Oedipus the King, otherwise known as Oedipus Rex is an archetypal Greek Tragedy by the Ancient Greek poet Sophocles. Although it is chronologically the first of the ‘Three Theban Plays’ it was actually the second to be produced.
Like many tragedies, much of the backstory of Oedipus Rex happens before the start of the play (it is important to bear in mind that all Greek Tragedies took place within one day).
Oedipus was the biological son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes, however, prior to his birth the King and Queen had been told by an oracle that their son would kill his father, they decided to have a child anyway, in the hopes that it would be a girl, but it wasn’t. When baby Oedipus is born, one of the King’s servents is told to take him to where he keeps his flocks and leave him to die, the baby’s feet were already pinned by Laius, so when he is given to a Corinthian shepherd to take far away, he is named Oedipus, which means ”swollen foot”.
When in Cornith, Oedipus is adopted by the loving King and Queen of Cornith, who cannot have children of their own. As a young man Oedipus is told that King Polybus is not his real father, he consults an Oracle to find out the truth. He is told he will kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified and believing that the King and Queen of Corinth truly are his birth parents he flees to Thebes, only to find a Sphinx is causing havoc among the Theban peoples. Oedipus answers the question of the tricksy Sphinx: ”What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?" with ”Man” as man crawls on all fours as an infant, walks upon two legs in adulthood and uses a walking stick in old age.
On the road to Thebes, however, Oedipus is encountered by Laius (whom he doesn’t know the identity of, either as a King or as his biological father) and when the old man wacks him on the head for not moving out the way, Oedipus becomes enraged and he kills the King and all his attendents, bar one, who flees to Thebes to tell of the King’s death and then dissapears.
On entering Thebes, the news of the King’s death has already reached Queen Jocasta, aswell as the saviour of the Theban people at the hands of intelligent Oedipus, who solved the riddle of the Sphinx. She offers to marry him and they are married for around 20 years, though the exact time is unknown.
What makes the story so tragic is the fact Oedipus himself, despite being hubristic at times, is an all-together very likable character and his love for his wife (and biological mother) and his children is heart-breaking. This is purely why Oedipus is seen as the archetypal tragic hero.
I suggest reading the play, as it’s very short yet wonderful.
The play ends with Oedipus gouging out his own eyes after finding out the truth of his situation and the hanging corpse of his motherwife.