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The plot of Sophocles’s “Oedipus the King”

The plot of Sophocles’s “Oedipus the King”

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Published by William Eaton
"Companion piece" to help readers of a much more ambitious article -- on Oedipus and the intersection of knowledge and human agency. This latter piece ("Finding Ourselves in Oedipus Again and Again") will appear in the Zeteo journal of City University in the Spring of 2012. See http://zeteojournal.com/files/2011/11/Warner-FINAL-PDF.pdf. .
"Companion piece" to help readers of a much more ambitious article -- on Oedipus and the intersection of knowledge and human agency. This latter piece ("Finding Ourselves in Oedipus Again and Again") will appear in the Zeteo journal of City University in the Spring of 2012. See http://zeteojournal.com/files/2011/11/Warner-FINAL-PDF.pdf. .

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Published by: William Eaton on Apr 14, 2012
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The plot of Sophocles’s “Oedipus the King”
Companion piece to “Finding Ourselves in Oedipus Again and Again”
Zeteo / forthcoming: Spring 2012 / zeteojournal.com________________________________________________________
By William Eaton Warner
 January 2012
at Delphi is interpreted as saying that King Laius of Thebeswould die at the hands of his son. In response, shortly after the birth of his son Oedipus, Laius,with
his wife‟s Jocasta‟s help, binds the infant‟s ankles and gives him to a shepherd with orders
to leave the boy on a mountainside to be killed by beasts or birds or die of thirst, cold andstarvation. (As was an ancient Greek practice with unwanted infants.) Perhaps 20 years laterLaius and all the several henchmen then travelling with him are killed in a fight at a crossroads.The one henchman who escapes reports that the killers were a band of robbers.The crime is notcarefully investigated.
“The singing, r 
iddling Sphinx. . . . persuaded us to let the mystery go
and concentrate on what lay at our feet,” Creon later tells Oedipus and Sophocles‟s audience.
 (As noted in the main piece, this is itself a riddle as
Oedipus‟s scarred, lame feet are the
essential clue to his identity.)-----------------------------------
Oedipus the King
, in Sophocles,
The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus
, translated by Robert Fagles (Penguin Books, 1982), lines 147-49.
Warner/Oedipe/Story: 2The Sphinx, a creature with the shape of a winged lion and the face of a woman, hadbeen terrorizing Thebes and the countryside around it. She lay in wait for wayfarers along theroads to the city and said she would only let go those who could answer her riddle: Whatcreature goes on four feet in the morning, on two at noonday and on three in the evening? For along time no one could come up with the answer; each wayfarer was devoured in turn; thegates of Thebes were closed; and the Thebans were threatened with starvation.Along came Oedipus, the son of King Polybus of Corinth. Told in youth that Polybuswas not his real father (i.e., birth father), he had consulted the oracle at Delphi and had taken itsmessage as being that he was fated to kill his father, marry his mother and have children menwould shudder to look upon. So Oedipus had left Corinth and his parents forever. Wanderingthe plains west of Athens, he had come to the Sphinx and had produced the right answer: Man.Whereupon the Sphinx killed her and the Thebans were saved. Oedipus was made King and
married the dead King‟s wife, Jo
casta. They had two sons and two daughters and Oedipusreigned in peace and honor for a long time.But after about twenty years, Thebes is visited by a terrible plague. Apollo is againconsulted via the priestess at Delphi, and the interpretation is that the plague will end when theperson who killed Laius is identified and punished.
All this might be considered perverse on Apollo‟s or the priestess‟s part since thedomestic violence was set in motion by their own decreeing and since Oedipus‟s killing of 
hisfather, however accidental, might be considered just revenge. Secondly, I have used this word
“interpretation” as regards the oracle because ancient Greek history reveals both the power of 
and the variability in interpretations of the oracle.
In Oedip
us‟s/Sophocles‟s case, the
Perhaps the most famous example concerns the “wall of wood” prophecy in Herodotus‟s
(Book 7).
Very briefly here, a prophetess‟s pronouncement of “a wall of wood to be alone uncaptured” was widely and
officially interpreted as meaning that only the Acropolis, surrounded by thorn bushes, would survive a battle withthe Persians.
But Themistocles proposed that the defeat prophesied was of the Athenians‟ enemies and the “wallof wood” referred to the Athenians‟ ships, which would be triumphant. “The Athenians realized,” Herodotus tellus, “that Themistocles‟s opinion was far preferable to that of the official interpreters who would not allow them to
Warner/Oedipe/Story: 3
interpretation is delivered by Creon, Jocasta‟s brother, a fellow ruler of Thebes and rival of Oedipus‟s. As Edith Hamilton reports Creon‟s message from Delphi: “ . . . Let no one of this
land give shelter to him [the killer of Laius]. Bar him from your homes as one defiled,companioned by pollution. And solemnly I pray, may he who killed wear out his life in evil,
 being evil.”
This “I” is presented as Apollo.
Sophocles‟s play begins here: telling spectators of the plague and ha
ving Creondelivering his news from Delphi. Oedipus begins doggedly to search without, as opposed towithin, for the answer to this riddle: Who killed Laius? He presses the old blind prophetTiresias, but Tiresias refuses to say what he knows. Jocasta, too, is dismissive, but reveals thatone man survived the fight at the crossroads, and Oedipus begins to wonder if Laius could havebeen the leader he had killed, long ago, before he came to Thebes, in a fight at a crossroads.News comes from Corinth that
Polybus, Oedipus‟s putative father, has died, and the bearer of this news reveals that Polybus was not Oedipus‟s birth father.Rather, long ago this
very same messenger, having been given the infant Oedipus by a wandering shepherd, had inturn given the infant to Polybus. The old shepherd is summoned and reveals that long ago hehad been asked to abandon the infant on a mountainside on account of a Delphic prophecy . . .The news, or its public revelation, causes Jocasta to kill herself, and Oedipus finds herhanging dead in her room.
Hamilton‟s reading concludes:
 prepare for a naval battle”. And so Themistocles‟s interpretation and strategy carried the day, and ind
eed thebattle.In Thucydides, too, one finds stories of alternate interpretations of oracles. For example (from section1.126), an Athenian aristocrat and Olympic champion named Cylon believed he was told by the oracle at Delphito seize the Acropolis on
the grand festival of Zeus. But “whether the grand festival that was meant was in Attica
or elsewhere was a question which [Cylon] never thought of 
”, and his seizure of the Acropolis ended in disaster,Cylon‟s troops all killed and only Cylon and his brot
her escaping alive.Herodotus,
The Histories
, edited by Walter Blanco and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, translated by WalterBlanco (W.W. Norton, 1992). Thucydides,
The Peloponnesian War 
, translated by Richard Crawley, in
The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War 
, edited by Robert B. Strassler (Simon& Schuster, 1996).
, 379; ellipses in original, versification here changed to prose. Robert Fagles (Sophocles,
Oedipus theKing
, lines 108-11 and 114-15) renders
this: “Apollo tell us — 
he was quite clear
„Drive the corruption fromthe land, and don‟t harbor it any longer, past all cure, don‟t nurse it in your soil — 
root it out. . . . Banish the man,or pay back blood with blood. Murder sets the plague-storm on
the city.”

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