Oedipus the King Summary
As soon as the play opens, Oedipus asks the suppliants the reason of their coming. An aged priest Zeus says that the city is beset by a plague—vines and cattles are dying, women are producing still born infants. As Oedipus once before saved them by killing the dread Sphinx, before he was king they turn to him again, now that they have made him their king.
And they implore him to lend his aid in this hour of their dire distress. (Cf. Priest to Oedipus : ‘O greatest of men,/Restore our city to life. Have a care for your frame. / Your diligence saved us once ;/Save, save our city, and keep her safe for ever’.) Whether he be inspired by heaven, or trust to the ‘might of unassisted genius’, let him repeat his former good work, and earn a second time the title of ‘Saviour of the State’.
Opedipus replies with compassion, expressing his grief not only for himself and for the suppliants before him but for the state as a whole. He informs them that he had sent Creon, the son of Menoeceus and the brother of Jocasta, whom Oedipus had married, to enquire of the oracle of Apolloat Delphi what was best to be done for the saving of the city. At this point Creon enters with a message from the oracle.
He declares, on the authority of the oracle, that the pestilence was sent as a retribution for the murder of Laius, their former King, the author of which crime was still in Thebes, and must be immediately sought and punished. Laius, the last king before Oedipus, was murdered by a band of robbers as he was returning from Delphi. When Oedipus wants to know what prevented the Thebans from searching thoroughly for the killer of Laius at the time of his murder, Creon tells him that the Sphinx was causing them so much trouble with the riddle she presented that they could not deal with the mystery of Laius’ death. ( But who is the murderer ? )
The one man who escaped to tell the tale is not at hand. Here is a riddle for Oedipus to solve. ] Oedipus then reproaches the Thebans for their previous neglect, and
announces that he will take upon himself the office of discovering and punishing the unknown criminal. (Cf. Oedipus : ‘I will start afresh ; and bring everything into the light./The killer of Laius,/Whoever he was, might think to turn his hand/ Against me ; thus, serving Laius. I serve myself.) The suppliants are comforted by his promise and retire .
At the king’s summons the chorus, composed of the elders of Thebes, now enter. They express in impassioned language, their anxiety as to what the oracle which has just been sent may import. They describe the misery under which the city is labouring, and implore the aid of gods, viz., Apollo, Athena and Artemis, as well as of Zeus, to help them in their time of need and to avert the ravages of the pestilence .
Oedipus then addresses the Chorus and other Thebans. If the man, says the king, who killed Laius is in Thebes, let him declare himself, and his only punishment will be exile from the city. If any one knows who the murderer is, he must declare it. Should any one give a clue to his discovery, the informant shall have a reward and thanks. But if any one knows and does not declare it, that man shall be banished from the life and shelter of Thebes and hounded by the gods. If it were a member of his own household, Oedipus would carry out this punishment, and he charges all of them to do the same. Apollo has spoken to them from Delphi ; they must obey the god.
Since, he, Oedipus, now rules in the place of the slain man, is married to his former wife, and since his children will be heirs to the kingdom, Oedipus has more obligation than any of them to find the murderer of Laius. He will, he says, champion the cause of Laius as if he were his own father. If any one disobeys his command to reveal the murderer, he prays that the gods will smite that man.
The Chorus hasten to assure the King that they know nothing of the murderer, and they suggest that the prophet Teiresias should be consulted’. Oedipus replies that he has already sent for him at the suggestion of Creon.
Then they remind the king of the story that Laius was said to have been killed by travellers on the road, and express their conviction that the guilty man will flee from the land as soon as he hears Oedipus’ proclamation. At this point, almost immediately, Teiresias the blind prophet comes in, led by a boy.
Oedipus addresses him with words of respect and veneration and asks for his help. The Theban prophet, says the king, is the only saviour to whom they can look in their hour of need, let him therefore use all his powers of prophecy, and rescue the city from the curse which troubles it by pointing out the murderer of Laius .
Teiresias attempts to avoid the question of who the murderer of Laius is but when Oedipus accuses the prophet of withholding information in order to destroy Thebes, Teiresias declares that Oedipus is himself the killer he seeks. Oedipus refuses to believe the prophet’s words, and at once suspects a political intrigue with the object of dethroning him and making Creon king, and he is not slow to say so.
When Teiresias adds that Oedipus is living in shame with his own kin, Oedipus takes this as a meaningless iħsult. Deriding the prophet, he reminds him that when Thebes was plagued by the riddle of Sphinx, it was he, Oedipus, not his prophet, who solved her riddle. If it were not for his hoary hairs, he should have had such a bitter lesson as would have taught Teiresias the perils of falsehood. Oedipus loses all patinece, and taunts the old man with his blindness. On this Teiresias retorts that blindness will soon be found in Oedipus himself.
The king is at first simply amazed, but presently his suspicion fastens upon Creon, by whose advice Teiresias was brought. The old man tells the king that Creon is not plague to him (Oedipus.) and that he is his own plague, but Oedipus concentrates on the thought of the plot. The Chorus try to calm them. Teiresias speaks again and tells Oedipus that though he has his eyes, he cannot see the misery he is in, nor understands where he is living nor with whom.
He predicts that the curse of Oedipus’ mother and father will drive him from Thebes. Oedipus, in a rage, tells him to be gone, but calls him back when Teiresias mentions his parents, and asks who they were.Teiresias predicts that this day will reveal his birth and bring about his destruction, but Oedipus regards these remarks as “riddles.” Then Oedipus withdraws into the palace in high wrath and also disturbed more deeply by the prophet’s allusion to the mystery of his origin.
The Chorus are shaken in their minds, but are determined until they know more, to stand by Oedipus, who saved them when the existence of their city was endangered by the ‘winged Enchantress’ (Sphinx). It is hard, they say, to disbelieve the statements of Teiresias—harder still to believe that their king, the wise and good, could have committed so terrible a crime ; and so, until he be convicted by the clearest proofs, they will remember only the good deeds of Oedipus .
Oedipus having, in his former words, thrown out a suspicion that Creon, wishing to obtain the royal power for himelf, has induced Teiresias to make these statements to his injury, Creon, the brother-in-law of Oedipus, now comes forward to clear himself. An angry altercation ensues between them. Oedipus berates him. Creon tries to assure him, and asks not to be convicted without some proof. Creon wins the approbation of the chorus, but Oedipus will listen to no argument. And he vows to kill Creon. Hearing the angry words Jocasta comes upon the scene .
The wife of Oedipus, the sister of Creon, Jocasta is the natural peace-maker between the two. She begs them to cease their quarrel when the city is already in ‘distress.’ She urges Oedipus to believe Creon’s oath that he is his friend. The chorus also urge the king to believe his brother-in-law. Oedipus yields at length though reluctantly. Creon withdraws unharmed, and the king and queen are left alone together, with the council of Theban elders standing by .
When Creon leaves, Jocasta questions Oedipus about his anger at her brother. No one wants to tell her the cause of their quarrel, but Oedipus says he will, for he honours her above all others. (cf. Oedipus to Jocasta : You are more to me than these good men.’) He tells her that Creon has used the blind prophet as his spokesman to accuse Oedipus of killing Laius. Now Jocasta seeks to relieve his mind. She says that mortals can know nothing about prophecies.
Her first husband, Laius, was told by a priest of Apollo that it was his fate to be killed by his own child. Attempting to prevent such a disaster, Laius tied his infant son’s (who was only three days old) ankles together and ordered that he be exposed on a mountain, and so he died. Laius was later killed by robbers at a spot where three roads meet. Clearly, then, it is folly to be concerned about prophet’s words. The gods, she goes on to say, can change the future as they will. Oedipus is not calmed by this story. He questions Jocasta, ‘where was the place where the three roads meet’?
She answers that it was on the way from Delphi, and the slaying happened just before Oedipus came to Thebes. Jocasta goes on to report that the one surviving member of Laius’ party was a servant. On finding Oedipus ruling in place of Laius, he asked to be allowed to work as a shepherd far from the city. As Oedipus questions her and hears her answers, he becomes more agaitated. When Jocasta asks what troubles him, he tells that when he was a youth, son of King Polybus, and Queen Merope of Corinth, at a banquet he overheard some drunken youths say he was not real child of his parents.
Vexed and troubled, he went to the oracle at Delphi to find out who his true parents were. There he was told he would kill his father, and then marry his mother and have children by her. After that to prevent the fulfilment of the oracle, he refused to return to Corinth. Instead, he came to Thebes. On his way to Thebes he encountererd a stranger in a carriage at a place where three roads meet. When the stranger and his companions attempted to thrust Oedipus from the path, Oedipus, in anger, slew the old man riding in it.
Thus he must be the man to suffer his own proclaimed punishment for the murder of Laius, unless the one man who escaped from the retinue of Laius and for whom he has sent, swears by his story that Laius was set upon by a band of robbers. If he does, Oedipus is innocent, for he was alone when he killed the old man in the carriage. No matter, says Jocasta, what the man says. She insists that he cannot change the story now for the whole city has heard it, but besides, the oracle had said Laius would die by the hand of his son, and his son had perished when he was an infant. Therefore the oracle was wrong .
The king and queen withdraw into the palace. The Chorus now come forward for their second formal dance and song. They sing an ode on the general subject of how overweening pride (hubris) breeds the tyrant. Thus they implicitly express their fears that Oedipus may be revealed as the tyrant who slew Laius and replaced him. This fear threatens their confidence in their king and in the religious rites that govern the kingdom and their lives. They express their confident belief that the majesty of God will be ultimately vindicated .
Jocasta, alarmed at the anxiety manifested by Oedipus, seek to propitiate Apollo by prayer. At this crisis, a messenger arrives from Corinth seeking Oedipus to tell him that his father Polybus is dead and that the people of Corinth want him for their king. Jocasta is delighted, for now it is impossible for the oracle that Oedipus will kill his own father to come true. Oedipus is relieved too. But Oedipus shudders with chill of fear amid the very glow of his joy. His Corinthian mother, widow of king Polybus, survives and he dreads the fulfilment of the oracle (i.e., the second part of the oracle) respecting his crime of incest with her.
To remove this fear the messenger from Corinth explains the Oedipus was not true son to Polybus and his Corinthian queen, Merope,—that he was to them merely an adopted son. He had received Oedipus as an infant, with his ankles pinned together, from a shepherd on Mount Cithaeron, and had given him to Polybus and Merope. This tale gives a new direction to Oedipus’ thoughts. He wants to find the shepherd and ‘unravel the mystery of his brith’. Jocasta begs him not to continue his researches. She implores him to take her advice and give up it. But he is so determined to discover whether he is of noble or base birth that the details the messenger has given him mean nothing to him.
‘Go’, says Oedipus, ‘someone ; fetch the shepherd. Leave the lady to enjoy her pride of birth.’ But Jocasta has already seen the truth. She is lost. Her farewell to him expresses her agony : ‘Doomed man ! O never live to learn the truth ! O lost and damned ! This is my last and only word to you for ever ! Finding Oedipus obstinately bent on his covering the fatal secret of his birth, Jocasta can endure her grief no longer, but rushes into the palace in a silent agony of despair and is no more seen.
The Chorus sing a short and joyous song. Oedipus proudly assumes that he is the ‘the child of Fortune’. The Chorus echo his feelings suggesting that he may be the child of Apollo or some other god .
The old Theban Shepherd (who delivered the infant to the Corinthian messenger on Mount Cithaeron), already four times mentioned, is seen at last approaching, and all eyes are fixed on him. He is confronted with the messenger, but, like Teiresies is unwilling to speak, for he knows that Oedipus is the slayer of the man whose throne and wife he holds, and that he is the object of Apollo’s curse. But when he hears from the Corinthian, who is eager to speak, that the supposed son of Polybus is the child whom he, the shepherd of Laius, had given into the other’s hands,—when he thus learns that the truth is infinitely worse than what he knew,-an involuntry cry of execration betrays his horror.
Under the swift, terse and grim questioning of Oedipus the shepherd, who curses the messenger for reviving memories that he had long ago relegated to comfortable oblivion reveals the truth about the fate of the infant. Moreover, he tells a horrified Oedipus that it was Jocasta herself who gave him the child to destroy. “The child she bore ?’ Oedipus asks, aghast. ‘They said it was on account of some wicked spell—saying the child should kill his father’, the shepherd replies. At last the king knows the whole truth and cries out in agony, and rushes into the palace .
The Chorus now resume their part as Theban elders, and lament over the fall of Oedipus whom they had so highly honoured. They also sing of the insignificance of man .
The rest of this miserable story is narrated by the dramatic Attendant, who arrvies from the palace. Jocasta, as we have seen, had left the scene suddenly and in ominous silence : she had dashed open the doors of the fatal bridal chamber ; and when Oedipus had followed her, raging for a sword to slay her who had been the innocent cause of his misfortunes, he finds her, his wife and mother, hanging by a noose from the ceiling, already dead. Then he releases the corpse with a wild cry, tearing the golden buckle from her dress, he dashes the point into the puplis of his eyes—thus condemning himself to that perpetual darkness with which he had taunted Teiresias.
However, immediately afterwards Oedipus comes on to the stage, his eyes streaming with blood. The Chorus, horror-stricken, cannot endure the sight, Pity and consolation are out of place in the presence of such misery as his. They can only utter broken exclamations of sorrow and dismay. “Those eyes—how could you do what have you done?’, they ask. What evil power has’, they further ask, ‘driven you to this end ? No man’s hand has smitten him, replies Oedipus, save his own ; but he has been fast bound to the wheels of a cruel necessity, and it is Apollo who has promted such grim handiwork.
He calls down ruin on the man who preserved him as an infant so that he could grow up and commit these horrors. Then he breaks out into passionate self-reproach as he racalls with remorseful tenderness these old familiar scenes of his youth : ‘Cithaeron ! Foster-mother ! Did you shelter me/For this ? Could you not let me die that instant,/Instead of saving me to tell the world/How I was got ? Corinth, and Polybus | My seeming home and parent, did you think/What foul corruption festered under the bloom of your adopted son’s young loveliness ?-/Now found all evil and of evil born.’
“That silent crossroad in the forest clearing—That cops beside the place where three roads met,/Whose soil I watered with my father’s blood,/…Incestuous sin ! breeding where I was bred ! / Father, brother, and son ; beside, wife, and mother ;/ Confounded in one monstrous matrimony ! All human filthiness in one crime compounded ! Unspeakable acts—’. No guilt or misery, he declares, can be like this. Let them drive him away from the city of his fathers, and let them hide him for ever from the sight of men, and from the light of day.
Then Creon, whom Oedipus had so wronged with his unjust suspicion, enters and authoritatively commands the attendants to take the parricide out of sight of men. Oedipus is humbled before the man whom he had insulted and makes his last request.
Let them bury her who lies dead within the palace as she becomes a king’s daughter ; for hmself-he prays he may be allowed to ‘live upon the mountains—and die there’ : his boys can take good care of themselves wherever they go ; but for his two poor girls, left desolate, a scorn and mockery to all men, he can only pray that they may come to him, be near him, bear the burden of their misery by their father’s side.
Creon softens and complies. Antigone and Ismene enter. Oedipus is touched by this kindness on the part of Creon, and says : ‘Heaven bless you, Creon for this, and make your way. Smoother than mine has been.’ Then embracing his children, he mournfully dwells upon the dreary life that must await them, uncheered either by a parent’s love or by a husband’s affection ; for the shame of their birth must mar all possible happiness.
It lies in Creon’s power to act a noble part, and prove himself a father to these touching lines : Creon : ‘Go then (Oedipus moves towards the palace, his arms still round the children). But leave the children.’ / Oedipus. ‘No ! never take them from me !’ | Creon : ‘Command no more. Obey. Your rule is ended.’ Then Oedipus leaves Thebes to free it from the pestilence of his presence. The drama ends as the chorus moralize on the vicissitudes of human fortunes and recall a familiar Greek maxim that one should call no man happy until he is dead .
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