Antigone and Ismene, the daughters of Oedipus, discuss the disaster that has just befallen them. Their brothers Polynices and Eteocles have killed one another in a battle for control over Thebes. Creon now rules the city, and he has ordered that Polynices, who brought a foreign army against Thebes, not be allowed proper burial rites. Creon threatens to kill anyone who tries to bury Polynices and stations sentries over his body. Antigone, in spite of Creon’s edict and without the help of her sister Ismene, resolves to give their brother a proper burial. Soon, a nervous sentry arrives at the palace to tell Creon that, while the sentries slept, someone gave Polynices burial rites. Creon says that he thinks some of the dissidents of the city bribed the sentry to perform the rites, and he vows to execute the sentry if no other suspect is found.
The sentry soon exonerates himself by catching Antigone in the act of attempting to rebury her brother, the sentries having disinterred him. Antigone freely confesses her act to Creon and says that he himself defies the will of the gods by refusing Polynices burial. Creon condemns both Antigone and Ismene to death. Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed, enters the stage. Creon asks him his opinion on the issue. Haemon seems at first to side with his father, but gradually admits his opposition to Creon’s stubbornness and petty vindictiveness. Creon curses him and threatens to slay Antigone before his very eyes. Haemon storms out. Creon decides to pardon Ismene, but vows to kill Antigone by walling her up alive in a tomb.
The blind prophet Tiresias arrives, and Creon promises to take whatever advice he gives. Tiresias advises that Creon allow Polynices to be buried, but Creon refuses. Tiresias predicts that the gods will bring down curses upon the city. The words of Tiresias strike fear into the hearts of Creon and the people of Thebes, and Creon reluctantly goes to free Antigone from the tomb where she has been imprisoned. But his change of heart comes too late. A messenger enters and recounts the tragic events: Creon and his entourage first gave proper burial to Polynices, then heard what sounded like Haemon’s voice wailing from Antigone’s tomb. They went in and saw Antigone hanging from a noose, and Haemon raving. Creon’s son then took a sword and thrust it at his father. Missing, he turned the sword against himself and died embracing Antigone’s body. Creon’s wife, Eurydice, hears this terrible news and rushes away into the palace. Creon enters, carrying Haemon’s body and wailing against his own tyranny, which he knows has caused his son’s death. The messenger tells Creon that he has another reason to grieve: Eurydice has stabbed herself, and, as she died, she called down curses on her husband for the misery his pride had caused. Creon kneels and prays that he, too, might die. His guards lead him back into the palace.
A plague has stricken Thebes. The citizens gather outside the palace of their king, Oedipus, asking him to take action. Oedipus replies that he already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle at Delphi to learn how to help the city. Creon returns with a message from the oracle: the plague will end when the murderer of Laius, former king of Thebes, is caught and expelled; the murderer is within the city. Oedipus questions Creon about the murder of Laius, who was killed by thieves on his way to consult an oracle. Only one of his fellow travelers escaped alive. Oedipus promises to solve the mystery of Laius’s death, vowing to curse and drive out the murderer.
Oedipus sends for Tiresias, the blind prophet, and asks him what he knows about the murder. Tiresias responds cryptically, lamenting his ability to see the truth when the truth brings nothing but pain. At first he refuses to tell Oedipus what he knows. Oedipus curses and insults the old man, going so far as to accuse him of the murder. These taunts provoke Tiresias into revealing that Oedipus himself is the murderer. Oedipus naturally refuses to believe Tiresias’s accusation. He accuses Creon and Tiresias of conspiring against his life, and charges Tiresias with insanity. He asks why Tiresias did nothing when Thebes suffered under a plague once before. At that time, a Sphinx held the city captive and refused to leave until someone answered her riddle. Oedipus brags that he alone was able to solve the puzzle. Tiresias defends his skills as a prophet, noting that Oedipus’s parents found him trustworthy. At this mention of his parents, Oedipus, who grew up in the distant city of Corinth, asks how Tiresias knew his parents. But Tiresias answers enigmatically. Then, before leaving the stage, Tiresias puts forth one last riddle, saying that the murderer of Laius will turn out to be both father and brother to his own children, and the son of his own wife.
After Tiresias leaves, Oedipus threatens Creon with death or exile for conspiring with the prophet. Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta (also the widow of King Laius), enters and asks why the men shout at one another. Oedipus explains to Jocasta that the prophet has charged him with Laius’s murder, and Jocasta replies that all prophecies are false. As proof, she notes that the Delphic oracle once told Laius he would be murdered by his son, when in fact his son was cast out of Thebes as a baby, and Laius was murdered by a band of thieves. Her description of Laius’s murder, however, sounds familiar to Oedipus, and he asks further questions. Jocasta tells him that Laius was killed at a three-way crossroads, just before Oedipus arrived in Thebes. Oedipus, stunned, tells his wife that he may be the one who murdered Laius. He tells Jocasta that, long ago, when he was the prince of Corinth, he overheard someone mention at a banquet that he was not really the son of the king and queen. He therefore traveled to the oracle of Delphi, who did not answer him but did tell him he would murder his father and sleep with his mother. Hearing this, Oedipus fled his home, never to return. It was then, on the journey that would take him to Thebes, that Oedipus was confronted and harassed by a group of travelers, whom he killed in self-defense. This skirmish occurred at the very crossroads where Laius was killed.
Oedipus sends for the man who survived the attack, a shepherd, in the hope that he will not be identified as the murderer. Outside the palace, a messenger approaches Jocasta and tells her that he has come from Corinth to inform Oedipus that his father, Polybus, is dead, and that Corinth has asked Oedipus to come and rule there in his place. Jocasta rejoices, convinced that Polybus’s death from natural causes has disproved the prophecy that Oedipus would murder his father. At Jocasta’s summons, Oedipus comes outside, hears the news, and rejoices with her. He now feels much more inclined to agree with the queen in deeming prophecies worthless and viewing chance as the principle governing the world. But while Oedipus finds great comfort in the fact that one-half of the prophecy has been disproved, he still fears the other half—the half that claimed he would sleep with his mother.
The messenger remarks that Oedipus need not worry, because Polybus and his wife, Merope, are not Oedipus’s biological parents. The messenger, a shepherd by profession, knows firsthand that Oedipus came to Corinth as an orphan. One day long ago, he was tending his sheep when another shepherd approached him carrying a baby, its ankles pinned together. The messenger took the baby to the royal family of Corinth, and they raised him as their own. That baby was Oedipus. Oedipus asks who the other shepherd was, and the messenger answers that he was a servant of Laius.
Oedipus asks that this shepherd be brought forth to testify, but Jocasta, beginning to suspect the truth, begs her husband not to seek more information. She runs back into the palace. The shepherd then enters. Oedipus interrogates him, asking who gave him the baby. The shepherd refuses to disclose anything, and Oedipus threatens him with torture. Finally, he answers that the child came from the house of Laius. Questioned further, he answers that the baby was in fact the child of Laius himself, and that it was Jocasta who gave him the infant, ordering him to kill it, as it had been prophesied that the child would kill his parents. But the shepherd pitied the child, and decided that the prophecy could be avoided just as well if the child were to grow up in a foreign city, far from his true parents. The shepherd therefore passed the boy on to the shepherd 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. A second messenger enters and describes scenes of suffering. Jocasta has hanged herself, and Oedipus, finding her dead, has pulled the pins from her robe and stabbed out his own eyes. Oedipus now emerges from the palace, bleeding and begging to be exiled. He asks Creon to send him away from Thebes and to look after his daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Creon, covetous of royal power, is all too happy to oblige.
After years of wandering in exile from Thebes, Oedipus arrives in a grove outside Athens. Blind and frail, he walks with the help of his daughter, Antigone. Oedipus and Antigone learn from a citizen that they are standing on holy ground, reserved for the Eumenides, goddesses of fate. Oedipus sends the citizen to fetch Theseus, the king of Athens and its surroundings. Oedipus tells Antigone that, earlier in his life, when Apollo prophesied his doom, the god promised Oedipus that he would come to rest on this ground.
After an interlude in which Oedipus tells the Chorus who he is, Oedipus’s second daughter, Ismene, enters, having gone to learn news from Apollo’s oracle at Delphi. She tells him that, back in Thebes, Oedipus’s younger son, Eteocles, has overthrown Polynices, the elder, and that Polynices is now amassing troops in Argos for an attack on his brother and on Creon, who rules along with Eteocles. The oracle has predicted that the burial place of Oedipus will bring good fortune to the city in which it is located, and both sons, as well as Creon, know of this prophecy. Both Polynices and Creon are currently en route to try to take Oedipus into custody and thus claim the right to bury him in their kingdoms. Oedipus swears he will never give his support to either of his sons, for they did nothing to prevent his exile years ago.
King Theseus arrives and says that he pities Oedipus for the fate that has befallen him, and he asks how he can help Oedipus. Oedipus asks Theseus to harbor him in Athens until his death, but warns that by doing him this favor, Theseus will incur the wrath of Thebes. Despite the warning, Theseus agrees to help Oedipus.
Creon appears in order to abduct Oedipus, but, proving unsuccessful, he kidnaps Antigone and Ismene instead. Theseus promises Oedipus that he will get his daughters back. Theseus does in fact return with Oedipus’s daughters shortly.
Soon after, Polynices arrives, seeking his father’s favor in order to gain custody of his eventual burial site. Oedipus asks Theseus to drive Polynices away, but Antigone convinces her father to listen to his son. Polynices tells Oedipus that he never condoned his exile, and that Eteocles is the bad son, having bribed the men of Thebes to turn against Polynices. Oedipus responds with a terrible curse, upbraiding his son for letting him be sent into exile, and predicting that Eteocles and Polynices will die at one another’s hands. Polynices, realizing he will never win his father’s support, turns to his sisters. He asks that they provide him with a proper burial should he die in battle. Antigone embraces Polynices, saying that he is condemning himself to death, but he resolutely says that his life remains in the hands of the gods. He prays for the safety of his sisters and then leaves for Thebes.
Terrible thunder sounds, and the Chorus cries out in horror. Oedipus says that his time of death has come. Sending for Theseus, he tells the king he must carry out certain rites on his body, and that by doing so he may assure divine protection to his city. Theseus says that he believes Oedipus and asks what to do. Oedipus answers that he will lead the king to the place where he will die, and that Theseus must never reveal that spot, but pass it on to his son at his own death, who in turn must pass it on to his own son. In this way Theseus and his heirs may always rule over a safe city. Oedipus then strides off with a sudden strength, taking his daughters and Theseus to his grave.
A messenger enters to narrate the mysterious death of Oedipus: his death seemed a disappearance of sorts, “the lightless depths of Earth bursting open in kindness to receive him” (1886–1887). Just as the messenger finishes his story, Antigone and Ismene come onstage, chanting a dirge. Antigone wails that they will cry for Oedipus for as long as they live. Not knowing where to go now, Antigone says they will have to wander forever alone. Theseus returns to the stage, asking the daughters to stop their weeping. They plead to see their father’s tomb, but Theseus insists that Oedipus has forbidden it. They give up their pleas but ask for safe passage back to Thebes, so that they may prevent a war between their brothers. Theseus grants them this, and the Chorus tells the girls to stop their weeping, for all rests in the hands of the gods. Theseus and the Chorus exit toward Athens; Antigone and Ismene head for Thebes.