Oedipus is the most widely known of all Sophocles’ plays. This is primarily because of the psychological concept of the “Oedipal Complex” that Sigmund Freud named for the play’s protagonist, also know as an Oedipus Complex. It posits that all men subconsciously seek to kill their father and marry their mother. After hearing his prophesied fate was to kill his father and then marry is mother, Oedipus tried everything to ensure that this very thing did not happen. However, the very actions taken to avoid this fate led him to fulfill the prophecy.
The story of Oedipus (Oedipus Rex in Latin, or Oidipous Tyrannos in Greek) begins in the city of Thebes, where a terrible plague has struck the land. Oedipus sends his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle at Delphi to ask what the fate of Thebes will be. The news is disturbing; Creon returns with a message from the oracle saying that the plague will end when the murderer of Laius (former king of Thebes) is caught and expelled, and that the murderer is within the city.
Disbelieving Creon, Oedipus summons the prophet Tiresias. The blind seer refuses to tell Oedipus who the murderer is, and Oedipus accuses him of being in on the crime. Tiresias declares Oedipus is the murderer and storms off. Oedipus can’t see how this is possible, and continues to investigate the crime.
Through speaking with his wife, Jocasta, the widow of the last king, and other citizens, Oedipus’s tragic fate emerges. He is, in fact the son of Laius, and despite his best efforts, has killed his father and married his mother.
When Oedipus was first born, his father, Laius the King of Thebes, received a prophecy that his son would one day kill him. The king ordered the infant be staked through the foot in the wilderness. However, the servant charged with the act couldn’t bring himself to abandon the child; he gave the baby to a shepherd who brought him to the king and queen of Corinth. The rulers adopted the child and raised him as their own. One day he received the same prophecy as Laius. Believing his father was the king of Corinth, he left the city to prevent the prophecy from coming about.
On his way out of the city, he encountered a group of men at a crossroads and he quarreled with the passenger of a coach and ended up killing him. When he reached Thebes, he found that the city was oppressed by the Sphinx, who would not leave until her riddle was answered. Oedipus, being clever, answered it correctly, sent the Sphinx plunging to her death, and became the ruler of Thebes. To consolidate power, he married Jocasta, the widow of the late King Laius.
Once all is revealed, Jocasta hangs herself. Distraught, Oedipus uses the pins of her scarf to gouge out his own eyes. He gives Creon control of Thebes and leaves the city to wander the land as a blind beggar.