Study Guide

Oedipus the King Introduction

By Sophocles

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Oedipus the King Introduction

You know who had an Oedipus complex? Sophocles.

Oh, wait. We mean you know who wrote a complex Oedipus? Sophocles.

Sophocles is considered one of the great ancient Greek tragedians, and he's known best for like plays like Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. These plays follow the fall of the great king, Oedipus, and later the tragedies that his children suffer.

Hmm. On second thought maybe Sophocles did have Oedipus on the brain. And we can't really blame him: a story about a dude who kills his father, marries his mother, and then stabs his own eyes out is pretty awesome writing fodder.

Of course, most of us know "Oedipus" to be synonymous with the desire to kill your father and sleep with your mom. We have Sigmund Freud’s theory of the "Oedipus Complex" to thank for that—Freud's Oedipus complex describes a stage of psychological development in which a child sees their father as a competitor for his or her mother’s attention.

But the really tragic thing about poor Oedipus is that he doesn't want to get his incest on—he's fated to. The gods willed it, and poor Oed has no choice. He even tries to outwit the prophecy that decreed that he'd kill his daddy and wed his mommy—he runs away from the people he thinks are his parents.

It's not until he's king of Thebes that things start to unravel. He learns that he was adopted... that the people he killed in self-defense some years ago were his dad and his dad's posse...and that the woman he married was his mommy dearest. Oops.

Yes, back in 430 BCE when Sophocles'—not Freud's—Oedipus was the Oedipus that mattered, he was a complex man thwarted by the gods' will and by fate. He wasn't a Norman Bates psycho. He wasn't a stereotypically whiny Mama's boy. He was a really good king (with some anger issues and a stubborn streak, sure) and a model citizen.

Huh. Maybe that's why Aristotle thought he was the best tragic hero ever.

What is Oedipus the King About and Why Should I Care?

Stop us if you've heard this one before: guy walks into a bar, meets Han Solo, almost sleeps with his sister, steps up to save a galaxy, and finds out by the end of the second movie that his greatest enemy is *gasp* his father!

Well, it's a familiar tale, not just for all moviegoers post-1977—but also for all theatergoers after, say, 429 B.C.

Take out that bit about Han Solo (and also, maybe the bar), and change sister to mother and you've got the bare bones of Sophocles' Oedipus the King: guy gets chosen as the One to battle evil (sadly, not a host of stormtroopers—Sophocles goes with a plague caused by the evil presence of a murderer in Thebes), sleeps with his mother, and finds out that he himself was his father's killer without even knowing it. 

Dang. Dang that's good.

Aristotle said Oedipus the King was the "perfect tragedy," and if literary history—with it's absolute love of heroes with serious family issues and the fate of a civilization resting in their hands—is anything to go on, he was dead on.

Luke Skywalker. Hamlet. Most of the characters in Game of Thrones. The list of saviors with Mommy and Daddy issues is a mile and a half long...and a whole lot of this comes back to Sophocles' Oedipus.

But why? Is it because of the shock value of doing battle within your own family? Is it because the family can be viewed as the world in miniature? Is it because we think of people who control the fates of entire cities (like, say, Thebes) as being so powerful that we want to watch them powerlessly fighting their own flesh and blood? Is it because familial love is such a weird and often frustrating thing—hello, family Thanksgiving—that we want the catharsis of seeing someone actually battle their parents? Is it because, deep inside, we're all angsty thirteen-year-olds who just want to stay out until midnight Mom, please?

We're going to go with "all of the above." Sophocles' Oedipus The King hits so many nerves that it haunts the public imagination to this day... and influences our most awesome movies and TV shows.

Oedipus the King Resources

Movie or TV Productions

Oedipus Rex (1993)
A TV movie.

Oedipus the King (1968)
This movie stars Christopher Plummer (Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music) as Oedipus, Orson Welles as Teiresias, and Donald Sutherland as the leader of the Chorus.


Oedipus Performed By Veggies
A totally awesome, polished, and downright GOOD rendition of Oedipus in eight minutes performed by vegetables with kitchen supplies as weapons. Oedipus is a potato. This is a must see.


Ancient Greek Art
Oedipus chillin’ with the Sphinx.

Theater Masks
Ancient Greek actors performed in masks. Check out this collection of images of ancient Greek and Roman theater masks.


Free E-Book of the Oedipus Plays
This is the Francis Storr translation quoted by Shmoop.

"Teiresias, the seer of Oedipus the King"
Learn about how Sophocles' version of Teiresias differed from the Roman playwright Seneca's version. (PDF)

The British Museum
The British Museum has a mini-site with info on ancient Greek theater.

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