Summary of the Oedipus Trilogy
King Laius and Queen Jocasta ruled the Greek city of Thebes. They
visited the oracle of Delphi to hear prophecies about their city.
What they heard, however, was rather disturbing. The oracle told
Laius and Jocasta that their son would one day kill his father. Upset
by this news, King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes try to prevent
this tragic destiny.
Laius pierces his son’s feet and gives him to a shepherd
with instructions to leave the baby in the mountains to die. But
pitying the child, the shepherd gives him to a herdsman, who takes
the baby far from Thebes to Corinth. There, the herdsman presents
the child to his own king and queen, the king and queen of Corinth,
because they are childless. Without knowing the baby’s true
identity, the royal couple adopts the child and names him Oedipus
Oedipus grows up as a prince of Corinth, but hears troubling stories
that the king is not his real father. When he travels to Delphi to
consult the oracle, Oedipus hears a prophecy that he will kill his
father and marry his mother. Horrified, he determines to avoid his
terrible destiny by never returning home to Corinth. Instead, he
decides to go to the city of Thebes. Oedipus has no idea, however,
that Thebes was his original homeland.
Near Thebes, Oedipus reaches a crossroads and encounters an old
man in a chariot with his servants. Oedipus gets in the way of the
chariot and the old man insults and hits Oedipus. Oedipus becomes
very angry at the old man’s insult and kills the man and his
Outside Thebes, Oedipus discovers that the monstrous Sphinx has
been terrorizing the countryside. Oedipus also learns that the king
of the city of Thebes had recently been killed, apparently by a band
of robbers. Leaderless and afraid of the Sphinx, the people call
out for help. Oedipus volunteers to try to defeat the mighty Sphinx.
The Sphinx challenges Oedipus with a riddle: “What goes on
four feet at dawn, two feet at noon, and three feet at evening?” Oedipus
thinks for a while and eventually responds with the right answer, “A
man”. A baby crawls on all-fours, a child and adult each walk
on two legs, and an old person uses a cane (three legs). Answering
the riddle correctly, Oedipus is able to kill the Sphinx, saving
the people of Thebes.
The Theban people proclaim him a hero, and when they learn that
King Laius has been killed, apparently by a band of robbers, they
accept Oedipus as their new king. Oedipus marries the widowed queen
of Thebes, and they have four children.
A plague descends upon the city of Thebes. The citizens of Thebes
beg their new king, Oedipus, to find a way to lift the plague that
threatens to destroy the city. Oedipus decides to send his brother-in-law,
Creon, to the oracle to learn what to do.
On his return, Creon announces that the oracle instructs them to
find the murderer of Laius, the king who ruled Thebes before Oedipus.
The discovery and punishment of the murderer will end the plague.
At once, Oedipus sets out to solve the murder.
King Oedipus summons a blind prophet named Tiresias and asks Tiresias
if he can use his skills of prophecy to identify the man who murdered
Laius. At first, the prophet refuses to speak. Oedipus, who senses
that Tiresias knows more than he wants to admit, threatens to punish
the prophet unless he tells Oedipus what he knows. Finally, the prophet
Tiresias points his finger at Oedipus and cries out, “It is
you! You are the murderer!” Oedipus mocks and rejects the prophet
angrily, ordering him to leave. Before Tiresias leaves, however,
he hints that the marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta is “unnatural”.
The prophet also foretells a future for Oedipus of blindness, infamy,
Oedipus attempts to gain advice from his wife Jocasta, the queen.
She encourages him to ignore the prophecies, explaining that a prophet
once told her that Laius, her former husband, would die at the hands
of their son. According to Jocasta, the prophecy did not come true
because her son was dead. She and her former husband Laius had abandoned
their baby so the prophecy could never come true. Furthermore, Laius
himself was killed by a band of robbers at a crossroads.
Oedipus becomes distressed by Jacosta’s remarks because just
before he came to Thebes, he killed an old man with servants at a
crossroads. Oedipus is determined to learn the truth. Remember that,
as a young man, Oedipus learned from an oracle that he was fated
to kill his father and marry his mother. Fear of the prophecy drove
him from his home in Corinth and brought him to Thebes (the city
where he was actually born). Again, Queen Jocasta advises him not
to worry about the prophecies.
Oedipus finds out from a messenger that Polybus, king of Corinth,
the father who raised Oedipus, has died of old age. Jocasta rejoices—surely
this is proof that the prophecy Oedipus heard from the oracle is
worthless. Oedipus cannot kill his father if he’s already dead.
Oedipus doesn’t know, however, that Polybus was his adoptive
father, not his birth father. He had heard rumors that Polybus of
Corinth was not his real father, but he had always dismissed those
Jocasta also calms Oedipus’ fears of fulfilling the other
part of the prophecy, marrying his mother, Merope, queen of Corinth.
Jocasta reassures Oedipus that there is no way he can accidentally
marry his mother, Queen Merope of Corinth. Again, Oedipus has no
idea that Merope of Corinth is his adoptive mother, not his real
A messenger tells Oedipus that he heard from people in Corinth
that Polybus and Merope are not Oedipus’ real parents. The
messenger tells Oedipus that many years ago, a shepherd was given
a baby by a mother and father from Thebes. The shepherd then gave
the abandoned baby to the messenger so that a suitable home could
be found. The messenger gave the baby to the king and queen of Corinth
so that the baby would have a prosperous life. Now Oedipus is really
confused. If Polybus and Merope of Corinth are not his real parents,
then who could his parents be? Who were the parents from Thebes who
abandoned the baby that the shepherd found?
Oedipus becomes determined to track down the shepherd and learn
the truth of his birth. Jocasta, who is now beginning to put the
pieces of the puzzle together, becomes terrified. She does not want
to know any more details of Oedipus’ birth. Jocasta begs him
to stop, and then runs off to the palace, wild with grief.
Confident that the worst he can hear is that his true parents were
peasants, not royalty, Oedipus eagerly awaits the shepherd. At first
the shepherd refuses to speak, but King Oedipus threatens the shepherd
with death if he doesn’t tell Oedipus what he knows. Finally,
the shepherd tells Oedipus what he knows—Oedipus was the abandoned
baby he found. Oedipus is actually the son of Laius and Jocasta.
Realizing that he had killed his father Laius at the crossroads
and married his mother Jocasta, Oedipus is consumed by grief. He
rushes into the palace and finds that his wife (and mother), Queen
Jocasta, has killed herself. Tortured and frenzied, Oedipus takes
the pins from her gown and gouges out his own eyes, so that he can
no longer look upon the misery he has caused. Now blinded and disgraced,
Oedipus begs his brother-in-law Creon to kill him. Instead, Oedipus
quietly submits to Creon’s leadership, and spends the rest
of his days as a blind, depressed, disgraced man.