Plot in Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King begins when a plague blights the city-state of Thebes. Oedipus, the king, discovers the source of the plague: a curse resulting from the disappearance of the former king Laius. Laius was reportedly murdered by bandits, and so Oedipus resolves to find and kill the bandits. Oedipus requests the advice of the prophet Tiresias, who tells the king that he himself is the criminal he seeks. Oedipus rages at the prophet and ignores his words. As the play continues, Oedipus continues his search, discovering more and more about the circumstances of Laius’s murder. In the process, Oedipus inadvertently learns more about himself. It is revealed that Jocasta abandoned her first-born son on Mount Cithaeron due to a prophecy that the boy would grow up to kill his father and wed his mother. It is discovered, too, that the shepherd who witnessed Laius’s murder was the same shepherd who rescued and raised the infant Oedipus. When the truth is revealed, Jocasta and Oedipus spiral into grief. Jocasta hangs herself, and after finding her body, Oedipus gouges out his own eyes with her hairpins. At the play’s end, Oedipus’s fate is ambiguous, left to be decided by oracles. He pleads to be exiled. In the final moments, the Chorus reminds us that misfortune can befall even the most admired people: “Therefore wait to see life's ending ere thou count one mortal blest; Wait till free from pain and sorrow he has gained his final rest.”

Plot Examples in Oedipus the King:

Oedipus the King 7

"suborned..."   (Oedipus the King)

The verb “suborned” means to bribe or otherwise influence someone to commit an unlawful act. By this statement, Oedipus suggests that the only reason a group of robbers would have killed the king is if they were paid by someone within Thebes. He assumes that Laius was killed in a plot against Thebes and the throne.

"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.

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

In this context, the adjective “fell” means terrible, evil, or ferocious and the “songstress” is the Sphinx that terrorized Thebes until Oedipus destroyed it. In the Oedipus myth, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx on the road to Delphi. He must answer the Sphinx’s riddle correctly or be killed. When he correctly answers the riddle, the surprised Sphinx drowns herself in the sea and Thebes is free from her rule. As a reward, Oedipus is given a beautiful wife, Jocasta, and he becomes King of Thebes.

"A blight on wives in travail..."   (Oedipus the King)

The Priest here lists many of the damaging effects of the plague: the crops and cattle are dying, the children are dying in their mothers’ wombs, and the disease that spreads even among the healthiest of men. While many priests and suppliants pray to the gods for relief, this priest comes to Oedipus to help them escape this plague. Notice that the priest is careful to say that Oedipus does not equal the god’s power, a claim that would have caused more divine wrath, but rather that Oedipus is favored by the gods and can therefore uncover some kind of defense against the blight.

"This day shall be thy birth-day, and thy grave...."   (Oedipus the King)

Tiresias indicates that the truth about Oedipus’s long-debated parentage will finally be revealed on this day, as will Oedipus’s fate. On this day the truth will both define his identity but also ruin him. In a sense, he will be both created and destroyed.

"thou hast eyes, Yet see'st not in what misery thou art fallen,..."   (Oedipus the King)

It is ironic that Teiresias, the blind prophet, accuses Oedipus of not being able to see. In this context, Teiresias’s vision and Oedipus’s blindness are metaphorical and concern the domain of truth. This conception of vision as the capacity to confront truth is one of the play’s central themes. Oedipus will suffer for his own blindness because of his inability to accept Tiresias's prophecy.

"in whom Above all other men is truth inborn...."   (Oedipus the King)

Oedipus knows that Teiresias, as a prophet, may have insight into the identity of Laius’s murderer. The question remains whether Teiresias’s knowledge, or any other intervention for that matter, can steer Oedipus away from his fate.