Oedipus the King

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Oedipus Home Page

 

            Enter a MESSENGER, from the palace.


MESSENGER:

            Men of Thebes, always first in honor,

            what horrors you will hear, what you will see,

            what a heavy weight of sorrow you will shoulder . . .

            if you are true to your birth, if you still have

            some feeling for the royal house of Thebes.

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            I tell you neither the waters of the Danube

            nor the Nile can wash this palace clean.

The Danube and the Nile are massive rivers


            Such things it hides, it soon sill bring to light—

            terrible things, and none done blindly now,

            all done with a will. The pains

            we inflict upon ourselves hurt most of all.


LEADER:

            God knows we have pains enough already.

            What can you add to them?


MESSENGER:

            The queen is dead.


LEADER:

            Poor lady—how?


MESSENGER:

            By her own hand. But you are spared the worst,

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            you never had to watch . . . I saw it all,

            and with all the memory that's in me

            you still learn what that poor woman suffered.


            Once she'd broken in through the gates,

            dashing past us, frantic, whipped to fury,

            ripping her hair out with both hands—

            straight to her rooms she rushed, flinging herself

            across the bridal-bed, doors slamming behind her—

            once inside, she wailed for Laius, dead so long,

            remembering how she bore his child long ago,

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            the life that rose up to destroy him, leaving

            its mother to mother living creatures

            with the very son she'd borne.

            Oh how she wept, mourning the marriage-bed

            where she let loose that double brood—monsters —

            husband by her husband, children by her child.

            And then—

            but how she died is more than I can say. Suddenly

            Oedipus burst in, screaming, he stunned us so

            we couldn't watch her agony to the end,

            our eyes were fixed on him, Circling

            like a maddened beast, stalking, here, there,             

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            crying out to us—

            Give him a sword! His wife,

            no wife, his mother, where can he find the mother earth

            that cropped two crops at once, himself and all his children?

            He was raging—one of the dark powers pointing the way,

            none of us mortals crowding around him, no,

            with a great shattering cry—someone, something leading him on

            he hurled at the twin doors and bending the bolts back

            out of their sockets, crashed through the chamber.


            And there we saw the woman hanging by the neck,

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            cradled high in a woven noose, spinning,

            swinging back and forth. And when he saw her,

What does Oedipus’s treatment of Jocasta’s body tell us about him?


            giving a low, wrenching sob that broke our hearts,

            slipping the halter from her throat, he eased her down,

            in a slow embrace he laid her down, poor thing . . .

            then, what came next, what horror we beheld!


            He rips off her brooches, the long gold pins

            holding her robes—and lifting them high,

            looking straight up into the points,

            he digs them down the sockets of his eyes, crying, 'You,

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            you'll see no more the pain I suffered, all the pain I caused!

            Too long you looked on the ones you never should have seen,

            blind to the ones you longed to see, to know! Blind

            from this hour on! Blind in the darkness—blind!"

Why do you think Oedipus blinds himself? How is this action ironic given what he has just learned about himself?


            His voice like a dirge, rising, over and over

            raising the pins, raking them down his eyes.

            And at each stroke blood spurts from the roots,

            splashing his beard, a swirl of it, nerves and clots—

            black hail of blood pulsing, gushing down.


            These are the griefs that burst upon them both,

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            coupling man and woman. The joy they had so lately,

            the fortune of their old ancestral house

            was deep joy indeed. Now, in this one day,

            wailing, madness and doom, death, disgrace,

            all the griefs in the world that you can name,

            all are theirs forever.


LEADER:

            Oh poor man, the misery-

            has he any rest from pain now?


            A voice within, in torment.


MESSENGER:

            He's shouting,

            "Loose the bolts, someone, show me to all of Thebes!

            My father's murderer, my mother's--

            No, I can't repeat it, it’s unholy.

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            Now he'll tear himself from his native earth,

            not linger, curse the house with his own curse.

            But he needs strength, and a guide to lead him on.

            This is sickness more than he can bear.


            The palace doors open.


            Look,

            he'll show you himself. The great doors are opening—

            you are about to see a sight, a horror

            even his mortal enemy would pity.


            Enter OEDIPUS, blinded, led by a boy.

            He stands at the palace steps, as if surveying

            his people once again.


CHORUS:

            O the terror—

            the suffering, for all the world to see,

            the worst terror that ever met my eyes.

            What madness swept over you? What god,

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            what dark power leapt beyond all bounds,

            beyond belief, to crush your wretched life?—

            godforsaken, cursed by the gods!

            I pity you but I can't bear to look.

            I've much to ask, so much to learn,

            so much fascinates my eyes,

            but you I shudder at the sight.


OEDIPUS

            Oh, Ohh—

            the agony! I am agony—

            where am I going? where on earth?

            where does all this agony hurl me?

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            where's my voice?—

            winging, swept away on a dark tide—

            My destiny, my dark power, what a leap you made!


CHORUS:

            To the depths of terror, too dark to hear, to see.


OEDIPUS:

            Dark, horror of darkness

            my darkness, drowning, swirling around me

            crashing wave on wave—unspeakable, irresistible

            headwind, fatal harbor! Oh again,

            the misery, all at once, over and over

            the stabbing daggers, stab of memory

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            raking me insane.


CHORUS:

            No wonder you suffer

            twice over, the pain of your wounds,

            the lasting grief of pain.


OEDIPUS:

            Dear friend, still here?

            Standing by me, still with a care for me,

            the blind man? Such compassion,

            loyal to the last. Oh it’s you,

            I know you're here. dark as it is

            I'd know you anywhere, your voice—

            it’s yours, clearly yours.


CHORUS:

            Dreadful, what you've done

            how could you bear it, gouging out your eyes?

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            What superhuman power drove you on?


OEDIPUS:

            Apollo, friends, Apollo—

            he ordained my agonies—these, my pains on pains!

            But the hand that struck my eyes was mine,

            mine alone—no one else—

            I did it all myself!

            What good were eyes to me?

            Nothing I could see could bring me joy.

Think about this in a literal sense--if he still had his eyes at this point, what would he see? His city? His people? His children? How would seeing any of these things bring him pain?



CHORUS:

            No, no, exactly as you say.


OEDIPUS:

            What can I ever see?

            What low, what call of the heart

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            can touch my ears with joy? Nothing, friends.

            Take me away, far, far from Thebes,

            quickly, cast me away, my friends —

            this great murderous ruin, this man cursed to heaven,

            the man the deathless gods hate most of all!

  

CHORUS:

            Pitiful, you suffer so, you understand so much

            I wish you had never known.


OEDIPUS:

            Die, die—

            whoever he was that day in the wilds

            who cut my ankles free of the ruthless pins,

            he pulled me clear of death, he saved my life

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            for this, this kindness—

            Curse him, kill him!

             If I'd died then, I'd never have dragged myself,

Now that you know more about how prophecies work in Greek myth and legend, could this even have come true? Could Oedipus have died as an infant?


             my loved ones through such hell.


CHORUS:

            Oh if only . . . would to god.


OEDIPUS:

            I'd never have come to this,

            my father's murderer—never been branded

            mother's husband, all men see me now! Now,

            loathed by the gods, son of the mother I defiled

            coupling in my father's bed, spawning lives in the loins

            that spawned my wretched life. What grief can crown this grief?

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            It's mine alone, my destiny—I am Oedipus!


CHORUS:

            How can I say you've chosen for the best?

            Better to die than be alive and blind.


OEDIPUS:

            What I did was best—don't lecture me,

            no more advice. I, with my eyes,

            how could I look my father in the eyes

            when I go down to death? Or mother, so abused . . .

            I have done such things to the two of them,

            crimes too huge for hanging.

                                                            Worse yet,

            the sight of my children, born as they were born,

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            how could I long to look into their eyes?

            No, not with these eyes of mine, never.

            Not this city either, her high towers,

            the sacred glittering images of her gods—

            I am misery! I, her best son, reared

            as no other son of Thebes was ever reared,

            I've stripped myself, I gave the command myself.

            All men must cast away the great blasphemer,

            the curse now brought to light by the gods,

            the son of Laius —I, my father’s son!

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            Now I've exposed my guilt, horrendous guilt,

            could I train a level glance on you, my countrymen?

            Impossible! No, if I could just block off my ears,

            the springs of hearing, I would stop at nothing —

            I'd wall up my loathsome body like a prison,

            blind to the sound of life, not just the sight.

            Oblivion—what a blessing . . .

            for the mind to dwell a world away from pain.


            O Cithaeron, why did you give me shelter?

            Why didn't you take me, crush my life out on the spot?

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            I'd never have revealed my birth to all mankind.


            O Polybus, Corinth, the old house of my fathers,

            so I believed—what a handsome prince you raised—

            under the skin, what sickness to the core.

            Look at me! Born of outrage, outrage to the core.


            O triple roads—it all comes back, the secret,

            dark ravine, and the oaks closing in

            where the three roads join . . .

            You drank my father's blood, my own blood

            spilled by my own hands—you still remember me?

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            What things you saw me do? Then I came here

            and did them all once more!

            Marriages! O marriage,

            you gave me birth, and once you brought me into the world

            you brought my sperm rising back, springing to light

            fathers, brothers, sons—one murderous breed—

            brides, wives, mothers. The blackest things

            a man can do, I have done them all!

            No more—

            it’s wrong to name what's wrong to do. Quickly,

            for the love of god, hide me somewhere,

            kill me, hurl me into the sea

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            where you can never look on me again.

While this might appear to be a melodramatic plea, Oedipus’s request could also be interpreted as the act of a good leader who loves his people. Think back to what the Oracle of Delphi told Creon about the plague. How is Oedipus trying to help Thebes?



            Beckoning to the CHORUS as they shrink away.


            Closer,

            it's all right. Touch the man of grief.

            Do. Don't be afraid, My troubles are mine

            and I am the only man alive who can sustain them.


            Enter CREON from the palace, attended by palace guards.


LEADER:

            Put your requests to Creon. Here he is,

            just when we need him. He’ll have a plan, he’ll act.

            Now that he's the sole defense of the country

            in your place.


OEDIPUS:

            Oh no, what can I say to him?

            How can I ever hope to win his trust?

            I wronged him so, just now, in every way.

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            You must see that—I was so wrong, so wrong.


CREON:

            I haven't come to mock you, Oedipus,

            or to criticize your former failings.


            Turning to the guards.


            You there,

            have you lost all respect for human feelings?

Why does Creon scold the guards? What does this tell you about his character?


            At least revere the Sun, the holy fire

            that keeps us all alive. Never expose a thing

            of guilt and holy dread so great it appalls

            the earth, the rain from heaven, the light of day!

            Get him into the halls—quickly as you can.

            Piety demands no less. Kindred alone

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            should see a kinsman's shame. This is obscene.


OEDIPUS:

            Please, in god’s name you wipe my fears away,

            coming so generously to me, the worst of men.

            Do one thing more, for your sake, not mine,


CREON:

            What do you want? Why so insistent?


OEDIPUS:

            Drive me out of the land at once, far from sight,

            where I can never hear a human voice.


CREON:

            I'd have done that already, I promise you.

            First I wanted the god to clarify my duties.


OEDIPUS:

            The god? His command was clear, every word:

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            death for the father-killer, the curse—

            he said destroy me!


CREON:

            So he did. Still, in such a crisis

            it’s better to ask precisely what to do.


OEDIPUS:

                                                    So miserable—

            you would consult the god about a man like me?


CREON:

            By all means. And this time, I assume,

            even you will obey the god’s decrees.


OEDIPUS:

                                                    I will,

            I will. And you, I command you—I beg you

            the woman inside, bury her as you see fit.

            It’s the only decent thing,

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            to give your own the last rites. As for me,

            never condemn the city of my fathers

            to house my body, not while I'm alive, no,

            let me live on the mountains, on Cithaeron,

            my favorite haunt. I have made it famous.

            Mother and father marked out that rock

            to be my everlasting tomb—buried alive.

            Let me die there, where they tried to kill me.


            Oh but this I know: no sickness can destroy me,

            nothing can. I would never have been saved

            from death—I have been saved

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            for something great and terrible, something strange.

            Well let my destiny come and take me on its way!

            About my children, Creon, the boys at least,

            don't burden yourself. They're men,

            wherever they go, they'll find the means to live.

            But my two daughters, my poor helpless girls,

            clustering at our table, never without me

            hovering near them . . . whatever I touched,

            they always had their share. Take care of them.

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            I beg you. Wait, better—permit me, would you?

            Just to touch them with my hands and take

            our fill of tears. Please . . .  my king.

            Grant it, with all your noble heart.

            If I could hold them, just once, I'd think

            I had them with me, like the early days

            when I could see their eyes.


            ANTIGONE and ISMENE, two small children,

            are led in from the palace by a nurse.


                                            What's that?

            O god! Do I really hear you sobbing?—

            my two children. Creon, you've pitied me?

            Sent me my darling girls, my own flesh and blood!

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            Am I right?


CREON:

            Yes, it's my doing.

            I know the joy they gave you all these years,

            the joy you must feel now.


OEDIPUS:

            Bless you, Creon!

            May god watch over you for this kindness,

            better than he ever guarded me.

            Children, where are you?

            Here, come quickly—


            Groping for ANTIGONE and ISMENE, who approach

            their father cautiously, then embrace him.


            Come to these hands of mine,

            your brother's hands, your own father's hands

Ewwww!!


            that served his once bright eyes so well—

            that made them blind. Seeing nothing, children,

            knowing nothing, I became your father,

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            I fathered you in the soil that gave me life.


            How I weep for you—I cannot see you now

            just thinking of all your days to come, the bitterness,

            the life that rough mankind will thrust upon you.

            Where are the public gatherings you can join,

            the banquets of the clans? Home you’ll come,

            in tears, cut off from the sight of it all,

            the brilliant rites unfinished,

            And when you reach perfection, ripe for marriage,

            who will he be, my dear ones? Risking all

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            to shoulder the curse that weighs down my parents,

            yes and you too—that wounds us all together.

            What more misery could you want?

            Your father killed his father, sowed his mother,

            one, one and the selfsame womb sprang you—

            he cropped the very roots of his existence.


            Such disgrace, and you must bear it all!

            Who will marry you then? Not a man on earth.

            Your doom is clear: you'll wither away to nothing,

            single, without a child.


            Turning to CREON.


                                                    Oh Creon,

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            you are the only father they have now . . .

            we who brought them into the world

            are gone, both gone at a stroke—

            Don't let them go begging, abandoned,

Oedipus knows that his daughters will be shunned by society because of their parents, and they will probably never be married. So, he begs Creon to take care of them. His behavior here is vastly different than at the beginning of the play.


            women without men. Your own flesh and blood!

            Never bring them down to the level of my pains.

            Pity them. Look at them, so young, so vulnerable,

            shorn of everything—you're their only hope.

            Promise me, noble Creon, touch my hand!


            Reaching toward CREON, who draws back.


            You, little ones, if you were old enough

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            to understand, there is much I'd tell you.

            Now, as it is, I'd have you say a prayer.

            Pray for life, my children,

            live where you are free to grow and season.

            Pray god you find a better life than mine,

            the father who begot you.


CREON:

                                                    Enough.

            You've wept enough. Into the palace now.


OEDIPUS:

            I must, but I find it very hard.


CREON:

            Time is the great healer, you will see.


OEDIPUS:

            I am going—you know on what condition?

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CREON:

            Tell me. I'm listening.


OEDIPUS:

            Drive me out of Thebes, in exile.


CREON:

            Not I. Only the gods can give you that.


OEDIPUS:

            Surely the gods hate me so much—


CREON:

            You’ll get your wish at once.


OEDIPUS:

                                                            You consent?


CREON:

            I try to say what I mean; it’s my habit.


OEDIPUS:

            Then take me away. It’s time.


CREON:

            Come along, let go of the children.


OEDIPUS:

                                                               No—

            don't take them away from me, not now! No no no!


            Clutching his daughters as the guards wrench them

            loose and take them through the palace doors.


CREON:

            Still the king, the master of all things?

            No more: here your power ends.

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            None of your power follows you through life.


            Exit OEDIPUS and CREON to the palace.

            The CHORUS comes forward to address the audience directly.


CHORUS:

            People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus.

            He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance,

            he rose to power, a man beyond all power.

            Who could behold his greatness without envy?

            Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him.

            Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,

            count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.


            Exit in procession.