A dark curse is upon Thebes. Blighted cattle and plants cover the land, the women are barren and a deadly plague creeps throughout the kingdom, sparing no one in its fatal grasp. Creon, brother-in-law to King Oedipus, reveals that the curse placed on the kingdom is a result of the murder of its last king, Laius, and until the perpetrator is found, there is no hope of relief from their present woes. Oedipus, king of Thebes, calls the wisest man to the palace, the blind prophet, Teiresias, to discover the identity of the vile culprit.
Yet through wise Teiresias and the shepherds of Laius, it is revealed that Oedipus was unwittingly the killer, slaying the king on a road to Thebes, in self-defence and completely unaware of his victim's identity. Unbeknownst to Oedipus, he was fulfilling a prior prophecy, that he would kill his father and marry his mother. And true to prophecy, Oedipus, after freeing Thebes from a different curse by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, became the new king of Thebes and married the current queen, Jocasta, also his mother.
Oedipus after he solves the riddle
of the Sphinx (1808)
Upon hearing the fulfillment of the curse, a stunned and horrified Oedipus flees, yet soon finds Jocasta has hanged herself with shame and, grabbing the brooches from her garments, dashes his eyes out until blood flows in rivers down his face. At the behest of Oedipus, Creon banishes him from the city.
The sins of murder and incest has blighted the life of Oedipus and the lives of his progeny; his sons will be left without a father or inheritance and his daughters will be ostracized, unable to marry. His anguished speech carries notes of his misery and devastation:
"What can I see to love?
What greeting can touch my ears with joy?
Take me away, and haste ----- to a place out of the way!
Take me away, my friends, the greatly miserable,
the most accursed, whom God too hates
above all men on earth!"
The state of blindness and the character of Oedipus are closely linked. Instead of listening to the wisdom of the blind prophet, Teiresias, Oedipus refuses to believe him, therefore choosing blindness over knowledge. Later in the play, when he accepts the knowledge of his actions, he physically blinds himself, which echoes his emotional blindness earlier in the story.
Can one commit a crime with complete lack of awareness and still be responsible for the repercussions of his actions? Is the harshness of Oedipus' penalty and the suffering he endures from the consequences, a justifiable outcome given the circumstances? Why does no one in the kingdom disagree with the punishment of Oedipus, and appear more shocked by the unintentional sins than the maiming he inflicts upon himself?
Oedipus Separating from Jocasta
What we can take away from this drama is helplessness in the hands of fate. Though everyone pities Oedipus and does not blame him, there is nothing they can do in the face of his punishment. To the Greeks, fate is supreme and unaffected by human choice; Oedipus attempts to avoid his destiny yet only succeeds in bringing it to fruition. Finally, we are exposed to a chilling Greek worldview, that we can "Count no mortal happy till he has passed the limit of his life secure from pain."
Apparently Oedipus Rex, while first chronologically of the three Theban plays, is in fact the third in written order. I will enjoy trying to find out the common threads between the three, and if I feel there are any inconsistencies due to the fact they were composed out of order. The next one on the schedule is Oedipus at Colonus where we meet Oedipus in exile.