Oedipus Rex, also known by its Greek title, Oedipus Tyrannus (Ancient Greek: Οἰδίπους Τύραννος IPA: ), or Oedipus the King, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed around 429 BC. Originally, to the ancient Greeks, the title was simply Oedipus (Οἰδίπους), as it is referred to by Aristotle in the Poetics. It is thought to have been renamed Oedipus Tyrannus to distinguish it from Oedipus at Colonus. In antiquity, the term “tyrant” referred to a ruler, but it did not necessarily have a negative connotation.
Of his three Theban plays that have survived, and that deal with the story of Oedipus, Oedipus Rex was the second to be written. However, in terms of the chronology of events that the plays describe, it comes first, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone.
Prior to the start of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus has become the king of Thebes while unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that he would kill his father, Laius (the previous king), and marry his mother, Jocasta (whom Oedipus took as his queen after solving the riddle of the Sphinx). The action of Sophocles' play concerns Oedipus' search for the murderer of Laius in order to end a plague ravaging Thebes, unaware that the killer he is looking for is none other than himself. At the end of the play, after the truth finally comes to light, Jocasta hangs herself while Oedipus, horrified at his patricide and incest, proceeds to gouge out his own eyes in despair.
Oedipus Rex is regarded by many scholars as the masterpiece of ancient Greek tragedy. In his Poetics, Aristotle refers several times to the play in order to exemplify aspects of the genre.
Many parts or elements of the myth of Oedipus take place before the opening scene of the play. They may be described or referred to in the text. In his youth, Laius was a guest of King Pelops of Elis, and became the tutor of Chrysippus, youngest of the king's sons, in chariot racing. He then violated the sacred laws of hospitality by abducting and raping Chrysippus, who according to some versions, killed himself in shame. This murder cast a doom over Laius, his son Oedipus, and all of his other descendants. However, most scholars are in agreement that the seduction or rape of Chrysippus was a late addition to the Theban myth.
A son is born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. After Laius learns from an oracle that "he is doomed/To perish by the hand of his own son", he tightly binds the feet of the infant together with a pin and orders Jocasta to kill the infant. Hesitant to do so, she orders a servant to commit the act for her. Instead, the servant takes the baby to a mountain top to die from exposure. A shepherd rescues the infant and names him Oedipus (or "swollen feet"). (The servant directly hands the infant to the shepherd in most versions.) The shepherd carries the baby with him to Corinth, where Oedipus is taken in and raised in the court of the childless King Polybus of Corinth as if he were his own.
As a young man in Corinth, Oedipus hears a rumour that he is not the biological son of Polybus and his wife Merope. He asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents really are. The Oracle seems to ignore this question, telling him instead that he is destined to "Mate with own mother, and shed/With own hands the blood of own sire". Desperate to avoid his foretold fate, Oedipus leaves Corinth after hearing from a drunk that Polybus is not his true father. When going to the oracle in Delphi to clear this up, he is told that one day he will murder his father and marry his mother. With the belief that Polybus and Merope are indeed his true parents, Oedipus sets off for the city of Thebes rather than returning home in the hope that no harm will come to his parents.
On the road to Thebes, he meets Laius, his true father, with several other men. Unaware of each other's identities, Laius and Oedipus quarrel over whose chariot has right-of-way. King Laius moves to strike the insolent youth with his sceptre, but Oedipus throws him down from the chariot and kills him, thus fulfilling part of the oracle's prophecy.
Shortly after, Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, which has baffled many diviners. It isn’t known for certain what exactly the riddle was, it isn’t repeated in the play, but a later tradition gives it as: "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?" To this Oedipus replies, "Man" (who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks upright later, and needs a walking stick in old age), and the distraught Sphinx throws herself off the cliffside. Oedipus's reward for freeing the kingdom of Thebes from her curse is the kingship and the hand of Queen Dowager Jocasta, his biological mother. The prophecy is thus fulfilled, although none of the main characters know it.
Oedipus sent his brother-in-law Creon to ask advice of the oracle at Delphi concerning a plague ravagin