Why does Oedipus leave Corinth in Oedipus Rex? He left to escape a prophecy, but the answer doesn’t become clear to the audience until the story is well underway. The play begins with a plague that has come upon Thebes. The Chorus, the elders of the city, have come to Oedipus, the king, hoping he will be able to offer some relief.
He is Thebe’s hero, having saved the city from the curse of a Sphinx that was prowling and preventing travel to or from the city. Oedipus responds that he has been grieving for his people and that he has sent Creon to Delphi to consult with the gods.
While the Elders and Oedipus were speaking, Creon approaches; they hope with the news. Creon indeed brings word from the oracle that the murderer of Laius must be found and banished or executed to cleanse the plague from the land.
Oedipus queries why the killer has not been found and punished previously. Creon answers that the matter was overtaken by the arrival of the Sphinx, which Oedipus himself defeated.
Why Does Oedipus Go to Thebes?
As the pair discusses the situation, Oedipus asks how he can solve a mystery that began before he arrived. Creon responds that there is a prophet, well known to Laius and the people, who can assist. He goes at once to send for Tiresias, the blind prophet.
Oedipus is so confident that the murderer will be found, he announces that any who harbor him will be subject to punishment. By turning himself in, the murderer may escape with banishment rather than execution. He vows that he himself will suffer the punishment rather than let the killer of Laius go free.
Unknowing, he speaks prophetically as he boasts of his determination to find the killer:
“I have his bed and wife— she would have borne his children if his hopes to have a son had not been disappointed. Children from a common mother might have linked lustral water: water purified in a communal religious ritual. Laius and myself. But as it turned out, fate swooped down onto his head. So now I will fight on his behalf as if this matter concerned my father, and I will strive to do everything I can to find him, the man who spilled his blood, and thus avenge the son of Labdacus and Polydorus, of Cadmus and Agenor from old times.”
The play doesn’t address why Oedipus leaves Corinth until Tiresias comes and has his say.
The blind prophet comes reluctantly at Oedipus’ request. He had served Thebes from his youth and was a trusted advisor to Laius before Oedipus came. Jocasta will reveal later that it was Tiresias who predicted that Laius himself would be murdered by his own offspring.
She scoffs at the prediction, informing Oedipus that Laius bound the infant’s feet and had him laid out on a mountain to perish of exposure. Oedipus is deeply disturbed by this news and becomes even more determined to gather information on Laius’ death. Jocasta can’t understand Oedipus’ complex response to the news, nor his worry and despair upon hearing her story.
Why Does Oedipus Accuse Creon of Treason?
When Tiresias tells Oedipus that he doesn’t want to hear what he has to say, Oedipus becomes incensed. He is insulted that Tiresias believes he would avoid the truth, even to his own detriment.
Tiresias informs him that he can bring only grief upon himself and his household by pursuing the question of who killed Laius, but Oedipus refuses to hear reason. He becomes so angry at Tiresias implying that he is the killer that he accuses him of conspiring with Creon to discredit him.
Tiresias stands firm in his prophecy, telling Oedipus:
“Without your knowledge you’ve become the enemy of your own kindred, those in the world below and those up here, and the dreadful feet of that two-edged curse from father and mother both will drive you from this land in exile. Those eyes of yours, which now can see so clearly, will be dark.”
Creon argues that he doesn’t seek power, that he has an equal say with Jocasta and Oedipus himself in his current position.
He asks why Oedipus believes he would seek to rule when he currently has all of the power and glory he could want without the burden of the ruling. Oedipus continues to argue that he has betrayed him until Jocasta intervenes in the argument.
She separates the men and tells them they mustn’t quarrel when the city needs them to be united. Oedipus continues to argue against Creon’s innocence, clearly feeling threatened by the prophet’s words. He is determined to avoid accepting Tiresias’ accusation.
How Does Jocasta Make Things Worse?
As Oedipus seeks more information on Laius’ death, a messenger comes from Corinth. Jocasta is relieved at the news he brings since she believes it will relieve Oedipus’ mind.
Having heard the story of Oedipus leaving his homeland to avoid a prophecy that he will murder his father and defile his mother’s bed, she is convinced that the death of Polybus means he has avoided the terrible fate.
She knows now that Oedipus left Corinth to prevent a prophecy from coming true. The prophet predicted a future in which Oedipus kills his father. Now that Polybus has died of old age and natural causes, it’s clear that the prophecy can’t come true.
It is the messenger himself who disabuses Oedipus of the notion that he has avoided murdering his father. He explains to him that he was not Polybus’ natural son after all. In fact, it was the messenger himself who gave Oedipus to the couple as an infant.
As the pair had never been able to have children of their own, they took the foundling in and raised him. Oedipus clings to the hope that the survivor of Laius’ ill-fated company will still offer some reprieve. If Laius was set upon by a band of robbers as told, Oedipus could not be the murderer.
Even with the facts laid out before him clearly, Oedipus doesn’t make the connection before Jocasta.
When she hears the messenger’s story, she begs Oedipus to stop his investigation. He responds that even if he is of ignoble birth, he must know the secret of his own origins. He believed himself the son of Polybus and now has discovered that his entire life was a lie.
He wants to be certain, to know the origin of his own birth. Having heard the messenger’s story, Jocasta has begun to suspect the truth and doesn’t want it to be known.
Oedipus is convinced that Jocasta’s reluctance to learn more of his past is due to her own desire to be married to a noble-born man:
“As for myself, no matter how base born my family, I wish to know the seed from where I came. Perhaps my queen is now ashamed of me and of my insignificant origin—she likes to play the noble lady. But I will never feel dishonored. I see myself as a child of fortune—and she is generous, that mother of mine from whom I spring, and the months, my siblings, have seen me by turns both small and great. That’s how I was born. I cannot change to someone else, nor can I ever cease from seeking out the facts of my own birth.”
Did the Truth Set Him Free?
Unfortunately for Oedipus, the truth will come out. The slave who was the sole survivor of the attack on Laius comes to tell his tale. He’s reluctant to speak at first, but Oedipus threatens him with torture if he refuses.
The messenger from Corinth recognizes the shepherd as the one who gave him the infant. The shepherd, under threat of torment and death, admits that the child came from Laius’ own home and suggests that Oedipus should ask Jocasta about it.
Finally, faced with the full story, Oedipus draws the connections and understands what has happened:
“Ah, so it all came true. It’s so clear now. O light, let me look at you one final time, a man who stands revealed as cursed by birth, cursed by my own family, and cursed by murder where I should not kill.”
Oedipus retires into the castle while the Chorus laments the fate of the royal family. Oedipus married his mother unknowingly and murdered his father. He flees the scene to grieve, and the messengers are left to tell the remainder of the story to the Chorus and audience.
The messenger emerges from the palace to announce that Jocasta is dead. Upon realizing that Laius’ efforts to be rid of the infant had failed and that Oedipus was her own son, she collapsed in grief. She fell upon their marriage bed and committed suicide in her horror and grief.
When Oedipus discovers what Jocasta has done, he takes the golden pins from her dress and puts out his own eyes. Tiresias’ prophecy about Oedipus’ sight going dark is made true in a gruesome way.
Oedipus returns to speak with the Chorus leader, declaring himself to be banished and wishing for death. Creon returns to find his brother-in-law grieving and blinded. When he hears all that has passed, he takes pity on Oedipus and instructs his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, to look after their father.
He is to be shut away in the palace, isolated from the citizens so that his shame will not be seen by all. The mighty Oedipus, the hero of Thebes, is fallen to the prophecy and the fate he could not escape.