Having fled Corinth because of a fearful prophecy that he would murder his father and wed his mother, the young Oedipus angrily attacks and kills a small band of travelers who refuse to make way for him at a crossroads, a "place where three roads meet." He ultimately journeys to Thebes, a kingdom without a leader and without any hope of freeing itself from the tyranny of the Sphinx. Relying on his "wit alone," Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx and ascends the throne, eventually marrying the widowed queen, Jocasta, and fathering two sons and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene.

The prosperous and just reign of Oedipus is halted by a devastating outbreak of plague--a pestilence whose only remedy, according to Apollo, is justice for the murder of the murdered Theban king, Laius. An intelligent man and responsible leader, Oedipus launches an investigation, only to discover that he is not the savior of the city but the cause of its destruction. When his true heritage and his terrible crimes of parricide and incest are revealed, Oedipus blinds himself and invites banishment, nobly accepting his fate as "the greatly miserable, the most accursed . . . above all men on earth."


In its interpretation of the myth of Oedipus, great king of Thebes and tragic victim of fate, Sophocles's play has served Aristotle as the model for tragedy, Freud as the paradigm for the psychosexual development of a male child, Nietzche as a pattern of cultural decline and advancement, and Rene Girard as the apotheosis of scapegoating and collective persecution. For Sophocles, the myth of Oedipus was the treatment of the generic aspect of human dilemmas.

For example, even the most intelligent among us cannot foresee all, account for all, and comprehend all of the dark, mysterious, and nonsensical forces at work in our lives. Moreover, while the sin of Oedipus is very real, will and consciousness are also some measure of sin; when the sinner sins necessarily and unwittingly like Oedipus, his suffering can be compensation enough for his guilt.

For Freud, the power of the myth, its "profound and universal validity," was in and of itself significant. Following his observation that the series of disclosures which make up the action of the play are not unlike the revelations of the psychotherapeutic process, Freud argues that it is not only the conflict between fate and free will that moves "a modern reader or playgoer no less . . . than the contemporary Greeks" but also the peculiar nature of the conflict: "It may be that we are all destined to direct our first sexual impulses toward our mothers, and our first impulses of hatred and violence toward our fathers." ( Sigmund Freud, "Oedipus and Hamlet," in European Theories of the Drama, ed. Barrett H. Clark, New York: Crown, 1973, pp 304-307.)

Nietzche envisioned a pattern of cultural development and advancement in the decline and fall of the doomed but noble Oedipus: "a man destined to error and misery despite his wisdom but exercising a beneficient influence on his environment by virtue of his boundless grief." (Friedrich Nietzche, "The Birth of Tragedy From the Spirit of Music," in European Theories of the Drama, pp 296-303.)

Finally, Rene Girard explicates the transcultural pattern of scapegoating and collective persecution that is so vividly enacted in Oedipus the King: loss of social order due to an external circumstance such as epidemic; transference of disorder and disease onto a victim not selected randomly; violence directed towards that victim; restoration of order. The human need to assign cause and explain disaster is driven by the human tendency to moralize, and Oedipus the King dramatizes this tendency to equate bodily disease and physical disability with internal corruption and moral transgression.


Translator: David Grene

Primary Source

Sophocles I: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone


Univ. of Chicago Press

Place Published



1991 (2nd ed.)

Page Count