Oedipus Rex, a tragic play, was written by famous ancient Greece playwright Sophocles. From his birth circa 496 BCE, Sophocles was able to develop his craft because of the resources available to him through his wealthy father. As a young man, he won a competition against Aeschylus, a veteran writer, and his success in that inspired him to keep writing. Following that competition, Sophocles wrote 180 plays and was awarded around 20 first, and many second, place wins in similar settings. However, of the 180 plays Sophocles created, only 7 have survived into modern times. He recognized three distinct eras in his writing style: first was the “tumid grandeur”, comparable to Aeschylus’ style; then, a “harshness of expression” brought on by his own life; and lastly, a style that, to him, best portrayed human character (Bates).
Over Sophocles’ 90-year life, many historical events happened in and around Greece. In 478 BCE when Sophocles was still a teen, the Delian League defeated Persia to rule over Greece. The Greek’s temple built to house the goddess Athena, the Parthenon, was erected in 447 BCE. Later in Sophocles’ life, the Samian War is fought between Athens and Samos. In this war, he is appointed as a general at age 56. Sophocles died circa 406 BCE after settling down to teach the arts in the latter portion of his time on Earth.
Oedipus Rex, one of his most famous plays, is set in Thebes, Greece. All the actual action takes place in front of the Palace of Thebes, on the steps. There is, however, another setting that is only mentioned throughout the play: Oedipus’ bedroom. While not being a visible setting, it is vital in the plot, as it is there that Jocasta takes her own life and Oedipus gouges his eyes out.
Oedipus Rex, being a story about fate, starts even before the opening lines of the play; the end has, essentially, already been written. However, within the arc of the play, the most impactful event was when Creon returns from his encounter with the Oracle to reveal his findings in regards to the plague that rules over Thebes and the cure to it. This event leads to Oedipus figuring out his heritage and also ushers in the main conflict, which is Oedipus’ quest to discover the murderer of the former king, Lauis (Sophocles 4-5). The most memorable event happens just after Creon reveals the solution to the plague to Oedipus and suggests that Oedipus may, in fact, be Lauis’ murderer. Oedipus accuses Creon of conspiring against him and demands that Creon is not banished or arrested for his alleged conspiracy, but killed. Jocasta comes to the rescue and calms them down while mediating their disagreement (Sophocles 14-18).
The three most influential characters in the play are Oedipus, Creon, and Jocasta. Oedipus, whom the play is named after, is the king of Thebes and the son as well as the husband of Jocasta. He can be harsh as seen in his conversation with Creon: “ No. I want you to die, not just run off—so I can demonstrate what envy means” (Sophocles 17). But he also has integrity and is a very determined man. So much so that he will “do everything [he] can” to get rid of the “polluting stain” which is ironically him. He does end up banishing himself and staying true to his word (Sophocles 5).
Jocasta is Oedipus’ wife and mother. She is a wise woman who tells Oedipus to calm down and “for the sake of the gods, trust [Creon] in this,” referring to Creon’s accusation that Oedipus may be the murderer (Sophocles 17). She’s also inquisitive and objective, as she listens to both Creon’s, her brother’s, and Oedipus’, her husband’s, point of view before coming to a conclusion on the matter at hand. Creon is Jocasta’s brother and Oedipus’ senior advisor (Sophocles 22). He is helpful towards Oedipus when he is vulnerable and asking Creon to banish him and he abides by his wishes (Sophocles 37). Creon is an eager man whose honesty helped him reason with Oedipus as Oedipus declared him a traitor. Creon objects that “for now [he] gets everything [he] wants from [Oedipus], but without the fear… how can being a king be sweeter to [him] than royal power without anxiety (Sophocles 16)”? His honesty helps him in getting his life spared.
Oedipus Rex was a very interesting play that I would recommend to others. The irony added a layer of drama and comedy to the tragic plot and keeps the reader on their toes, wondering when Oedipus would find out that he was the murderer and that the Oracle’s prophecy had been fulfilled. Oedipus gouging his own eyes when he did learn the truth and Jocasta’s suicide was shocking but also keeps readers entertained. The play has also been praised by many critics. Despina Korovessis suggests that Sophocles’ play mirrored the world around him including interactions with and discussions about the supernatural. She notes the controversy of religion in Oedipus Rex and how that is what helps make the play still relevant today. Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature claims the play was “ahead of its’ time.” Ruth Scodel praises the structure of the play, noting that “within the drama itself each step is prepared naturally.” Overall, Oedipus Rex is an entertaining play that warrants the praises it receives.
- Bates, Alfred. “Sophocles and His Tragedies.” Political and Social Satire of Aristophanes, www.theatrehistory.com/ancient/sophocles001.html. Accessed 15 January 2019.
- Cartwright, Mark. “Delian League.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, www.ancient.eu/Delian_League/. Accessed 15 January 2019.
- “Greece Timeline.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, www.ancient.eu/timeline/greece/. Accessed 15 January 2019.
- Johnston, Ian, translator. Oedipus the King. By Sophocles, Richer Resources Publications, 2004. https://www.slps.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=22453&dataid=25126&FileName=Sophocles-Oedipus.pdf. Accessed 28 December 2018.
- Korovessis, Despina. ‘Oedipus the King.’ Literature and Its Times Supplement 1: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them, by Joyce Moss, vol. 1: Ancient Times to the Harlem Renaissance (Beginnings-1920s), Gale, 2003, pp. 301-312. Gale Virtual Reference Library, https://link.galegroup.co/apps/doc/CX2875200043/GVRL?u=j014906007&sid=GVRL&xid=247be17. Accessed 10 January 2019.
- Scodel, Ruth. “A Hidden God: Oedipus the King.” Sophocles, Twayne Publishers, 1984, pp. 58-72. Twayne’s World Authors Series 31. Gale Virtual Reference Library, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2324400016/GVRL?u=j014906007&sid=GVRL&xid=1b3cfb24. Accessed 10 Jan 2019.
- “Sophocles.” Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol. 4, Gale, 2009, pp.1465-1468. Gale Virtual Reference Library, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2507200441/GVRL?u=j014906007&sid=GVRL&xid=2db53e51. Accessed 28 Jan 2019.