Summary of "The Oedipus" Plays of Sophocles

by James Stuart
The three Oedipus plays are attributed to Sophocles.

The three Oedipus plays are attributed to Sophocles.

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Sophocles wrote three plays about the life of Oedipus. Although most people are familiar with the middle play where the skilled king is revealed as having married his mother and murdered his father, this is only one part of the three play cycle. Together, these plays form an in important part of literary history.

"Antigone"

Rather than focusing on the king himself, "Antigone" is instead centered around his two daughters. They lament the loss of their two brothers who have killed each other in a battle over the crown. Most of the play is occupied by the consequences of Antigone burying her brother. The new king of Thebes, Creon, had banned this action and subsequently sentences Antigone to be walled up in a tomb alive. He eventually changes his mind, but it comes too late, as Antigone is found hanged.

"Oedipus the King"

"Oedipus the King," or "Oedipus Rex," is the most famous play of this cycle. It focuses on the king as he attempts to deal with a plague in Thebes. A prophecy claims that the plague will not abate until the murder of the previous king has been solved. Oedipus calls in an oracle who cryptically claims that the king himself is the murderer. Despite Oedipus' denial, it is eventually revealed that Oedipus, raised by shepherds, had not only murdered his father by accident as a young man, but also unknowingly married his mother, Jocasta. The play ends with Jocasta hanging herself and Oedipus stabbing out his own eyes and going into exile.

"Oedipus at Colonus"

Taking place after the events of "Oedipus the King," "Oedipus at Colonus" features the exiled king arriving in Athens. Much of the play centers around a prediction that Oedipus' death will bring good fortune to the city where he is buried. Several kings attempt to capture Oedipus, but King Theseus shelters him until his death. Oedipus' two daughters mourn the loss of their father, but are informed that Oedipus had forbidden their grief and return to Athens to prevent a war between their brothers.

History

These plays are only three of the seen which now survive, but it is estimated that Sophocles wrote 123 plays which were entered in festival competitions which Sophocles frequently won. The plays all explore the notion of fate and destiny in some way and all follow the conventions of Greek tragedy. Although "Antigone" takes place last chronologically, it was probably the first play written.

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