Oedipus the King Play by Sophocles Brief Overview

This Resource is for Year 12 students studying Sophocles ‘Oedipus the King’ in the VCE Victorian Curriculum for 2024 Unit 3 AOS1 Reading and Responding to Texts.


Sophocles leading dramatist in Greek classical period 500-323 BC

Year Performed

430 BC at the festival of Dionysia

Type & Genre

Greek tragedy play – like an ancient murder mystery


Greek audience came to watch the play to learn about life through what happens to Oedipus and his fate


In the original Greek, Sophocles’ play was entitled ‘Oidipous Tyrannos’; once the play was translated to Latin, it became ‘Oedipus Rex’, and then in English, ‘Oedipus the King’. The original title aptly included the term ‘tyrannos’, meaning a king with no legitimate claim to the throne, a nod to Oedipus’ belief that he is not descended from Cadmus’ lineage.

Structure of a Greek Tragedy

Peripeteia = A tragedy must have some kind of reversal of fortune – the fall of the tragic hero – Oedipus experiences a peripeteia after the Messenger from Corinth sets off the chain of events that leads to his destruction.

Anagnorisis = The recognition scene when the tragic hero becomes aware of their reversal. Oedipus anagnorisis occurs when he realises that he is the lost son of Laius and Jocasta.

Hamartia = Known as the tragic flaw where heroes have a frailty or make some kind of error that leads to their downfall.

Catharsis = The goal is to create catharsis in the audience to evoke both horror and pity.

Brief Overview of ‘Oedipus the King’

‘Oedipus the King’ written by Sophocles for the Great Dionysia celebration, is a Greek tragedy that is read like a kind of ancient murder mystery. The play is regarded as a classic example of the ‘tragedy of fate’. The hero of the play is his own destroyer, he is the detective who tracks down and identifies the criminal, who turns out to be himself. It is the story of a great but flawed man, doomed to perform the most heinous crimes, despite doing everything he thinks he can to prevent the hideous web that fate has spun for him. The play tells the story of Oedipus, ruler of Thebes who discovers on a terrible day that he is the lost son of the previous king, his father Laius, and his wife Jocasta. This leads to a chain of tragic events that is unveiled as Oedipus unwittingly killed his father (parricide – murder of a parent by a child) and married his mother (incest – sexual relationship of son with mother). Written over 2000 years ago, suggests that fate is determined and the gods have active roles in people’s lives. These ideas were commonly accepted in Sophocles time but are not widely accepted now. Oedipus gradual realisation of his fate, and of the terrible crimes he has unknowingly committed, might be considered impossible or implausible to modern society. However, in the world of ancient Greece, it is possible to see Oedipus determined quest to uncover the truth for the sake of his city Thebes and his deep remorse for the errors of his past, as very recognisable and sympathetic qualities. The action of the play occurs many years after the horrible events, on the fateful day when the truth behind them comes to light.

Timeline of Events Oedipus the King

1-85The priest, talking with Oedipus, tells him Thebes is under a curse and the city needs his help again.
86-150Creon learns from Apollo that the curse on Thebes resulted from King Laius’ murder. The city must banish the murderer to lift the curse.
151-215The Chorus calls on various Olympians to aid Thebes.
216-275Oedipus asks the Thebans to help him find and expel Laius’ murderer. He avidly begins an all-out manhunt.
276-379The blind priest Tiresias has information about the plague, which he refuses to divulge. After much prodding from Oedipus, Tiresias claims that Oedipus is the source of the curse.
380-461Oedipus alleges that Creon and Tiresias are conspiring against him. Tiresias tells Oedipus to learn the truth about his parents and then forecasts Oedipus’ downfall.
462-531Creon, talking with the Chorus, denies the charges of collusion with Tiresias.
532-633Oedipus threatens to execute or deport Creon. Creon maintains his innocence and advises Oedipus to consult Apollo.
634-678Oedipus’ wife, Jocasta, and the Chorus defend Creon and convince Oedipus not to kill or banish him.
679-725Oedipus explains Tiresias’ prophecy to Jocasta; Jocasta counters that not all of Apollo’s vision come true and cites King Laius as an example.
726-770Jocasta recounts Laius’ murder. Oedipus has the first suspicions that he may have killed Laius.
771-863Oedipus tells about the group of travellers he murdered. Oedipus demands to see the lone survivor of the group to confirm if he indeed killed Laius.
864-910Chorus calls on the gods for help.
911-974A messenger tells Oedipus that the King of Corinth is dead and that Oedipus is to assume the throne. Oedipus refuses to return, for fear of fulfilling Apollo’s prophecy that Oedipus would sleep with his mother.
975-1076Messenger tells Oedipus that he is not, in fact, the son of Polybus (the dead King of Corinth): A herdsman rescued Oedipus, after he was exposed as an infant, and turned the baby Oedipus over to the messenger himself. Jocasta becomes convinced that Oedipus murdered Laius.
1077-1185Oedipus brings in the herdsman who rescued him as a child. Oedipus squeezes the information out of the herdsman and realizes that he is the son of Laius and Jocasta, killed his father (Laius) and slept with his mother (Jocasta).
1186-1297Long lament by the Chorus. A second messenger reports Jocasta’s suicide.
1298-1422Oedipus blinds himself. Oedipus claims he will suffer more by blinding himself than by suicide.
1423-1475Oedipus asks Creon to banish him from Thebes and administer rites to Jocasta.
1476-1515Oedipus laments for his daughters, Antigone and Ismene.
1516-1530Conclusion. Chorus indicates that Oedipus will continue to live after the tragedy’s ending.

Brief Character Analysis


At the beginning of the play, the eponymous character believes himself to be the son of Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth. Oedipus had been granted the throne of Thebes because of his ingenuity in defeating the Sphinx, who had cursed Thebes and was terrorising its citizens. An additional part of Oedipus’ reward was marriage to Jocasta, the widowed wife of the former king, Laius. Unbeknownst to Oedipus, he has married his biological mother, having previously murdered Laius on a road far outside Thebes, not realising that Laius was the King of Thebes, nor that Laius was his biological father.

Most aspects of his character revolve around the question: to what extent is Oedipus guilty of the fate that befalls him? He has a wide range of personality traits both positive – bravery & cunning. But he also has negative traits – hubris (pride), foolish, naïve, hot tempered, authoritarian, paranoid, lacks insight into his faults, denies the truth. By the end of the play his traits have changed to be more humble even though blinded he sees the truth more clearly.


Oedipus’ wife (and unknowingly his mother) does not enter the play until the conflict between Oedipus and Creon is well underway. She is immediately presented to the audience as a confident woman and one whom the people respect. As Queen of Thebes she was married to King Laius and is the mother of Oedipus whom she had abandoned on Mount Cithaeron when he was three days old. She becomes the unwitting wife of her own son not long after the death of her husband and bears Oedipus 4 children – 2 sons Eteocles and Polyneices and 2 daughters Antigone and Ismene.

Aspects of her character revolve around the question: how could a mother abandon her own newborn child? She appears a jaded person haunted by fate and her past. The audience and the Chorus share sympathy with her horror of realising the terrible outcome of her past and the consequences of marrying her own son. At the end of the play Jocasta suicides because she cannot live with herself, but also because, as a woman, she cannot live within society.


Creon is Jocasta’s brother and at the start of the play Oedipus brother-in-law but also his uncle. Creon is respected by the people of Thebes and is initially regarded by Oedipus as a loyal and trusted friend. Despite their relationship souring, and Oedipus even viewing Creon as the antagonist at times, he is in fact the hero of this tale. He shares Oedipus’ desire to save Thebes from destruction and is equally determined to search for the truth behind the oracle.

Positive aspects of his character are held up by Sophocles as the man we should aspire to be: steadfast without stubbornness, confident without arrogance. He even bears the quality most commonly regarded as being essential for a good king: he does not want to be one. Where Oedipus is aggressive and headstrong, Creon is reasoned, temperate, cautious and content with his position of not being king with all the worries.


The character of Tiresias, whose name literally means ‘portent’, was included in many Ancient Greek myths and tragedies. He is revered by the Thebans, who refer to him as ‘Lord Tiresias’ and claim he ‘sees with the eyes of Lord Apollo’ [323]. Despite the esteem in which he is held by the Chorus, Tiresias’ role in Oedipus the King is a tragic one. He unwillingly comes to Thebes at Oedipus’ behest, and endeavours to conceal his knowledge, because he knows ‘the truth is only pain to him who sees’ [360]. He is threatened and taunted by Oedipus, who not only is ignorant of the knowledge Tiresias holds, but also unaware of the kindness Tiresias attempts to show Oedipus in bearing the burden of being the one in whom ‘the truth lives … [in] him alone’ [339].

The Priest

The Priest of Thebes plays an important role within his community, as well as in this play, as it is his treatment of Oedipus that sets the tone for Sophocles’ interpretation of the mythological character of Oedipus. While Oedipus presents himself as a god among men when he questions why the Chorus is ‘pray[ing] to the gods’ when he will ‘grant [their] prayers’ [245], the Priest identifies Oedipus as the ‘first of men’ [41], and he has already clearly stated that Oedipus ‘cannot equal the gods’ [39]. The Priest’s distinction between the gods and men (even the ‘first of men’) challenges Oedipus to step back from his hubris, however, Oedipus responds to the Priest’s words with excessive references to himself and all he feels and all he has done.

While the Priest’s role seems to be that of a grounding agent, persistently reminding Oedipus of his status, and that even in Oedipus’ greatest triumph ‘a god was with [him]’ [48], there are inconsistencies that feed into Oedipus’ sense of grandeur and blur the line between respect for a king and worship of a god.

The Chorus

As a standard in Greek drama the Chorus have a double identity – one within the plot and one outside of it. The Chorus in the plot identity is as a group of Theban citizens to fulfill duties of answering questions about characters and events and as an intermediary between characters. The outside the plot role is to comment on social, religious and historical meaning of the unfolding action of the play.

fate versus free will & prophecywisdomblindness figurative versus literal
choice & freedomcost of ignorance & value of knowledgemorality & the good life
truthpower & tyranny as rulerhubris (pride)
banishment & exileidentityfamily
truths & half truthsblindnesseyes & vision
hearing & listeningnauticallight & dark
swollen ankles & feetthe cross roadsthe oracle

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