Summary for Oedipus Rex
The storytelling method that is employed in most classical writing, i.e. the Iliad and the Odyssey as well as Greek tragedy, allows for the development of two stories. One is the story of the now. The now is told through the actions and events of the play or story. The other story that is told is the past. The past is composed of stories that are told by characters and gives needed background information about the main characters and events. In Oedipus Rex, the realization of Oedipus’s tyrannous rise to power is the now story. The story of Oedipus’s birth and placement in the world is the past story. Both of these stories are woven into the play and each holds a place in the overall telling of the story.
The now story in Oedipus begins with the scene in front of the palace of Oedipus at Thebes. In this scene, we find out that Thebes is experiencing hard times. The citizens of Thebes have come to Oedipus to find a solution. He sorrowfully tells them that he can think of no solution to the problem, however, he has sent Creon to ask the god Apollo for help.
Creon returns and has good news. Apollo has given him the knowledge to remove the pestilence that is in Thebes. Oedipus, along with the other citizens of Thebes, is very interested in this information. Creon tells that the only solution to the pestilence is to expel the murderer of Laius, the former king of Thebes. Once again there is an unanswered question. How to find the murderer of Laius?
Oedipus and Creon’s pondering of the situation results in only one lead. One of the men that accompanied Laius when he was murdered lived through the ordeal. He knows only that it was a group of robbers that murdered Laius, not a single man. Seeming to be stuck on this problem, Oedipus takes the advice of Creon and sends for the seer Teiresias.
Teiresias arrives. He does not bring the same news that Creon brought. Creon brought hope but Teiresias brings mystery and fear. He refuses to divulge the answer to the question because he worries that the knowledge could bring more harm then good. Oedipus, at first, pleads with Teiresias to realize the information and then begins to threaten him. Eventually, Teiresias explains that Oedipus is guilty of the crime, and that Oedipus is the answer to the question. Oedipus, now outraged, accuses Teiresias of plotting against Oedipus at the same time; he places this same charge on Creon. Creon returns and an argument commence between these two men. Creon is confused because he has always been a supporter of Oedipus and has never had aspirations to overthrow Oedipus. Oedipus is blind to rational thinking and proceeds to make unfounded accusations.
Jocasta enters and breaks up the argument. She comforts Oedipus by suggesting that Teiresias is wrong and that humans have no place in prophecy. As they are talking, a messenger comes to tell Oedipus that his father is dead. This messenger also tells how Oedipus is not a son of Polybus by blood. The herdsman that had been sent for to be questioned about the death of Laius enters. Through the discussion of these men, it becomes apparent that Oedipus was most likely the son of Jocasta and Laius and that he is indeed the poison that has been plaguing the land.
All leave except the Chorus. A messenger arrives to tell the Chorus about Jocasta and Oedipus’s reaction. Jocasta had returned to her home and cursed the bed upon which she had slept with both Oedipus and Laius. She then hung herself. Oedipus returned. Finding Jocasta hung, he cut her down and removed the broaches from her dress and thrust them into his eyes.
The play ends with Oedipus asking that Creon take care of his daughters and Thebes. Oedipus feels great shame. He has blinded himself because he does not want to see his father and mother in the after world. With this shame he leaves Thebes to wander the world.
The past story is places into the now story to give depth and understanding to the events. Mystery plays a large role in Oedipus Rex. His history, the past story, is given to the audience in sections to allow the mystery to play out.
The first section of Oedipus’s life we learn is the story of the Sphinx. In this story we learn that Oedipus came to power in Thebes after he solved the riddle of the sphinx and saved the city. This was just after the death of Laius. We learn that Oedipus is seen as a savior because of this and that is why the citizens look to him to have an answer to the pestilence.
The second story of Oedipus’s history is the prophecy of patricide. Jocasta tells of the prophecy to reinforce the notion that seers are wrong. In actuality, it foreshadows what is to be learned in the discussion with the messenger and herdsman. Jocasta tells of Oedipus’s abandonment as well. She tells how Laius received a prophecy that his son would kill him. Upon this warning, Jocasta and Laius had their child brought into the mountains to die.
After Jocasta tale of prophecy, Oedipus tells of his own prophecy and his flight from Corinth. The tale goes that Oedipus had been at a party at which a drunken man told him that he was a bastard. He went to Pytho to speak with an oracle and get an answer to birth. He learned, instead, that he was fated to kill his father and lie with his mother. After hearing this, he fled. On his flight, he came to a crossroad in which a carriage of men shoved him from the road. He became angry and killed them all. Unknowingly, he had just killed Laius and fulfilled the prophecy of patricide both he and Laius had been given.
The rest of Oedipus’s history is just the completion of his abandonment and confirmation of his heritage. These come from the messenger and the herdsman. The messenger tells the tale of how he had received Oedipus in the mountains from another man and he had brought Oedipus to Polybus to raise. He told that Oedipus was not of Polybus’s blood. The herdsman told how he was the agent that tied Jocasta’s tale and the messenger’s together. He was the man to whom Jocasta had given the baby Oedipus. He told how he could not abandon the baby in the mountains and thought that it would be safe to give the baby to a man from Corinth, the messenger. With the completion of this tale Oedipus knew that he was the offspring of Jocasta and Laius and that all of the prophecies were true. He then proceeded to blind himself and live a life of a wanderer.