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Oedipus the King by Sophocles - an excerpt

Oedipus the King

Dramatis Personae


OEDIPUS: king of Thebes

PRIEST: the high priest of Thebes

CREON: Oedipus’ brother-in-law

CHORUS of Theban elders

TEIRESIAS: an old blind prophet

BOY: attendant on Teiresias

JOCASTA: wife of Oedipus, sister of Creon

MESSENGER: an old man

SERVANT: an old shepherd

SECOND MESSENGER: a servant of Oedipus

ANTIGONE: daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, a child

ISMENE: daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, a child

SERVANTS and ATTENDANTS on Oedipus and Jocasta


[The action takes place in Thebes in front of the royal palace. The

main doors are directly facing the audience. There are altars beside

the doors. A crowd of citizens carrying branches decorated with

laurel garlands and wool and led by the PRIEST has gathered in

front of the altars, with some people sitting on the altar steps.]


[OEDIPUS enters through the palace doors]



My children, latest generation born from Cadmus,1

why are you sitting here with wreathed sticks

in supplication to me, while the city

fills with incense, chants, and cries of pain?

Children, it would not be appropriate for me

to learn of this from any other source,

so I have come in person—I, Oedipus,

whose fame all men acknowledge. But you there,

old man, tell me—you seem to be the one

who ought to speak for those assembled here.                                     10               [10]

What feeling brings you to me—fear or desire?

You can be confident that I will help.

I shall assist you willingly in every way.

I would be a hard-hearted man indeed,

if I did not pity suppliants like these.


Oedipus, ruler of my native land,

you see how people here of every age

are crouching down around your altars,

some fledglings barely strong enough to fly

and others bent by age, with priests as well—                                        20

for I’m priest of Zeus—and these ones here,

the pick of all our youth. The other groups

sit in the market place with suppliant sticks

or else in front of Pallas’ two shrines,                                                                     [20]

or where Ismenus prophesies with fire.2

For our city, as you yourself can see,

is badly shaken—she cannot raise her head

above the depths of so much surging death.

Disease infects fruit blossoms in our land,

disease infects our herds of grazing cattle,                                              30

makes women in labour lose their children.

And deadly pestilence, that fiery god,

swoops down to blast the city, emptying

the House of Cadmus, and fills black Hades                                                         [30]

with groans and howls. These children and myself

now sit here by your home, not because we think

you’re equal to the gods. No. We judge you

the first of men in what happens in this life

and in our interactions with the gods.

For you came here, to our Cadmeian city,                                                40

and freed us from the tribute we were paying

to that cruel singer—and yet you knew

no more than we did and had not been taught.3

In their stories, the people testify

how, with gods’ help, you gave us back our lives.

So now, Oedipus, our king, most powerful                                                             [40]

in all men’s eyes, we’re here as suppliants,

all begging you to find some help for us,

either by listening to a heavenly voice,

or learning from some other human being.                                                 50

For, in my view, men of experience

provide advice which gives the best results.

So now, you best of men, raise up our state.

Act to consolidate your fame, for now,

thanks to your eagerness in earlier days,

the city celebrates you as its saviour.

Don’t let our memory of your ruling here                                                                 [50]

declare that we were first set right again,

and later fell. No. Restore our city,

so that it stands secure. In those times past                                             60

you brought us joy—and with good omens, too.

Be that same man today. If you’re to rule

as you are doing now, it’s better to be king

in a land of men than in a desert.

An empty ship or city wall is nothing

if no men share your life together there.


My poor children, I know why you have come—

I am not ignorant of what you yearn for.

For I well know that you are ill, and yet,                                                                    [60]

sick as you are, there is not one of you                                                     70

whose illness equals mine. Your agony

comes to each one of you as his alone,

a special pain for him and no one else.

But the soul inside me sorrows for myself,

and for the city, and for you—all together.

You are not rousing me from a deep sleep.

You must know I’ve been shedding many tears

and, in my wandering thoughts, exploring

many pathways. After a careful search

I followed up the one thing I could find                                                     80

and acted on it. So I have sent away

my brother-in-law, son of Menoeceus,

Creon, to Pythian Apollo’s shrine,                                                                             [70]

to learn from him what I might do or say

to save our city. But when I count the days—

the time he’s been away—I now worry

what he’s doing. For he’s been gone too long,

well past the time he should have taken.

But when he comes, I’ll be a wicked man

if I do not act on all the god reveals.                                                         90


What you have said is most appropriate,

for these men here have just informed me

that Creon is approaching.


                                            Lord Apollo,                                                                       [80]

as he returns may fine shining fortune,

bright as his countenance, attend on him.


It seems the news he brings is good—if not,

he would not wear that wreath around his head,

a laurel thickly packed with berries.4




1Cadmus: legendary founder of Thebes. Hence, the citizens of Thebes were often called children of Cadmus or Cadmeians.

2Pallas: Pallas Athena. There were two shrines to her in Thebes. Ismenus: A temple to Apollo Ismenios where burnt offerings were the basis for the priest’s divination.

3. . . cruel singer: a reference to the Sphinx, a monster with the body of a lion, wings, and the head and torso of a woman. After the death of king Laius, the Sphinx tyrannized Thebes by not letting anyone into or out of the city, unless the person could answer the following riddle: "What walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?" Those who could not answer were killed and eaten. Oedipus provided the answer (a human being), and thus saved the city. TheSphinx then committed suicide.





ppliant to Apollo’s shrine characteristically wore such a garland if he received favourable news.



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