The play is based on the myth about Oedipus, which was well-known to the ancient Greeks. But Sophocles reinterprets the myth in his own way. Understanding that the audience knows the ending well enough, he changes the accent from the final tragedy to the feelings of Oedipus himself, showing how he, acting as a noble and righteous king, doing what he was raised for, curses himself and traps himself in a horrifying situation.
The play starts with the fact that the horrible curse hit the ancient Greek city of Thebes. The oracle says that the curse can be lifted only when the murderer of the previous king, Laius, will be found and punished. The citizens of Thebes come to the palace of the current king, Oedipus and his wife (and the widow of the former king) Jocasta, asking to save the city. Oedipus appears before his people promising that he himself will do anything to find the murderer and curses him aloud. He sends Creon, his brother-in-law to bring the most experienced oracle from Delphi to find the killer.
Creon brings Tiresias, the blind oracle. Tiresias, though knowing the truth, refuses to tell it to the king, knowing that would ruin his life. But Oedipus becomes more and more impatient, going as far as accusing Tiresias of covering the murderer. Than Tiresias bitterly says that Oedipus himself is the murderer of the former king, Laius.
Oedipus is stunned. He doesn’t believe his ears and suspects that it was Creon plotting against him. He could pay the oracle to frame the king, so that he could become king himself. Oedipus accuses Creon, the insults become worse and the fight to death is averted only by Jocasta’s appearance. Jocasta is a wise and respected queen. She calms her husband down, saying that prophecies can eventually lie. She tells a story about one prophecy that ruined her life and hurted her so much.
When Thebes was still ruled by her first husband, king Laius, she was waiting for her firstborn son. But the oracle of Apollo gave Laius a terrible prediction: if he had a son he would kill Laius and sleep with his wife. Horrified, Laius waited until his wife gave birth to their baby and it was a boy. In grief, the king took the baby away from his mother and gave his only heir to the accidental shepherd, ordering him to bring the child to the mountains and leave there for his death.
Jocasta bitterly concludes that she lost her only child for nothing - Laius was killed by some random stranger on the crossroad.
But the story told to calm Oedipus down only raises more anxiety. He remembers the times when he, a prince of a neighboring city, was travelled to Thebes because of exactly same reason. He grew up in loving family of the King and Queen of Corinth, considering himself a heir and a son of his parents, but the more he heard the rumors about him being just an adopted orphan the more curious young Oedipus became. He decided to solve that question once and for all and went to the oracle, who said that the fate of Oedipus was to murder his father and sleep with his mother. Frightened by that prophecy, the young man fled away from his country afraid to harm his father and offend his mother who he loved very much.
During his journey Oedipus came to the crossroads. A luxurious chariot was riding towards him, with a rich elderly man in it. He proudly demanded Oedipus to step back and not to stay in the way of the noble man. The young man didn’t have time to step back and the chariot driver hit him with the staff. Enraged, Oedipus fought back, accidentally killing the man with his first strike. He had no choice than to continue fighting for his life and killing all the old man’s servants except the last one, who managed to escape. He didn’t think about the fight too much, deciding that the old man got what he deserved for his vanity.
How could he be the son of Laius and Jocasta if their baby was murdered by some shepherd? In despair, Oedipus start searching for the last servant of the old man from the crossroads. He wanted to ask: was he the murderer or was there another road fight, so common during that times? But the servant left the city long ago, taking the last chance to know the truth with him.
Another shocking message comes with the messenger from Corinth. Oedipus father - or the man he thought was his father - is dead and Oedipus is asked to return and take the crown. Oedipus still hesitates. His father is dead but his mother isn’t and he by no means want to be a danger to her. The naive messenger tells him not to worry, because the queen of Corinth isn’t his mother by blood, the prince was adopted. The messenger once was a shepherd who himself brought baby Oedipus to the king of Corinth.
Jocasta understands first what the messenger is going to say. She rushes to Oedipus asking her husband not to ask anymore for his own life and her love. But the king is obsessed with solving the mystery and refuses to step back, ordering the messenger to continue. Jocasta goes back to her chambers in blackest despair.
The servants of Oedipus enter the room saying that they managed to find the missing servant of Laius and bring him with them. The servant enters the room - and not only he recognizes his new king as Laius’s murderer, but the messenger from Corinth as fellow shepherd!
The servant says that he didn’t know anything about the prophecy when Laius ordered him to kill his son. In the mountains he met another shepherd from the neighboring city - who is now promoted to a messenger - and gave the baby to him, asking to hide the innocent child from the king’s unexplainable rage. The shepherd from Corinth brought the baby to his king, giving him the right to decide the baby’s fate. The king didn’t have any children, so he took the baby to his palace and raised him as his own son, giving him the name Oedipus.
Now the king knows the truth. He indeed is the killer of his father Laius and the husband of his mother Jocasta. Jocasta never leaves her chambers again. She commits suicide out of shame and grief leaving her son and husband to cry over her and crave her body.
The rumors are spread that the king is the source of the curse of Thebes. He is the lover of his mother and killer of his father, he went mad from the revelation, blinding himself with Jocasta’s hairpins taken from her dead body. But then the king himself enters the hall his face covered by blood dripping from the empty eye sockets. As a king, he kept his word and punished the murderer of Laius, blinding and exiling him.
Oedipus asks to bring his son and daughters. He says his farewells to them with all the heartbreaking tenderness the father can give to his children in such a dire situation. He asks Creon to take care of them and bury Jocasta properly. Then he leaves, exiled forever, and according to his own order no one will provide him with food or shelter.