Free Study Guide for Oedipus the King by Sophocles|
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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
The climactic section
of Oedipus Rex is divided into two scenes that are divided by the third
and fourth Stasimon. As a prelude to the scene, Jocasta gives offerings of flowers
and incense at the altar of Apollo, asking him to relieve the city of its fears,
especially those of Oedipus.
The first scene shows the arrival of the
Corinthian shepherd who brings the news of Polybus’ death, the king of Corinth
and apparent father of Oedipus. On hearing the news, Jocasta informs Oedipus and
tells him that the fate he had dreaded all his life has now been averted. His
fear that he would kill his own father is pointless as his father has died a natural
death. But Oedipus still fears that apart from murdering his father, he was also
destined to wed his mother, therefore he refuses to return to Corinth with the
shepherd for his coronation.
In order to reassure Oedipus that this will
not transpire, the Corinthian discloses the secret that Oedipus is not the real
son of Polybus and Merope. As an infant with a wounded foot he had been handed
over to this same shepherd by one of Laius’ servants who had then passed him on
to a Corinthian shepherd and then to Polybus. Thereafter, he had been raised to
be Oedipus, so named for the injuries to his feet.
This story arouses
Oedipus’ curiosity about his real parents and when he asks if anyone knows the
shepherd the messenger speaks of, the chorus replies it is the same one who has
been summoned. Jocasta, on the other hand, realizes by this time, that Oedipus
is her own son and that the prophecy has come true. She tries to stop Oedipus
from continuing with his investigations, but the adamant ruler pays no heed, thinking
that she is concerned whether or not he will be of humble birth.
leaves the stage, she screams that he is doomed and that those are to be her last
words. Oedipus remarks that the truth must come out, regardless of how vile it
is. He is not ashamed by the possibility of not coming from royal blood although
Jocasta is. He then says, “I ask to be no other man/Than who I am, and will know
who I am.”
The Chorus chants the third Stasimon, which is a paean to Oedipus’
origins. They express their curiosity about Oedipus’ birth and even fancy him
to be the son of some god or goddess.
In the following scene, the Theban
shepherd arrives. He is the same man who had handed over little Oedipus to the
Corinthian and also the sole witness to Laius’ murder. The messenger immediately
recognizes him yet the Theban shepherd is reluctant to talk. Oedipus grills him
with questions, almost to the point of threatening him with death if he does not
tell him the truth. Finally, the old Theban reveals that Oedipus is indeed the
Laius’ son and also the man who had murdered Laius at the crossroads. He confesses
that he saved the child’s life though he had orders to leave it to die. On realizing
that the prophesies have indeed come to pass, Oedipus runs throughout the palace,
announcing the atrocities which he has committed and asking that he no longer
gaze on the sun after discovering the truth of his birth.
This is followed
by the fourth Stasimon, which uses a grave tone. They lament the inexorable nature
of fate, which does not even spare kings.
This act forms the climax of the play. All the doubts that were raised in the
previous act are cleared in this one. Yet what seems to be a reason for celebration
at the news of Oedipus’ father’s death and the supposed failure of the oracles’
prophesies instead gives reason for despair. The discovery of who Oedipus’ parents
are affirms what both Oedipus and Jocasta had feared: that Oedipus murdered Laius.
What should have been a happy reunion between Oedipus and his natural parents
is instead a life-shattering moment. In attempting to defy the fate ordained by
the prophecy, Jocasta, Laius,and Oedipus brought ruin upon themselves and the
kingdom of Thebes.
The real identity of Oedipus becomes the focus of this
scene rather than the death of Laius as the play’s theme shifts from the issue
of Laius’ murder to that of Oedipus’ birth. But this is by no means a digression
because both issues are connected as well as closely associated with the belief
The persistence of Oedipus is also heightened in this scene
when he attempts to solve the riddle of his own life and yet is denied the truth
by the shepherd. He must threaten the shepherd with death before he can get an
answer. Rather than relying on his own intelligence and wisdom, here Oedipus solves
the mystery through interacting with a host of characters, the messenger, Jocasta,
the Theban shepherd, who bit by bit divulge what they know. In this way, the secret
of Oedipus’ past is solved as well as who killed Laius.
By the end of the first scene of this final act, Jocasta realizes the dreadful
truth that Oedipus is her son and leaves the stage after trying to stop Oedipus’
investigations. This is the final exit of Jocasta as she announces the last thing
she will call him is “O unhappy Oedipus.” Therefore, it comes as no surprise when
the news of her death is related later on.
The third Stasimon expresses
the curiosity of the Theban citizens about their ruler’s birth. They fancy the
possibility of him being the son of some god who may have left him at mount Cithaeron.
This wishful thinking reveals that the elders still have faith in Oedipus as their
king and do not connect the investigation of Laius’ murder with the scourge overtaking
These fanciful speculations are put to rest in the final scene
in which the Theban shepherd arrives and reveals the facts of Oedipus’ birth.
On hearing the news of who his true parents are and the details of Laius death,
Oedipus realizes the enormity of the situation. The prophecies have come true.
Utterly shattered and devastated, Oedipus detests his wretched existence and curses
himself for living and bringing such shame to the Theban house. His inquiry has
proved catastrophic. Due to his unquenchable thirst for solving riddles, Oedipus
has brought ruin upon himself and his household. Yet now that the matter is cleared,
Thebes may be relieved from the plague which has taken over.
follows a classic pattern of the rise in action up to the climax. All the doubts
of the previous act are cleared. The mystery of Oedipus’ birth and Laius’ murder
has finally been solved. The truth of the prophecy has also been realized and
the people’s faith in the power of gods is thus restored.
The play reaches
its climax when Oedipus realizes that the fate he had tried to escape so earnestly
has caught up with him and the inevitable has happened. Not only his attempt at
escaping fate, but also that of his father’s has proved to be absolutely ineffective.
Yet it is partly due to his own character that his destiny has unravelled as it
has. If not for Oedipus’ quest for truth as well as self-knowledge, the mystery
of who he is would not have surfaced.
The action of this act is in the
form of question and answer session between Oedipus and the two shepherds. It
is in these dialectical exchanges that truth is established and Oedipus’ identity
The fourth Stasimon ends this act. Oedipus represents the
mutability of human existence and fortune in this ode. Whether noble king or humble
shepherd, all people are subjected to the hand of fate which may bring wealth
or destitution. The transience of wealth, power, glory, pleasure is reflected
in what the Chorus says:
“Alas, you Generations of men.
you live you are next to nothing.”
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