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Oedipus Rex | Plot Summary

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Summary

Oedipus Rex begins with Oedipus, king of Thebes. He had arrived years before as a stranger after the death of King Laius. He was given the crown because he saved the city from the Sphinx, a mythological creature with a human head, a lion's body, and wings. He speaks with the high priest about the plague that has spread throughout the city and asks what he can do to help. The priest suggests he send someone to consult Apollo, and Oedipus replies that he has already sent Creon, his brother-in-law. Creon returns and reports that Oedipus must find Laius's killer and avenge his death in order to save his people from this pestilence.

The Chorus fearfully sings to Zeus, asking what he has in store for the people of Thebes. They call on several gods to alleviate the suffering that is sweeping the city.

Oedipus then asks his people to tell him what they know about Laius's killer. He warns them to bring forth the killer if they find him. To aid in the search, the Chorus suggests to Oedipus that he consult the old, blind prophet Teiresias to find out what he knows.

A boy leads Teiresias to the king, but at first the prophet refuses to say what he knows. Oedipus is furious and presses Teiresias, who finally relents and says that Oedipus himself is the cause of the pestilence. Oedipus flies into a rage and accuses Teiresias of plotting with Creon to take over the throne. He orders Teiresias to leave, but before the prophet does he tells Oedipus that the killer is in Thebes, will become blind, and will turn out to be both the son and the husband of his mother.

The Chorus sings of its confusion regarding Teiresias's prophecy and insists that it sides with Oedipus no matter what he did because he saved the city from the Sphinx. Still, the Chorus is afraid that the prophecy may be true.

Creon is horrified that Oedipus has accused him of getting Teiresias to lie so that he can grab the throne. He insists he does not want the throne and does not know what Teiresias is talking about. He suggests consulting the oracle at Delphi if Oedipus thinks he is lying. Oedipus wants to either kill him or banish him from the city for treason.

Along with the Chorus, Jocasta, Oedipus's wife, comes in and begs Oedipus to trust Creon's oath before heaven. Oedipus reluctantly agrees and sends Creon out of the palace without punishing him. Jocasta then tells Oedipus of a prophecy that a son of hers with Laius would kill his father. She and Laius pinned the child's ankles together and had a shepherd put him in the wilderness to avoid the prophecy. Nonetheless, Laius was killed at a place where three roads meet.

Oedipus recognizes this place and the circumstances of Laius's death. He asks Jocasta to send for the remaining witness of Laius's death, a slave. He also tells Jocasta about his parents in Corinth but says he has been told they are not his real parents. Years ago he received the same prophecy—that he would bed his mother and kill his father. Oedipus ran away from Corinth to escape the prophecy, never to return. Along the way he met with travelers, one of whom hit him. Oedipus struck back and ended up killing them all. Jocasta sends for the slave but insists that everything will be fine because she and Laius got rid of their son.

The Chorus sings of the power of prophecy and the foolishness of men who try to avoid their fates. They say that, if the prophecy is not actually true, then their religious faith is in danger of dying.

Jocasta comes to the altar of Apollo and places an offering there. A messenger comes to tell her that Polybus, who is supposedly Oedipus's father, has died of natural causes. This news gives her hope that the prophecy is not true because Polybus was not killed by his son. Oedipus pronounces oracles worthless but says there is still one thing that bothers him: his mother, Merope, is still alive, and the other part of the prophecy claims that he will sleep with his mother. Jocasta tells him not to worry about it.

The messenger then says that there is no reason for Oedipus to avoid going back to Corinth because he is not, in fact, the real son of Polybus and Merope. Oedipus was a gift from a shepherd who found him on a rock with his ankles bound. It turns out that the shepherd, who gave the child to the messenger to give to Polybus and Merope, was a servant of Laius, the very servant they have called to come explain what he witnessed when Laius was killed. Jocasta suddenly realizes who Oedipus is and tells him she hopes he never figures this out and pleads with him not to seek the truth. She runs into the palace, frantic.

The Chorus sings about the questions of who fathered whom. They also sing about the gods and their parentage. The Chorus worries about Jocasta's grief over Oedipus, but Oedipus dismisses Jocasta's feelings.

The shepherd is called in and tells Oedipus of the child he brought to the messenger. He does not want to say where he got the child because he was supposed to have left the child on a rock to die. The messenger is present at the scene and serves as a witness. He coaxes the shepherd to confess his role in keeping the infant alive. Oedipus was the son of Laius whom the shepherd gave to the messenger. Jocasta had, in fact, ordered him to kill the child to avoid the prophecy, but the shepherd took pity on the child. Now the shepherd and Oedipus both know that Oedipus was that child, and the prophecy has come true.

The Chorus sings of the prophecy and its horrors. They wish they had never seen Oedipus, even though he saved the city of Thebes.

Oedipus is furious with Jocasta and wants to kill her, but Oedipus finds her after she has already hung herself. He uses the brooches from her clothes to put out his eyes so that he will no longer see the horror that is his life. A second messenger reveals to the Chorus what has taken place. Oedipus then enters the scene to engage directly with the Chorus, which tell him he should have also killed himself rather than live blind. His children are brought to him by Creon, and Oedipus tells them that he is their brother as well as their father.

Oedipus begs Creon to take care of his daughters so that their lives will not be as horrible as his and tells Creon to send him away. Creon takes pity on him and wants to keep him at the palace, but Oedipus says he wants to live in the mountains. Creon agrees to let him go but tells him he must leave his children behind for he now has no power over them.

The Chorus sings of the unhappy tale: how a powerful man has fallen and how death is the only thing that will bring happiness to mortals.

Oedipus Rex Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Oedipus saves Thebes from the Sphinx.

Rising Action

2 Oedipus becomes king, marries Jocasta, has children.

3 Years later a plague infects the city of Thebes.

4 Oedipus sends Creon to Apollo's shrine for help.

5 Apollo wants Oedipus to find Laius's killer.

6 Oedipus consults the old prophet, Teiresias, for help.

7 Teiresias says Oedipus killed Laius; Jocasta is his mother.

8 Jocasta and Oedipus swap stories about similar prophecies.

9 A messenger reveals who Oedipus's true parents are.

10 Laius's former servant confirms the story.

Climax

11 Oedipus realizes Teiresias was right about him.

Falling Action

12 Jocasta realizes Oedipus is her son and kills herself.

13 Oedipus blinds himself.

14 Oedipus decides to exile himself from Thebes.

Resolution

15 Oedipus makes Creon king and asks him to guard his children.

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