The blind Oedipus led by his daughter Antigone
Oedipus, supposed son of Polybus, King of Corinth; now elected King of Thebes.
Jocasta, Queen of Thebes; widow of Laïus, the late King, and now wife to Oedipus.
Creon, a Prince of Thebes, brother to Jocasta.
Tiresias, an old blind seer.
Priest of Zeus.
A Stranger from Corinth.
A Shepherd of King Laïus.
A Messenger from the Palace.
Chorus of the Elders of Thebes.
A Crowd of Suppliants, men, women, and children.
The following do not appear in the play but are frequently mentioned: —
Laïus (pronounced as three syllables, Lá-i-us), the last King of Thebes before Oedipus.
Cadmus, the founder of Thebes; son of Agênor, King of Sidon.
Polybus and Meropê, King and Queen of Corinth, supposed to be the father and mother of Oedipus.
Apollo, the God specially presiding over the oracle of Delphi and the island Delos: he is also called Phoebus, the pure; Loxias, supposed to mean “He of the Crooked Words”; and Lykeios, supposed to mean “Wolf-God.” He is also the great Averter of Evil, and has names from the cries “I-ê” (pronounced “Ee-ay”) and “Paian,” cries for healing or for the frightening away of evil influences.
Kithairon, a mass of wild mountain south-west of Thebes.
While Thebes was under the rule of Laïus and Jocasta there appeared a strange and monstrous creature, “the riddling Sphinx,” “the She-Wolf of the woven song,” who in some unexplained way sang riddles of death and slew the people of Thebes. Laïus went to ask aid of the oracle of Delphi, but was slain mysteriously on the road. Soon afterwards there came to Thebes a young Prince of Corinth, Oedipus, who had left his home and was wandering. He faced the Sphinx and read her riddle, whereupon she flung herself from her rock and died. The throne being vacant was offered to Oedipus, and with it the hand of the Queen, Jocasta.
Some ten or twelve years afterwards a pestilence has fallen on Thebes. At this point the play begins.
The date of the first production of the play is not known, but was probably about the year 425 B.C.
Scene. — Before the Palace of Oedipus at Thebes. A crowd of suppliants of all ages are waiting by the altar in front and on the steps of the Palace; among them the Priest of Zeus. As the Palace door opens and Oedipus comes out all the suppliants with a cry move towards him in attitudes of prayer, holding out their olive branches, and then become still again as he speaks.
My children, fruit of Cadmus’ ancient tree
New springing, wherefore thus with bended knee
Press ye upon us, laden all with wreaths
And suppliant branches? And the city breathes
Heavy with incense, heavy with dim prayer
And shrieks to affright the Slayer. — Children, care
For this so moves me, I have scorned withal
Message or writing: seeing ‘tis I ye call,
‘Tis I am come, world-honoured Oedipus.
Old Man, do thou declare — the rest have thus
Their champion — in what mood stand ye so still,
In dread or sure hope? Know ye not, my will
Is yours for aid ‘gainst all? Stern were indeed
The heart that felt not for so dire a need.
O Oedipus, who holdest in thy hand
My city, thou canst see what ages stand
At these thine altars; some whose little wing
Scarce flieth yet, and some with long living
O’erburdened; priests, as I of Zeus am priest,
And chosen youths: and wailing hath not ceased
Of thousands in the market-place, and by
Athena’s two-fold temples and the dry
Ash of Ismênus’ portent-breathing shore.
For all our ship, thou see’st, is weak and sore
Shaken with storms, and no more lighteneth
Her head above the waves whose trough is death.
She wasteth in the fruitless buds of earth,
In parchèd herds and travail without birth
Of dying women: yea, and midst of it
A burning and a loathly god hath lit
Sudden, and sweeps our land, this Plague of power;
Till Cadmus’ house grows empty, hour by hour,
And Hell’s house rich with steam of tears and blood.
O King, not God indeed nor peer to God
We deem thee, that we kneel before thine hearth,
Children and old men, praying; but of earth
A thing consummate by thy star confessed
Thou walkest and by converse with the blest;
Who came to Thebes so swift, and swept away
The Sphinx’s song, the tribute of dismay,
That all were bowed beneath, and made us free.
A stranger, thou, naught knowing more than we,
Nor taught of any man, but by God’s breath
Filled, thou didst raise our life. So the world saith;
So we say.
Therefore now, O Lord and Chief,
We come to thee again; we lay our grief
On thy head, if thou find us not some aid.
Perchance thou hast heard Gods talking in the shade
Of night, or eke some man: to him that knows,
Men say, each chance that falls, each wind that blows
Hath life, when he seeks counsel. Up, O chief
Of men, and lift thy city from its grief;
Face thine own peril! All our land doth hold
Thee still our saviour, for that help of old:
Shall they that tell of thee hereafter tell
“By him was Thebes raised up, and after fell!”
Nay, lift us till we slip no more. Oh, let
That bird of old that made us fortunate
Wing back; be thou our Oedipus again.
And let thy kingdom be a land of men,
Not emptiness. Walls, towers, and ships, they all
Are nothing with no men to keep the wall.
My poor, poor children! Surely long ago
I have read your trouble. Stricken, well I know,
Ye all are, stricken sore: yet verily
Not one so stricken to the heart as I.
Your grief, it cometh to each man apart
For his own loss, none other’s; but this heart
For thee and me and all of us doth weep.
Wherefore it is not to one sunk in sleep
Ye come with waking. Many tears these days
For your sake I have wept, and many ways
Have wandered on the beating wings of thought.
And, finding but one hope, that I have sought
And followed. I have sent Menoikeus’ son,
Creon, my own wife’s brother, forth alone
To Apollo’s House in Delphi, there to ask
What word, what deed of mine, what bitter task,
May save my city.
And the lapse of days
Reckoned, I can but marvel what delays
His journey. ‘Tis beyond all thought that thus
He comes not, beyond need. But when he does,
Then call me false and traitor, if I flee
Back from whatever task God sheweth me.
At point of time thou speakest. Mark the cheer
Yonder. Is that not Creon drawing near?
[They all crowd to gaze where Creon is
approaching in the distance.]
O Lord Apollo, help! And be the star
That guides him joyous as his seemings are!
Oh! surely joyous! How else should he bear
That fruited laurel wreathed about his hair?
We soon shall know. — ‘Tis not too far for one
(Shouting) Ho, brother! Prince! Menoikeus’ son,
What message from the God?
I tell thee, what is now our worst annoy,
If the right deed be done, shall turn to good.
[The crowd, which has been full of excited hope, falls to
doubt and disappointment.]
Nay, but what is the message? For my blood
Runs neither hot nor cold for words like those.
Shall I speak now, with all these pressing close,
Or pass within? — To me both ways are fair.
Speak forth to all! The grief that these men bear
Is more than any fear for mine own death.
I speak then what I heard from God. — Thus saith
Phoebus, our Lord and Seer, in clear command.
An unclean thing there is, hid in our land,
Eating the soil thereof: this ye shall cast
Out, and not foster till all help be past.
How cast it out? What was the evil deed?
Hunt the men out from Thebes, or make them bleed
Who slew. For blood it is that stirs today.
Who was the man they killed? Doth Phoebus say?
O King, there was of old King Laïus
In Thebes, ere thou didst come to pilot us.
I know: not that I ever saw his face.
‘Twas he. And Loxias now bids us trace
And smite the unknown workers of his fall.
Where in God’s earth are they? Or how withal
Find the blurred trail of such an ancient stain?
In Thebes, he said. — That which men seek amain
They find. ‘Tis things forgotten that go by.
And where did Laïus meet them? Did he die
In Thebes, or in the hills, or some far land?
To ask God’s will in Delphi he had planned
His journey. Started and returned no more.
And came there nothing back? No message, nor
None of his company, that ye might hear?
They all were slain, save one man; blind with fear
He came, remembering naught — or almost naught.
And what was that? One thing has often brought
Others, could we but catch one little clue.
‘Twas not one man, ‘twas robbers — that he knew —
Who barred the road and slew him: a great band.
Robbers?… What robber, save the work was planned
By treason here, would dare a risk so plain?