Oedipus Rex Beat Sheet: A Plot Guide for Writers

Oedipus Rex, written by the great dramatist Sophocles circa 496-406 BC, is the Greek tragedy which Aristotle considered the best. This beat sheet looks at how the classic play’s plot fits Blake Harmon’s Story Circle plot structure, bringing us from the familiar through discovery and back to where we began—changing everything we thought we knew in the process.

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Act 1: Setup

Beat 1 – You

The protagonist, Oedipus, is the revered king of the ancient Greek city of Thebes. He left his birthplace and came to Thebes to escape a prophecy that he would kill his father, Polybus, and marry his mother. He ascended the throne after answering a riddle posed by the Sphinx that would destroy anyone who could not answer it.

Oedipus rules Thebes alongside his wife, Jocasta – widow of Laius – and her brother, Creon, who is happy to share in the power without the title of king.

Beat 2 – Need

A mysterious plague has settled over the city of Thebes, causing death and famine. Oedipus sends Creon to the oracle to learn what can be done. Creon returns to share the news that the plague will be lifted only after the murderer of Laius is discovered and driven from the land. The oracle claims that the murderer is still living in Thebes.

Act 2: Confrontation

Beat 3 – Go

Oedipus invokes a curse upon the murderer: “May he wear out his life in misery to miserable doom.” This promise and the need to discover the individual makes it essential to take action. The first step is for Oedipus to go and learn more about Laius’ death.

Beat 4 – Search

Oedipus begins the search for the murderer by commanding that everyone with knowledge of Laius’ death must come forward. He promises that no one will be punished, no matter what they share.

Teiresias, an old blind prophet, tells Oedipus that he himself is the pollution in the land: “You are the murderer of the kind whose murderer you seek.”

Jocasta and others share what they know about Laius’s murder. Some of the details differ from what Oedipus has heard before. One peasant in particular, a survivor of the attack that killed Laius, seems to be the key to the truth. A search for him is undertaken.

Beat 5 – Find

While waiting for the shepherd to be found, a messenger arrives with the sorry news that Oedipus’s father, Polybus, has died a natural death. Oedipus is elated, knowing that while some of the details of Laius’ death point to him as the killer, it cannot be him because his father has just passed many miles away.

There’s still the problem of the plague, but Oedipus takes satisfaction in knowing he has not fulfilled the prophecy told before his birth.

Beat 6 – Take

The shepherd arrives with a story that differs in one key detail from the one recalled by Jocasta: It was not a band of robbers but a single robber who struck Laius dead. As the shepherd relates more details of the murder, Oedipus grows more concerned as he realizes that he is the one who killed the former king in retaliation for Laius first striking him.

This news is horrible to take, but Oedipus holds on to his assurance that he was justified in killing the king.

But not for long. The shepherd reveals that King Laius had a son. To keep the baby from growing up to fulfill the dire prophecy, Laius damaged the tendons in the baby’s feet and instructed the shepherd to leave him to die on a mountain. But the shepherd gave the baby to Polybus instead.

Act 3: Resolution

Beat 7 – Return

Oedipus realizes he has not escaped the prophecy. Instead, he has been returned to his fate by learning that he killed his father. Jocasta is also horrified—she immediately knows that she is Oedipus’ mother and rushes from the room.

Beat 8 – Change

It takes only moments for Oedipus to comprehend that he has married his mother. He goes to find her, discovers that she’s hung herself, and uses the pins on her brooches to pierce his own eyes so that “they will never see the crime I have committed or had done upon me!”

Then, he begs Creon to care for his young daughters, knowing that his sons will find their way in the world. Finally, Oedipus insists on being treated as he had promised to treat the murderer: He will be cast out of Thebes to wander on his own.

With Oedipus and Jocasta’s lives and happiness destroyed, the Chorus ends the play by saying: “Count no mortal happy till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain.”

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