© Eso Anton Benjamins, 2009
A play based on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
Oedipus Rex by Greek playwright Sophocles is hailed as a play with a perfect plot. Deus ex machina, the machine of God behind the scenes, turns events in such a way that King Oedipus cannot escape them. He must kill his father, he must solve the riddle of the Sphinx (after which, the Sphinx kills itself), he must marry his mother, his sons must kill each other, and so on. The critics’ praise is for the artifice of the play. Few have bothered with the “riddle of the Sphinx” at the heart of the play, leaving the answer as is, i.e., “man.”
Tiresias’ Revenge is a rewrite of the Sophocles play intended to show that there’s more than meets the eye to both the play and the riddle it poses.
An actor friend who read Tiresias’ Revenge didn’t comment on the interpretation of the play (the theme of human sacrifice is, after all, a formidable subject), but commented on the rapid sequence of deaths in the last act. The actor wondered how a director would present it on stage, since the audience is only told of the deaths, not shown them. To which this author responded: the deaths could have been avoided if Oedipus had had the courage to sacrifice himself.
It’s for the reader to decide if this thesis is or is not behind Sophocles’ intentions, and whether the riddle is indeed a clever way of disguising what the ruling orthodoxy did its best to suppress.
The event, the telling of the story (by way of speech, movement, sound, and spectacle) takes place before the castle of Thebes. To the right of the stage, close to an altar, which is a high-standing, three-legged cauldron, stands a priest murmuring silent prayers. To the left of the stage sits Queen Ismene. The queen is very old. Before her is a group of citizens from Thebes. Some of the people stand, some sit, as best suits them.
Chorus (as it turns the palms of its hands up in a gesture of receiving):
Dearest Queen Ismene,
we are impatient to hear the story.
Tell us what ails Thebes.
We want to be healed.
Every year at the summer solstice we gather
to hear you tell why the sun sets
and why tomorrow it may rise again.
As we wait for the sun,
the story gives us hope.
The story speaks again and again.
It tells itself.
It tells us what we must do to be Thebans.
It’s not an easy story to hear.
Indeed, as it comes to mind,
tears come to my eyes—for us all,
myself and you also.
Chorus: On the landscape of time,
Thebes unfolded like a fern in spring.
It moved us all to sing in jubilation.
Then the scroll stopped unfurling
as if the sap was cut.
Queen Ismene, tell us what happened.
You were there.
Queen Ismene (points to a young man among the listeners):
I will tell the story.
But we must not look to the past only.
Look, here is Prince Ian.
Tomorrow my son begins his turn
as guardian of the story and Thebes.
After tomorrow it is he
whose blood will turn into the balm
that heals our city.
Chorus: Prince Ian, we are most grateful.
May you tell the story as well
as your mother
when your turn comes.
Queen Ismene: Let the story begin then.
It begins with a my mother’s
love for her son, my father, Oedipus.
Let us witness our forebears’ bitter learning
and the wisdom
that brought them this moment.
I was too young to understand the story
when it caught me up.
I was not born when it began.
But my nanny, Iananna, witnessed it all.
Through your own parents, you know it, too.
It is in our bones.
The story tells us what we must do
to become and ever be Thebans.
King Oedipus enters center stage through the castle gate. He approaches the altar, the priest, his daughter Ismene, and those gathered around her.
King Oedipus: Children, my sons and daughters,
citizens of Thebes, why have you come
to listen to a priest mumble words
that only darken and bring dissention?
What’s depressing you?
I come to hear what’s wrong.
(The king turns to the priest.)
You—I don’t know your name—
You’ve addressed air long enough.
Speak to me, your king.
Speak for those not used to addressing a king.
What do they fear? What do they need?
Priest: King of Thebes, King Oedipus!
You are right! I spoke to air.
Yes, you see us all, young and old, all
proud Thebans, bent around this altar,
looking at our bread, cheese, and fruit offerings,
waiting for one or all Gods to come,
waiting to see them reach for butter, for honey.
But God does not come,
and we cannot wait longer.
There are murmurings, King Oedipus,
that God wants blood, perhaps
from one of our children—as of old.
Thus, we are immobilized and sit and wait.
Incense rises, but curls not
as when a spirit is present in it.
Despair is getting the better of us.
King Oedipus, don’t belittle our prayers.
They reflect only that Thebes
is overcome by a mysterious plague.
King Oedipus, call the Gods,
call on our ancestor Cadmus,
raise your hands to the Sun who makes the day.
Long ago you came promising us better days.
You freed us from the Sphinx and its temple
where we took our babes and prayed
for the Gods to accept them as our offerings.
Our children no longer swing their arms
and wing across the abyss
to acknowledge the Sphinx’s promise.
The vultures no longer pick their bones below.
King Oedipus, though you saved our children,
we have not recovered our will.
This is why we pray for you to speak
and use the powers that saved us once already.
Do not hold back your healing power.
Do not allow anyone to say you promised us light,
but we continue under a shadow.
King Oedipus: Children, I delight in your hope.
No one feels as badly as I over this.
I know every one of you is suffering,
but surely I suffer more.
I suffer my own misfortunes
and the misfortunes of all Thebans.
Even so, I’ve given the matter thought.
And I’ve discovered a place
where the answer may be found.
I’ve sent Prince Creon, the brother of Queen Iocasta,
to visit the holy sites of Thebes and consult with
the daughters of the Sun, the priestesses there.
Let them throw acorns struck from the tree by lightning
and read what we must do to save Thebes.
Priest: We thank you, King Oedipus, for your words.
Yes, look! Look there! The guard tower is signaling
that Creon has returned.
King Oedipus: May the Sun send us good news.
Priest: The news is good.
Else Creon would not carry a green wreath.
King Oedipus: We will soon know. Here he is.
Greetings, Prince Creon!
(Enter Prince Creon.)
Prince Creon: Hail, King Oedipus.
I am back and have a message.
Let us go into the castle.
(It is not for everyone’s ears.)
King Oedipus: What do you mean?
Why speak out of the public’s ear?
Is there something in the news we should fear?
Prince Creon: The Sun asks for deeds not words.
The revelation may move some
to rash conclusions and rash deeds.
King Oedipus: What revelations, what deeds?
Prince Creon: Do you want me to tell before all?
King Oedipus: Tell what you know to all.
We all suffer the same pain.
Prince Creon: Very well. Remember though
that what you hear is not of my making,
but told by the daughters of the Sun
on behalf of the Sun.
With their ears cleaned by tongues of holy snakes,
the maids speak what they’re told.
So, this is what the Sun said. It said:
Go weed the weed before it sinks its root
to depths beyond undigging.
King Oedipus: What weeds are you talking about?
Harvest time is almost upon us.
The time to weed is past.
Prince Creon: The weed, King Oedipus, is a man.
We must find and remove from our midst a man.
The Sun declined to reveal his name.
The name is for us to discover.
The man must be discovered and removed,
else Thebes will be in debt to a murderer.
King Oedipus: A murderer? Of whom?
Prince Creon: King Oedipus, before you
picked up the reins of Thebes,
we were ruled by King Laius.
He was son of King Cadmus, Thebes’ founder.
King Oedipus: I never met King Laius.
Prince Creon: The Sun’s daughters say that
Laius’ murderer must be found.
King Oedipus: Where are we to look for him?
Where are his footprints?
Prince Creon: We must look in our own land.
We must look behind mere words, at deeds.
King Oedipus: Did King Laius die in the castle?
I remember hearing that he died
abroad while traveling.
Prince Creon: The king had an appointment with certain men
bringing him secrets from a neighboring kingdom.
The king never returned.
All his bodyguards but one were killed.
King Oedipus: Secret meetings carry risks.
But what said the survivor?
Did he say who did it?
Creon Prince: The man gave us no clear answer.
He did say he buried our king
and could lead us to his grave.
Unfortunately, he was poisoned
before he could lead us there.
King Oedipus: Surely that means
the murderers have a friend among us.
Did the poisoned man have a wife?
We need some clue.
Prince Creon: The man had no wife.
He left no descendants.
He worked as a hand at the king’s stable.
King Oedipus: What else do we know?
Prince Creon: We followed the murderers’ tracks,
but not for long.
The horses’ hooves were sheathed in rags.
King Oedipus: I am grateful to the Sun for her advice.
I am thankful to you, too, Creon, for the news.
My children, take your garlands and
go call a meeting of the council of elders.
Tell them I want to meet with them.
The men who killed King Laius are a threat to us all.
I will do everything I can to discover them.
Priest: Rise, Thebans.
Our prayers have been heard.
King Oedipus has interceded.
(Exit King Oedipus et al. Only the chorus remains.)
Strophe: Goddess of Hope!
Tell us the golden words,
the magic that will guard Thebes.
Help us our disbelief!
Healer, our hearts are uneasy.
It is well we no longer have to sacrifice children.
(We did not know how to rid ourselves of that curse either.)
King Oedipus did us a great service.
Perhaps he will do so again.
Antistrophe: It was said that when the Sphinx died
men and women would have to sacrifice
themselves in place of their children.
Remember what King Cadmus said?
Strophe: “I cannot do alone what we must together.
To bring Thebes about, I give you my life.
Perhaps you will think upon my sacrifice
and temper your differences because of it.
Let us have a history worth blessing.”
Antistrophe: Ha, ha! Spare us!
Our children run to foreign lands.
They delight in losing themselves in crowds.
They have no responsibilities,
and act with boldness that asks
no accounting of itself.
They have no need of a past or future.
Strophe: Burnt feathers are our incense.
We summon we know not who or what.
Our teeth chatter like the beaks of storks.
We fear the other side of the moon
is crisscrossed with rivers of blood.
(Scene as before. Enter King Oedipus.
The ‘people’ he addresses are actually the Chorus of scene 1.)
King Oedipus: I’m losing my patience.
Dear people, you shouldn’t listen to rumor.
If you don’t know, don’t guess,
and don’t credit the opinions of kitchen maids.
I’m not responsible for the plague of Thebes.
I wasn’t born among you.
I have no loyalties born of childhood in me
that tear me hither and thither.
As your king, I call on everyone
to come forward and tell me what you know
about the death of King Laius
Nothing bad will come to you.
I’ll reward you.
Of course, those who hide from me what they know,
when I discover it,
I’ll deny them the right to live in Thebes.
Worse, any Theban worthy of his name
will spit you in the face.
Curse the murderer.
May his life be pain and suffering,
so much so that he seeks death.
A king’s death cannot remain a mystery.
Since I share my bed with Queen Iocasta,
once King Laius’ wife,
if she and King Laius had had descendants,
we would be as one family.
Indeed, I wish to discover King Laius’ murderer
as if Laius were my own father.
Chorus: I don’t know who killed King Laius.
May the Sun help discover the guilty one.
King Oedipus: I hope the Sun is listening to you.
Chorus: May we add something?
King Oedipus: Speak!
Chorus: Tiresias, the man who long ago
accompanied children to the Sphinx’s residence
has eyes that pierce the dark.
You should seek him out.
Discover his thoughts.
King Oedipus: I’ve thought of that.
I’ve already sent Prince Creon
to visit the Sun’s temple,
where Tiresias dwells.
Chorus: One more thing.
King Oedipus: What?
Chorus: Perhaps the killers of King Laius bragged.
Violence brags about its deeds.
Else it cannot be justified.
At the same time, killers threaten violence
if their violence is revealed.
You must offer protection to those who tell the truth.
King Oedipus: Yes, of course.
(Enter Tiresias. He is led by a youth and followed by a guard.)
King Oedipus: Tiresias! Great friend of Thebes!
A finch tells me you’ve made good use of my mercies,
and your nether eyes have discovered
new secrets of the night.
People seek out your touch.
They let you touch their bodies for signs of illness.
You’ve grown fat healing their fears.
Be that as it may, I’m happy to see you.
You no doubt have heard the daughters of the Sun sing
that Thebes will not be free of its troubles
until we discover who killed King Laius.
Don’t hold back from us what you know.
Tell us what’s hid in the crevices
and holes where the snakes and bats live.
Tiresias: Gods, if you only knew
how heavy wisdom lies on a man
if it earns him no profit.
King Oedipus, let me go.
King Oedipus: You speak as one who has no respect
for either Thebes or its king.
Are you refusing to tell what you know?
Tiresias: Do you wish to condemn me already?
King Oedipus: If you know something, tell it.
Tiresias: Promise me Thebes.
Else I say nothing.
King Oedipus: I don’t believe it!
You know something, but refuse to tell?
Tiresias: Promise me Thebes.
King Oedipus: Guards! Go pick up the fool by his hair.
Tiresias: You’re forcing me to have pity
for neither myself nor you.
King Oedipus: I, not you, lead Thebes!
Speak! Don’t stand dumb.
I’ll show you your piece of gold.
Tiresias: I’m blind, not deaf and dumb.
Even so, I see better than you.
Let me have your necklace instead.
King Oedipus: Outrageous man!
Do you want Thebes to once again
sacrifice its children?
Tiresias: King Oedipus, you swing as a door,
but see neither the past nor future.
But matters discover themselves
even if kings hide them.
I don’t wish to own Thebes.
I seek reward only because your
demand for truth is unduly impatient.
The fate of Thebes will be decided by the Gods
whom you, not I, deny.
King Oedipus: You say truth is on its way?
Why not tell it sooner than later.
Tiresias: I hold my tongue.
King Oedipus: Let me see!
I already took your eyes from you.
I’ll now tell what I think of you.
I think you’re among those
who conspired against Laius.
As a former servant of the Sphinx
murder comes naturally to you.
Tiresias: Let me remind you, King Oedipus,
of the promise you made to
King Laius’ murderer. You said he
would be allowed to speak to no one.
You said he would be chased from Thebes and worse.
I’ll tell you who deserves such a fate.
You, King Oedipus,
because you’re the misfortune of Thebes.
King Oedipus: By what magic
do you hope to escape punishment?
Tiresias: Truth will save me.
King Oedipus: Who taught you the truth?
Tiresias: You forced me to speak against my will.
King Oedipus: You spoke the truth?
Tiresias: Didn’t you hear what I said?
King Oedipus: Your words are like a squid’s ink.
Alright, I’ll hear you once more
if you bear in mind that should you lie,
I’ll throw you down the same cliff
from which the Sphinx threw the children of Thebes.
Chorus: Oh Dearest Goddess!
Tiresias: You’re looking for yourself.
It’s you who murdered King Laius.
Chorus: Oh Dearest Goddess!
King Oedipus: You’ll not speak like that for long.
Tiresias: You live in shame with those you love.
Ask your wife!
King Oedipus: How dare you?!
Tiresias: You provoke me to it.
King Oedipus: Oh, I understand. Traitor!
You’re doing Creon’s work.
Tiresias: You are playing into Creon’s hands.
King Oedipus: It’s clear now (oh Gods!)
that Creon is using this blind charlatan
to make himself king.
How very clever, indeed!
Tell me, Tiresias, why,
when the stomach of the Sphinx hungered,
you didn’t save Thebes?
It was I who understood the madness
of child sacrifice, not you,
nor King Laius or Prince Creon.
I see now! I see now how you plan
to surrender Thebes to Creon.
Neither he nor you will spare Thebes’ children
if child sacrifice is what brings you power.
Chorus: Listen, both!
Your words reach beyond anger.
But we need words that make sense.
Think of us, King Oedipus!
Tiresias: I’m slave to no one, but the truth.
Even if Oedipus kills me,
the truth will come to light.
King Oedipus: The plot against me couldn’t be plainer.
Tiresias: Is that so?
Then listen to what even a shadow sees.
You say your parents live in Corinth?
It’s not true. You tell everyone
you solved the riddle of the Sphinx.
You say the answer is “three legs—
an old man resting on his cane.”
The answer satisfies but schoolchildren and their teacher.
The legs are not legs, but three people
holding the cauldron of Thebes’ holy water.
You, one of the legs, are a clubfoot.
You, not I, tilt the throne of Thebes.
King Oedipus: May the people of Thebes
stone you to death.
Tiresias: I wouldn’t have come had you not called.
King Oedipus: I didn’t know I’d be talking to an ass.
(Exit Tiresias, then King Oedipus.)
Antistrophe: King Oedipus, be careful.
Your anger treads on your heels.
Strophe: Your anger is like a snake after its tail.
Antistrophe: Tiresias knows the story.
He’s egging it on.
There was a time when the Goddess was angry.
A lesser spirit—its name now forgotten—
challenged her wisdom.
The universe shook from the Goddess’ wrath.
The spirit took fright and died.
Strophe: Where then did the Goddess’ wrath go?
Antistrophe: It turned into a dragon—
horrible beyond description.
Fire, smoke, and sulfur wrapped its skin.
It understood but one word: Revenge!
It seized its tail and devoured itself to its face.
From the forehead of the beast grew horns.
As the horns grew, the Goddess
birthed twins armed with spears.
The twins threw their spears at each other.
The spears hit their targets.
Such is the mercy of our Goddess.
(Scene as before. Enter Prince Creon.)
Prince Creon: I don’t believe it!
The king threatens my life.
My lovers are leaving me.
What am I guilty of?
Do you, too, believe that I’m betraying Thebes?
Chorus: Our king is overcome by anger.
Tiresias set it off.
He blamed the king for Thebes’ troubles.
We don’t know what to make of it.
The blind man’s words were strange.
King Oedipus has done Thebes much good.
He says it was you, Prince Creon, not he,
who suggested going to Tiresias.
Prince Creon: The king accuses me and Tiresias,
both, of plotting against him.
Chorus: That’s what he believes.
Prince Creon: Is he in his right mind?
Chorus: I don’t always understand
the court’s reasoning.
But here comes King Oedipus.
He seems in control of himself.
(Enter King Oedipus.)
King Oedipus: Well, well, Creon!
The man to tempt Fate herself.
Don’t look so surprised to see me.
Yes, I know you’re against me.
Don’t say it’s not so.
It was you who persuaded me to send you
after that murderer of children,
that empty-socketed soothsayer.
It was you who told him what to report.
Prince Creon: You’re making this up.
King Oedipus: You’re sending Tiresias about Thebes
to mutter a falsehood.
Worse! Falsehoods against me.
Prince Creon: King Oedipus, let me speak.
King Oedipus: Don’t say you’re not guilty.
Prince Creon: I am not guilty.
King Oedipus: You’re wrong if you think
you’ll escape punishment
because you’re Queen Iocasta’s brother.
Prince Creon: Punishment will be earned
only if you prove my guilt.
King Oedipus: You’re the one who brought Tiresias to Thebes.
Prince Creon: So? Everyone’s in awe of him.
What’s more, you agreed to it.
King Oedipus: You tricked me into it.
I now regret the day I took pity
and removed from him his eyes only.
For how many years has he now spun
his web of deceits?
Prince Creon: It’s fifteen years since King Laius died.
King Oedipus: You’ve counted those years, haven’t you?
It’s the same number that you, too, plot.
Prince Creon: What makes you say so?
King Oedipus: It’s as clear to me as anything.
You murdered King Laius.
You did it to gain the throne.
Tiresias was to vouch for you
with more child offerings.
But I thwarted your plans.
The truth is, Creon—the Gods don’t
stand by either you or Tiresias.
Prince Creon: I can’t speak for Tiresias.
As for me, I deny your accusations.
You don’t know what you’re talking about.
King Oedipus: You never made an effort
to look for Laius’ killer.
Prince Creon: I can say the same about you.
You’re the one who became king, not me.
You’re the one who had no curiosity
about your predecessor.
Why pretend to revive it now?
King Oedipus: Tiresias didn’t divine
where King Laius lies buried, did he?
Prince Creon: If you want his eyes,
you know where you buried them.
King Oedipus: Is that how you answer a king?
Prince Creon: You’re the one who heard what Tiresias said.
I wasn’t present when you and he,
and the Sphinx met.
King Oedipus: It was no time for talk.
It was a time to get on with life.
Prince Creon: I hope your innocence is proved
with the same certainty
as you are the husband of my sister.
But tell me something.
You rule over Thebes and
give like rights to Queen Iocasta, don’t you?
King Oedipus: All that the queen desires, she gets.
Prince Creon: Then tell me, isn’t she,
and am not I one of the three legs
of the cauldron on which Thebes stands?
I have like rights to yours even if I—
like the queen—
defer to you and let you rule.
If you die, the queen rules.
If you die and Iocasta dies, I rule.
Why should I wish to kill my sister or you?
Why do you try to tip the altar by exiling me
(which is what I presume you want to do)
and unbalance our Thebes?
King Oedipus: You want Queen Iocasta and me dead, I see.
Prince Creon: If you believe that, you’ll believe anything.
Why should I wish to rule and live in fear
when life is meant for easy sleeping?
I do like to sleep easy.
You have no understanding of life.
I wasn’t born with the desire to become king
(though if need be I’ll take on the responsibility).
I don’t wish to give up my present way of life
for the sake of the throne. I don’t deny
that I wish to live like a king.
But why should I be king
if a king’s privileges are mine without effort?
Because of our relationship I have become rich.
I’m grateful for your generosity to me
regarding the building of public monuments.
You get your share, and I’m satisfied with mine.
Why should I let it slip from my hands?
If you believe I’ve worked against you
and can prove it, kill me.
But don’t accuse me of being a traitor
before you have proof.
Chorus: King Oedipus, step back, reflect.
Peace is paramount.
King Oedipus: When an enemy works against me in secret,
I have no time to waste.
If I wait, I lose.
Prince Creon: Do you want me to leave Thebes then?
King Oedipus: I want your head.
Prince Creon: You’re not right in the mind.
King Oedipus: What parent of Thebes agrees with you?
Prince Creon: You’re being reckless.
You began the accusations.
King Oedipus: It’s I who rule.
Prince Creon: Do you wish the cauldron
to stand on two legs?
King Oedipus: How long must I be patient!?
Prince Creon: You have no right to presume
your decision as final if I contest it.
Queen Iocasta must be consulted.
Chorus: Is this dispute a family matter?
King Oedipus, your accusations are without proof.
Prince Creon, you claim to be a leg of the holy tripod,
but your words pretend to authority greater than the king’s.
Do you know something we do not?
Look! Here comes Queen Iocasta.
May she establish peace.
(Enter Queen Iocasta.)
Queen Iocasta: King Oedipus, Prince Creon, I’m aghast.
Your pettiness should embarrass you both,
especially now when Thebes suffers from uncertain times.
Oedipus, it’s time to return to the castle.
Creon, don’t air your disagreements before the public.
Prince Creon: I’ll go, but not before you know that
King Oedipus, your husband, believes
only he has a say in Thebes.
He believes he only has to say his wish
and he has my head.
King Oedipus: You do all you can, don’t you, Creon,
to make the plague worse?
Prince Creon: May the Gods curse me!
May I die if your accusation is true.
King Oedipus: Liar! You sent Tiresias
to spread rumors that I’m to blame
for Thebes’ troubles.
Queen Iocasta: Is that true, Creon?
Prince Creon: No.
King Oedipus: Don’t believe him.
Prince Creon: I swear.
Queen Iocasta: Oedipus, accept Creon’s oath.
Do it for the sake of Thebes.
Chorus: Be peace loving, King Oedipus.
Prince Creon’s oath is believable.
To kill him will make the plague worse.
King Oedipus: Do you know what you’re asking?
Chorus: May the Sun forgive me.
May I die without her blessings and without friends
if what I wish for is not for the best.
You yourself, King Oedipus, said
that without our support Creon has no chance.
Queen Iocasta: King Oedipus, we stand witness to
and respect your authority.
King Oedipus: Though you request mercy for him,
Creon himself has not asked for it.
Prince Creon: That’s because your mercy is reluctant.
King Oedipus: What magic protects you?
None, but your sister’s plea.
Go, go your way.
Prince Creon: I’m going, but note:
the citizens of Thebes do not say I’m guilty.
Chorus: Let there be silence for a space.
King Oedipus (suddenly clutching his head):
Shame is me! What a fool!
Why did I give in? I should have
taken both their heads.
(The Chorus turns its back to the audience as if to make itself absent.)
Queen Iocasta: Oedipus, don’t take this so seriously.
Creon is not destined to be king.
(The Chorus appears to have second thoughts and turns to face the audience again.)
Chorus: King Oedipus, we’re with you.
You freed us from the Sphinx.
You brought happiness to children and parents, all.
(The Chorus turns away again.)
Queen Iocasta: What angered you so?
King Oedipus: It was Creon’s lies.
Because of him there are those who now don’t know
whether to support me or him.
Queen Iocasta: What are the lies?
King Oedipus: Creon got Tiresias to claim
that I murdered King Laius.
His own tongue, though, remains innocent.
Queen Iocasta: I understand.
Nevertheless, leave the matter be.
I’ll take care of Tiresias.
Creon will fall in line.
King Oedipus: I’m not sure he will.
I fear he’s laid a curse on me.
Queen Iocasta: What?
King Oedipus: I haven’t told you the story.
Queen Iocasta: What story?
King Oedipus: Well, you know my parents are
the King and Queen of Corinth.
I have a throne to inherit
in Corinth someday.
Queen Iocasta: Yes. It’s the King and Queen
who remember you often with kind gifts.
King Oedipus: So why do I live here, not there?
Listen. This is true.
Fifteen years ago when I came of age
and Corinth was to make me its citizen,
I was visited by a witch, a fortune teller.
She said she came to tell my fate.
We sat under an old oak,
its branches heavy with acorns.
She laid upon the grass a linen sheet
and waited for a finch to alight on a branch.
Then she hit that branch with her stick so hard,
the acorns fell from their cups.
She looked at the lay of the seeds and foretold
that I would soon kill my father
and lie in bed with my mother.
I was horrified, but the witch assured me
that all would be well if I left Corinth,
killed the child-eating Sphinx I met on my way,
raised its temple, blinded its priest,
and took up residence in Thebes.
(Enter Eteokles, a son of King Oedipus and Queen Iocasta.)
Eteokles: Father, uncle Creon says
you killed my grandfather.
King Oedipus: The viper speaks!
Queen Iocasta: How did uncle Creon say he knows?
Eteokles: He says Tiresias told him.
He says Tiresias is to be believed more than father.
He says he will support Polynices
as king of Thebes. He says that
I will die if I don’t leave.
Queen Iocasta: Listen, son, your father is right.
Uncle Creon has been bit by a viper.
(Exit Queen Iocasta, King Oedipus, and Prince Eteokles. The Chorus turns to face the audience.)
Chorus: I defer to fate
ruled by laws that mortals haven’t yet
understood and may never.
Antistrophe: Our king a murderer?
But because of him
hundreds of children live today.
Strophe: People twist what they hear
and as the story changes so does truth.
Antistrophe: My thoughts are like the wind,
here, there, everywhere.
What will become of Thebes?
Is ruin our future?
Is the sacred cauldron to spill
its sacred content for the dogs?
Chorus: May Gods allow the serpent
of wrath to catch its tail.
If there’s no fault, let good prevail.
(The stage remains unchanged. Enter messenger from Corinth.)
Messenger: Good day, dear people.
Is this Thebes?
Is this where King Oedipus lives?
Chorus: Welcome to Thebes, stranger.
The king is with us.
Messenger: Will someone ask him to receive me?
I have important news concerning his father.
Chorus (obviously surprised): Already! Gods!
We’ve been waiting for you.
Who are you? Where are you from?
Messenger: I’m from Corinth.
Chorus: Guards! Call King Oedipus!
There is important news from Corinth.
(Enter King Oedipus.)
King Oedipus: News from Corinth is always welcome.
How are its King and Queen?
Messenger: King Oedipus!
May children love you to the end of time.
Humankind will not forget your deeds.
May forget-me-nots bloom in your remembrance.
I beg your forgiveness.
I bring news of sorrow.
King Oedipus: I already have plenty of sorrows.
Don’t you have something better?
Messenger: Yes, of course.
When the Sun shines behind the clouds,
it rings its fleece with gold.
King Oedipus: It’s a fair sight.
But is it more than speech?
Messenger: Yes, King Oedipus!
The citizens of Corinth want
you to be their king.
I’ve been sent in the hope
I’ll return with news you accept.
King Oedipus: What has happened to the king?
Messenger: King Oedipus, this part of the message
will bring you sadness:
The King of Corinth, your father, is dead.
King Oedipus: Gods! What did he die of?
Messenger: When one is old,
even small matters may cause death.
Chorus (interrupting): King Oedipus, excuse me!
If the news is painful, it’s also good.
Your kingdom is doubled!
Thebes will be twice its size.
This is the answer to our prayers from the Gods.
King Oedipus: Guards, go call the Queen!
Messenger, your news is good indeed.
No disrespect, I love my father,
but the cloud is indeed gold edged.
You’ll surely get your share of it.
(Enter Queen Iocasta.)
Queen Iocasta, the King of Corinth,
my father, has died.
Queen Iocasta: I sorrow for him and you.
King Oedipus: The citizens of Corinth
want me to be their king.
Queen Iocasta: Didn’t I say all will be well?
King Oedipus (suddenly crestfallen): I almost forgot.
How could I forget!
I mean, the other half of the witch’s story.
Messenger! Go back where you came from.
Thank your people for their trust in me,
but I can’t accept their offer.
Queen Iocasta: Oedipus, forget stories told by witches.
The witches are gone with the Sphinx.
King Oedipus: It’s well only
if my mother were dead, too.
Chorus: King, think what you say.
Queen Iocasta: I thought you called me to hear good news.
King Oedipus: I’d forgotten the curse.
Messenger: King Oedipus, I don’t understand.
Did you mention your mother?
King Oedipus: Yes, my mother.
Yes, a curse.
Messenger: What makes you fear your mother?
She speaks kindly of you.
King Oedipus: I fear an old curse.
Your visit reminds me of it.
Messenger: I beg a thousand forgivenesses.
But if it’s not a secret,
what’s the curse?
King Oedipus: A long time ago a witch came with prophecy
that I’d bed my mother
and spill my father’s blood.
Queen Iocasta: The message from Corinth proves
the curse has no weight.
As for sleeping with your mother,
many sons taken from their mother’s breast too soon,
dream bedding with her as grown men.
Messenger: Is that what you fear?
King Oedipus: I didn’t want to kill my father.
I didn’t want to bed my mother.
That’s why I sought my fortune beyond Corinth.
Messenger: Great King, let me ease your mind.
King Oedipus: Do if you can.
Else I’ll never come near Corinth.
Messenger: King, you’ve been told lies.
Your fears have no basis.
King Oedipus: How can that be?
Dare you contradict me?
Messenger: The King and Queen of Corinth
were not your real parents.
Though you’re their heir,
you’re their stepson.
King Oedipus: I just promised you gold
and you’re already betting your neck.
Messenger: I swear on it.
The King and Queen of Corinth
had no children of their own.
Then the Gods put you in my arms.
And I put you in theirs.
King Oedipus: What’s this?
You put me in their arms?
Who put me in yours?
Messenger: A friend of mine, a goatherd.
He found you on the mountain ridge
between Thebes and Corinth.
I took you and carried you to our city.
King Oedipus: How did I, how did you
happen on the mountain?
Messenger: When I was young, I was a goatherd, too.
You were left in the mountains
as an offering to the Sphinx.
My friend found you and withdrew the loop
that bound the sinews of your ankles.
King Oedipus: Who did such a thing?
Messenger: Child sacrifice was not uncommon then.
Such offerings were made by many
to summon favor from the Gods.
People in despair did it.
So did kings to test the favor of their Gods.
King Oedipus: Is your friend still alive?
Messenger: He was a goatherd working for King Laius.
Thebans can better tell where he lives.
There must be people who remember him.
King Oedipus: Iocasta, do you remember?
Did you know of such a goatherd?
Queen Iocasta: Since when, King Oedipus,
do you have messengers tell you what to do?
You know how rumor undermines our city.
King Oedipus: But if the goatherd is alive,
I’ll learn the truth.
He may still have the loop
that bound my ankles.
Queen Iocasta: Oedipus, leave be.
King Oedipus: I must learn
whether I’m the son of a whore or a king.
Queen Iocasta: Oedipus, don’t continue this.
King Oedipus: Messenger, was the loop made of gold
or was it a twig of a willow branch?
Messenger: I didn’t see or think to ask.
Queen Iocasta: King Oedipus, I wish only the best.
Leave the matter be.
King Oedipus: I haven’t asked for your advice.
Queen Iocasta: Even a king in too much of a hurry
may leave the Gods behind
and discover himself beset by doubt.
King Oedipus: You, guards,
go find the goatherd.
If he lives, bring him to me.
Queen Iocasta: Oedipus, why don’t you listen?
Why do you stick your head
in the maw of the Sphinx?
Chorus (aside): Didn’t I save you from it once already?
King Oedipus (in mock tones recites a childrens’ ditty):
When a goatherd dies,
the billy climbs
up, up into the clouds
to asks the Gods, please
return me my master—
else I, too, must die.
The Gods tell the billy:
You have no beard of gold .
You’re but a goat.
(Exit Queen Iocasta in obvious distress.)
Chorus: Something unpleasant will come of this.
King Oedipus: I’ll learn of my past.
The children of whores were bought for sacrifice.
But perhaps I wore a golden wire.
Perhaps I was of royal blood.
Strophe: Who bore you, child?
Antistrophe: Who was your mother?
Was she a virgin surprised by a goatherd?
Was it the night?
Was the goatherd seduced by a whore?
Was your mother taken by a king?
Chorus: Why didn’t the king take the queen’s advice?
It was she who made him king.
She was a queen before he was a king.
It was she who asked to marry him.
[Enter Iananna, the nurse of Princess Ismene (see Prologue). She is running and screaming.]
Iananna: O Gods! O Gods!
Polynices and Eteokles stalk each other
with spears in hand.
Where’s the King?
Oedipus, your sons!
Where’s the Queen?
Iocasta, your twins!
(The stage as before. Enter guards with goatherd.)
Guard: King Oedipus, here’s your man.
King Oedipus:An old and bony goat, isn’t he?
No matter. All I need is pluck his memory.
Strophe: We sacrificed our children,
then built Thebes to their memory.
The city was sacred to us.
But sacrifice is ended now.
The Gods are offered a goat instead.
Poor goat! Betrayed Gods!
Antistrophe: Death comes when it will.
We die unknowing into unknowing.
We leave behind yet more unknowing.
King Oedipus: You, messenger from Corinth!
Is this the man you spoke of?
Messenger: It is.
King Oedipus: Old man, what’s your name?
Were you a goatherd for King Laius?
Goatherd: My name is Gans.
King Oedipus: Where did you herd the goats?
Goatherd: It was some distance from here,
near the border with Corinth,
in the dales of Mt. Citheron.
King Oedipus: Gans, did you ever meet the man standing next to me?
Goatherd: I don’t know.
I don’t remember.
Messenger: King, it happened a long time ago.
The man is old and needs reminding.
But he knows the mountains well.
He had two herds of goats. I had one.
We herded in adjacent valleys for three years
from summer until autumn.
When winter came,
he drove his herd to King Laius’ barns.
Wasn’t that so, old friend?
Goatherd: Yes, now that you remind me of it.
Messenger: Do you remember the time, Gans,
when you handed me a child
and asked me to bring it to Corinth?
Goatherd: What makes you ask?
Messenger: Old friend, here he is.
Here’s the king who was that child.
Goatherd: Death take you!
I don’t believe it.
King Oedipus: Do you fault me for being your king?
Goatherd: Best of kings, it was but an expression.
King Oedipus: It evaded an answer.
Goatherd: King, what do you expect?
My friend knows nothing.
When he was young,
I was fifty or more.
King Oedipus: Do you know pain, Gans?
Goatherd: King, don’t do me ill.
I’m a faithful citizen of Thebes.
Why else would King Laius have
trusted me with his herds?
King Oedipus: Guards! Bend the man’s arm.
Goatherd: Gods, help me!
King Oedipus: You handed this man a child,
a boy, me, isn’t that so?
Goatherd: Gods! Thebes! Would I have died that day.
King Oedipus: I can arrange for it yet.
Goatherd: If kings refuse to die,
I refuse to do better.
King Oedipus: This old boy is some stubborn billy.
Goatherd: I’m no boy or beast, but a citizen of Thebes
born in my own house.
I gave you my answer:
I was already in years, when he was young.
King Oedipus: Where’d you find the child?
Who gave him to you?
Were my ankles bound by a twig or a golden wire?
Goatherd: There was a gold wire.
I sold it double its price.
King Oedipus: Whose child was I?
Goatherd: You, King Oedipus, weren’t mine.
I only passed you to another.
King Oedipus: Who was it?
Was it someone standing here?
Goatherd: The way you ask questions,
upsets me, King.
King Oedipus: If you delay answering once more,
consider yourself dead.
Goatherd: If you kill me,
will your authority over yourself
be as great as well?
King Oedipus: You’re suicidal.
Goatherd: Once you were a king’s son.
I’m not sure who you are now.
King Oedipus: How come you know so much?
Goatherd: I know it from her, King Oedipus.
King Oedipus: Her? Who is ‘her’?
(Tiresias appears at the back of the stage. He crawls on all fours, obviously mortally wounded. His face and dress are splotched with blood. The Chorus makes a half turn as if to listen to the goatherd’s answer, but sees Tiresias instead and gasps. Nevertheless, the goatheard drowns out the chorus.)
Goatherd: Your mother and wife.
King Oedipus: What?! How dare you!
Goatherd: I dare because of your threats.
In your first years your mother often visited you.
Perhaps you haven’t been told,
but the Queen of Corinth, Merope, is your aunt.
She and your stepfather, King Polybus, were without children.
They took you in and raised you as their own.
King Oedipus: How muddled can old age get!
Goatherd: King Laius put you up for sacrifice to the Gods
as was the custom for princes since King Cadmus.
Had you survived the night,
you would have proven yourself a worthy heir.
But your mother feared you might die.
She didn’t believe death was
a thing her son should risk.
There was snow in the mountains.
She begged King Laius to leave
a straw doll in your place.
King Oedipus (pointing at Tiresias, but not reacting to the fact he is bleeding):
Look! There crawls your twin in fate.
Chorus: Dear Gods!
(Tiresias crawls forward.)
Tiresias: Do you, King Oedipus, really believe
that a man untested by fate has an eye for truth
and is worthy to be King?
You may pretend,
but unless you offer yourself in sacrifice,
Thebes will lose respect for truth
and live in a world out of touch.
A plague plagues Thebes,
because of you, King Oedipus.
You killed not only our Gods,
but King Laius, your father, too.
To cleanse the world of your crime,
you must offer your life in payment.You have not done so.
King Oedipus: I rescued Thebes’ children from the Sphinx.
All Thebes is grateful to me.
What do you mean, I killed my father?
Tiresias: You were born, King Oedipus,
son to a king to be his heir
if you accepted the sacrificial role of a God.
This is how cities are made and people bonded.
We—even I whose eyes you destroyed—
welcomed your rescue of our children.
But you refused further responsibility.
You’ve not promised to keep Thebes a city
that serves its people.
You have no authority over us,
but such as you may coerce from us.
You’re no living memorial of your forebears.
I’m come to call you
unworthy of glory.
King Oedipus: Monster theologian!
Tiresias: Had you survived on the mountaintop,
you would’ve had a claim
to become King Laius’ heir.
Instead, your mother feared for you.
When I carried you to the mountain,
she screamed as one mad.
King Oedipus: You took me to be sacrificed?
Tiresias: As tradition required and
as your father asked me to do.
Your mother insisted I let her watch over you.
I agreed—if she sat naked
and offered herself to the Sphinx
if the Sphinx came and found her pleasing.
King Oedipus: What else?
Tiresias: Queen Iocasta agreed.
There was a storm.
The Sphinx was ice cold.
While I dozed, your mother caught you up
and ran to hide in the goatherd’s shack.
She let that buck, then ten bucks strong,
dance his cock over her
not to waken me.
King Oedipus: What fantasy the blind possess!
Tiresias: The goatherd agreed to pass you on
to this man, the messenger from Corinth.
He took you to your aunt and her husband,
the King and Queen of Corinth.
King Oedipus: What is Creon paying you
to invent this story?
Tiresias: When you were fifteen,
your mother visited you disguised as a witch.
She had a plan that would
regain for you the throne of Thebes.
You were still young and innocent.
You couldn’t imagine killing your father
and taking your mother to bed.
That’s why you fled Corinth.
Your mother was overjoyed.
King Oedipus: I can only say
I don’t believe any of this.
Tiresias: After you destroyed the Sphinx’s temple,
you were welcomed to Thebes as a hero.
King Oedipus: But I killed no man.
Tiresias: You met your father at the crossroad
before you met the Sphinx.
King Oedipus: Was that King Laius?
That wasn’t my father.
That man had come to trade children.
My trusty guards, not I killed him.
Tiresias: How little you know, King Oedipus.
Your mother when young was a courtesan
at an inn in Corinth.
She knew of many babes whose bodies
were buried under the floors of the whorehouse.
When her sister, Merope, a courtesan, too,
had luck and married King Polybus,
she introduced Iocasta to King Laius.
Merope was infertile—the result of her trade.
But Iocasta bore King Laius a son.
When King Laius wanted to honor Oedipus
and open the way for him to become his heir
by exposing him to the will of the Gods,
Iocasta was horrified.
Perhaps she had a babe of her own
under the whorehouse floor.
King Oedipus: You mean to tell me
that failing to take the test cursed me
to kill my father
and marry my mother?
Tiresias: You want to know
what became of the golden wire?
Your mother gave it to you
on the day you married her.
She had it reworked into the very necklace
you wear around your neck this moment.
King Oedipus: Oh horror! Dear Gods!
Tiresias: Before I go to sleep,
I often enough exclaim:
‘Oh God, oh God, oh God.’
(Tiresias dies. Enter Princess Ismene’s nurse, Iananna, the same who sought to end
a fight between King Oedipus’s sons, Polynices and Eteokles.)
Iananna: The Queen is dead.
King Oedipus: No! No!
Strophe: Polynices and Eteokles are dead, too.
Creon turned them against each other.
Neither of the twins was tested on the mountain.
Antistrophe: After Queen Iocasta died,
Prince Creon, seized the throne
and declared himself King of Thebes!
His messengers announced King Oedipus mad.
King Creon threw Polynices’ body to the dogs.
This very moment, Antigone, his sister,
is burying him.
Strophe: I fear for Antigone’s life.
Antistrophe: Fear no longer.
Antigone and Creon’s son, Haemon—
both imprisoned by Creon to make everyone fear him—
have taken poison.
Strophe: Eridike, Creon’s wife, is dead.
She took her life to hasten
the wrath of the Gods against Creon.
Chorus: King Oedipus has put out his eyes.
But nothing will bring back those
who died because of him.
(Enter Princess Ismene, the youngest daughter of King Oedipus and Queen Iocasta,
with her nurse, Iananna. Princess Ismene is still a child.)
Iananna: You have killed ten.
Your stepfather in Corinth among the others.
He agreed to die (to poison himself),
Because he understood
that you had no other exit,
no other way to escape Thebes—
unless you went to attend a funeral.
Will you also sacrifice Gans and Ismene
and make it an even dozen?
King Oedipus: Don’t be afraid of such talk, child.
I’m not now nor ever was a monster.
You know the path, Ismene dear,
to the top of Mt. Citheron, don’t you?
Princess Ismene: Yes, father.
King Oedipus: I want you to lead me up that path.
We’ll wait out the night under the stars there.
They say you can see
The universe from there.
(Exit everyone but the chorus and Queen Ismene. The latter—hidden behind a pillar—has been standing stage right from the beginning of scene 1.)
Strophe: Only life comes easy;
death takes much to do.
Antistrophe: Suddenly so many dead!
How could it happen?
A mother promised her son more. He got less.
No mother wants her children to call her a liar.
What went amiss?
Strophe: Before Queen Iocasta returned from Corinth
and threw her witch’s mask in the ditch,
she persuaded her sister, Queen Merope of Corinth,
to let Prince Oedipus visit Thebes.
The sisters hired armed men for Oedipus’ escorts.
The captain of the guard was in the sisters’ hire.
Iocasta did not tell King Laius of her plans,
but arranged for him to meet her son at the crossroads.
Then the queen told the king (as if in an aside):
‘King Laius, I forgot to mention,
I bought some whorehouse children
as sacrifices for state occasions.
A caravan of them is due tomorrow.
Be so good, take ten sacks of grain,
and go to the crossroad to receive them.’
Strophe: King Laius was killed
when he asked for the delivery.
Queen Ismene: I remember the King covering me with a blanket.
It was a cold night on Mt. Citheron.
In the morning, when I saw my father dead,
I ran terrified to nanny Iananna.
She—as true as the sun—
hid me until Creon died.
I haven’t visited Mt. Citheron since.
But now that the story is told,
you must know—lest plague comes again—
I go there this very hour.
Ian will keep me company.