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Free Study Guide for Oedipus the King by Sophocles

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Towards the close of Sophocles’ life, the glory and power of the great Athenian state was beginning to show the first signs of decay. A ten-year war broke out in 431 B.C. between Athens and Sparta. After it ended in a stalemate, it dragged on for 27 years in all, either in open or barely contained hostilities. In 428 B.C., there was a devastating plague that decimated the Athenian population and claimed the life of Pericles. Then in 413 B.C., Athens lost two armies in its disastrous campaigns in Sicily. Nine years later (in 404 B.C.), Athens suffered humiliating defeat by Sparta

Sophocles was writing the Oedipus plays at a time when Athens was struggling for its life against disruptive forces inside and outside of the city-state. As a result, he incorporates into his plays both the glorious reign of Theseus, founder and hero of Athens, and the bitter strife ensuing among the nation states of Greece.

The Legend of Oedipus

Three of Sophocles’ plays, Oedipus, the King , Oedipus At Colonus, and Antigone, are based on the old Greek legends about Oedipus and his family. Each of these plays can be better read and more fully understood when one understands the tragic consequences that dogged the ruling family of Thebes from the times of its founding father, Cadmus. Although essentially regarded as myths, the incidents in the three plays may have had some basis in facts drawn from ancient Greek history many centuries before Sophocles’ time. Such facts, however, are often distorted by the passage of time and the oral tradition by which they were passed from one generation to the next. Thus, they become part of folklore or legends.

Oedipus was a direct descendant of Cadmus through his son, Polydorus. The latter begot Labdacus, whose son Laius was the father of Oedipus. (That is, Oedipus was the grandson of Labdacus who, in turn, was the grandson of Cadmus). All the generations of the Cadmus family suffered a tragic fate in one way or another.

When Laius, great-grandson of Cadmus, loses his kingdom to Amphion and Zethus, the sons of Zeus and Antiope, he finds refuge with Pelops, the son of Tantolus. Laius, however, repays Pelops’ kindness in a rather cruel way -- by kidnapping his son Chrysippus. His ungratefulness brings a curse upon Laius and his whole family over the next two generations. Laius gets back his kingdom of Thebes when Amphion and Zethus dies. He then marries Jocasta, sister of Creon. However, Apollo warns Laius that his son will kill him one day as punishment for his abduction of Pelops’ son.

In an attempt to avoid the fulfillment of the prophecy, Oedipus’ parents, Laius and Jocasta, give Oedipus to a servant to be taken to Mount Cithaeron, where he is to be deserted. A spike is driven through the child’s feet to prevent him from crawling away. However, a shepherd finds the infant and brings him to Polybus and Merope, King and Queen of Cornish. Being childless, they adopt this child as their own son and name him Oedipus, which in Greek means “swollen foot”, due to the deformity in his feet.

As Oedipus grows up, he hears rumors that he is not the real son of King Polybus. After consulting the Delphi oracle about his true parents, he hears the same prophecy told to his real parents, Laius and Jocasta. Mistaking his true parents to be Polybus and Merope, Oedipus leaves Cornish forever and wanders towards Thebes. On the way, by sheer coincidence, he meets his real father, Laius, at a place where three roads meet. A quarrel erupts over who has the right of way. Laius, not being known for his prudence, insults and strikes Oedipus, who promptly kills him.

Traveling on to Thebes, Oedipus hears that the city is being plagued by the Sphinx, a monster who poses riddles to travelers and kills those who cannot answer them. Oedipus confronts the Sphinx, solving the riddle; subsequently the Sphinx destroys herself. Hearing of the Sphinx’s death, the people of Thebes are overjoyed and hail Oedipus as their hero. He is crowned the new king of Thebes and marries the then-widowed queen, Jocasta, who is actually his mother. During his early years of reign, he and Jocasta conceive two sons, named Eteocles and Polyneices, and two daughters, named Antigone and Ismene.

In Homer’s poetic version of the story, Jocasta hanged herself when she discovered she had married her own son, but Oedipus continued to rule Thebes; however, Sophocles, in his earlier tragedy Oedipus the King, sets up a more dramatic ending. When a terrible pestilence and drought plagues the city of Thebes, the people of Thebes consult the Delphic oracle, who reveals that the disaster could be averted only if the murderer of Laius is detected and banished from Thebes. Subsequent events eventually reveal that it is Oedipus himself who is the son and murderer of Laius. In shock and shame, Oedipus blinds himself and then exiles himself from Thebes.

In his final wanderings, Oedipus is accompanied by his faithful daughter, Antigone. He settles at last in Colonus, near Athens, under the patronage of its kind king, Theseus. Here, he patiently waits for death to release him from the sad torture of life.

Meanwhile, Thebes is ruled by his two sons who agree to rule in alternate years. Eteocles takes up rule first but refuses to quit when it is Polyneices’ turn to rule. Because the latter had married Argeia, daughter of Adrastus, King of Argos, Polyneices asks his father-in-law to help him reclaim his right to rule Thebes. He also asks Oedipus to support him, but the old king curses both sons for their bitter fratricidal enmity and refuses to help either of them.

Polyneices attacks the seven gates of Thebes with an Argive army led by seven champions, but they are defeated and the two brothers kill each other, according to the curse of Oedipus upon them. Creon then becomes King of Thebes and forbids the burial of Polyneices, dubbing him a traitor. Antigone defies her uncle’s unjust law, tries to bury her brother, and is caught. Creon puts her to death even though she is to marry his son, Haemon, who also kills himself. Hearing of this, Creon’s wife also commits suicide. Thus, the curse on the house of Laius is complete. This last part of the legend featuring Antigone’s rebellion against Creon is dealt with in Sophocles’ earlier tragedy Antigone.

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