Oedipus Rex by Sophocles: Summary, Theme & Analysis

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  • 0:04 A Conundrum
  • 0:55 The Plot
  • 2:47 Analysis
  • 3:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn all about the Sophocles play 'Oedipus Rex', the story of a man who killed his father and married his mother. This lesson summarizes and analyzes the play, as well as examines its theme.

A Conundrum

There's an old story about a man hearing that Death will come for him on a certain day. So on that day, the man arranges to be in a different city a long way from home. As soon as he arrives, Death comes for him in the city where he's hiding. 'I was surprised when I was told to get you in this city,' Death says.

The lesson is that whatever is fated to happen will happen. You can't do anything to stop it. That's basically the Oedipus story in a nutshell. Oedipus Rex was one of three plays that Sophocles, a Greek dramatist, penned on the Oedipus myth. It was the second one he wrote in 429 B.C.E., but is the first in the sequence of events. Oedipus discovers the truth of his birth and realizes he's fulfilled the very prophecy he's tried to avoid during a murder investigation of the previous king of Thebes.

The Plot

The plot of Oedipus Rex is a straightforward interpretation of a Greek myth. When the king and queen of Thebes give birth to a son, Oedipus, an oracle tells them that their child will kill his father. To avoid this the king, Laius, orders the child to have his feet broken and then be left for dead. This is done, but a shepherd comes across the boy and brings him to the childless Corinthian king.

Oedipus is raised as the prince of Corinth but hears a rumor that he's not the son of the king. His parents reassure him, but he still isn't sure so he asks the oracle of Delphi. He's told he will marry his mother and shed the blood of his father, so he flees Corinth hoping to save his parents. At a crossroads he and another man argue over who goes first and Oedipus kills the other man.

When Oedipus goes on to Thebes he's asked to solve the Riddle of the Sphinx: 'What moves on all fours in its infancy, on two legs in its prime, and on three in old age?~. He correctly answers, 'Man.' As a reward Oedipus is made the king and given the widowed queen as his bride.

When a plague hits his new kingdom, Oedipus is told that it's the gods punishing Thebes because Laius' killer was never found. Oedipus calls on Tiresias, the seer, who tells Oedipus that he killed the king. His wife tells him not to believe him, though, because a seer had told her that her son would kill the king, but everyone knows that a group of bandits killed him instead.

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