Oedipus Rex is the predecessor to The Gospel at Colonus in the Oedipus Trilogy, and the beginning of the trilogy as a whole. Understanding this seminal, inaugural text serves as a primer to understanding The Gospel at Colonus and the intersecting familial, community, and narrative ties therein.
Oedipus Rex may be a classic “whodunnit” on its surface, but it is most famous for bringing onstage the tangled history of Oedipus and his parentage. The play opens with Thebes in the throes of a plague; the search for the cure to the plague on Thebes turns into the search for the previous king’s murderer, and then turns again into the search for Oedipus’ own origin, the fateful secret of his birth.
The unexpected twist of the trial into an identity-quest dramatizes the twists and turns that are inherent in Oedipus’s own story, the object of discovery. Here is a quick explainer of the Oedipus family tree and the order of events preceding The Gospel at Colonus. One timeline shows the events in their chronological order, and the other represents the order in which they are revealed on stage through the course of the drama.
- Oedipus: Protagonist of Oedipus Rex and The Gospel at Colonus. A prophecy foretells that he will kill his father and marry his mother; he does and the prophecy is fulfilled. Upon learning the truth of who he is and what he has done, he blinds himself and exiles himself from Thebes, his homeland.
- Laius: Oedipus’s father. He killed by Oedipus as foretold by the prophecy.
- Jocasta: Oedipus’s mother and wife of Oedipus. She ends her life upon learning about the true nature of her relationship with Oedipus, her son and husband.
- Antigone: Daughter and sister of Oedipus.
- Ismene: Daughter and sister of Oedipus.
- Polyneices: Son and brother of Oedipus. After refusing Oedipus’s exile, Oedipus lays a curse upon him that he will die in battle.
- Eteocles: Son and brother of Oedipus. After refusing Oedipus’s exile, Oedipus lays a curse upon him that he will die in battle.
- Eurydice: Wife of King Creon, ruler of Thebes.
- Creon: King of Thebes and Oedipus’s uncle, brother-in-law, and adversary.
- Haemon: Son of Creon and Eurydice, Antigone’s fiancé, and cousin to Oedipus.
- Merope and Polybus of Corinth: King and Queen of Cornith, and Oedipus’s adoptive parents.
- Tiresias: The prophet of Apollo in Thebes.
CHRONOLOGICAL TIMELINE – Oedipus’s life
- Oedipus’ parents receive an oracle concerning their son. Their son is to kill his father and marry his mother.
- Oedipus is born to Jocasta and Laius. They bind his ankles and give him to a servant to be exposed on Mount Cithaeron.
- The servant, pitying Oedipus, hands him off to a shepherd, who brings the baby to Corinth.
- Oedipus is adopted by the Corinthian king and queen, Polybus and Merope, and grows up thinking he is their natural son.
- A drunk man insults Oedipus, telling him he is not his (Corinthian) parents’ son.
- Oedipus goes to Delphi to debunk the drunk man’s slander, but instead receives an oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother.
- Oedipus willingly exiles himself from Corinth, thinking this will save him from fulfilling the prophecy.
- On his path of exile, Oedipus kills a stranger at a crossroads.
- Oedipus comes to Thebes, which is besieged by a Sphinx. He solves her riddle and saves the city.
- Oedipus is made king of Thebes and marries the queen, Jocasta.
- A plague afflicts Thebes.
- Oedipus launches a public inquiry to save the city from the plague.
- An oracle says the plague will end when Laius’ killer is found and exiled or killed.
- Oedipus finds out he is the killer of Laius, and that he is the son of Laius and Jocasta. He blinds himself and begs to be exiled.
OEDIPUS REX TIMELINE – The Order of Discovery
- A plague is afflicting Thebes. The people ask Oedipus to help.
- We find out from the Chorus that Oedipus became king by freeing the city from the Sphinx.
- Creon’s message when he returns from the oracle: kill or exile Laius’ killer(s) to lift the plague.
- Oedipus finds out that Laius was killed while he was on his way to consult an oracle.
- The Chorus leader tells Oedipus that Laius was killed by travelers.
- Tiresias, who has been called by Oedipus, tells Oedipus that he himself is Laius’ killer. Oedipus is offended and suspects a conspiracy. Tiresias also hints about Oedipus’ marriage.
- Jocasta tells Oedipus that her son was exposed on a mountain, and that Laius was killed by strangers at a place where three roads meet (in order to show that oracles can be incorrect).
- Oedipus recounts that his parents are Merope and Polybus of Corinth, but that a drunk man slandered him, and said he was adopted. Oedipus recounts his visit to the oracle at Delphi (intended to prove his parentage), where he received a prophecy that he would couple with his mother and kill his father. This caused him to exile himself from Corinth.
- Oedipus recounts killing a man at the triple crossroad near Delphi, and hopes the man wasn’t related to Laius.
- The Corinthian messenger announces that Oedipus is the new king of Corinth, because Polybus is dead (by natural causes).
- The Corinthian messenger tells Oedipus he’s not the son of Polybus and Merope. The Corinthian messenger was the one who found Oedipus on Mount Cithaeron, as a crying infant with pierced ankles.
- The Corinthian messenger testifies that he received baby Oedipus from a servant of Laius, another shepherd. Jocasta knows the truth, goes offstage, and hangs herself.
- The shepherd tells Oedipus that the baby he gave to the Corinthian messenger was the son of Laius and Jocasta, given to him because of a prophecy that he would kill his parents.
- Oedipus puts the pieces together (that he has fulfilled the prophecy concerning his birth) and blinds himself.
Ella Wilhelm is a graduate student in Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on the idea of the “fall-narrative” in 18th and 19th century German literature and thought. She is also interested in the theory and practice of drama, and was the dramaturg and lead translator for a 2018 production of Heinrich von Kleist’s The Broken Jug at the University of Chicago.