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Oedipus the King, also known as Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus Rex, is the first in a series of three plays by the Greek Tragedian Sophocles. The play tells of the downfall of the king Oedipus from his lofty position, due to hubris (pride), which seems to be the leading cause of death, despair, and destruction in Thebes.
The play opens with a terrible plague ravaging Oedipus' kingdom. Creon, the Queen's brother, returns from the oracle at Delphi with news that the plague will not be lifted until the true murderer of the old King is found. The blind prophet Tiresias warns Oedipus that he really really does not want to know who the true cause of the plague is. However, Oedipus is driven by both honor and a dedication to his people to root out the cause of this evil. It turns out Oedipus himself is the cause of the plague. The reasons behind it are long and complicated.
When Oedipus was born, it was foretold he would kill his father and marry his mother. His father orders his son to be left in the wilderness to die. This does not work. Oedipus ends up being adopted by another pair of royals who fail to tell him that they are not his birth parents. Oedipus eventually gets wind of the prophecy from his birth and leaves home to avoid that fate. He ends up heading back towards his birth kingdom to solve the Riddle of the Sphinx. On the way he unknowingly encounters his father, who, for lack of a better term, cuts Oedipus off in traffic. Words are exchanged and by the end of it Oedipus' real father is dead by his hand. Continuing on his way, he solves the Riddle of the Sphinx, freeing his birth kingdom from the beast. In gratitude, the people make him king and he unknowingly marries his mother. And has children with her. It is this state of affairs, his father's blood on his hands and his, erm, relationship with his mother, that has thrown things out of whack in his kingdom.
Oedipus' wife/mother figures things out shortly before he does and hangs herself. Upon finding her body, Oedipus gouges his eyes out with her brooches. Now a completely broken man, Oedipus goes into exile with his daughters.
This play contains examples of:
- Abdicate the Throne: Oedipus, of course.
- Anti-Hero: Oedipus comes across as one nowadays, thought might not have at the time of the play's writing.
- At the Crossroads: Oedipus has an encounter at a crossroads that ends violently.
- A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: The eponymous character kills his father for basically cutting him off in traffic (and being a complete Jerkass about it). He marries his mother, completing the other half of the famous complex, at leisure though.
- Awful Truth: Guess.
- Blind Seer: Tiresias. And like most prophets, nobody listens to him until it's too late (though according to him it's been too late for some time, something quite a few people forget, including Oedipus in the final scene).
- Break the Haughty: In spades. Oedipus goes from a strong and beloved king to a shell of his former self in the course of a single day.
- The Creon: Creon himself is the Trope Namer. He actually outright describes himself as The Creon, in a conversation with Oedipus himself - making him the de-facto Ur Example.
- Downer Ending: It's a tragedy, so that's pretty obvious.
- The Dog Bites Back: Averted. When Oedipus is at his mercy, Creon does not take advantage of this. The worst that he does is make him wait for a prophet’s advice.
- Dramatic Irony: Oedipus vows to track down Laius' killer... but the audience knows perfectly well that he is the killer, even though Oedipus himself does not.
- Explain, Explain, Oh Crap: Rather natural when dealing with a plot like this. A little more tragic than most examples.
- Eye Scream: A broach pin to the eye cannot feel good.
- Brain Bleach: What the act was probably supposed to be. Sadly, water from Lethe wasn't available.
- Greek Chorus
- Large Ham: Like most Greek theater, Oedipus is acted in this style. Later versions, such as the 1967 version, act it more realistically, but the 1957 version goes all out with its depiction of the style.
- Moral Dissonance: A lot of people forget that the whole situation came about because Oedipus killed a whole lot of people, including his father, for what amounts to cutting him off in traffic.
- Actually, Oedipus says that the guards threw him into the mud and the man on the chair (his father) slashed him in his face with a whip leaving him scarred for life. That would piss off most of people, and being a young man against an elderly, he crushed his skull with one single blow. It is assumed that, when the king's guards saw his sovereign being killed, attacked Oedipus who defended himself.
- Also, don't forget that the ancient Greeks had very different morals than we do. Most Greek heroes behaved like this. And while it wasn't something you would cheer over a ton, it was considered acceptable behavior for a hero.
- For what it's worth in Oedipus at Colonus Oedipus claims that Laios would have murdered Oedipus and that he (Oedipus) acted in self-defense. His later claim may be the truth, a lie to get sympathy for his plight, or self-delusion, but it's fair to say that Sophocles and his audience themselves saw some Moral Dissonance in Oedipus' behavior, as Classical Greeks often did when they looked at their ancient myths and legends.
- Mystical Plague: Oedipus's actions (killing his father, marrying his mother) unknowingly brought blight and plague ("miasma") to his people. Crops did not grow, stock animals died off, and women suffered from infertility, all because Oedipus's actions went against classical concepts of morality.
- Oedipus Complex: Trope Namer: Freud named his (in)famous complex after him because his murder of his father and marriage to his mother were both outside his conscious awareness. Of course, the play isn't actually an example of this, considering that Oedipus could not have been around his parents for more than a day or two as a child.
- Interestingly, Iocaste at one point comments that it's not especially unusual for people to have dreams of sleeping with their mothers, meaning the trope itself is Older Than They Think.
- Only Sane Man: Creon.
- Parental Incest: Oedipus' wife is his mother and all his children are also his half-siblings.
- Patricide: A classic example.
- Plot Induced Stupidity: One of the oldest examples to be commented on by a literary critic. Aristotle comments that the troubles of Oedipus could have been avoided if he had done a very simple thing: after being elected king of Thebes, he should have asked who'd been his precursor. However, he admits that it would have gone against the Rule of Drama.
- Poor Communication Kills: All of this might have been avoided if Oedipus' adopted parents had just told him he was adopted. Perhaps a Justified Trope, since in those days being of uncertain descent could cause no end of problems for a person in a prominent position (although probably not nearly as much trouble as he ended up in anyway...).
- Pride: Couldn't have a Greek tragedy without some hubris.
- Prophecies Are Always Right: Unfortunately for Oedipus.
- Reverse Whodunnit: Could be considered the Ur Example from a certain perspective.
- Riddling Sphinx: Trope Maker.
- Screw Destiny: Subverted. Oedipus tried this, but in Ancient Greece, destiny screws you.
- Surprise Incest: Oedipus and Jocasta don't find out about their relationship until after raising a family together.
- Tomato in the Mirror: Oedipus finds out he is the most evil character in the narrative.
- Torture Always Works: When the shepherd who found the abandoned infant Oedipus and gave him to Polybus is brought to Oedipus refuses to talk, Oedipus orders his guards to twist his arm behind his back until he does. Later, he threatens to have the man killed when he hesitates again. What he tells him finally leads Oedipus to be the last one to figure out who his real parents were, and are.
- You Can't Fight Fate: Despite his best intentions, Oedipus ends up fulfilling the terms of his prophecy.
- You Do NOT Want to Know: Once everyone has figured the truth out but Oedipus, and even before, they start bombing him with this.