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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles-Online Book Summary
Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version

OEDIPUS THE KING

SCENE I

Oedipus enters from the palace and delivers a speech of passion and power. He recalls how he came as a stranger to Thebes. He promises personally to provide relief from all the evils that have beset the land. In the middle of his long speech Oedipus' anger rises, and he proclaims a curse on the murderer of Laios. He further decrees that anyone hiding the murderer will be driven from the land and denied all religious rites of prayer and sacrifice-thus damned eternally. Oedipus concludes by pledging that the murderer will be "consumed in evil and wretchedness."

NOTE:

Sophocles uses dramatic irony skillfully in Oedipus' speech. Oedipus unknowingly pronounces a curse on himself; you can see that it will be he who is driven from the city, once he is unmasked as the murderer of Laios. Some readers think that Oedipus' outburst shows only his arrogance and pride. Others think that he is unwisely acting in haste before all the facts are known. But the greatest irony is that he has assumed the role of one of Laios' children-without knowing that he is Laios' son. He says that he must take the son's part and avenge the murder.

Oedipus plays the detective, looking for missing clues that will reveal the murderer. His pursuit of the criminal is similar to a modern "whodunit" like Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, and the surprising ending is just as shocking.


The Chorus interrupts Oedipus to suggest that a clairvoyant be sent forth to investigate the mystery. Oedipus-always one step ahead-tells the Chorus that he has already sent Creon to seek out the prophet Teiresias. He's worried, however, because Creon hasn't returned yet. Although Oedipus believes in oracles or prophets, he decided to summon Teiresias only because Creon suggested it. This is an important point to remember. Oedipus' later suspicion of a conspiracy between Creon and Teiresias is the result of their late arrival in Thebes.

Teiresias finally arrives alone. The Chorus, signifying the public respect for this man, hails him with cheers as he is led to the stage by a young child. Your first impression of him, therefore, is a puzzling mix of power and helplessness. The blind prophet retreats as Oedipus moves toward him. At first Teiresias is stubborn and refuses to answer any of Oedipus' questions. Oedipus is puzzled by this personal insult to him as king, and in turn reacts with disrespect to Teiresias. When Teiresias does speak, it is in riddles and jingles. He tells Oedipus that "there is no help in truth," and that only misery can result from his knowledge.

Oedipus' tone is bold and almost blasphemous: this would be like doubting the pope, and you can imagine the loss of respect that Oedipus suffers in the eyes of the audience. But Oedipus is so angry and frustrated that he can think only that Teiresias and Creon have planned to disgrace him here in front of his people. He even accuses Teiresias of being behind the murder:

You planned it, you had it done, you all but
Killed him with your own hands.

Teiresias responds by saying that Oedipus himself is the "pollution" of Thebes. Taken aback, Oedipus doesn't understand what Teiresias has said. Is this another riddle? But Teiresias repeats it and adds, even more specifically, that Oedipus is the murderer he seeks. When Oedipus demands that Teiresias deny what he has said, the holy prophet refuses. But Oedipus cannot accept this baffling truth. His anger turns to the absent Creon, and he accuses Creon and Teiresias of plotting to seize power by discrediting him.

Speaking as the ideal spectator, the Chorus interrupts and reminds Oedipus and Teiresias that they have both spoken in anger. The Chorus also suggests that the only important matter is to decide how the gods' will can best be served.

The argument continues, however, and Teiresias reminds Oedipus that although he is a king, he is not a god. The prophet is only speaking for the gods, and he reprimands Oedipus for his "blindness" in this matter.

NOTE:

Sophocles appears to have been fascinated with the struggle between earthly and divine authority. In Antigone Oedipus' daughter is put to death for refusing to obey a law passed by Creon, who is king of Thebes after Oedipus. The moral argument presented by Sophocles is whether man should be ruled by the laws of the king or the laws of the gods and their prophets. Keep this theme in mind as you consider the role that Teiresias plays in revealing the truth to Oedipus.

Before his exit Teiresias reminds Oedipus that he once solved the riddle of the Sphinx. The holy prophet offers Oedipus another riddle to solve. The mysterious riddle describes the murderer of Laios. He is a "blind man, who has his eyes now." Teiresias says that when this murderer is discovered he will tap the earth with his staff (like a blind man's white cane), and he will be to his children

Brother and father-the very same; to her
Who bore him, son and husband-the very same
Who came to his father's bed, wet with his father's blood.

This prediction seems like an ominous, convoluted echo of Oedipus' birth prophecy.

The first scene ends abruptly with the exit of Teiresias. Oedipus is left alone on stage to think about the riddles Teiresias gave him to solve.

NOTE:

What is important here is that Teiresias has exposed the truth that Oedipus is responsible for the plague. But until the whole story is pieced together, Oedipus will not accept this. Why not? Some readers think he is arrogantly rejecting the message of the gods; others think he loves power too much to give it up. Yet others say it's natural for Oedipus to cling to a faith in his own virtue. He has been a good man and a wise, fair ruler; he has not intentionally sinned. Perhaps inside he is beginning to worry and doubt, but in his public role as king he must appear strong and confident.

Examine the role that irony plays in pointing to Oedipus as the murderer. Sophocles doesn't tell you much about Oedipus' past before his arrival in Thebes, at least not yet. More information of Oedipus' past will be revealed later when the first messenger and the shepherd tell their stories. But you need to be aware early that Sophocles is deliberately withholding information to heighten the tension and the suspense. You may remember the whole story, but the characters on stage don't have all the pieces of the puzzle yet.

From this point on in the story Sophocles shifts the emphasis of the plot. Oedipus begins to become more interested in finding out about his own past than in finding the murderer of Laios and ending the plague. Teiresias' puzzling riddles have confused Oedipus, and he now begins the search for his true identity. In his pursuit Oedipus exhibits a rash and impetuous nature that leads to his downfall. Notice also the conflict between Oedipus' desire to uncover the truth and his horrified refusal to draw the inevitable conclusions from what he learns.

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