Oedipus the King, lines 1–337
Oedipus steps out of the royal palace of Thebes and is greeted by a procession of priests, who are
in turn surrounded by the impoverished and sorrowful citizens of Thebes. The citizens carry branches
wrapped in wool, which they offer to the gods as gifts. Thebes has been struck by a plague, the citizens are
dying, and no one knows how to put an end to it. Oedipus asks a priest why the citizens have gathered
around the palace. The priest responds that the city is dying and asks the king to save Thebes. Oedipus
replies that he sees and understands the terrible fate of Thebes, and that no one is more sorrowful than he.
He has sent Creon, his brother-in-law and fellow ruler, to the Delphic oracle to find out how to stop the
plague. Just then, Creon arrives, and Oedipus asks what the oracle has said. Creon asks Oedipus if he wants
to hear the news in private, but Oedipus insists that all the citizens hear. Creon then tells what he has
learned from the god Apollo, who spoke through the oracle: the murderer of Laius, who ruled Thebes
before Oedipus, is in Thebes. He must be driven out in order for the plague to end.
Creon goes on to tell the story of Laius’s murder. On their way to consult an oracle, Laius and all
but one of his fellow travelers were killed by thieves. Oedipus asks why the Thebans made no attempt to
find the murderers, and Creon reminds him that Thebes was then more concerned with the curse of the
Sphinx. Hearing this, Oedipus resolves to solve the mystery of Laius’s murder.
The Chorus enters, calling on the gods Apollo, Athena, and Artemis to save Thebes. Apparently, it
has not heard Creon’s news about Laius’s murderer. It bemoans the state of Thebes, and finally invokes
Dionysus, whose mother was a Theban. Oedipus returns and tells the Chorus that he will end the plague
himself. He asks if anyone knows who killed Laius, promising that the informant will be rewarded and the
murderer will receive no harsher punishment than exile. No one responds, and Oedipus furiously curses
Laius’s murderer and anyone who is protecting him. Oedipus curses himself, proclaiming that should he
discover the murderer to be a member of his own family, that person should be struck by the same exile and
harsh treatment that he has just wished on the murderer. Oedipus castigates the citizens of Thebes for
letting the murderer go unknown so long. The Leader of the Chorus suggests that Oedipus call for Tiresias,
a great prophet, and Oedipus responds that he has already done so.
Oedipus is notable for his compassion, his sense of justice, his swiftness of thought and action,
and his candor. At this early stage in the play, Oedipus represents all that an Athenian audience—or indeed
any audience—could desire in a citizen or a leader. In his first speech, which he delivers to an old priest
whose suffering he seeks to alleviate, he continually voices his concern for the health and well-being of his
people. He insists upon allowing all his people to hear what the oracle has said, despite Creon’s suggestion