Oedipus Rex Book Summary - Oedipus Rex Book explained in key points
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Oedipus Rex summary


The Jaw-dropping Tragedy That Shocked Ancient Greece

4.6 (20 ratings)
20 mins
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    Oedipus Rex
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    King Oedipus must find a murderer and banish him

    There’s a terrible plague in the city of Thebes. The streets are filling up with bodies. The king of Thebes, Oedipus, is determined to end the suffering. He’s sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to visit the oracle at Delphi to ask the gods for guidance.

    When Creon returns, he tells Oedipus what he’s learned from the oracle. To end the plague, and save the city, they must find the man who killed King Laius years ago and banish him. Oedipus vows to track down this man, whoever he is. Perhaps the blind prophet Tiresias can help him find the killer.

    Oedipus summons Tiresias to the palace. The prophet is initially reluctant to speak, but Oedipus insists. He has to know: Who killed Laius?

    At last, Tiresias gives his answer. “It’s you,” says Tiresias. “You’re the murderer.” Oedipus is outraged. How dare Tiresias accuse him? After a heated argument, the prophet leaves the palace.


    Oedipus is the hero of the tragedy. And because it’s a tragedy, we know from the beginning that he’s going to suffer a downfall. In fact, audiences in ancient Greece would have known even more. When Sophocles’s play was first performed, the story of Oedipus was already a well-known myth. The audience probably knew a lot more about Oedipus than he knew himself.

    So, throughout the play, there’s dramatic irony. It can feel uncomfortable at times, watching the hero move toward his doom without realizing it. Especially as, in many ways, he seems like an admirable character. Sophocles portrays Oedipus as a man of action, and a strong, compassionate leader. He’s moved by the suffering of his people, and he urgently wants to identify Laius’s murderer.

    At times, Oedipus even seems like a detective, interrogating other characters in his quest for the truth. But his interrogation of the prophet Tiresias leads to an unexpected response – that Oedipus himself is the murderer. In the angry confrontation that follows, Oedipus mocks Tiresias for his blindness, which, as we’ll see later, is deeply ironic. Actually, it’s Oedipus who’s blind to the truth. He just doesn’t realize it yet.

    Before we move on, let’s look at another important theme – oracles and prophecies. Oracles were priests or priestesses who were considered portals to the gods. In ancient Greece, it was standard practice to consult them for advice. In Oedipus Rex, the recommendation to find and banish the murderer comes from an oracle, and Oedipus takes it seriously. Of course, he’ll do whatever the oracle suggests. But when another spokesperson for the gods – the prophet Tiresias – shares his knowledge, Oedipus doesn’t want to listen.

    So, to sum up, Oedipus is inconsistent in his attitude toward divine messages. He wants to follow the oracle’s advice, but he doesn’t want to believe the prophet who tells him that he’s a murderer. It’s understandable. Of course, no one wants to be told they’re a killer, and the cause of a plague. And humans often are inconsistent in their beliefs or prone to biases. On a psychological level, Oedipus’s behavior is believable. This is one of the strengths of Sophocles’s play. Even if parts of the plot seem implausible, we believe in Oedipus and his reactions. Perhaps we can even identify with him.

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    What is Oedipus Rex about?

    Oedipus Rex (fifth century BCE) is a tragedy based on the myth of King Oedipus. While investigating a murder, Oedipus learns shocking truths about his life.

    Who should read Oedipus Rex?

    • Fans of Greek mythology
    • People who enjoy dark, dramatic stories
    • Anyone interested in one of the greatest plays of all time

    About the Author

    Sophocles was a popular, influential playwright who lived in Greece in the fifth century BCE. He’s best known for the tragedies Oedipus Rex and Antigone.

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