Sunday, December 5, 2010

Oedipus Rex—(or, “Oedipus The King”): A Summary of the Play

An Appeal to Oedipus for Help in the Midst of the Misfortunes that have Befallen the People of Thebes
Oedipus, King of Thebes, comes out of his palace to meet a group of Theban citizens led by a priest of Zeus. Oedipus asks these people what has brought them to him and why the air is so full of hymns and prayers and lamentations. Addressing the Priest in particular, Oedipus asks him to explain what misfortunes have brought these people to him. The Priest replies that these are not the only people praying to the gods and giving expression to their wretched condition.
A large number of other citizens have gathered in the market-place and near Athene’s temple where they are kneeling in prayer, hoping to get some relief in their troubles. The Priest goes on to tell Oedipus that the city has been overtaken by a great disaster; the land has become barren; the herds of sheep are hungry upon the pastures which used to be green; the women of the city are giving birth to dead children; people are dying, in large numbers, of the plague. The Priest then appeals to Oedipus to come to the help of his subjects. Oedipus is certainly no god, says the Priest, but he is wiser than all other men; he can read the riddles of life and the mysterious ways of heaven because it was he who had saved the city from the cruel and bloodthirsty Sphinx. It is the duty of Oedipus to save his people so that the impression which people have of him as a noble, mighty, and wise man should not be nullified because of his inaction. The city looks upon him as its saviour; let it not be thought that, under his Kingship, the city first rose from ruin and then to ruin fell again.
Creon Sent to Delphi to Seek the Guidance of
Phoebus (or Apollo)
Oedipus replies that he is aware of the cruel sufferings his people are undergoing. He himself may not be sick but he is suffering a greater torture on account of the sufferings of his people than they themselves are suffering. Each citizen is suffering as a single individual; but he, Oedipus, bears the weight of the collective suffering of all of them. He has been shedding many tears on their account. He has even been looking for a remedy. He has sent Creon, his wife’s brother, to Delphi to find out from Apollo’s oracle there the reason for the sufferings of the Theban people and the method by which they can be delivered of those sufferings. Creon left for Delphi many days ago but has not yet returned. On his return, says Oedipus, the method proposed by the oracle will promptly be adopted to relieve the sufferings of the people.
The Circumstances of the Murder of King Laius
Just at this time Creon arrives. He had sought the guidance of the oracle of Delphi and has now brought the information for which Oedipus has anxiously been waiting in order to know how the sufferings of his people can be relieved. Creon tells Oedipus that, according to the Delphic oracle, all the sufferings of the people are due to the presence in their midst of the man who had murdered Laius who was the ruler of the city before Oedipus was enthroned as the King. The murder of Laius must be avenged before people can expect any relief in their sufferings. As Oedipus is not aware of the circumstances which prevailed in the city before he became its King, he asks Creon who murdered King Laius and how. Creon gives a brief description of the circumstances in which King Laius was killed. King Laius had left the city in the company of a few attendants on a religious journey and had never come back home again. A single survivor from the King Laius’s party had returned to the city and said that the King and his companions had fallen in with brigands who had killed not only the King but his companions also. Oedipus asks how brigands would dare to attack the King unless they were bribed by enemies within the city. Creon replies that no inquiry had been held into the murder because the city was pre-occupied with a grave problem that had been troubling all the people. This problem had been created by the Sphinx whose riddle nobody was able to solve with the result that the people were groaning under the weight of the affliction caused to them by the Sphinx. It was only Oedipus who had solved the riddle and thus rescued the city from the clutches of the Sphinx. Laius having been killed, reportedly by brigands, the people had made Oedipus their King and offered their widowed Queen to him as his wife.
Oedipus to Avenge the Murder of Laius
On hearing all these facts, Oedipus replies that he will start an investigation into the murder of Laius and that he will find out the truth. Oedipus declares that he will avenge the murder of Laius on behalf of the people of Thebes and on behalf of Phoebus. In avenging this murder, Oedipus will not only remove the stigma from the city but also protect himself because the murderer of Laius could very well try to murder Oedipus also.
The Song Sung by the Chorus
The declaration of the King satisfies the Priest who then withdraws in the company of the citizens who had come with him to submit their petition to the King. Creon also leaves. Only Oedipus remains behind and the Chorus representing the citizens of Thebes enter singing. The song sung by the Chorus is a kind of invocation. The Chorus appeals to Athene, Artemis, and Apollo to protect the people of Thebes, as they used to protect them in the past. The woes which the people are suffering cannot be counted. There is no defence against the destruction which is going on in the city. The fertile soil has become unproductive. Women suffer pain and are giving birth to dead children. People are dying in large numbers. The dead bodies of those who perish remain lying on the ground unburied, infecting the air with deadly pollution. Young wives and aged mothers go to the altars and cry aloud in prayer. The terrible cry of the fierce god of war rings in the ears of the people, and this is an indication that war might soon begin and cause further destruction. The song ends with a prayer to Apollo, Artemis, and Bacchus to come to the rescue of the city of Thebes and save the people.
Oedipus’s Curse Upon the Murderer
When the Chorus have completed their song, Oedipus says that the sufferings of the city can be ended if the members of the Chorus co-operate with him. Oedipus reminds the members of the Chorus that years ago he had come to the city as a complete foreigner and that it was only afterwards that he became a Theban among Thebans. When he came first, he did not know anything about the murder of Laius, and even now he has no clue to that murder. However, he now wishes to proclaim the whole city that he is bent upon avenging the murder. Let the murderer come forward and confess his crime. The murderer need have no fear; no punishment will be awarded to him except banishment from the city. If any citizen brings information about the identity of the murderer, he will be rewarded and will, besides, earn the King’s gratitude. If any citizen is harbouring the murderer in his house, let him take this warning and speedily drive out the murderer from his home because it is the presence of the murderer which is responsible for the plague raging in the city. Oedipus then goes on to utter a curse upon the man who murdered Laius; the murderer will find nothing but wretchedness and misery as long as he lives; if the murderer is intentionally given shelter by Oedipus himself, let the same curse descend upon Oedipus. It would have been Oedipus’s duty, the King goes on to say, to avenge the murder of Laius even if the command had not come from Phoebus. Now it is doubly his duty, and he will leave nothing undone to find the man who killed Laius. On those who disobey, Oedipus invokes another curse. May their fields become utterly barren and their wives be rendered incapable of bearing any children, and may the present plague, and a pestilence worse than the present one, destroy them! Oedipus completes his speech with a prayer for the welfare of the Chorus: “May justice and all the gods always help you!”
Teiresias Sent for at Creon’s Advice
The Chorus-Leader now speaks. He says that he did not kill Laius and that he is ignorant of the identity of the killer. Since Phoebus has imported the task of revenge, upon the city, Phoebus should also name the murderer. Oedipus says that there is no force by which human beings can compel the gods or do or say anything against their own will. Phoebus has not chosen to name the murderer of Laius. The Chorus-Leader thereupon suggests that the prophet Teiresias should be consulted in the matter because Teiresias has the power to read the mind of Apollo. Oedipus replies that he has not ignored even this possibility. Acting upon Creon’s advice he has already sent two messengers to Teiresias. Strangely enough, Teiresias has not yet come in response to the summons.
Oedipus and Teiresias
Just then the blind Teiresias arrives, led by a boy. The Chorus-Leader draws Oedipus’s attention to the prophet’s arrival, saying that Teiresias is divinely inspired and that he is the only man whose heart contains the truth. Oedipus turns to Teiresias and, speaking most respectfully, says that only he can save the city from the plague. The plague will never cease unless the murderer of Laius is discovered and punished with either death or banishment. Oedipus appeals to Teiresias to exercise his powers of divination and give him the name and identity of the murderer. Teiresias replies that he should not have come in response to Oedipus’s call. Knowledge becomes a great weight upon the mind if that knowledge can be of no avail. Teiresias says that he would like to go back home and that such a course will be best not only for himself but also for Oedipus. Oedipus points out that, if Teiresias does not reveal the truth of which he is aware, he will prove disloyal to the city where he was born. Oedipus makes another humble appeal to Teiresias to tell him the truth. Teiresias, however, declines to unburden his mind of the knowledge that he possesses. Oedipus now loses his temper. He asks if Teiresias would like to see the city ruined and all the inhabitants killed, and if he can prove so hard-hearted and rigid. Oedipus’s tone of humility is now gone. He calls Teiresias a villain for treating people with such cold disdain. Teiresias persists in his refusal regardless of Oedipus’s anger and rage. Thereupon Oedipus, losing all self-control, asserts that the murder of Laius must have been planned by Teiresias himself and that Teiresias, being blind, must have used someone else for the actual murder. Teiresias thereupon says that Oedipus himself is the man whose crimes pollute the city and that, for this reason, he should submit to the punishment which he has announced for the culprit. Oedipus is shocked by the accusation and can never believe it. But Teiresias repeats the accusation, adding that Oedipus is leading a horrible life of shame with those nearest and dearest to him. Oedipus threatens Teiresias with dire consequences for trying to defame him, but Teiresias says that he has spoken nothing but the truth. Oedipus expresses the suspicion that Teiresias is in league with Creon and that they have both hatched a conspiracy against him. Oedipus laments that Creon, in whom he had reposed his trust, has become hostile to him and has entered into a shameful agreement with Teiresias whom he calls a crafty schemer and a mountebank, and who, in Oedipus’s opinion, is not only blind by sight but also by brains. Oedipus taunts Teiresias on the latter’s failure to have solved the riddle of the Sphinx, adding that it was he, Oedipus, who had solved the riddle thus getting rid of the Sphinx and saving the people of Thebes.
Oedipus warns Teiresias that he will teach him a lesson for his treason. At this point the Chorus-Leader intervenes and tries to pacify Oedipus, saying that it is more important to carry out the task that Phoebus has laid upon him. Teiresias claims the right to give a reply to what Oedipus has said. Teiresias then angrily denies the charge that he is in league with Creon. Teiresias next rebukes Oedipus for having taunted him with blindness. Oedipus may be having eyes in the physical sense, says Teiresias, but Oedipus is unable to see the facts. Teiresias accuses Oedipus of being ignorant of the identity of his parents. Teiresias warns Oedipus that he will be driven out of Thebes, that he will be deprived of his eyesight, that he will utter cries of agony on learning the real significance of his marriage, and that he will find himself one with his own children. Teiresias’s words naturally enrage Oedipus and, in a state of fury, he shouts to the prophet to get out of his sight at once. Teiresias says that he seems to be a fool to Oedipus but that he was regarded as wise by Oedipus’s parents. Oedipus asks who his parents were. Teiresias replies that this very day will unfold the secret of his birth and his destruction. Oedipus says that Teiresias is talking riddles, but Teiresias replies that Oedipus, who is proud of his talent for solving riddles, should have no difficulty in understanding him. Oedipus says that he has nothing but contempt for Teiresias; and he boasts of the talent by means of which he had won glory. Oedipus then once again shouts to Teiresias to leave. Teiresias says that he will go only when he has had his say and that he is not in the least scared of Oedipus.
Teiresias then goes on to complete what he had to say. According to Teiresias, the man for whom Oedipus is searching, namely the murderer of Laius, is living in the city itself; the murderer shall be found to be a Theban by birth even though he is at present regarded as a foreigner; the murderer will be forced to depart from the city, with his eyesight turned to blindness and his wealth to beggary, and he will take his children with him; the murderer will find himself to be the brother of his own children and the son of the very woman whom he now calls his wife. Teiresias then bids Oedipus to go and think over all this. Only if his statements prove to be false, will Oedipus be justified in thinking Teiresias to be lacking in the power of divination.
A Choral Song
When both Teiresias and Oedipus have withdrawn, the Chorus sings its next song. The Chorus calls upon the murderer of Laius to flee from the city without delay because Phoebus has denounced him and because the Furies, whose function it is to punish crime, must already be active in their chase of the murderer. Apollo’s threat will hang upon the criminal’s head and descend upon him. Let every Theban join the search for the criminal. But the Chorus would like to know the meaning of the words spoken by Teiresias. The Chorus is puzzled by what Teiresias has said. There is no strife between the Kings of Thebes and Corinth. An unknown hand killed Laius who was then the King of Thebes. Zeus and Apollo know the true facts. As for human beings, they will only believe what can be proved. How can Oedipus be regarded as the murderer of Laius as has been alleged by Teiresias, Oedipus proved his wisdom by defeating the Sphinx and saving the city. How can he be accused of the murder of Laius?
Oedipus and Creon
Creon now enters. He has just heard of the accusation made against him by Oedipus in his conversation with Teiresias. He tells the Chorus that he has never said or done anything to harm Oedipus and that Oedipus’s accusation was most unjust. The Chorus-Leader replies that the accusation was probably the result of anger and not of a well-considered judgment. At this point Oedipus re-enters. Seeing Creon, Oedipus becomes indignant and asks how Creon dared to come here when it has clearly been proved that he has tried to take Oedipus’s life and steal his crown. Oedipus says that he has come to know of Creon’s conspiracy against him, and that Creon must be having the support of some others in the city. Creon tries to defend himself, denying all these accusations, but Oedipus is so convinced of Creon’s villainy that he is not willing to listen to him. Creon asserts that, when has no knowledge of a matter, he does not speak about it. Oedipus says that he sent for Teiresias at Creon’s advice and that the prophet has now accused him, Oedipus, of the murder of Laius, thereby proving that Creon was hand in glove with the prophet who had been instigated by Creon to bring a fantastic charge against Oedipus. Oedipus calls Creon a traitor. Creon now gets an opportunity to speak in defence of himself. He says that he never felt a desire to become the King of Thebes. Kingship only creates fears in the mind of a man and gives him sleepless nights. Being very close to Oedipus, Creon has been wielding great influence in the city. He would not like to lose his present position in order to become the King and lead a life of high responsibility and ceaseless anxiety. Nothing is farther from his thoughts than the wish to become the King. If he had been a traitor, he would not have truthfully reported the information he got from the Delphic oracle. It is, therefore, highly unjust on the part of Oedipus to discard a loyal supporter like Creon. Creon’s statement in defence of himself is reinforced by the Chorus-Leader who points out to Oedipus that hasty judgment is not desirable. But Oedipus is in no mood to pay any heed either to Creon or to the Chorus-Leader. He says that he must be prompt in meeting an attack from the enemy and that no hasty judgment is involved here. Creon asks if Oedipus wants to banish him from Thebes. Oedipus replies that banishment would not be enough and that he would sentence Creon to death. Creon asks if Oedipus must be stubborn and if he really does not believe him. Oedipus again calls him a traitor. The Chorus-Leader again tries to intervene in the dispute. Just then Jocasta, the Queen, appears on the scene.
The Intervention of Jocasta and of the Chorus
on Creon’s Behalf
Jocasta is very upset by the dispute between her husband and her brother, and the hot words they have exchanged. She asks both of them to feel ashamed of indulging in private quarrels when the city is afflicted by the plague. Creon replies that Oedipus has decided either to banish him from Thebes or to sentence him to death. Oedipus tells Jocasta that her brother had secretly potted against his life. Creon pleads his innocence. Jocasta appeals to Oedipus to believe Creon’s words and to respect the oath of allegiance Creon had taken. The Chorus now joins Jocasta in defending Creon. The Chorus calls upon Oedipus to show due respect to Creon who is bound by an oath to remain loyal to the King. Oedipus replies that, if he spares the life of Creon, it will mean either banishment or death for Oedipus himself. The Chorus swears that it has no such wish regarding Oedipus. The Chorus appeals to Oedipus not to add another misfortune to Thebes which is already afflicted with plague. In response to the appeal of the Chorus, Oedipus softens. He pardons Creon but declares that Creon will have his lasting hatred. His pardon of Creon might endanger his own life, says Oedipus, but he would not like to reject the appeal of the Chorus. Creon says that Oedipus’s pardon has been granted in an unwilling and ungenerous manner. Creon adds that, when Oedipus’s anger has cooled, he will realise the injustice of the action he had wanted to take against him. But Oedipus remains unconvinced and he orders Creon to get out of his sight.
Oedipus and the Chorus
Creon withdraws, and the Chorus asks Jocasta to take the King inside the palace with her. Jocasta says that she would like to know what had happened. The Chorus replies that the quarrel arose from a suspicion and that random words, undeserved, were spoken. Jocasta asks if both the men had spoken in anger. The Chorus says “yes” to this question and then suggests that the matter should be allowed to rest here. Oedipus complains that the advice of the Chorus had blunted his wrath and prevented him from taking action against Creon. The Chorus-Leader repeats that he had absolutely no wish to upset or defeat the King’s plan and that he had no intention at all to do any harm to the King. The King had saved Thebes at a crucial time, and now his guidance is again needed because of another crisis.
Jocasta’s Disbelief In Oracles, and the Dawning of a Suspicion in Oedipus’s Mind
Jocasta asks her husband to tell her, in the name of Heaven, the reason why he became enraged. Oedipus tells her that her brother Creon had plotted against his life and that he had used a crafty prophet, namely Teiresias too to accuse him of being the murderer of Laius. Jocasta advises husband not to feel afraid of any prophecies because what the prophets say has no bearing upon human life at all. She says that she knows from personal experience that the so-called power of prophecy is something imaginary. She goes on to relate her personal experience. An oracle once came to Laius and prophesied that he would have a son by her, namely Jocasta, and that the son would kill his father, namely Laius. But later events had proved the falsehood of that prophecy because Laius had been killed by strangers, by brigands, at a place where three roads met. As for the child that was born of Laius’s union with her, it was hardly three days old when Laius fastened both its feet together and ordered it to be exposed over a precipice in order that it might die. Thus the prophecy uttered by Apollo’s oracle had failed, because Laius’s son did not kill his father.
Jocasta’s Account of Laius’s Death and Oedipus’s Desire to see the Survivor (the Theban Shepherd)
On hearing this account, Oedipus is shaken by terror. He remembers that he had killed not one but several persons at a place where three roads met. It occurs to him that one of the men killed by him might have been Laius. Oedipus asks Jocasta what Laius had looked like. Jocasta replies that Laius was a tall man with some grey patches in his hair and that in his appearance he had greatly resembled Oedipus. Oedipus is now scared to think that he himself might be the man who had murdered Laius, in which case the curse that he had uttered against the murderer would descend upon himself. There seems to be some truth after all in what the blind prophet had said a while ago. Oedipus asks Jocasta whether Laius was alone at the time of his death or was attended by his bodyguard. Jocasta says that the King was accompanied by four attendants including a herald. She also says that only one of the five had survived, that the survivor had come back to Thebes with the information of Laius’s murder, and that he had immediately afterwards left the palace with her permission to become a shepherd in the country. Oedipus finds that the facts as stated by Jocasta tally with his own recollection of the incident. He had encountered a royal party, had got involved in a fight with them, and had killed them all except one, though he did not know the identity of any of them. Oedipus, seeking further confirmation of the facts, expresses a strong desire to see the man who had survived. Jocasta says that she would send him a message and summon him.
Oedipus’s Account of His Life to Jocasta
On being asked by Jocasta what is troubling him, Oedipus tells her the circumstance; of his past life. His father, he says, was Polybus, King of Corinth and his mother, Merope, the Queen of Corinth. One day a drunken man had said at a banquet that Oedipus was not the son of King Polybus. This remark had hurt Oedipus and he had reported it to his parents who dismissed it as a lie. But somehow this slanderous remark gained currency and mentally disturbed him. Without telling his parents, Oedipus went secretly to Delphi and asked the oracle who his parents were. The oracle, instead of answering this question, prophesied that Oedipus would murder his father and marry his mother who would bear children by him. This horrible prophecy had shocked Oedipus and, in order to prevent its fulfilment, he decided never to go back to his parents in Corinth. In the course of his aimless journeying, he arrived at the spot where three roads met and where, without any provocation by him, he got involved in a fight with a few travellers. In his rage he had killed nearly all the travellers. If one of the men killed on that occasion was Laius, who can be more unfortunate than Oedipus himself, in view of the fact that he had invoked a terrible curse on Laius’s murderer? As a consequence of the punishment pronounced by himself, Oedipus must now be ready to suffer exile from Thebes. At the same time, it is not possible for Oedipus to go back to his parents in Corinth, because there would still be the possibility of killing his father Polybus and marrying his mother Merope, as foretold by Apollo’s oracle. It would be better for him to die than to incur the stigma of such a pollution.
An Interrogation of the Survivor Essential to
Prove Either Oedipus’s Innocence or his Guilt in
the Matter of Laius’s Murder
After hearing Oedipus’s story of his life, Jocasta asks him what he expects to find out from the man who had survived the brawl that had occurred between Oedipus and Laius’s party. Oedipus replies that there is still a possibility that he will be proved to be innocent of Laius’s murder. The survivor had reported that Laius had been killed by brigands, that is, a group of men, and not a single man. Oedipus was all alone when he had encountered the travellers with whom he had fallen out. If the survivor still maintains that more than one person had attacked the King’s party, then Oedipus would be proved to be not guilty of Laius’s murder; but if the survivor says that a lone person had fought with the King’s party, then the burden of the guilt would fall upon Oedipus himself. Jocasta assures him that the survivor had spoken not of a lone individual but of several men having attacked Laius’s party. Not only she, but others had also heard the version of the encounter given by the survivor. Even if the survivor now modifies his version of the incident, it cannot be proved that Laius was murdered according to the prophecy. The oracle had said that Laius would be killed by his own son borne by Jocasta, but Laius was killed by someone else. Therefore, so far as divination or prophecy goes, she is not prepared to put her faith in it. Oedipus says that she is wise in her views but that he would still like to meet that Theban shepherd. Jocasta says that she will send for the fellow at once. Oedipus and Jocasta make their exit, leaving the Chorus behind.
The Chorus’s Affirmation of Piety and
Condemnation of Impiety
Another choral song now follows. The Chorus speaks of the divine laws created by Olympus, laws in the framing of which mortal men had no share. These laws are eternal because the god who created them never grows old. A tyrant, says the Chorus, grows unwise and loses self-restraint because of pride, pride of wealth and pride of power. Pride must ultimately lead to the destruction of the proud man. A proud man will find no escape from the doom that awaits him. May ruin descend upon the man who is proud in word or deed, who has no fear of justice, and who feels no reverence for holy shrines! No man who lays violent hands on sacred things can be safe from the anger of the gods. The Chorus ends its song by affirming its complete faith in the shrine of Apollo and in the temple of Zeus, and deploring the fact that people are losing their faith in the oracles and are moving towards a denial of Apollo’s power.
Oedipus in the Grip of Fear; Jocasta’s Worship of Apollo
Jocasta now reappears, attended by a girl carrying a wreath and some incense. Jocasta tells the members of the Chorus that she has come to the altar of Apollo in order to lay a wreath on it and to burn incense in token of her worship. Her husband, Oedipus, is feeling terrified by many things and she has failed to calm him. Jocasta then turns to the altar of Apollo and makes her offerings. She appeals to Apollo to grant peace to all the people. This peace is necessary in view of the fact that the King himself is in the grip of fear.
The Arrival of a Corinthian Shepherd
At this stage a stranger appears on the scene. He is a shepherd from Corinth and he asks whether he can meet King Oedipus. The Chorus-Leader introduces the newcomer to Jocasta who is still there after her worship. The Corinthian informs her that he has brought good news for her husband who is going to be invited by the people of Corinth to become their King. Jocasta asks what has happened to King Polybus. The Corinthian replies that Polybus has died. Jocasta immediately sends for her husband, at the same time making sarcastic remarks about the oracles. According to the prophecy, Polybus should have been killed by his son Oedipus, but Polybus has now been reported as being dead, while Oedipus has not at all moved out of Thebes.
The Oracle Declared Wrong by Jocasta
When, a moment later, Oedipus enters, Jocasta asks him to listen to the news brought by the Corinthian and to form his own conclusion whether there is any truth in prophecies. After hearing the news from the Corinthian’s own lips, Oedipus comes to the same conclusion as Jocasta. The oracle has been proved wrong because Polybus has died a natural death. However, there is still the other half of the prophecy, namely, that Oedipus will marry his mother.
Jocasta’s Philosophy
Jocasta tries to allay her husband’s fear on this score also. According to her way of thinking, man is ruled by chance and there is no room for any prophecies. A man should live at random and live as best as he can. She urges him not to fear the possibility of his marrying his mother. Many men, she says, have married their mothers before, but only in their dreams. The best way to lead peaceful life is to pay no heed to such a possibility.
Oedipus’s Fears Baseless, According to the Corinthian
Oedipus says that he would have agreed with Jocasta if his mother had not been alive. But Jocasta’s wisdom cannot help him as long as his mother lives. Jocasta tells him that he should draw comfort from his father’s death because he had previously been feeling afraid of the possibility of his murdering his father. Oedipus replies that that much comfort he does have but the fear of marrying his mother still persists. The Corinthian at this point intervenes, asking Oedipus the nature of his fears. Oedipus tells the Corinthian of the prophecy which had been uttered years ago by Apollo’s oracle. The oracle had said that Oedipus would marry his own mother and defile his hands with the blood of his own father. To avoid this fate Oedipus had fled from Corinth many years before. The Corinthian says that if Oedipus’s fears are only due to this prophecy, he should dismiss his fears because Oedipus is not the son of Polybus.
The Origins and Birth of Oedipus, Still a Mystery
The Corinthian explains that he himself had presented Oedipus, when the latter was only an infant, to Polybus and Merope who, being themselves childless, had adopted the infant. The Corinthian says that he had found the infant in the woods upon Mt. Cithaeron, where he used to work as a hired shepherd. He had found the infant with fetters clamped upon its feet and, for that reason, the child had been named “Oedipus”. The Corinthian further says that actually the child had been given to him by another shepherd who had been serving in the employ of King Laius. Oedipus expresses a great anxiety to talk to the other shepherd, namely, the Theban shepherd who had been working for King Laius and who can, so Oedipus thinks, supply further information regarding Oedipus’s origin and birth. The Chorus-Leader expresses the view that the Theban shepherd might be the very man who has already been sent for by Jocasta at Oedipus’s request.
Jocasta’s Grief on Learning the Truth
Oedipus asks Jocasta if the man sent for could be the same to whom the Corinthian had referred and who had handed over the child Oedipus to this Corinthian years ago. Jocasta has already understood the situation. It is clear to her that Oedipus is her own son, who, as a child, had beer, handed over to the Theban shepherd, to be exposed on Mt. Cithaeron and allowed to die in view of the oracle’s prophecy that Laius’s son by Jocasta would ultimately kill Laius. Jocasta now knows the grave crime that she has unknowingly committed by having married her own son. But she would like to spare Oedipus the agony of this knowledge. She, therefore, entreats him not to pursue his investigation into his parentage. But Oedipus misunderstands her intention. He thinks that she apprehends the possibility of his being found to be low-born. He, therefore, insists on seeing the Theban shepherd to know the truth. Jocasta leaves in a state of great wretchedness and misery. When the Chorus-Leader points out to Oedipus that Jocasta has gone away in a state of fear and grief, Oedipus still expresses the view that she is miserable at the thought that he is a man of humble origin. Oedipus calls himself the child of Fortune, with the Years as his kinsmen, and he says that he would not be ashamed if he finds that he is low-born.
The Hope Expressed by the Chorus
The Chorus now sings its next song. The Chorus says that Mt. Cithaeron would be honoured and worshipped for being the birth-place of Oedipus, the great King of Thebes. The Chorus expresses the view that Oedipus, far from being low-born, is the offspring of the union of some god with a mountain-nymph. That is why Oedipus was found at such a deserted place as Mt. Cithaeron. Oedipus could be the son of the union of god, Pan with a nymph or he might be the son of Apollo, or of Hermes, or of Dionysus.
The Theban Shepherd’s Reluctant Disclosures
Now the Theban shepherd who had been summoned, appears on the scene. The Chorus-Leader recognises him as having been one of the most trusted shepherds in the service of King Laius. The Corinthian also recognises him as the man who had given the child to him. On the Theban shepherd’s failure to recognise the Corinthian, the latter states certain facts relating to the past association of the two shepherds. The Corinthian then reminds the Theban shepherd of the baby that the latter had handed over to him. The Theban shepherd denies any knowledge of any such incident. Oedipus suspects the Theban shepherd of trying to hide something. He, therefore, threatens the Theban shepherd with serious consequences if he does not come out with the truth. The Theban shepherd still persists in his denial but, on being threatened with death, confesses that he had given the child to the Corinthian. On being further questioned by Oedipus, the Theban shepherd explains that the child had been given to him by Queen Jocasta who had wanted the child to be destroyed because of the prophecy that the child would kill its father. On being asked why he had then handed over the child to the Corinthian, the Theban shepherd replies that he had taken pity upon the child and, not wanting to destroy it, had handed it over to the Corinthian who could take it to his own country and allow it to live. Oedipus has at last discovered the secret of his parentage. He is the son of King Laius whom he had killed at the spot where three roads met, and he is the son of Queen Jocasta whom he had married and with whom he had lived as her husband for many years. The agony of Oedipus on learning the truth can only be imagined.
The Chorus’s Lament
The Chorus now sings a song commenting upon the vicissitudes of human life. No man, says the Chorus, can win any real happiness. All human happiness is a shadow that quickly fades away. The fate of Oedipus is a clear illustration of this fact. Oedipus won great prosperity and wealth. By conquering the Sphinx, he had become the sovereign ruler of Thebes. But who in this world can now be more wretched and more afflicted with cruel misery than this very Oedipus? The life of Oedipus has been reduced to dust and ashes. What a monstrous crime he had committed by becoming the husband of the woman who had given him birth! Time sees everything. And time has punished the unnatural marriage of Oedipus with his mother. The Chorus laments the fact of ever having known such a man as Oedipus.
The Death of Jocasta, and the Self-blinding of Oedipus
A messenger from the palace now arrives with horrible news which he communicates to the members of the Chorus. The royal palace, says the messenger, has become the breeding-place of many evils. He then informs the Chorus that Queen Jocasta is dead. Having come to know the real identity of Oedipus, the Queen had felt crazy with grief. She ran across the courtyard of the palace tearing her hair with both her hands. She had gone into her chamber and shut the door. She had then called upon Laius and shouted that he had met his death at the hands of his own son and that she had afterwards got married to the same son. She had cried aloud upon the bed where she had given birth to a son with whom she had afterwards slept in the same bed as his wife. A little later Oedipus, also feeling miserable and grief-stricken, was seen wandering through the palace. He was calling for a sword and asking for the woman whom he had called his wife. Thus raving, he had forced his way into the Queen’s chamber where he found her dead body hanging by a rope. On seeing this sight, Oedipus had groaned in misery and disengaged her body from the rope. He then snatched away the golden brooches from her dress and with their point struck his own eyes, crying aloud that he should never be able to see with those eyes what he had suffered and what he had done. He struck his eye-balls with the pins several times to that blood flowed from them profusely. The happiness which Oedipus and Jocasta had enjoyed for many years has ended in this dark tragedy. Their happiness has given way to shame, death, ruin, and lamentation.
Oedipus’s Agony
The Chorus-Leader asks the messenger if there is any intermission in Oedipus’s agony. The messenger replies that Oedipus shouted that the gates of the palace be opened and that the whole city be allowed to see the man who had killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus had also declared that he would no longer remain in Thebes because he had announced that the murderer of Laius would not be permitted to live in the city. Just then Oedipus himself is seen advancing slowly towards the Chorus.
Oedipus’s Description of His Misery to the Chorus
The Chorus is shocked to see the horrible sight of Oedipus who is now blind and is groping to find his way. The Chorus-Leader shudders at the sight of Oedipus. Oedipus is bemoaning his fate and expressing his misery at having been crushed by Heaven. He is afflicted both by the pain of the blinding and the memory of the crimes he unknowingly committed. The Chorus-Leader says that the sight of Oedipus is too terrible to be seen and expresses his sympathy for the unfortunate man. Oedipus appreciates the words of sympathy spoken by the Chorus-Leader, saying that, though blind, he can recognise his sympathiser by his voice. The Chorus-Leader asks what had led Oedipus to blind himself. Oedipus replies that it was Apollo’s decree that he should suffer but that the hand that blinded his eyes was his own. He had blinded himself because there was for him now no sight worth seeing. The Chorus-Leader agrees. Oedipus says that he would like to be driven out from Thebes because he is “accursed” and, what is more, because he is more hateful to Heaven than any body else. Oedipus curses, the man who had removed the fetters from his feet and saved him from death when he was a child. If he had been allowed to die as a child, he would not have witnessed the great disaster; he would not then have slain his father and become the husband of the woman who had given him birth. Now he is God’s enemy, because of the crimes he has committed. The woman who gave him birth also later on gave birth to children by him. If there is an evil surpassing all evils, that evil has come to Oedipus.
Reason for Blinding Himself
The Chorus-Leader says that Oedipus has not done the right thing by blinding himself because it would be better to be dead than to be blind. Oedipus thereupon gives his reasons for having robbed himself of his eyesight. He says that by killing himself he would have gone to Hades (or the realms of death) where he would have found himself face to face with the ghost of his father and the ghost of his mother. This horrible confrontation he wanted to avoid. Besides, death would not have been an adequate punishment for the crimes he has committed. If he had not rendered himself blind, he would have faced his children, and the sight of them would have been no pleasure to him, because these children were begotten of an unnatural union. Nor would there have been any pleasure for him to see this city, its walls, and its sacred statues. He is now forbidden to see the sights of the city by his own decree according to which the murderer of Laius was not to be allowed to stay on in Thebes. If it had been possible for him to block his ears and to render himself completely deaf to the sounds of the city, he would have done that also. It would have been more appropriate for him to have deprived himself of hearing as well as sight.
Oedipus’s Lament
Oedipus then asks why Mt. Cithaeron had accepted him at all instead of letting him die as a child. Why had the King of Corinth brought him up? Why did he ever go to the spot where three roads met and where, with his own hands, he had shed his father’s blood, which was his own blood? And then what a crime he had committed in Thebes! He had married his own mother and begotten children by her, thus mingling the blood of fathers, mothers, wives, sons and brothers. This was the most horrible of all crimes. In view of all this Oedipus would like to be banished immediately, or be killed or be thrown into the sea where he may sink from view. He appeals to the Chorus-Leader not to shrink from touching him. There is no man alive, says Oedipus, who can endure this load of evil but Oedipus himself. The Chorus-Leader now informs Oedipus that he should address his prayer to Creon who is coming towards them and who will now be the King of Thebes.
Oedipus’s Request to Creon
Creon now appears on the scene. Oedipus finds it hard even to speak to him, because he badly misjudged Creon and falsely accused him of treason. However, Creon proves very considerate. He tells Oedipus that he is not gloating over Oedipus’s misfortunes. At the same time he would not like anyone to set his eyes upon such a sinful and polluted person as Oedipus. He would like Oedipus to be taken inside the palace so that only his kinsmen should see and hear the evils resulting from Oedipus’s sins. Oedipus says that he has only one request to make: he would like to be banished from Thebes so that he can be alone and nobody is able to speak to him. Creon replies that he would like to obtain divine approval for such an action. Oedipus says that the oracle had given full instructions in advance for the destruction of the man who had killed Laius. Creon says that those were the original instructions but that he would like to ascertain the opinion of the gods in the present situation. Oedipus then calls upon Creon to perform the appropriate burial ceremonies for the dead Jocasta. As for himself, he would not like to live in Thebes any more. He would like to go to Mt. Cithaeron and die at the place where he had been sent as an infant to die. Oedipus goes on to say that Creon need not bother about Oedipus’s sons who, being men, will be able to look after themselves. But he would certainly want Creon to look after Oedipus’s unhappy daughters.
Oedipus and His Daughters
Oedipus then asks if he can be permitted to hold his two daughters in his arms for a while. Just then he hears the sobbing of his daughters whom Creon had already sent for. Oedipus expresses his gratitude to Creon for having allowed him to meet his children. He then turns to his daughters, feeling for them the love of a brother as well as the love of a father. He cannot see them (because he is now blind), but he can weep for them because of the bitter life that they will have to lead. He knows that, with the dark shadow of their father’s sins upon them, they will never be able to lead a normal life, to take part in the celebration of festivals, to join the gatherings of citizens, and so on. No man will take to marry them. Oedipus says that he has brought shame and disgrace to his family first by killing his own father, next by marrying the woman who had given him birth, and then by having begotten children from that very woman who was the source of life for him. He laments the fact that his daughters will remain unwedded and unfruitful. He then entrusts his daughters to the care of Creon, appealing to him to have pity on them in their state of wretchedness and desolation.
Oedipus Not Allowed to Have His Way in all Things
Creon advises Oedipus to shed no more tears but to go inside. Oedipus says that he wishes to be banished from Thebes. Creon replies that this cannot be done without divine approval. Oedipus asks if Creon will promise to carry out the will of the gods at the earliest. Creon replies that he cannot say anything till he has actually obtained the will of the gods. Oedipus then says that he would like to keep the children with him, but Creon rebukes him for trying to have his way in all things. Creon would like Oedipus to learn from his past experiences and not to forget that his rule is over.
The Moral
The play ends with the Chorus pointing out the moral of the story. Oedipus, the greatest of men, was envied by all of his fellow-men for his great prosperity. But afterwards he was overtaken by a full tide of misfortunes. Let all human beings remember that none can be called happy until that day when he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace. (The Chorus means that human happiness is transient and that it can never last till the last day of a man’s life).

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