And as for this marriage with your mother—
have no fear. Many a man before you,
in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed.
Take such things for shadows, nothing at all—
Live, Oedipus, as if there’s no tomorrow!
See Important Quotations Explained
A messenger enters, looking for Oedipus. He tells Jocasta that he has come from Corinth to tell Oedipus that his father, Polybus, is dead, and that Corinth wants Oedipus to come and rule there. Jocasta rejoices, convinced that since Polybus is dead from natural causes, the prophecy that Oedipus will murder his father is false. Oedipus arrives, hears the messenger’s news, and rejoices with Jocasta; king and queen concur that prophecies are worthless and the world is ruled by chance. However, Oedipus still fears the part of the prophecy that said he would sleep with his mother. The messenger says he can rid himself of that worry, because Polybus and his wife, Merope, are not really Oedipus’s natural parents.
The messenger explains that he used to be a shepherd years ago. One day, he found a baby on Mount Cithaeron, near Thebes. The baby had its ankles pinned together, and the former shepherd set them free. That baby was Oedipus, who still walks with a limp because of the injury to his ankles so long ago. When Oedipus inquires who left him in the woods on the mountain, the messenger replies that another shepherd, Laius’s servant, gave him baby Oedipus. At this, Jocasta turns sharply, seeming to sense some horrible revelation on the horizon.
Oedipus wants to find this shepherd, so he can find out who his natural parents are. Jocasta begs him to abandon his search immediately, but Oedipus is insistent. After screaming and pleading some more to no avail, Jocasta finally flees back into the palace. Oedipus dismisses her concerns as snobbish fears that he may be born of poor parents, and Oedipus and the Chorus rejoice at the possibility that they may soon know who his parents truly are.
The other shepherd, who turns out to be the same shepherd who witnessed Laius’s murder, comes onto the stage. The messenger identifies him as the man who gave him the young Oedipus. Oedipus interrogates the new arrival, asking who gave him the baby, but the shepherd refuses to talk. Finally, after Oedipus threatens him with torture, the shepherd answers that the baby came from the house of Laius. Questioned further, he answers that it was Laius’s child, and that Jocasta gave it to him to destroy because of a prophecy that the child would kill his parents. But instead, the shepherd gave him to the other shepherd, so that he might be raised as a prince in Corinth. Realizing who he is and who his parents are, Oedipus screams that he sees the truth, and flees back into the palace. The shepherd and the messenger slowly exit the stage.
Sophocles makes the scene in which Oedipus and Jocasta learn that Polybus is dead seem strangely comic. Oedipus digests the news of Polybus’s death without showing the slightest sign of grief. The moment becomes, in fact, an occasion for near triumph, as Oedipus believes his doubts about prophecies have been confirmed. He is now convinced that prophecies are useless. He even says, “Polybus / packs [all the prophecies] off to sleep with him in hell!” (1062–1063). Oedipus’s strange glee reveals the extent to which he has withdrawn into himself after obtaining the knowledge that he killed his father. He and Jocasta rejoice in the smallest and most bizarre details in order to alleviate some of the guilt Oedipus feels (for another example, see Oedipus and Jocasta’s discussion at lines 938–951).
Oedipus’s own tenacity, however, means that he will not allow his understanding to remain incomplete. When he learns that there is still a piece of the puzzle left unsolved—the identity of the man from whom the messenger received the baby Oedipus—Oedipus seems irresistibly driven to ask questions until the whole truth is out. Thus, he gradually deprives himself of ambiguous details that could alleviate his guilt. Jocasta, of course, solves the riddle before Oedipus—she realizes she is his mother while he is still imagining himself to be the child of slaves. Oedipus must realize that something is amiss when Jocasta leaves the stage screaming, but his speech at lines 1183–1194 is strangely joyful.
Chance, he says in this speech, is his mother, and the waxing and waning moon his brothers. Overwhelmed by an onslaught of new information, Oedipus re-envisions his earthly relationships as celestial ones as he announces his intent to uncover his true identity. It seems that he is unable to face directly the reality of his origins—reconceiving his identity allows him to feel a sense of control over it, but it also keeps that identity ambiguous. He basically identifies himself as someone who must search for his identity. Oedipus, who is famous for his skill at solving riddles, thus makes his own life into a riddle.
The messenger and shepherd are both similar to and different from the messenger characters who enter at the end of Greek tragedies to announce the terrible events that have occurred offstage (as will happen at the end of Oedipus the King [lines 1365–1422]). Like the typical final-scene messenger, these characters bear important news that is largely concerned with events that have not happened onstage. But unlike the typical final-scene messenger, these characters bear news not only to the audience but also to the man whom the news directly affects.
Because Oedipus receives news of his own tragedy, his drastic actions near the play’s conclusion become an exaggerated model of how the audience is expected to react to the words of the messenger characters, who narrate the catastrophes in the final scenes of Greek plays. Throughout the play, Oedipus has been concerned with precise words—of the oracle (102), of Jocasta when she mentions the three-way crossroads (805), of the messenger who escaped death in Laius’s traveling party (932–937). After learning the truth of his origins, however, Oedipus gives words physical consequence. He transforms the messenger’s statement into a tangible, life-changing, physical horror, in a manner that shows the audience what its reaction should be.