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Oedipus Background Story

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by

Patricia Hinko

on 16 January 2014

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Transcript of Oedipus Background Story

Thebes
Corinth
Delphi
Oedipus Background
Laius and Jocasta are the King and Queen of Thebes. After having trouble getting pregnant, they decide to consult the Oracle at Delphi.
The Oracle delivers both good news and bad news.

Good news: They will have a son

Bad news: The son will kill Laius

Laius and Jocasta are automatically terrified and head back to Thebes to figure out what to do.
Sure enough, Jocasta gave birth to a son. Laius, being frightened of death, ordered one of his servants to pin his son's feet together and leave him on the mountain side to die.

Doing as he is told, the servant brings the new born child to Mount Cithaeron.
Mount Cithaeron
The servant had a change of heart and realized he could not just leave a child to die. The servant knew of a shepherd from Corinth that herded sheep on the other side of the mountain so he gave the child to the shepherd
Jocasta and Laius were not the only ones having trouble having a child. Polybus and Merope, the king and queen of Corinth, were also struggling to have a child.


The shepherd, knowing that his king and queen wanted to have a child and couldn't, decided to give the child to Polybus and Merope to raise as their own.

They were thrilled and decided to name the child Oedipus, which means "swollen foot," due to his feet having been pinned together.
Oedipus grew into manhood believing his adoptive parents, Polybus and Merope, were his biological parents.

This changed one night at a dinner when a drunk man informed to Oedipus that he was not his father's son.

His parents informed him that the drunk was mistaken. However, Oedipus was not satisfied. Something seemed off so he decided to visit the Oracle at Delphi for more information.
Oedipus asked the Oracle if what was told to him was true. The Oracle did not give him an answer but instead told Oedipus his fate:

Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother.


Horrified at what he heard, Oedipus decided not to return to Corinth in fear of the prophecy coming true.
At the place where the three roads meet, Oedipus ran into a man and his servants. Oedipus and the man could not agree on who had the right of way thus a fight broke out leading to Oedipus killing the man and his servants in a fit of rage.

Oedipus did not know that the man that he killed was Laius, the king of Thebes.

Oedipus continued on his way and ended up in the city of Thebes.
Upon arrival in Thebes, Oedipus is immediately faced with a challenge; save the city from the dreaded Sphinx.

The Sphinx was a monster with the face of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of a bird.
The Sphinx was asking a question to everyone it faced. If the person could not answer correctly, the Sphinx would eat the person. There was no running from the Sphinx for that would result in the same outcome.

She would ask the following riddle:

"What is it that walks on four legs in the morning, on two at midday, and on three in the evening?"
Oedipus was asked the question by the Sphinx. He promptly answered:

"Man for he crawls as a baby, walks erect in maturity, and uses a staff in old age"

Due to the fact Oedipus gave the correct answer to the riddle, the Sphinx killed herself
The citizens of Thebes were so happy that they decided to make him king since they recently lost theirs in a murder.

Jocasta was also impressed so she agreed to marry Oedipus.

For 20 years, Oedipus and Jocasta ruled Thebes using Jocasta's brother, Creon, as their trusted adviser.

After 20 years, the citizens of Thebes come to Oedipus for help again this time to help them get rid of a plague that is killing nearly all of the citizens of Thebes.
The ancient Greeks would know this story of Oedipus before they went to see Sophocles' play. They would be fully aware that Oedipus, unbeknown to him, killed his father and married his mother. They attended the play to learn why trying to avoid your fate was dangerous
Throughout the play, Oedipus slowly learns the truth.

In literature, the term for the audience knowing something when the characters do not, is called dramatic irony.
As we discovered with The Iliad, fate, according to the ancient Greeks, is not something to be avoided. The harder you avoid your fate, the worse your life becomes. This is just one of the lessons Oedipus teaches the Greek audience.
Oedipus also teaches a lesson about the dangers of hubris, otherwise known as excessive pride or self-confidence which leads to arrogance.

As we read the play, we will discuss how these two combine to create a theme for the play.
Full transcript