Your country calls you savior now for your zeal your action years ago. Never let us remember of your reign: you helped us stand, only to fall once more.
In the opening scene of Oedipus the King, a priest speaks to Oedipus, the King of Thebes. Many years before, Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx, saved the city from ruin, and became king. Now, a plague has struck the city and the priest approaches Oedipus for help on behalf of “the great family” of Thebes, beseeching him to save them. This scene highlights the respect felt for Oedipus prior to his family’s tragic downfall.
Apollo commands us—he was quite clear—“Drive the corruption from the land, don’t harbor it any longer, past all cure, don’t nurse it in your soil—root it out!”
Early in Oedipus the King, Creon speaks to Oedipus, reminding him that until they find out who killed Laius, Apollo has decreed that Thebes will be cursed with a “plague-storm.” This murder happened before Oedipus came to the city and, according to Creon, “put us straight on course.” At this point in the play, neither man knows that it is Oedipus himself who murdered Laius. Thus, Oedipus, the man who once saved Thebes, is the cause of the city’s curse.
Now my curse on the murderer. Whoever he is, a long man unknown in his crime or one among many, let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step . . .
Oedipus addresses the Chorus in these lines, possibly the most tragic and ironic of any lines in the three plays. As Oedipus curses the murderer, he curses himself. He hopes and predicts that the murderer’s life will be long and agonizing. As we learn in reading all three plays, Oedipus’s life is indeed long and filled with agony. Adding to the irony is the fact that as Oedipus utters these lines, the audience knows his history and what his future holds.
I can hear him cry, “You are fated to couple with your mother you will bring a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see—you will kill your father, the one who gave you life!”
Here, Oedipus recalls for his wife/mother Jocasta what the Oracle at Delphi said to him years ago. He had traveled to see the Oracle after a drunkard at a banquet informed him that he was not the son of the man he supposed to be his father, Polybus. Oedipus is finally admitting that he has heard some inklings of the truth before. In addition, Oedipus also confesses to Jocasta that he killed a man at a crossroads. A major theme unfolds in this scene: You can run from your fate, but in the end, fate will always win.
Dark, horror of darkness, my darkness, drowning, swirling around me crashing wave on wave—unspeakable, irresistible headwind, fatal harbor! Oh again, the misery, all at once, over and over the stabbing dagger, stab of memory raking me insane.
Oedipus addresses the Chorus after blinding himself in Oedipus the King. Here, he stands completely exposed in front of his people in the fullness of his agony and shame. As if being borne by powerful and ceaseless ocean waves, Oedipus was pushed toward his “fatal harbor” or his realization of the truth. He also makes it clear that the stabbing dagger of memory is threatening his sanity.
Acceptance—that is the great lesson suffering teaches, suffering and the long years, my close companions, yes, and nobility, too, my royal birthright.
In the opening lines of Oedipus at Colonus, the blind Oedipus speaks to Antigone who is leading him through the woods. Many years have passed since his exile from Thebes and he muses on the meaning of his torturous life. Oedipus has clearly reached some peace of mind after all these years, and he establishes himself in the role of a wise man throughout Sophocles’s last play of the trilogy.
I have suffered, friends, the worst horrors on earth, suffered against my will I swear to god, not a single thing self-willed—
Oedipus speaks to the Chorus that has gathered around him in Oedipus at Colonus. The Chorus pushes him to tell his truth yet again, and at first he resists, but finally he relents. In these lines, Oedipus shirks responsibility for his heinous actions, blaming it on Thebes and the gods. The exchange summarizes the climax of Oedipus the King for any audience who needs a reminder of what happened.
I’ll tell you: the man I murdered—he’d have murdered me! I am innocent! Pure in the eyes of the law, blind, unknowing, I, I came to this!
While speaking to the Chorus gathered around him in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus makes a case for self-defense in his murder of Laius. The scene has reached a feverish climax of emotion in which the Chorus is horrified at the crime and Oedipus is adamant about his innocence, based on lack of knowledge and premeditation. The exchange reveals Oedipus’s perspective of past events.
Soon, soon I will lead you on myself, no hand to lead my way, to the place where I must die. Never reveal the spot to mortal man, not even the region, not where it lies hidden.
In the last hours of his life, Oedipus bares his heart to Theseus, trying to impart some wisdom, begging him to care for his daughters, and imploring him to keep the place of his death a secret. Oedipus believes that because his life was so cursed, his final resting place, including his body, will be a curse upon any people who harbor it. It is a small victory that Oedipus’s last act is independent.
. . . and Oedipus—we couldn’t see the man—he was gone—nowhere! And the king, alone shielding his eyes, both hands spread out against his face as if—some terrible wonder flashed before his eyes and he, he could not bear to look.
The messenger recounts to the leader of the Chorus what happened at the very end of Oedipus’s life. Surrounded by his sobbing daughters and others, he simply vanished. No one but Theseus, the king of Athens, sees Oedipus die. Before he died, Oedipus made Theseus promise to care for his daughters, a request revealing his trust in Theseus and his undying love for his daughters.