Historical Context in Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King (known as Oedipus Rex in other translations) 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 the King the pinnacle of Greek tragedy. The play has been a touchstone of the theater since its creation.

Historical Context Examples in Oedipus the King:

Oedipus the King 14

"Pluto..."   (Oedipus the King)

By this, the Priest means that many people have died and gone to the underworld. In the Greek tradition, Hades was the god of the underworld and keeper of dead souls. Pluto is the god of the underworld in the Roman mythology, a period from about the 12th century BCE to about 312 CE, that borrowed much of the Greek mythos. Notice that the modern translator has used the Roman name for this God instead of the Greek name.

"Pythian Phoebus..."   (Oedipus the King)

Phoebus is another name for the Apollo, god of light, plague, medicine, and truth. Apollo was the patron god of Delphi, a city-state originally called “Pytho.” Here, Oedipus claims that he has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the temple of Apollo in Delphi to consult the famous oracle who lives there. He hopes Creon will return with instructions from this Oracle about how he can lift the plague of Thebes.

"by a god inspired ..."   (Oedipus the King)

Divine inspiration or aid was a literary trope in Greek stories. This is called deus ex machina. In this trope, a god would appear suddenly and save a seemingly impossible situation from its tragic end. Heroes in Greek epics, such as Odysseus, Telemachus, and Heracles, were often both aided and thwarted by gods. For example, in Homer’s The Odyssey, the god Poseidon prevents Odysseus from returning home and the goddess Athena aids him in overcoming Poseidon’s obstructions. Here, the priest assumes that Oedipus was able to defeat the Sphinx because a god intervened; in other words, he was victorious because the gods were one his side. This sets up Oedipus’s character as a trustworthy man and hero.

"Ismenus..."   (Oedipus the King)

Ismenus is the god of the Ismenus River in Thebes. As the god of the river, the Thebans pray to Ismenus in hopes of protecting their water source. Ismenus featured prominently in The Thebaid, an epic Latin poem about Oedipus’s son Polynices’s attack on Thebes following the events of this play.

"Pallas..."   (Oedipus the King)

Pallas is an epithet, or glorified nickname, for Athena, who is the goddess of wisdom, craft, and war. She was a champion of heroes. Because of the plague, many people are crowding around shrines of Athena praying for wisdom and relief from it. The Priest mentions this fervent prayer to demonstrate how desperate and helpless this plague has made the Thebans; they can do nothing but pray to alleviate their condition.

"CHORUS..."   (Oedipus the King)

In ancient Greek tragedies, the Chorus was a group of unnamed characters who acted as a collective, speaking (or singing) about and to the various themes and characters in the play. They offer background information about the plot and characters and help the audience follow the action. The chorus often operated as the moral center of the play, demonstrating for the audience how they were supposed to interpret the themes of the play and offering crucial insight to characters on stage.

"O King Apollo! may his joyous looks Be presage of the joyous news he brings!..."   (Oedipus the King)

Apollo is the god of music, truth, healing, plague, and poetry. His shrine at Delphi housed a famous Oracle whose prophecies were both renowned and feared throughout the Greek city-states. However, Apollo also stood for light and reason. Here, Oedipus means that Creon is brilliant or radiant. Apollo's opposing attributes, both god of light and god of disease, underscore the key themes in the play.

"(Healer of Delos, hear!)..."   (Oedipus the King)

The Chorus’s aside is a paean—or short prayer—to Apollo. Delos refers to the Greek island that hosts a sanctuary to Apollo. As the god most closely associated with medicine and healing, Apollo is the “Healer of Delos,” and thus the appropriate god to call down during such periods of plague.

"augury..."   (Oedipus the King)

This is a reference to the Greco-Roman divination practice of interpreting omens from the flight or singing of birds, known as augury by the Romans. Augury was used by prophets to understand the will of the gods.

"Give him no part in prayer or sacrifice Or lustral rites,..."   (Oedipus the King)

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.

"fell songstress..."   (Oedipus the King)

Sophocles does not explicitly name the monster or explain the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx because Greek tragedies were based on widely known myths that his audience would be familiar with. This mythos creates a type of inherent dramatic irony as the audience often knows the end of the story before the play begins. The entertainment in Greek tragedy focuses on how the story unfolds rather than the plot of the story.

"the common folk, with wreathed boughs Crowd our two market-places,..."   (Oedipus the King)

The marketplace, or Agora, was the center of life in Greek city-states. The Theban Agora was home to the shrine of Apollo and the shrine of his sister Artemis. Suppliants were known to gather there in times of great hardship and pray to the many gods.

"suppliants..."   (Oedipus the King)

A “suppliant” is a person who makes a humble plea to someone in a position of power or authority. In Greek culture, suppliants wore or carried special emblems, such as olive branches, in order to identify themselves. They traditionally knelt before the person they were petitioning and touched either their knees or chin, which were thought to be connected to a person’s heart. For the Greeks, it was taboo to harm a suppliant and anyone who did so would be cursed.

"born to Cadmus old..."   (Oedipus the King)

In Greek mythology, Cadmus was the founder and first king of Thebes. He was renowned for his strength and bravery. Cadmus was the first Greek hero and famous slayer of monsters. His parents sent him on a mission to recover his sister Europa after Zeus kidnapped the beautiful young woman.