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Free Study Guide for Oedipus the King by Sophocles

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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES


EXPOSITION (Lines 216-462) and FIRST STASIMON (Lines 463-512)


Summary

This section opens with Oedipus’ speech in which he clarifies his intentions to find Laius’ murderer and forbids the people of Thebes to shelter the murderer in their houses or support him in any way. He commands his people to drive out the sinner from their doors. He then curses the murderer and his family to live and die in wretchedness and also pledges to avenge Laius’ death, as if it were his own father’s. When the elders suggest that Teresias, the prophet be summoned, Oedipus replies that he has already sent for him.

Soon the blind prophet Tiresias is led in by a servant. After extolling his talents, Oedipus asks him to reveal the name of the person in question. When Tiresias refuses to do so, Oedipus begins to insult him and accuses him that he must be involved in the crime. Tiresias continues to be silent and Oedipus becomes increasingly antagonistic until finally Tiresias says that the murderer is none other than Oedipus himself.

Oedipus does not believe him and accuses Tiresias of conspiring against him, in association with his brother-in-law, Creon. He constantly decries Tiresias as being involved in the murder and scoffs at him, claiming that the wise man had not been able to answer the Sphinx, whereas he had accomplished this task. He taunts him for being blind and says that only his age has prevented him from being punished. A furious Tiresias predicts Oedipus’ future fall, claiming “Misery shall grind no man as it will you.” An enraged Oedipus throws Teresias out of the palace.

This section ends with Stasimon I. In this ode, the Chorus invokes Apollo to guide them and help them find the murderer. At the same time, they express their faith in Oedipus’ innocence.


Notes

In classical Greek tradition, the normal construct of the expositional act consisted of the protagonist’s first speech, which records the development and explains the ideas from the Prologue. This is clearly evident in Oedipus’ opening speech, in which he proclaims his intention to track Laius’ murderer. His persistence in trying to uncover the murderer could be perceived as an unconscious attempt to discover his true origins, of where he came from. The riddle that he must solve, who is the murderer of Laius, in fact is the riddle of his own existence.

This first episode is also significant for Sophocles’ use of dramatic irony. When Oedipus curses Laius’ murderer in his opening speech, the ill-fated monarch is hopelessly unaware that he is in fact cursing himself. The audience, on the other hand, is aware of the truth and can understand the horror of Oedipus’ threat.


The arrival of Tiresias adds a new dimension to the plot and further adds to the dramatic irony in this episode. Tiresias is the only man who is aware that Oedipus is the murderer of Laius, his own father. Tiresias also knows that the ignorant Oedipus has married his own mother. He speaks the truth yet it is only the audience who knows that he is right.

According to Greek mythology, Tiresias was a prophet who had been granted powers of prediction by the Greek god, Apollo. However, his gift was limited by another god who proclaimed that his prophecies would not be believed. This is very well exemplified in Oedipus’ adamant refusal to believe what Tiresias says. Instead he responds by denouncing Tiresias’ abilities.

Tiresias is reluctant to reveal the dreadful secret that the murderer, whom Oedipus is seeking so desperately, is none other than Oedipus yet Oedipus’ hounding forces him to speak. An angry and arrogant Oedipus does not believe Tiresias and instead brands him a traitor. Nonetheless, these revelations by Tiresias introduce a new aspect of the play: Oedipus’ origins. When Tiresias says, “This day will show your birth,” he is commenting on Oedipus lack of knowledge of who he is. His comments that Oedipus is blind although he has his sight are prophetic for what is to come and reveal dramatic irony as it will only be when Oedipus is blind that he will be able to see.

An instance of the hamartia or the flaws in Oedipus’ character is presented here. He is not only scornful in dealing with an important authority like Tiresias when he does not say what Oedipus wants him to, but he also makes hasty and wrong judgments about the prophet and his brother-in-law. The accusations he hurls at Tiresias and Creon are absolutely unjustified and it is only natural for Tiresias to respond the way he does. Thus Sophocles shows the defects in an otherwise ideal ruler.

The first act ends with the first Stasimon. A chorus of Theban citizens voice concerns about the revelations of Tiresias. They are sure that Oedipus cannot be the murderer, thus, their faith in prophecies is seen as wavering. By presenting this, Sophocles brings into play the significance of prophecies in ancient Greece. The chorus ends with a prayer to Apollo.


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