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  • Andrew Elizalde

Oedipus Rex | Sophocles

Updated: Nov 15, 2019


Summary of Oedipus Rex


The events of the life of Oedipus are listed here chronologically, however this is not the order in which they are revealed or even known by all the characters in the play. You can follow the line numbers in the left-hand column to read the events in the order they appear in the play.


1125: King Laius has his son Oedipus’ ankles pinned together and asks a herdsman to leave Oedipus abandoned to die by the woody flanks of Mount Cithaeron. Instead the herdsman hands Oedipus off to another herdsman who agrees to raise him.

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850: Polybus (King of Corinth) and Merope (a Dorian) raise Oedipus as if he was their own son. We can assume that the herdsman had some part in raising Oedipus in the household of Polybus.]


855: A drunkard at a banquet tells Oedipus that he is not actually the son of Polybus.


870: Troubled by the drunkard’s words, Oedipus secretly sneaks out of Corinth to seek the counsel of the god Apollo in Delphi. Apollo cried out: “You are fated to couple with your mother… you will kill your father…”


875: Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth (where he believes his real mother and father live) so that he may avoid fulfilling the dreadful prophecy of Apollo blurted out by the drunkard.


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825: Oedipus encounters King Laius who is traveling with a party of five (including a herald) to go consult an oracle. Oedipus kills Laius and all those traveling with him except for one surviving messenger/servant.


835: The messenger returns to Jocasta to share the news of her husband’s death but does not reveal anything about the identity of the murderer. The messenger persuades Jacosta to let him be freed to disappear from Thebes.


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1320: Oedipus defeats the riddling and deadly Sphinx and is crowned the King of Thebes (and wife of Jocasta).


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110: Creon seeks counsel from the god Apollo and learns that the suffering of Thebes is due to a curse caused by the murder of King Laius.


135: Creon tells Oedipus that Laius and his fellow-travelers were all killed by thieves.


145: Oedipus is disgusted that Creon has not already tracked down the murderer of Laius.


145: Creon explains that the investigation was thwarted by the presence of the riddling Sphinx [who has since then been defeated by Oedipus].


150: Oedipus vows to track down the murdered of Laius himself.


285: Oedipus calls curses down upon the murderer of Laius, unknowingly calling curses down upon himself.


325: Oedipus seeks counsel from the blind elderly prophet Tiresias.


365: Tiresias resists revealing the truth to Oedipus.


400: In responses to Oedipus’ threats, Tiresias reveals that Oedipus is “the curse, the corruption of the land.”


435: Oedipus accuses Creon (and Tiresias) of conspiring against him to take the crown of the city.


470: The blind prophet Tiresias accuses Oedipus of being “blind to the corruption of your life.”


520: Tiresias challenges Oedipus to solve this riddle: “Revealed at last, brother and father both to the children he embraces, to his mother son and husband both – he sowed the loins his father sowed, he spilled his father’s blood!”


630: Oedipus defends himself against Creon’s accusation on the basis that the prophet had no good reason to wait so long after the death of Laius to only now accuse Oedipus of the murder.


650: Creon explains that he has no reason to usurp Oedipus because Creon already enjoys being his equal with regards to both influence and power.


740: Jocasta convinces angry Oedipus to banish Creon from Thebes rather than kill Creon.


780: Jocasta dismisses the accusation of Tiresias against her husband Oedipus: “A prophet? Well then, free yourself of every charge! Listen to me and learn some peace of mind: no skill in the world, nothing human can penetrate the future. Here is proof, quick and to the point.


810: Jocasta explains to Oedipus that her husband Laius was killed at a place called Phocis, the crossroads of the rode from Daulia and the road from Delphi, shortly before Oedipus became both her new husband and thus the new king of Thebes.


820: Oedipus begins to be terrified by the possibility that he is the killer of Laius.


895: Oedipus describes to Jocasta his killing of a band of travelers years ago at the same place where Laius was killed. Oedipus trembles at the possibility that he killed Laius but still does not realize that Laius and Jocasta are his true father and mother.


940: Jocasta explains that the true circumstances of her husband Laius’ death could never math the prophecy of Apollo because her son was destroyed as an infant.


1030: A messenger arrives in Delphi to announce the death of Polybus and the desire of the Corinthians to crown Oedipus their new king. Jocasta observes that Polybus was not killed by Oedipus, thus contradicting the prophecy of Apollo and demonstrating that “chance rules our lives.”


1090: Oedipus expresses his fear of someday sleeping with his supposed mother Merope. The messenger assures Oedipus that he has no reason to avoid Merope because neither Polybus nor Merope are his actual parents. The messenger knows this to be certain because he was also the very herdsmen that raised Oedipus. The messenger explains that Oedipus was found with his ankles pinned together, abandoned by his father King Laius, left to die by the woody flanks of Mount Cithaeron.


1170: As Oedipus begins to unravel the mystery of his birth, Jocasta insists that Oedipus must leave the mystery unsolved. Oedipus reaffirms his resolve to discover the truth and Jocasta cries out, “You’re doomed – may you never fathom who you are!”


1255: The messenger identifies the shepherd who handed Oedipus over to him out of pity for the child rather than abandoning Oedipus to die as Laius had commanded. This shepherd reveals to Oedipus that at the direction of Oedipus’ own true father King Laius, Oedipus’ own true mother Jacosta handed him over to the shepherd to be abandoned unto death. Upon discovering the truth, Oedipus cries out, “O god – all come true, all burst to light! O light – now let me look my last on you! I stand revealed at last – cursed in my birth, cursed in marriage, cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands!”


1360: The messenger reports: Oedipus has found Jacosta dead, having hung herself in her own bed chamber. In his despair, Oedipus blinds himself by violently stabbing both his eyes with the long gold pins that held Jacosta’s robes.


1470: Oedipus continues to express his agony and despair and attempt to understand the relationship between that which was ordained by Apollo and that which was determined by Oedipus’ own hands. He shouts, “Apollo, friends, Apollo – he ordained my agonies – these, my pains on pains! But the hand that struck my eyes was mine, mine alone – no one else – I did it all myself!”


1545: Oedipus wishes to be hidden away, killed, and hurled into the sea.


1585: Oedipus begs Creon to banish him to the Mount Cithaeron (where he was once to be abandoned as an infant).


1640: Oedipus embraces his two daughters (Antigone and Ismene) and laments that they will also be weighed down by the curse upon him, they will “wither away to nothing, single, without a child.”


1670: Creon banishes Oedipus from Thebes.


Excerpts from Bernard Knox’s Introductory Essays


“Though the details of these traditional stories varied considerably from one teller of the tale to another (and especially from one city to another), and though the dramatist could (and often did) invent new variations, the main outlines of the best-known stories were fairly stable – Oedipus always kills his father and marries his mother. Eteocles and Polynices must kill each other. The dramatist who used this material derived a double benefit from the audience’s knowledge of the stories: he could either lull them into expecting the familiar – and so increase the shock effect of some radical innovation in the story – or, renouncing surprise, he could pose the ignorant pronouncements of his characters against the audience’s knowledge of their future and so produce dramatic irony. Sophocles was a master of this technique, and Oedipus the King the supreme example of its effective use; almost every statement made by Oedipus has a second, sinister meaning for the audience, which knows, as he does not, his past and his future. These grim reverberations are especially powerful in tragedies concerned, as these three plays are from start to finish, with destiny, divine dispensation and the human situation. The audience, with its knowledge of the past and the future, is on the level of the gods; they see the ambition, passion and actions of the characters against the larger pattern of their lives and deaths. The spectator is involved emotionally in the heroic struggles of the protagonist, a man like himself, and at the same time can view his heroic action from the standpoint of superior knowledge, the knowledge possessed by those gods whose prophecies of the future play so large a role in Sophoclean tragedy. These plays give their audience an image of human life as they saw and lived it, precarious and unpredictable, but also as it must appear to the all-seeing eye of divine omniscience.” (p.24, re The Three Theban Plays)


“The hunter catches a dreadful prey, the seaman steers his ship into an unspeakable harbor – “one and the same wide harbor served you / son and father both” (1335-36) – the plowman sows and reaps a fearful harvest, the investigator finds the criminal and the judge convicts him – they are all the same man – the revealer turns into the thing revealed, the finder into the thing found, the calculator finds he is himself the solution of the equation and the physician discovers that he is the disease. The catastrophe of the tragic hero thus becomes the catastrophe of fifth-century man; all his furious energy and intellectual daring drive him on to this terrible discovery of his fundamental ignorance – he is not the measure of all things but the thing measured and found wanting.” (p.143, re Oedipus the King)

“This presentation of the hero’s freedom and responsibility in the context of the dreadful prophecy already unwittingly and unwillingly fulfilled is an artistic juxtaposition, a momentary illusion of full reconciliation between the two mighty opposites, freedom and destiny. It is an illusion because of course the question of responsibility for what happened before the play, of Oedipus’ freedom in the context of divine prophecies fulfilled, is evaded. But it makes the play a triumphant tour de force, the like of which no other dramatist has ever attempted. Oedipus is the free agent who, by his own self-willed action, discovers that his own predicted destiny has already been fulfilled.” (p.150, re Oedipus the King)


Questions for Oedipus | Questions for You


1. Is there anything good about being blind to the corruption of your own life?

2. What is the relationship between foreordination and personal responsibility?

3. What is the relationship between fate and freedom?

4. Is any part of your life determined by chance?

5. Is it good for you to be uncertain of your future?

6. Can you effectively avoid or escape your destiny?

7. How can your mother both dismiss the elderly prophet and pray earnestly unto the gods?

8. With whom do you have trouble empathizing?

9. Do you still love your parents?

10. For how long will you go on hating those who have spoken unto you painful truths?

11. Would you have rather lived your life in ignorance of the truth?

12. Does the foreknowledge of the gods make your life any more or less tragic?

13. Is there anything comical about your tragic life?

14. Is there any possible way for your tragic life to be redeemed?

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