Historical Context in Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex was written by the Greek playwright Sophocles and first performed in 429 BCE. Sophocles lived in Athens for most of the 5th century BCE, a period known as the “Golden Age of Athens” due to the remarkable wealth, power, and cultural achievement of the city-state during that time. One of the central artistic forms of the time was the tragic play. Athens held a yearly drama festival in which playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides competed with their newest works. Sophocles distinguished himself as the premier playwright of his age, winning eighteen of the thirty competitions he entered. The Greek tragedy was perfected in this time. In fact, scholars across the ages have generally considered Oedipus Rex the pinnacle of Greek tragedy. The play has been a touchstone of the theater since its creation.

Historical Context Examples in Oedipus Rex:

Oedipus Rex 13
"cast himself from the land..."   (Oedipus Rex)

Exile was a grave punishment in Greek society, sometimes considered worse than death. That Oedipus proposes this punishment for himself speaks to his altruistic character that was present at the beginning of the play.

"snatching at her hair..."   (Oedipus Rex)

Tearing one’s hair was a traditional mourning ritual for Greek women. Knowing Oedipus’s true origins as her own son, she went to her room to grieve about the prophecy’s truth. She does this, however, in private and before the truth is revealed to Oedipus, possibly suggesting that she knew all along.

"the city heard these things..."   (Oedipus Rex)

Ancient Greece--specifically Athens---is considered the birthplace of democracy. Some citizens (adult males of a particular social status) were allowed to vote on legislation, which in theory allowed the voice of the people to be heard in politics. It makes sense, then, that Sophocles would personify Thebes and pride the ideas of the public over those of any single ruler.

"a single day..."   (Oedipus Rex)

The plots of many Greek tragedies occur within the span of a single day, minimizing the need for many different props and scene changes. This humorous little phrase refers to this tradition, which audiences at the time would have understood.

"the speech of birds..."   (Oedipus Rex)

This is a reference to the Greek divination practice of interpreting omens from the flight or singing of birds (called augury by the Romans). Birdsong was used by prophets to understand the will of the gods.

"make him partner in prayers..."   (Oedipus Rex)

Oedipus forbids the killer to take part in any religious rites, speaking to the Greeks’ views on the place of criminals in religion. The gods would be offended by the presence of a polluted man, so his sacrifice wouldn’t even be a proper ritual offering. Whoever the murderer is would be relegated to subhuman status.

"Paean..."   (Oedipus Rex)

“Paean” may refer to two things in this passage. First, “Paean” was an epithet of Apollo, the god Thebes is praying to. However, the priest may also being praying to the Greek physician of the gods of the same name to save Thebes from the plague. Either way, the urgency of the situation calls for divine intervention.

"the pollution being fostered in this very land..."   (Oedipus Rex)

This “pollution” is what was known to the Greeks as miasma, a contagious power caused by crimes such as murder. It could only be purged through proper rituals that would lead to catharsis, the Greek concept of cleansing one’s emotions to experience renewal. The expanse of the pollution indicates the theme of the separation of private life versus public life, as a single person’s crime creates consequences for the community.

"with help from god..."   (Oedipus Rex)

Divine intervention from the gods was commonly associated with a hero’s journey, like in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey when Athena aided Odysseus and Telemachus. So far, Oedipus is characterized as being a heroic character, receiving help from the gods and saving a town from a monster. This creates expectations for Oedipus to continue his heroic streak.

"cruel songstress..."   (Oedipus Rex)

This is a reference to the Sphinx, a monster that terrorized Thebes until Oedipus inadvertently destroyed it. Sophocles does not explicitly name the monster because Greek tragedies were based on widely-known myths that the audience was already familiar with. This way, he could simply make allusions rather than explain everything.

"new-sprung race of old Cadmus..."   (Oedipus Rex)

Cadmus, Prince of Tyre, brother of Europa, was said to have founded the city of Thebes and was credited with introducing the Phoenician alphabet into Greek. His descendants and citizens form a new "race" of people governed by Oedipus, King of Thebes, who gives the play its title.

"The Chorus..."   (Oedipus Rex)

In ancient Greek tragedies, the Chorus was a group of oft unnamed characters who acted as a collective, speaking (or singing) about and to the various themes and characters in the play. In Oedipus Rex, the Chorus speaks for the population of the city, which is suffering the effects of a deadly plague.

"a shrine to Apollo..."   (Oedipus Rex)

Apollo, son of Zeus, god of music, truth, healing, plague, and poetry. His shrine at Delphi housed the famous Oracle, whose prophecies were both renowned and feared throughout the Greek city-states. Apollo's attributes as the god of prophecy and disease establish two of the key themes in the play.