Oedipus with the bodies of Jocasta and his sons, painting by Oscar-Pierre Mathieu (1871, private collection)
AuthorLucius Annaeus Seneca
Set inThebes
Publication date
1st century
Publication placeRome
TextOedipus at Wikisource

Oedipus is a fabula crepidata (Roman tragic play with Greek subject) of c. 1061 lines of verse that was written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca at some time during the 1st century AD. It is a retelling of the story of Oedipus, which is better known through the play Oedipus Rex by the Athenian playwright, Sophocles. It is written in Latin.



Act One

The play opens with a fearful Oedipus lamenting a vicious plague which is affecting Thebes, the city over which he rules. People are dying in such huge numbers that there are not enough of the living to ensure that each of the victims is cremated. He also mentions a prophecy that he had received from Apollo before he came to Thebes that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He had thus fled the kingdom of his father Polybus. However, Oedipus is so disturbed by what is occurring in Thebes that he even considers returning to his home city. But Jocasta strengthens his resolution, and he stays.

Act Two

Creon returns from the Oracle at Delphi with the instruction that Thebes is required to avenge the death of the former King Laius if the citywide plague is to end. Oedipus utters an ironic curse on the yet unrevealed killer, wishing for him "the crimes that I have fled from". The prophet Tiresias appears and is asked by Oedipus to make clear the meaning of the oracle. Tiresias then proceeds to carry out a sacrifice, which contains a number of horrific signs. As Tiresias does not have the name of King Laius' killer, he proposes to summon Laius' spirit back from Erebus to learn the identity of the guilty one.

Act Three

Creon returns from seeing Tiresias after he has spoken to Laius' ghost, but is unwilling to reveal to Oedipus the killer's name. Oedipus threatens him, and then Creon relents. He says Laius accuses the king of having blood on his hands, and who "has defiled his father's marriage-bed". He goes on to say that Laius promises the plague will cease if the king is expelled from Thebes. Creon advises Oedipus to abdicate, but Oedipus believes that he has invented this story, along with Tiresias, in order to seize his throne. Despite Creon's protestations of innocence, Oedipus has him arrested.

Act Four

Oedipus is troubled by the faint memory of a man whom he had killed on the road for behaving arrogantly before him while Oedipus was travelling to Thebes. An elderly messenger comes from Corinth to tell Oedipus that his father King Polybus has died and for him to come and take his throne. Oedipus does not want to return as he still fears the prophecy that he will marry his mother. The messenger then tells him that Corinth's queen is not his mother, and that he was given Oedipus as a baby on mount Cithaeron. Oedipus then learns, after threatening the shepherd that gave him away, that he is in fact Jocasta's son.

Act Five

A messenger relays the news that Oedipus contemplated suicide and wanted his body flung to wild beasts; but then Oedipus decided that his crime deserved something even more horrible, on account of the suffering Thebes has endured. He resolved to find a slow death for himself. He craved a punishment in which he would neither "join the number of the dead nor dwell among the living". The messenger goes on to explain how Oedipus tore out his eyes with his hands. The chorus question fate, each person's "commanding thread of life", and then hear Oedipus entering. He appears with both eyes removed and is confronted by Jocasta. She realises from his action that she, too, must punish herself for her crimes. While on stage, she takes his sword and kills herself with it.

The role of the chorus

The chorus at the end of Act 1 give an account of the plague, and its development. At the end of Act 2 they give an account of Bacchus, who was the patron god of Thebes. At the end of Act 3 they recount earlier horrific occurrences connected with Thebes. At the end of Act 4, however, they turn more reflective and praise living a life along "a safe middle course" rather than pursuing ambition. They therefore relate the story of Icarus as a parable of a person who flew too high. They do, however, specify that no one is able to alter their fate. This second point is made much more forcefully in their speech in Act 5, where they stress that neither God nor prayer can alter the life that is predestined for the individual. (This view of fate is contrary to the teachings of Stoicism, which hold that fate and divinity are the same. Also, the view of fate as arbitrary, rather than rational and benign, is not part of the Stoic cosmological view.)[1]

Comparison with Sophocles' Oedipus Rex

Translations into English


During the English Renaissance in Elizabethan England, Oedipus, along with Seneca's other plays, was regarded as a model of classical drama.[6] The translator Alexander Neville regarded the play as a work of moral instruction. He said of the play: "mark thou ... what is meant by the whole course of the History: and frame thy lyfe free from such mischiefes".[7] The influential early 20th Century French Theatre critic Antonin Artaud considered Seneca's Oedipus and Thyestes models for his Theatre of Cruelty, originally speaking and writing about Seneca's use of 'the plague' in Oedipus in a famous lecture on 'Theatre and the Plague' given at the Sorbonne (April 6, 1933) and later revised and printed in "Nouvelle Revue Française" (no. 253, 1 Oct. 1934).

In recent times, A. J. Boyle in his book Tragic Seneca: An Essay in the Theatrical Tradition (1997) rejects the criticism of T. S. Eliot that Oedipus, like the other plays of Seneca, is simplistically peopled by stock characters. He says that "In the Oedipus, for example, it is hard to name any stock character except the messenger."[8] The play, particularly with its theme of one's powerlessness against stronger forces, has been described as being as "relevant today in a world filled with repeated horrors against those who are innocent, as it was in ancient times".[9] In 2008, translator Frederick Ahl wrote that in comparison with Sophocles's Oedipus the King, Seneca's version of the myth "is today among the least commonly read of ancient tragedies, largely because the scholarly world regards it as a dull and vastly inferior work".[10]


Although it is debated whether the play was written for performance in Antiquity,[11] it has been successfully staged since the Renaissance and music for the choruses by Andrea Gabrieli survives from a 1585 production.[12]

On stage

In the cinema

The director Ovliakuli Khodzhakuli made his cinematic debut in 2004 with the Kirghiz language film, Edip, which is based on Seneca's play. Khodzhakuli makes a cameo appearance in the film as King Laius. The principal actors are Anna Mele as Oedipus, and Dzhamilia Sydykbaeva as Jocasta. For a review of the film, see "Ovliakuli Khodzhakuli: Oedipus (Edip), 2004". Kinokultura.com.

Notes and references

  1. ^ Robert John Sklenar (2006). "Seneca, Oedipus 980-993: How Stoic a Chorus?". Camws.org.
  2. ^ Seneca's Oedipus - Review of Seneca's Oedipus
  3. ^ CASE 4
  4. ^ E. F. Watling's Introduction to Seneca: Four Tragedies and Octavia
  5. ^ "Search | RSC Performances | OED198808 - Oedipus Rex | Shakespeare Birthplace Trust". collections.shakespeare.org.uk. Retrieved 2017-07-26.
  6. ^ The Wordsworth Dictionary of Shakespeare by Charles Boyce
  7. ^ Quoted in E. F. Watling's Introduction to Seneca: Four Tragedies and Octavia
  8. ^ Hanna M. Roisman (2003). "Teiresias, the seer of Oedipus the King: Sophocles' and Seneca's versions" (PDF). Leeds International Classical Studies. 2 (5). Leeds.ac.uk. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2003-12-04.
  9. ^ About the Book - Oedipus of Lucius Annaeus Seneca - Translated and Adapted by Michael Rutenberg, 1999
  10. ^ Ahl, Frederick (2008). Two Faces of Oedipus: Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus and Seneca's Oedipus. Cornell University Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0801473975.
  11. ^ Erasmo, Mario. Roman Tragedy: Theatre to Theatricality. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004: pp. 135-7
  12. ^ Printed 1588 and edited by Leo Schrade as La représentation d’Edippo tiranno au Teatro olimpico (Paris, 1960). An excerpt is here.
  13. ^ L210
  14. ^ Liukkonen, Petri. "Ted Hughes". Books and Writers (kirjasto.sci.fi). Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 10 October 2008.
  15. ^ Williams, David (1987). Peter Brook : A Theatrical Casebook. London: Methuen. pp. 115–134. ISBN 0413157008.
  16. ^ Staging Oedipus - Oedipus of Lucius Annaeus Seneca - Translated and Adapted by Michael Rutenberg, 1999
  17. ^ Talkin' Broadway Off-Broadway - Oedipus - 6/12/05
  18. ^ BAC s season: Seneca's Oedipus
  19. ^ "Moravian College and Touchston". Lehighvalleylive.com.
  20. ^ Capturing the anguish of fate

Further reading