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Theatre: Oedipus the King

There once lived a man named Oedipus Rex
You may have heard about his odd complex.
His name appears in Freud's index
'Cause he...
loved his mother...
Tom Lehrer, "Oedipus Rex"

Oedipus the King, also known as Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus Rex, is the first in a series of three plays by the Greek tragedian Sophocles. The play tells of the downfall of the king Oedipus from his lofty position, due to hubris (pride), which seems to be the leading cause of death, despair, and destruction in Thebes.

The play opens with a terrible plague ravaging Oedipus' kingdom of Thebes. Creon, the Queen's brother, returns from the oracle at Delphi with news that the plague will not be lifted until the true murderer of the old King is found. The blind prophet Tiresias warns Oedipus that he really really does not want to know who the true cause of the plague is. However, Oedipus is driven by both honor and a dedication to his people to root out the cause of this evil. It turns out Oedipus himself is the cause of the plague. The reasons behind it are long and complicated.

When Oedipus was born, the sole prince of Thebes, it was foretold he would kill his father and marry his mother. His father orders his son to be left in the wilderness to die. This does not work. Oedipus ends up being adopted by another pair of royals who fail to tell him that they are not his birth parents. Oedipus eventually gets wind of the prophecy from his birth and leaves home to avoid that fate.

He ends up heading back towards his birth kingdom to solve the Riddle of the Sphinx. On the way he unknowingly encounters his father, who, for lack of a better term, cuts Oedipus off in traffic. Words are exchanged and by the end of it Oedipus' real father is dead by his hand. Continuing on his way, he passes by Thebes, which is "guarded" by a vicious Sphinx, who won't let anyone in or out of the city unless they can solve her Riddle. Oedipus solves the Riddle, freeing his birth kingdom from the beast. In gratitude, the people make him king and he unknowingly marries their Queen, his mother. And has children with her. It is this state of affairs, his father's blood on his hands and his, erm, relationship with his mother, that has thrown things out of whack in Thebes.

Oedipus' wife/mother figures things out shortly before he does and hangs herself. Upon finding her body, Oedipus gouges his eyes out with her brooches. Now a completely broken man, Oedipus goes into exile with his daughters.

The other two plays are Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. Fragments of another play, The Progeny, were discovered in 2005. The Progeny was about the Seven Against Thebes.

Oedipus Rex redirects here. If you're looking for the character archetype that this play named, it's Oedipus Complex.

This play contains examples of:

  • Abdicate the Throne: Oedipus, of course.
  • Anti-Hero: Oedipus comes across as one nowadays, thought might not have at the time of the play's writing.
  • At the Crossroads: Oedipus has an encounter at a crossroads that ends violently.
  • Awful Truth: Guess.
  • Blind Seer: Tiresias. And like most prophets, nobody listens to him until it's too late (though according to him it's been too late for some time, something quite a few people forget, including Oedipus in the final scene).
  • Break the Haughty: In spades. Oedipus goes from a strong and beloved king renowned for his insight to a blinded shell of his former self in the course of a single day.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Deconstructed. Oedipus was horrified to find out that the man he killed At the Crossroads is none other than his father.
  • Cosmic Plaything: Oedipus himself. The whole mess happened simply for the fact that the prophecy said it would. If no one had heard it, no one would have attempted to avert it, and thus the events that led to it might never have happened in the first place.
  • The Creon: Creon himself is the Trope Namer. He actually outright describes himself as the second-in-command who is content with his position, in a conversation with Oedipus himself - making him the de-facto Ur Example.
  • Downer Ending: It's a tragedy, so that's pretty obvious.
  • Dramatic Irony: Oedipus vows to track down Laius' killer... but the audience knows perfectly well that he is the killer, even though Oedipus himself does not.
    • The play's dialogue is filled to the brim with this.
    Oedipus: (referring to Laius) So I will fight for him as if he were my father...
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: Rather natural when dealing with a plot like this. A little more tragic than most examples.
  • Eye Scream: A brooch pin to the eye cannot feel good.
    • Brain Bleach: What the act was probably supposed to be. Sadly, water from Lethe wasn't available.
  • Greek Chorus: A staple of Athenian theatre.
  • Large Ham: Like most Greek theater, Oedipus is acted in this style. Later versions, such as the 1967 version, act it more realistically, but the 1957 version goes all out with its depiction of the style.
  • Mystical Plague: Oedipus's actions (killing his father, marrying his mother) unknowingly brought blight and plague ("miasma") to his people. Crops did not grow, stock animals died off, and women suffered from infertility, all because Oedipus's actions went against classical concepts of morality.
  • Oedipus Complex: Trope Namer: Freud named his (in)famous complex after him because his murder of his father and marriage to his mother were both outside his conscious awareness. Of course, the play isn't actually an example of this, considering that Oedipus could not have been around his parents for more than a day or two as a child.
    • Interestingly, Iocaste at one point comments that it's not especially unusual for people to have dreams of sleeping with their mothers, meaning the trope itself is Older Than They Think.
  • Older Than They Look: At least one story mentions that Iocaste has a magic girdle that keeps her looking young and beautiful, rather than seeming her true age. Definitely helps explain why Oedipus never caught on to the idea that maybe she was his mother.
  • Parental Incest: Oedipus' wife is his mother and all his children are also his half-siblings.
  • Patricide: A classic example.
  • Poor Communication Kills: All of this might have been avoided if Oedipus' adopted parents had just told him he was adopted in the first place. Perhaps a Justified Trope, though, since in those days being of uncertain descent could cause no end of problems for a person in a prominent position (although probably not nearly as much trouble as he ended up in anyway).
  • Pride: Couldn't have a Greek tragedy without some hubris.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Unfortunately for Oedipus.
  • Reverse Whodunnit: Could be considered the Ur Example from a certain perspective.
  • Riddling Sphinx: Trope Maker.
  • Screw Destiny: Subverted. Oedipus tried this, but in Ancient Greece, destiny screws you.
  • Surprise Incest: Oedipus and Jocasta don't find out about their relationship until after raising a family together.
  • Symbolic Mutilation: Oedipus didn't realise what was going on and when he does...(See Eye Scream above.)
  • Tempting Fate: Rarely is it more literal than here; after hearing that the man he's always believed to be his birth-father is dead of natural causes, Oedipus begins crowing that he's beaten the prophecy and specifically mocking Apollo, for whom prophecy was a domain. His ultimate fate may have been less hideous had he not done so. Fate is one thing, but there are ways to conduct yourself when meeting it.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Oedipus finds out he is the most evil character in the narrative.
  • Torture Always Works: When the shepherd who found the abandoned infant Oedipus and gave him to Polybus, is brought to Oedipus and refuses to talk, Oedipus orders his guards to twist his arm behind his back until he does. Later, he threatens to have the man killed when he hesitates again. What he tells him finally leads Oedipus to be the last one to figure out who his real parents were, and are.
  • Tragedy
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Prior to becoming a king in Thebes, the eponymous character kills (unbeknownst to him) his father for basically cutting him off at the crossroads (and being a complete Jerkass about it). He marries his mother, completing the other half of the famous complex, at leisure though.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Despite his best intentions, Oedipus ends up fulfilling the terms of his prophecy.
  • You Do Not Want To Know: Once everyone has figured the truth out but Oedipus, and even before, they start bombing him with this.

So be sweet and kind to mother, now and then have a chat
Buy her candy or some flowers or a brand new hat
But maybe you had better let it go at that
Or you may find yourself with a quite complex complex
And you may end up like Oedipus
I'd rather marry a duck-billed platypus
Then end up like ol' Oedipus Rex!
Oedipus at ColonusClassic TheatreThe Oresteia
Inherit the WindSchool Study MediaAntigone
Oedipus at ColonusTheatrical ProductionsOh! Calcutta!

alternative title(s): Oedipus Rex; Oedipus The King; Oedipus Rex; King Oedipus; Oedipus Tyrannus
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