Give a mythological background to the tragedy of Oedipus.
Ans. In order to understand fully the tragedy of Oedipus the King, it is necessary to have some knowledge of the legend of Oedipus. In the cycle of legends concerning the royal house of Thebes, Oedipus and his family -are the central figures. Sophocles dealt with the mythological themes already ‘familiar to his audience. There are many versions of the legends, but what Sophocles followed are considered thestandard ones.
Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes, were warned, about two generations before the expedition to Troy, by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi that their newborn son was destined someday to kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified by the prophecy Laius pierced the baby’s feet with an iron pin to prevent any movement, and gave it to a shepherd of his own household and told him to abandon it in the mountains. The king wanted the baby to die there from exposure to rough weather.
Out of pity for the baby, the shepherd gave it to another shepherd from Corinth without revealing the baby’s identity. He asked the Corinthian shepherd to take the baby far away from Thebes. Later the shepherd reported to King Laius that his command had been obeyed.
The Corinthian shepherd was a servant of Polybus, King of Corinth. He gave the baby to Polybus, telling him that he found it in the forest. Polybus and his queen Merope adopted the baby gladly since they were childless, and -named him Oedipus (meaning “Swollen foot”) because of his wounded feet. They pretended that the baby was their own son and brought him up as the prince of Corinth. –
When Oedipus became a young man he heard vague rumour that Polybus was not his real father. The oracle at Delphi told him that he would kill his own father and marry his own mother. He believed that Polybus and Merope were his real parents, and did not want to harm them. So he decided not to return to Corinth as long as they were àlivé.
He wandered through Greece, and eventually came near Thebes. At a crossroads Oedipus encountered a stranger, an old man (Laius) who was travelling in a chariot, escorted by several attendants. The old man ordered him roughly to step off the road and to make way for his betters. A hot dispute took place, Oedipus struck the charioteer Polyphontes, and Laius struck Oedipus. Oedipus flew into a rage and killed the king Laius and all his servants He proceeded farther towards Thebes Outside the city he met the Sphinx, a female monster with a woman’s head, lion’s body, serpent’s tail, and eagle’s wings. Settling on Mount Phicium she asked every Theban a riddle. Those who could not solve the riddle she throttled and devoured on the spot. Oedipus answered the riddle, and the monster killed herself out of mortification.’
The Thebans were grateful to Oedipus and acclaimed him king of Thebes. He married the queen Jocasta, unaware that she was his real mother, and had four children, two sons and two daughers, by her. A terrible plague descended upon Thebes, and the Delphic oracle, when consulted, once more replied: “Expel the murderer Laius!” Oedipus launched a search for the killer of Laius. His investigation finally led him to discover that Jocasta, now his wife, was: his real mother. Out of a profound sense of guilt and shame, queen Jocasta committed suicide by hanging herself, and Oedipus blinded himself. Creon, the new king,’ allowed Oedipus to remain in Thebes for some years, but ultimately banished him. Blind and helpless, and accompanied only by his daughter Antigone, he came to Colonus near Athens. He died there.