Oedipus by Sophocles

About Sophocles | Study Questions | Topics for Critical Essays

Biography and Historical Context

Sophocles was born in near Athens in 496 BC, in the town of Colonus. His ninety-year lifespan covered

the rise and fall of the Athenian Golden Age. A close friend of Pericles, Sophocles held several public

offices throughout his life in addition to being a leading dramatist. He was not much in favor of the

politician's life - he restricted his involvement with the state to his minor military and civil offices. Sophocles

was not interested in the intrigues or politics of the courts, either - he is thought to have refused several

invitations to stay with royalty.

Sophocles recieved the first prize for tragic drama over Aeschylus at the play competition held in 468. He

wrote well over one hundred plays for Athenian theatres, and won approximately twenty-four contests.

Only seven of his plays, however, have survived intact. From the fragments remaining, and from references

to lost plays in other works, scholars have discovered that Sophocles wrote on an enormous variety of

topics, and introduced several key innovations. Sophocles died in 406-5 BC.


An Exploration of Oedipus

In Oedipus the King, Oedipus is portrayed as a character of social conscience. He utilizes his

personal power as an individual wisely, his quick temper his only visible flaw. Aside from this, he is

a just sovereign and uses his judgment and reason in a manner he feels to best suit his people, with

little concern for either fate or his own well-being. However, his actions in the later play, Oedipus at

Colonus, are far less measured. Oedipus appears to be more a wounded scapegoat than a good

king – he has lost the greater consciousness of the earlier play. The progression of the character of

Oedipus, from a leader who disregards fate to a beggar whose life is dictated by it, reflects the role

of the individual against the deep-laid patterns of destiny.

Oedipus is first introduced as a savior. A priest, surrounded by a crowd of questioning children and

peasants, has come to ask Oedipus what may be done to alleviate the terrible blights which afflict the city

of Thebes. He comes to hear their story directly, instead of asking them to explain to a messenger: "I did

not think it fit that I should hear/of this from messengers but came myself … Indeed I'm willing to give

all/that you may need; I would be very hard/should I not pity suppliants like these" (p.11, 6-13). This role

is an extension of the heroic part that Oedipus plays in rescuing the city from the Sphinx in a riddling

contest. His first introduction to Thebes is his use of reason to defeat evil, and the people recognize his

abilities and respond accordingly: "we have not come as suppliants to this altar/because we thought of you

as a God,/but rather judging you the first of men" (p.12, l.31-33).


Despite their views about his personal humanity, they do not see his wisdom as originating from human

means. The people of Thebes blame the pestilence destroying their city upon the gods; so, too, do they

credit Oedipus's foresight and counsel as being of godly origin. Oedipus himself chooses to ignore this

popular conception of his power. He responds to this call for godly aid with an account of his own

personal attempts to unravel the problem, never once even making an allusion to immortals. He tells them,

"my spirit groans/for city and myself and you at once" (p.13, l.64-65), thereby signifying that he has

personally taken the problems of Thebes upon himself to solve, disregarding the usefulness of the gods.


It is Creon who introduces the idea of an oracle from Apollo as a viable solution to the epidemic of

disasters. Although Oedipus doesn't ask the gods for help himself, he, like the rest of the population, sees

the message from Apollo as factual information – much the way that a detective investigating a murder case

might admit an expert opinion. Oedipus relies more readily on his personal prowess than upon divine aid,

but his wish to help his people leads him to admit supernatural options. He wants to save the city again,

and his quest for the truth is efficient and just: "so stand I forth a champion of the God/and of the man who

died" (p.20, l.244-245). Oedipus is straddling two bridges with this statement. In his person, he unwittingly

links divine justice with individual conscience, and the result is a unique character: in his use of reason, his

fair-mindedness and his temper, his absolute power, and his doom.


To his great credit, Oedipus doesn't cease his pursuit of the truth and the old kings murderer, despite the

accumulation of events that weigh the scales toward Oedipus himself. In fact, the first instance in which his

temper is revealed is when he first encounters Teiresias, a seer who refuses to divulge the truth he admits

to knowing. Gently, the blind seer tries to warn Oedipus, "let me/go home. It will be easier for us both/to

bear our several destinies to the end/if you will follow my advice" (p.23, l.319-322). But Oedipus doesn't

want anything withheld from him, and he gradually becomes more heated in his wheedling, until the prophet

spits out the truth in disgust, and, cursing, takes his leave. An important character trait emerges in Oedipus

during this exchange. Teiresias, in his last attempt to be remotely civil, tells Oedipus "it is not fate that I

should be your ruin,/Apollo is enough; it is his care/to work this out" (p.27, l.376-378). However,

Oedipus's pride is hurt by this aspersion, and his patience is quite at an end. He responds with a caustic

and accusatory speech which angers Teiresias enough to provoke a similar response from the prophet –

and yet, Oedipus is not so much challenging fate as oblivious to it. He prioritizes the truth above his

personal well-being, and, by doing so, admits his view of fate as a lesser force in his consciousness than

the safety of Thebes.


In Oedipus the King, Oedipus shows sound reasoning, if laced with fantastic anger when provoked. He

displays an independence from the culture of polytheism and fate in his unbound manner of

problem-solving. He tells the chorus "I account myself a child of fortune" (p.58, l.1080), and he proves

through his actions that he is willing to defy even a prophet of Apollo to find the truth for himself and his

city. Once the horror is fully understood, he has the strength to follow through on his initial promise – he

saves the city of Thebes a second time by leaving it. The situation has changed in Oedipus at Colonus.

Although he makes the statement, "my sufferings have taught me to endure" (p.79, l.7), and disobeys

custom by seating himself in the sacred grove of the Eumenides, Oedipus is no longer the controlling force

that he appears in Oedipus the King. He is not able to see for himself, and the loss of his eyes represents

the more crucial loss of Oedipus's individual character. Antigone must translate the world to him s it seems

to her; there is no opportunity for Oedipus to practice the personal discernment he shows at the start of the

previous play. She tells him to follow her unquestioningly, to "do as other citizens do here" (p.86, l.174)

and he but rarely offers even a gentle objection to her directions. As the play progresses, Oedipus

becomes gradually more frantic. His wise counseling of his daughters and courteous treatment of strangers

slowly dissolves as each encounter he makes only worsens his condition. Now, he blames his predicament

upon outside forces, unlike the Oedipus of the earlier play, who would have taken all fault upon himself.

Creon's entrance gives Oedipus even more cause to bemoan his existence, and his anger at his old advisor

spills over to Polyneices, when the son enters to succor his father.


Creon's character, as it is portrayed in each play, presents a useful vehicle for the analysis of Oedipus

himself. Creon is very much a lesser character in Oedipus the King. However, in the later play, Creon has

usurped both of the roles Oedipus formerly filled: as king, and as a character of personal strength. Though

Theseus reprimands Creon for excessive use of power, there is no question that his power is real. He

dominates scenes the way Oedipus does in the earlier play, without the same personal asceticism. Creon is

filling a vacuum left by Oedipus, and the extent to which his character must grow to complete the space

Oedipus leaves is a crucial observation in understanding Oedipus's character change. In Oedipus the

King, Oedipus's personal scope is of an enormity to encompass a city, his personality is the extent of the

play: boundless. Oedipus as an individual holds minimal power in the concerns of Oedipus as a ruler. It is

the loss of this consciousness in the second play which leads to an acceptance of fate, and therefore an

acceptance of himself as a tool of fate. The world of Oedipus at Colonus, while still revolving around

Oedipus, has been severely limited. Characters enter and leave the scene of their own volition, where

before Oedipus summoned or sought, now he is a passive onlooker. The grove becomes the entirety of

Oedipus's world, which once spanned two cities and the breadth of his own mind.


Oedipus, who in the first play blithely tells the uncooperative Teiresias "I came,/I Oedipus, who knew

nothing, and I stopped her./I solved the riddle by my wit alone" (p.27, l.397-399), in Oedipus at Colonus

feels compelled to reiterate the tragedy of his life as if he might forget who he is. Jocasta's exclamation, "O

Oedipus, God help you!/God keep you from the knowledge of who you are!" (p.57, l.1067-1068) – and

indeed each warning given to the zealous Oedipus along his path to the truth – has been proven correct.

Oedipus, who attempts to engage fate in a fight for truth, wins the battle only to lose the war. What he

thinks is knowledge of himself has become a myth, which he repeats in the futile hope of understanding

what has become of his wider world. The gods and fates have truly smashed their unwitting adversary,

giving his life an infamy beyond compare. But Oedipus's bloody story does have a saving grace: his fame is

somehow restored in death to its former luster. His fate is once again tied to a city, this time the city of the

man who pitied him, Athens. For Oedipus, to chase truth was to destroy his world: his power,

accomplishments, and family name are all lost. Perhaps Oedipus's unique departure from the world

signifies a godly recognition of his achievement, and the resurrection of his individual power and scope in

his corpse homage to yet another Daedalus whose wings were burnt from flying too close to the sun.



Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Study Questions - Prologue


  1. What is the state of Thebes as the play begins?
  2. What does the priest want of Oedipus?
  3. Why does the priest think that Oedipus is better able to help Thebes than any other individual?
  4. What is Oedipus' reaction to the words of the priest?
  5. What does the line "let them all hear it…" (page 7) reveal about Oedipus?
  6. What did the Oracle at Delphi tell Creon?
  7. Who was Laios and what happened to him? Why is this important to Thebes at the time the play begins?
  8. What is foreshadowing? How does it begin to show itself early in the play?
  9. What is irony? How does it begin to show itself early in the play?

Study Questions - Parados


  1. What main literary device is found in the strophe, page 10? Explain.
  2. What other literary device is found in the same strophe? Explain.
  3. Upon which gods does the Chorus call in order to help Thebes? Why these gods?
  4. What is the meaning of the last two lines of the Antistrophe 3, page 12? Why do you think they are said as Oedipus enters?


Vocabulary - Prologue and Parados


p. 3 1. lateral - to the side

      1. façade - false front
      2. chaplets - wreaths
      3. suppliants - beggars
      4. hearth - fireplace, "home"
      5. lamentation - show of sorrow, grief

p. 4 7. preys - feeds upon, devours

      1. multitude - many, crowds
      2. detestable - hateful
      3. immortal - undying

p. 5 11. remedy - cure

12. augury - omen

p. 6 13. revelation - act of showing the unknown

14. bay - leaf from the laurel tree, victory leaf

15. oracle - divine words, place gods give the truth

      1. vague - not clear

p. 7 17. defilement - filth, contamination

p. 8 18. pilgrimage - journey, usually religious

      1. resolve - decide strongly

p. 9 20. faction - small group

      1. avenge - get even
      2. compunction - uneasiness due to guilt, hesitation

p. 10 23. strophe - chorus statement in a Greek poem

24. antistrophe - chorus response in Greek poem

p. 11 25. afflictions - wounds, injuries

      1. pallid - pale, faint in color

p. 12 27. besieger - one who surrounds, captures

      1. ravages - overtakes, attacks, overwhelms


Study Questions - Scene 1


  1. What three things does Oedipus proclaim about the murder of Laios in Scene 1, pp. 12-13?
  2. Who is Teiresias and why does he appear in the play? Who has sent for him?
  3. What is ironic about Teiresias?
  4. What is Teiresias' reaction when Oedipus asks the seer for his help?
  5. How does the mood of the play change with the appearance of Teiresias? What is the meaning of his dialogue on pp. 18-20?
  6. Why does Creon's name come into the argument? (p. 20)? Of what does Oedipus accuse Teiresias and Creon?
  7. What is ironic/foreshadowing about the lines on pp. 21-22? Why does Teiresias mention Oedipus' parents?
  8. What is the meaning of Teiresias' prophecy to Oedipus on pp. 23-24?
  9. * What do you think Teiresias thinks of Oedipus by the end of Scene 1?


Vocabulary - Scene 1


p. 13 29. edict - law, declaration

      1. lustration - ceremonial cleansing
      2. lurking - hidden, secret

p. 15 32. expedient - convenient under the circumstances

      1. clairvoyant - able to see the future

34. seer - prophet

p. 16 35. pestilence - plague, disease

36. purify - cleanse, make clean

37. contagion - something that spreads disease

p. 17 38. temperate - moderate

39. opportune - well-timed

40. prudent - wise, having good sense

41. arrogance - claim to superiority

p. 18 42. proclamation - public announcement

43. insolence - rudeness

p. 19 44. infamy - disgrace, evil, dishonor

p. 20 45. decrepit - old and weak, falling apart from old age

      1. mystic - spiritually symbolic or significant
      2. mummery - disguise, mask

p. 21 48. exorcist - one who expels evil spirits

49. mock - make fun of, ridicule, belittle

50. wretchedness - lowliness, misery

p. 22 51. berthing - a place to rest (pun on "birth")

52. infantile - childish

53. abracadabra - word purported to have magic powers


Study Questions - Ode 1


  1. Paraphrase (restate in your own words) the meaning of the Strophe 1 and the Antistrophe, p. 24.
  2. Paraphrase the meaning of the Strophe 2, pp. 24-25.
  3. Paraphrase the meaning of the Antistrophe 2, p. 25.
  4. What is the purpose of alternating the Strophe with the Antistrophe in the Odes? What effect does it give for the reader?
  5. What is the purpose of Ode 1? Why is it placed after Scene 1?
  6. How does the language of the Ode differ from that of the Scene?
  7. * Whose side is the Chorus taking in Ode 1? Against who?


Vocabulary - Ode 1


p. 25 54. regicide - the killing of a king

p. 26 55. avail - value, advantage

56. hovers - stands over, flies above circulating


Study Questions - Scene 2


  1. How does Creon defend himself against Oedipus' accusations of conspiring with Teiresias to take over the throne?
  2. Explain p. 30 - "It is a sentence I should cast my vote for - but not without evidence!" Why is this point important?
  3. What is the reaction of Choragos?
  4. Why does Oedipus continue to believe that Creon is his enemy?
  5. What is Iocaste's reaction to Oedipus' accusations?
  6. What "proof" of the falseness of prophecies does Iocaste give Oedipus? Why does she share this incident with Oedipus?
  7. What is your reaction to Iocaste's story? Oedipus' reaction?
  8. What does Oedpius learn from Iocaste's details?
  9. Describe Oedipus' tale, pp. 40-42.
  10. As Oedipus and Iocaste relate their stories of prophecy, what conclusions are the readers drawing? What "answers" have you arrived at from these clues?
  11. * How does Oedipus' mood and attitude change throughout Scene 2? Why?



Vocabulary - Scene 2


p. 28 57. brazen - bold, rude

p. 31 58. scepter - symbol of a ruler or king

      1. perquisites - payment
      2. anarchy - disorder, lack of government rule

p. 32 61. duplicity - trickery

      1. parry - to turn aside, evade, avoid

p. 33 63. incarnate - in physical form

p. 34 64. din - loud noise

      1. tumult - confusion

p. 35 66. malice - evil

67. Helios - sun god

p. 37 68. hearsay - unverified information from others

p. 38 69. soothsayer - one who foresees events

p. 40 70. herald - messenger

71. marauders - attackers

p. 42 72. maundering - wandering, rambling

p. 43 73. malediction - curse

p. 44 74. abomination - evil thing


Study Questions - Ode 2


  1. What is the meaning of the Strophe 1?
  2. What is the Antistrophe 2 saying about the proud leader?
  3. What is the Strophe 2 saying outrages the gods, and what will the gods do in reaction?
  4. What is the conclusion of the Antistrophe 2?
  5. What is the importance of Ode 2 in relationship to the rest of the play?


Vocabulary - Ode 2


p. 45 75. reverent - respectful

p. 46 76. begot - gave birth to

      1. ordinance - law
      2. haughtiness - showing off, acting superior
      3. disdain - to show disrespect for
      4. levity - lightness, laughter
      5. blasphemy - cursing
      6. impious - not religious


Study Questions - Scene 3


  1. What important news is delivered to Oedipus at the beginning of Scene 3?
  2. What was Iocaste doing at the beginning of Scene 3? What is her reaction to the news of Polybus' death? What does this reveal about her character?
  3. What is Oedipus' next concern after learning of Polybus' death?
  4. What additional news "news" does the messenger give Oedipus?
  5. What is the meaning of "Oedipus"? Why is this important?
  6. What is Iocaste's reaction to the messenger's "news"? What does her behavior foreshadow for the audience?
  7. Why doesn't Oedipus heed Iocaste's warnings not to pursue the news from the messenger further?
  8. What does Oedipus think about his origins (p. 56 to the end of Scene 3)?
  9. What emotions are present at the end of Scene 3? What does the audience (reader) expect to happen at this point?


Vocabulary - Scene 3


p. 49 83. sepulchre - burial vault built of stone


Study Questions - Ode 3


  1. Whom is the Chorus addressing in the Strophe pp. 56-57?
  2. What question is the Chorus asking in the Antistrophe, p. 57?


Vocabulary - Ode 3


p. 58 84. nymphs - lesser gods, young women


Study Questions - Scene 4


  1. What transpires between the messenger and the shepherd in this scene?
  2. Why does the shepherd try to resist answering Oedipus' questions? What literary device is being used here?
  3. Why does Oedipus persist in questioning the old shepherd , even though he has been warned by the shepherd and Iocaste not to go on with his inquiry?
  4. Why did Iocaste give the child away to die so many years before?
  5. What was the prophecy connected to the baby?
  6. Why didn't the shepherd leave the baby to die as intended? What human quality does the shepherd demonstrate when he saves the baby?
  7. What does Oedipus realize at the end of Scene 4? What is his reaction? What do you think he will do now? Why?
  8. * Why do you think Sophocles put so many metaphors involving light/dark and sight/blindness in Scene 4 especially?


Vocabulary - Scene 4


p. 64 85. wretched - lowly


Study Questions - Ode 4


  1. What is the meaning of the first four lines of the Strophe 1? What is a paradox? How is paradox used here?
  2. What is the metaphor that appears in the Strophe 1 and is repeated throughout the Ode? How does the god Apollo reinforce this image?
  3. What happens to light as the play nears its end?
  4. What other use of figurative language is used at the end of the Strophe 1?
  5. At the beginning of the Antistrophe 1, what metaphor and extended metaphor can be found?
  6. In Antistrophe 1, what other literary device can be found?
  7. How does the quality of the language change from the scenes to the odes? What sections have more uses of the literary devices? How does the language in the odes differ from the language in the scenes?
  8. In Strophe 2, what is the metaphor that occurs throughout (extended metaphor)? In Antistrophe 2, what is the extended metaphor? How does it foreshadow what is to happen in the next section?


Study Questions - Exodos


  1. What news does the Second Messenger bring at the beginning of this scene?
  2. How is the evil of Oedipus and Iocaste willed? (p. 65)
  3. How does Iocaste punish herself? Why is her punishment self-induced?
  4. How does Oedipus punish himself? Why is his punishment self-induced?
  5. Why doesn't Oedipus kill himself? Why does he choose blinding?
  6. How does Oedipus' punishment embody the Light/Dark imagery used throughout the play?
  7. What is ironic about Oedipus and Iocaste's worship of Apollo?
  8. Why does the punishment of Iocaste take place off stage, instead of in front of the audience?
  9. Although Oedipus has gouged out his sight, what still remains (p. 67, top)? Why is this important?
  10. In Antistrophe 2 (p. 70), what does Oedipus wish? Why wasn't the prophecy of the gods respected?
  11. What metaphor is used to describe incest (p. 72, middle: "Oh marriage…how evil!")? Why is this an appropriate description?
  12. What is Oedipus' attitude about Creon in the Exodos? What does this reveal about Oedpius?
  13. What is Creon's attitude about Oedipus in the Exodos? What does this reveal about Creon?
  14. Why does Creon say he must consult the Oracle again? Why is this an important difference between Oedipus and Creon?
  15. What requests of Creon does Oedipus make on pp. 74-75, top?
  16. Describe Oedipus' farewell to his daughters. What is the meaning of the lines on page 75: "Children, where are you…to this way of seeing."?
  17. How does the reader know that Creon has accepted responsibility for Oedipus' daughters, Antigone and Ismene? Why is Oedipus so concerned for his daughters and not for his sons?
  18. What is the meaning of the last lines by Choragos?
  19. What guidance does he give the people in the final lines? What lessons does he offer the reader?
  20. * What will become of Oedipus? Will he kill himself or merely be exiled? Why?


Vocabulary - Exodos


p. 67 86. venerate - respect

p. 68 87. vigil - watch, a period of being on guard

p. 73 88. primal - primary, basic, first

p. 74 89. rankness - rotten, offensive smell

      1. execrable - harshly denounced

p. 75 91. engendered - caused

92. incest - marriage to a relation

      1. reproach - to find fault with

p. 76 94. affront - a show of disrespect

95.kindred - related

      1. parricide - killing of a parent

p. 78 97. fount - source, origin


Our Conclusions


  1. What is the theme of the play Oedipus Rex?
  2. What is the conflict of the play? How is it resolved?
  3. Where is the climax located? Explain why this is the climax.
  4. What is the definition of the term "hero"? Who is the hero of the play? How does he fulfill the definition?
  5. In what ways is the play a modern play? An ancient play?
  6. Choose one line or several lines which you think are very important in the play, and explain what they mean and why you chose them.
  7. What is your general reaction to the play as a whole? Explain your answer?
  8. Of what "crimes" is Oedipus guilty? Not guilty? Explain.


1. Define the concept of tragedy and how it relates to the play. What is
the difference between the Greek view of tragedy and the modern view of
the term? What is tragic about the story of Oedipus? Find at least three
specific lines and scenes which show tragedy.

2. Define the concept of dramatic irony. How is it used in the play? How
does this technique get the audience interested in the play? Which
characters find themselves in ironic situations? How? Find at least three
lines or scenes which show dramatic irony.

3. Blindness vs. vision: Show how this concept is presented in the play.
Who is blind? Who sees? In what ways are the characters blind? How do they
gain vision? Find at least three lines or scenes that show this concept in
the play. Feel free to bring in related ideas that come up in the play
(for example, light, truth, etc.).

4. Illness and metaphor that refer to illness are prevalent throughout the
play. What effect do the use of these words have on the atmosphere,
emotions, and interaction between the characters? How effective is the use
of these metaphors on the telling of the story? Review the play to list as
many illness-related metaphors as your group can find and write a
statement about their use in the play. Include lines and scenes.

5. In literature, as in life, people often face difficult situations that
they helped create. In the play, is Oedipus a helpless victim of fate? Or
were there times when he could have acted to prevent his downfall? Include
lines from the play to support your point of view. Pay special attention
to the last four lines of the play (spoken by Choragos, p. 81).

6. Oedipus Rex has many characters which contribute to its plot. Choose
one of the following and explain why they are a significant character in
the play. Provide at least three reasons why the character is significant,
and support your reasons with evidence from the text:
a) Tiresias
b) The Sphinx
c) Creon
d) The Chorus

Enrichment Activity:

Oedipus the King, The Riddle of the Sphinx, the Oracles, Jocasta, the Old Shepherd...