Realism in Oedipus the King

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Realism in Oedipus Rex

This essay will examine a feature of Sophocles’ tragedy which causes the reader to doubt the realism underlying the literary work. Specifically, the essay will consider the feasability of the belief at that time – that the Delphi oracle possessed credibility with the people.

At the outset of the drama the priest of Zeus and the crowd of citizens of Thebes are gathered before the royal palace of Thebes talking to King Oedipus about the plague which is ravaging the city. The king is sorely troubled and laments the sad situation. Then he says:

I have sent Menoeceus' son,

Creon, my consort's brother, to inquire

Of Pythian Phoebus at his Delphic shrine,

How I might save the State by act or word.

And now I reckon up the tale of days

Since he set forth, and marvel how he fares.

'Tis strange, this endless tarrying, passing strange.

But when he comes, then I were base indeed,

If I perform not all the god declares.

From this passage it would appear that the king has full faith in the awaited advice from the oracle at Delphi. Is this notion historicaly accurate? Did Sophocles’ contmeporaries actually put such trust in their pagan gods and goddesses? As Brian Wilkie and James Hurt state in “Sophocles”: “Humanity in his plays is an integral part of a world-order that can be only partially understood at best. The cosmic system includes, besides human beings and nature, those darkly inscrutable forces identified – inadequately – as the gods and fate” (718). When Creon returns, he gives his report publicly:

CREON Let me report then all the god declared.

King Phoebus bids us straitly extirpate

A fell pollution that ...

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...74). Cypselus consulted the oracle, and on the basis of its answer, set to work to make himself master of Corinth (376)which he ruled for many years.

Thus we have seen that Sophocles is not being imaginative when he bases the action of the tragedy Oedipus Rex upon the words of the oracle at Delphi. It is wholly consistent with historical data available from that time period of the fifth century BC.


Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. England: Penguin Books, 1972.

“Sophocles” In Literature of the Western World, edited by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. NewYork: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1984.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Transl. by F. Storr. new?tag=public&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&part=0&id=SopOedipus

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