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Theatre / Oedipus the King

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From the Bible to the popular song
There's one theme that we find right along
Of all ideals they hail as good
The most sublime is
Tom Lehrer, Oedipus Rex
Οἰδίπους Τύραννος (Oedipus Tyrannus), also known as Oedipus the King 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 his audience with Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, with news that the plague will not be lifted until the true murderer of the previous king, King Laius, 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 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 Laius and marry his mother Jocasta. 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, King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who fail to tell him that they are not his birth parents. Oedipus eventually gets wind of the prophecy from his birth and leaves Corinth 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 four 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 Jocasta's body, Oedipus gouges his eyes out with her brooches. Now a completely broken man, Oedipus goes into exile.

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 (basically the plot of The Thebaid). Film adaptations of the story include a 1957 American film where the actors wore Greek theater masks, a 1967 Italian version by Pier Paolo Pasolini, a 1968 version in English starring Christopher Plummer, and a loose 1968 version with a couple of Gender Flips in Japan, Funeral Parade of Roses.

Oedipus Rex redirects here. If you're looking for the Freudian concept named after this play, see Oedipus Complex.

This play contains examples of:

  • Abdicate the Throne: Oedipus, of course.
  • Adopted into Royalty: Oedipus was adopted by the king and queen of Corinth after being abandoned.
  • Anti-Hero: Oedipus comes across as one nowadays, though he might not have at the invokedtime of the play's writing. It's hard to tell, since one rule of Greek tragedy was that the hero must always have pride as a Fatal Flaw, which the Greeks considered the worst sin possible. His behavior is normal for a king, though.
  • At the Crossroads: Oedipus has an encounter at a crossroads that ends violently, with him killing his actual father.
  • Awful Truth: Sophocles put it best:
    Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that's wise!
  • Bastard Angst: As a young man, Oedipus is very upset when a man insinuates that he is not his parent's real son. Even when his (adoptive) parents reassure him this is not the case, he is still so bothered by it that he sees an oracle about it, where he finds out how he is supposed to kill his father and marry his mother.
  • 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).
  • Brain Bleach: What the act of Oedipus removing his eyes was probably supposed to be when he learned the horrible truth. Sadly, water from Lethe wasn't available.
  • 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.
  • The Cassandra: Tiresias tells the truth that Oedipus himself killed Laius, and strongly hints at the rest, but Oedipus doesn't believe him, thinking he is just working with Creon to frame him so Creon can take over.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The sole survivor of Laius's entourage just so happens to have been the shepherd who saved Oedipus from death as a baby. Had this not been so, Oedipus would never have learned the truth. Justified since the shepherd is an agent of Fate.
  • 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.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Both Jocasta and Oedipus cross this when they learn of Laius's real killer. Jocasta takes her own life. Oedipus does not, but his fate is no better.
  • Downer Ending: Well what did you expect in a tragedy? A happy ending?
  • 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...
  • Driven to Suicide: Jocasta commits suicide when she realizes what has happened.
  • Evil Uncle: Subverted, Creon is in fact not trying to take power from Oedipus like Oedipus thinks. Also, not only does Oedipus not realize Creon is not evil, he doesn't realize Creon is his uncle.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: Rather natural when dealing with a plot like this. A little more tragic than most examples.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Takes place over only one day.
  • Eye Scream: A brooch pin to the eye cannot feel good.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: Can be considered an early example, even though everyone knows the story already, because the whole cast figures it out before Oedipus does, and that is because he is in denial.
  • Fatal Flaw:
    • Pride for Oedipus. His belief that he can avert the prophecy causes him to flee from safety and go to the one city where the prophecy could be fulfilled, but even then, he would not have killed his father if he hadn't flown into a murderous rage when Laius was rude to him on the road. He then compounds his pride by falsely accusing Tiresias and Creon of the murder instead, even though Tiresias is an agent of the gods, adding sacrilege to his list of sins, and once he mocks Apollo, the god of prophecy, only then is his doom sealed.
    • Jocasta also has one, namely, doubting the Oracle. She doesn't technically accuse the gods of lacking prophecy, but merely the oracles of lying about the gods' will, but invokedeven that is too much for the ancient Greeks. She might have survived the play had she not goaded Oedipus into disrespecting fate; once she puts two and two together she immediately tries to make him stop for his own good, then runs off and kills herself.
  • Fisher King: Thebes ends up suffering several plagues due to Oedipus accidentally breaking several moral taboos (murdering his birth father and marrying/impregnating his mother).
  • Foreshadowing: Lots.
    • Oedipus repeatedly says he will avenge Laius as if he were his father, saying that had Laius's dead child lived, he would have been the brother of Oedipus's own children, and that he wouldn't exempt himself from punishment even if he himself had killed the king.
    • Jocasta interacts with Oedipus more like a mother than a wife, not that she knows...
    • Everything Tiresias says, obviously.
    • Oedipus mocks Tiresias's blindness. Later, he'll put his own eyes out.
    • Apollo is the god of both plague and prophecy.
  • Greek Chorus: A staple of Athenian theatre.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Not only did Oedipus kill Laius for cutting him off in traffic (though Laius did attack him) but he also flies into a rage and assumes, with positively zero evidence, that Tiresias and Creon are engaged in a criminal conspiracy to kill both him and the previous king in order to seize the throne. He only calms down after finding out he killed his father and married his mother, after which he is a totally broken man.
  • Heroic BSoD: Oedipus and Jocasta after they figure out the truth.
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: Probably the ur-example. The play is basically a detective story in which the detective is the killer.
  • If Only You Knew:
    • Oedipus announces to the people of Thebes that he will care about Laius and investigate his death as if Laius were his own father. Unbeknownst to Oedipus, Laius, of course, is his father.
    • Jocasta reassures Oedipus about the falsity of Tiresias' claim that he killed Laius by saying that she herself has experience with a prophecy not coming true, when her own child was supposed to kill his father. Said child is actually Oedipus himself, and the father he was, destined to kill is Laius himself, so that same prophecy tells correctly that Oedipus killed Laius.
  • In Medias Res: The play starts at the beginning of the end (Oedipus's final day as king, unbeknownst to him), showing a single day in his life and in that day his whole life is revealed via backstory.
  • The Killer in Me: Oedipus is trying to find who killed Laius. It turns out that Oedipus himself killed Laius.
  • 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 (or in one version, died in childbirth), all because Oedipus's actions went against classical concepts of morality.
  • Named After the Injury: "Oedipus" translates to "Swollen Foot", after an injury from his infancy. An injury that, when the details are finally described, happens to match the one inflicted on Jocaste's long-lost child...
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Herod: Laius and Jocasta abandon their child to die so he won't kill his father. All this accomplishes is making sure Oedipus, who is rescued and survives, doesn't know who Laius is when he kills him.
  • No, You: Oedipus, angry at Tiresias for refusing to tell him Laius' killer when he needs the information to save his city from a plague, accuses Tiresias himself of being the killer. Tiresias in turn accuses Oedipus of being the killer. Unusually for this trope, Tiresias is actually right.
  • Oblivious Adoption: Oedipus doesn't know he was adopted until he's told near the end of the play by the messenger who tells him of Polybus' death.
  • Older Than They Look: At least one story mentions that Jocasta 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.
  • Our Sphinxes Are Different: Oedipus frees Thebes from a sphinx who had trapped people inside by answering her riddle, thus saving the kingdom, which makes him the king out of gratitude. While the sphinx is not described in the play, and much of this occurs off-screen, the sphinx fits the Riddling Sphinx archetype and was likely a Greek-style sphinx.
  • Parental Incest: Oedipus' wife is his mother and all his children are also his half-siblings.
  • Patricide: A classic example.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: King Laius was cursed by Pelops to be killed by his own son should he ever have one — because Laius raped Pelops' young son Chrysippus after Pelops had hosted him in his home.
  • The Penance: Oedipus blinds himself out of horror in realizing he killed his father and married (and even had children with) his mother.
  • 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 any way).
  • Pop Culture Osmosis: An entire branch of psychology was inspired by the tale!
    Jocasta: (played by Olympia Dukakis in Mighty Aphrodite) I hate to tell you what they call my son in Harlem!
  • Pride: Couldn't have a Greek tragedy without some hubris.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Unfortunately for Oedipus.
  • Prophetic Fallacy: The only reason Oedipus thought he had beaten the prophecy was because he didn't discover his real parents until after fulfilling the prophecy.
  • Really Royalty Reveal: Oedipus believes himself to not be the hereditary ruler of Thebes, and, once he finds out that he was adopted, thinks he is not royalty at all and probably comes from a lower-class family. Turns out he really is royalty and also the rightful king of Thebes... which, of course, he is not happy to find out.
  • Reverse Whodunnit: Could be considered the Ur-Example from a certain perspective. The story plays out like a murder mystery with Oedipus acting as a detective investigating the unsolved murder of King Laius. However, the identity of the culprit is already known for the intended audience so the drama of the play revolves around the Internal Reveal that Oedipus is himself the culprit.
  • Riddle of the Sphinx: Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx occurs in the backstory and is how he became king of Thebes and married Jocasta.
  • Riddling Sphinx: The myth of Oedipus is the Trope Maker. The play itself takes place many years after Oedipus solved the riddle of Sphinx, but the deed remains a source of hubris as Oedipus brags about it at the beginning of the play.
  • Screw Destiny: Subverted. Oedipus tried this, but in Ancient Greece, destiny screws you.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Perhaps one of the oldest and best-known examples. Trying to prevent the prophecy that their son will kill his father and marry his mother, Laios and Jocasta order that he be abandoned in the wild. But the baby is saved, and he not knowing his parents (nor they knowing him) is, of course, the set-up that makes the prophecy actually come true. Oedipus, unaware that he is adopted, visits an oracle and is told that he will kill his father. He immediately flees from his parents so that he can't possibly kill his (adopted) father... and runs into Laios on the road where they get into a fight...
  • Surprise Incest: Oedipus and Jocasta don't find out about their relationship until after raising a family together.
  • Symbolic Mutilation: Oedipus didn't realize 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 might 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 evilest 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). Still earlier, when he first learned about the prophecy, he impulsively resolved to flee from Corinth and never see the parents who raised him again – not stopping to consider that they might not be his birth parents, even though it was doubts about his parentage that made him consult the oracle at Delphi in the first place. 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!

Alternative Title(s): Oedipus Rex, King Oedipus, Oedipus Tyrannus