Oedipus the King, lines 1–337
OEDIPUS THE KING
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
, 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.
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
, 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