Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex begins with a warning: the murderer of the old king of Thebes, Laius, has never been identified or caught, and he’s still at large in the city. Oedipus is the current king of Thebes, and he sets out to solve the crime.
His investigations lead to a devastating conclusion. Not only is Oedipus himself the killer, but Laius was his father, and Laius’ wife Jocasta, who Oedipus has married, is his mother.
Oedipus Rex was composed during the golden age of Athens, in the 5th century BC. Sophocles probably wrote it to explore the dynamics of power in an undemocratic society. It has unsettled audiences from the very start: it is the only one of Sophocles’ plays that didn’t win first prize at Athens’ annual drama festival. But it’s had exceptionally good write-ups from the critics: Aristotle called it the greatest example of the dramatic arts. Freud believed it laid bare the deepest structures of human desire.
Nick Lowe, Reader in Classical Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London
Fiona Macintosh, Professor of Classical Reception and Fellow of St Hilda’s College at the University of Oxford
Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Durham University