prophecy proved false as King Laius was killed by a stranger. Elaborating on the incident, she told Oedipus that King Laius was on a journey with his four companions. At that time a stranger killed four of them including Laius at a place where three roads meet. But the fifth man escaped and returned to Thebes with the news of Laius’ murder. As the prophecy of Laius’ death had proved false, Jocasta said that Oedipus should not worry about such prophecies at all.

When Oedipus heard the account of the death of King Laius, he was shocked. It was because he remembered an incident in which he had killed four people at a place where three roads met. But the fifth person had managed to escape. He thought that one of the four men he had killed might be King Laius. So he asked Jocasta how Laius looked like. When Jocasta told him that Laius was a tall man and looked almost like Oedipus. Now Oedipus suspected that he must be the murderer of King Laius. So he expressed his desire to see the fifth man who had brought the news of Laius’ death. Jocasta said that she would send a messenger to bring that man to the palace.

Then Jocasta asked Oedipus why he was so much worried. Thereupon Oedipus told her about his parents, King Polybus and Queen Corinth. Once he heard from a drunkard that Polybus and Corinth were not Oedipus’ real parents. When he asked his parents about it, they replied that it was a lie and he should not pay any attention to such rumours. But Oedipus was disturbed by the news and so he secretly left the palace and visited Delphi in order to know about the truth of his parents. But instead of answering his question, the oracle prophesied that Oedipus would murder his father and marry his mother. Oedipus was shattered by listening to this horrible prophecy. In order to prevent its fulfilment, Oedipus decided never to return to his parents in Corinth. In the course of his aimless journeying, he arrived at a spot where three roads met and got involved in a fight with a group of travellers. If one of those travellers whom Oedipus had killed was King Laius, then Oedipus must get punishment for his crime. Therefore it was very much essential for Oedipus to meet the survivor of that incident and get the details from him about the murder of King Laius.

When Jocasta heard this story, she said that Oedipus should not be worried about his fate as King Laius was not murdered by his son but by a stranger. At that moment a Corinthian shepherd arrived there with a message of King Polybus’ death. He further said that the people of Corinth wanted Oedipus to be their King. When Jocasta heard the news of Polybus’ death, she declared that the prophecy had proved wrong as King Polybus had met a natural death. Still, Oedipus was worried about half part of the prophecy which said that Oedipus would marry his mother. At this moment, the Corinthian shepherd told him that he should not be worried as King Polybus and Queen Merope were not his real parents. Actually, he himself had found Oedipus on Mt. Cithaeron and presented him to King Polybus. While narrating this incident, the shepherd explained that a Theban shepherd had handed over the child with tied legs.

When Jocasta heard this explanation, she realized that Oedipus was her own son. She felt heartbroken. But she decided to conceal the truth from Oedipus as it would have a devastating effect on him. In terrible grief, Jocasta left for her palace. Then there came the Theban shepherd and confessed of giving the child to Corinthian shepherd. Now Oedipus understood the whole story. He realized that he had killed his father, that is, King Laius and married his mother, that is, Jocasta and fathered her children. This truth ruined him completely. Then he went to meet Jocasta. When he arrived at her palace, he found her hanging by a rope. He was shocked to see her dead body. His grief knew no bounds. As he did not want to see such a terrible sight, he blinded himself with pix. Blood began to flow profusely. Like a mad person, h started to move around aimlessly. He came across Creon and requested him to banish him from Thebes. But Creon could not fulfil his wish as he wanted to know the will of God first. Finally, the play ends with the moral that human happiness is transient and that it can never last till the last day of a man’s life.

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