Oedipus the King
Oedipus the King also known by the Latin title
Oedipus Rex, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles
that was first performed c. 429 BCE
Link to Family Tree / Images of Stage
Cadmus- mythical founder and first king of Thebes, a city in
central Greece where the play takes place
Cadmus - Ancestor of Laius
 Misfortune
 1st citizens devoured by dragon
 Cadmus laid him dead.
 Sowed dragon’s teeth
 Tribe of giants
 5 fathers of Thebes
Oedipus- biological parents: Laius and Jocasta
 Life clouded with disaster
 Oracle- foretold his future
 Destined to kill his father and marry his mother.
 Raised as a prince of Corinth
 Thinks Polybus and Merope are his real parents
 “Could any mortal be so presumptuous as to try to thwart it?
 Who saves him? Why?
 What happens on Oedipus’ journey when he encounters his biological
 How does this fulfill the prophecy and facilitate the next step set forth
by the Oracle?
 infanticide
 patricide
 regicide
 fratricide
Riddle of the Sphinx
 Greek mythology
 Sphinx sat outside of Thebes asked
travelers a riddle.
 Failed to solve the riddle, then death
 Correct, then the Sphinx would
destroy herself.
The Riddle of the Sphinx
 "What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three
feet in the evening?“ In some accounts the word “legs” is substituted
for feet.
 What is your answer?
The Answer
"Man, who crawls in infancy, walks
upright in his prime, and leans on a cane
in old age."
 “Central from the very beginning: the
idea of paradox, of riddling
wisdom, of the one-that-is-many:
much of the meaning of the play derives
from the specifics of the poetic wording”
Focus Questions
 What is a paradox?
 What is dramatic irony?
 What does it mean to supplicate?
 What then is a suppliant?
 Craft a sentence in which you use the words supplicate and
suppliant in a sentence that shows your understanding of
these words.
 Challenge: Write a sentence using these words that also
demonstrates your understanding of the word irony.
 Paradox: Quotes
Irony versus Paradox
Dionysus- Festivals of Dionysus
 Tragedies performed in spring at the annual state religious festival
in honor of Dionysus the (god of wine and fertility)
 Contest between three playwrights- three days.
 Each playwright – one trilogy of tragedies + one comic piece
called a satyr play.
 At most three actors + chorus
Related to the word satire?
 Aeschylus
 Sophocles (Oedipus Rex)
 Euripides
 Aristophanes
 Sophocles won first prize for tragic drama defeating Aeschylus in
 Sophocles wrote over 100 plays; only 7 of his tragedies survive.
 Greek theatre was in the open air
 Performances probably lasted most of the day. Performances
were apparently open to all citizens, including women, but
evidence is scanty.
 The theatre of Dionysus at Athens held around 15,000 -17,000
Facts about the Athenian theater
 Plays were performed amid environment of “high civic
splendor” and “religious ritual”.
 Performing these plays is described as a “solemn
 Religious approach to the dramatic theme.
Facts about the Athenian theater
 Audience was familiar with plots.
 “Was taken as axiomatic that the play should tell already
established story of the legendary or heroic past.”
 Attention not held in suspense over what would happen.
 Characterization / variations
 Dramatic irony – a subtle weapon
 Drama was art form that was not a “passing curiosity” but
promoted “profound contemplation of eternal truths”. What
does that mean?
 The “unshirking” quest for truth
Read the opening scene of Oedipus.
 There are no traditional acts or scenes as we are accustomed
to seeing them in this play. Please use line number references
as you read.
1st reading task: Page 25- middle of page 31 before Oedipus
enters from the Palace
Universal aspects of theater
 “inconsistent vacillating mortals that we are…”
 “the human instinct for narrative and impersonation, for
ritualistic expression and the interpretation of the power of
natural forces…”
 What forces?
 The cycle of life and death
 The nexus of past, present, and future
 Fate and the nature of fate versus free will
Greek Theater - Masks
 All actors were male and wore
 Masks may have amplified sound
 Masks exaggerated dominant
characteristics of the role.
The Greek Chorus
 A Greek chorus chanted, danced and sang (in unison)
 Usually 15 in number
 Presents background and summary information to help the
audience follow the performance
Expresses to the audience what the main characters cannot
say - hidden fears or secrets.
Provides characters with needed insights
Comments on important themes
Reflects on the choices of characters and their validity or
Entrance and exit sign like a curtain rising or closing
Role of the Chorus
 “The attention of the audience was not
primarily to be held by the factor of
suspense or the desire to see what happens.
And this was the most fitting condition for
the art form which was to invite not a
passing curiosity but profound
contemplation of eternal truths.”
Role of the Chorus
 Standing aloof
 Unifying and commenting
 Interpreter of the drama
 We like the Chorus are both in the tragedy and spectators of
 With them we are the citizens of Thebes
 We are both in the tragedy and spectators of it
 Represent the Theban Elders in Oedipus
What makes Oedipus special?
(From the introduction in your text…)
 Prosperous
 Complacent in this prosperity
 Too confident in his sufficiency
 Too ready to take offense or impute blame when rattled by
approach of trouble
 See if you see these elements in his character as you read the
Take Notes!
 What is the problem to which Oedipus is responding?
 Who are the suppliants? For what reason and to whom are they
Take notes on the characterization of Oedipus, and specifically
watch for the use of dramatic irony.
Meet Creon brother to Jocasta and form your initial impressions of
him as a character. Always prepare to back up your inferences with
a specific detail from the text.
Watch for allusions to the gods and be prepared to paraphrase the
words of the Chorus as they sum up the scene.
Where do you see the ideas of irony and paradox emerging in the
text thus far?
What will Oedipus say next?
First, answer the comprehension questions over last night’s
reading using
Our class is #541313
Then, answer the short answer question on the half sheet.
Question: Given your understanding that dramatic irony was
used as a “subtle weapon” by Sophocles, what would Oedipus
say next? Write a paragraph (without using your book) from
the perspective of Oedipus responding to the pleas of his
people. Don’t repeat the same general idea. Include an
element of dramatic irony in your response.
 irony that "Oedipus can only fulfill his exceptional god-
ordained destiny because Oedipus is a preeminently capable
and intelligent human being.
Irony versus Paradox
Close Reading
 Dramatic irony (since we know it is Sophocles’ “subtle
Word choice
Allusions (to philosophers, to Greek culture, to other
Motifs (patterns)
What have we seen so far?
 the “vile Enchantress”
 Allusion to metaphor of a ship
 Pythian house of Apollo = Oracle at Delphi
 Motif of purification
 Motif of light and darkness
“None suffers more than I… my heart bears the weight…”
“Their plight concerns me now, more than my life.”
“I will start afresh and bring everything into the light.”
Phoebus = Apollo
Film Rendition
What is different about how the play is shown in this film
Pay close attention to the film’s representation of The Chorus.
What is the role of The Chorus in the opening scenes?
Oedipus: Irony
Oedipus has declared his devotion to finding the killer.
Yet, the audience knows what he does not know.
He is the killer!
As we learned from the video, irony is the juxtaposition of
intended meaning and unintended meaning, or the interplay
of opposites when the audience knows that what a character
“knows” to be true is the opposite of what is true.
Irony is not the same as “a bummer”.
 When a character’s intent is the opposite of the outcome, this is
irony, but this is not the same as what is unfortunate.
 Alannis Morrisette’s song “Ironic” would be more aptly titled
“Isn’t it a bummer?”
Lyrics to “Ironic”
 Two seemingly contradictory things that coexist
 The “puzzling wisdom” present in Oedipus
Oedipus: Paradox
“Not merely from a fellow-creature will I clear this taint, but
from myself.”
 I see both irony and paradox in this statement because both
are true. As he “clears this taint” by avenging the death of
Laius, he will also “purify” himself. This is not exactly what he
is saying, but the audience knows this because they know he
is the killer.
“I will start afresh and bring everything into the light.”
 The juxtaposition of light and darkness may contribute to the
language of paradox. Watch for this as you read.
Allusion to Ship of State
 “Surely there is no strength in wall or ship, where men are lacking and
no life breathes within them.”
 Ship= community (Remember the relationship between the individual,
the philosopher, and the community was an idea that was important to
Plato, especially given the demise of his mentor Socrates.
 The ship of state is a famous and oft-cited metaphor put forth by Plato
in book VI of the Republic. It likens the governance of a city-state to the
command of a naval vessel - and ultimately argues that the only men fit
to be captain of this ship are philosopher kings, benevolent men with
absolute power who have access to the Form of the Good.
(Yes, this is Wikipedia. One thing it does well is explain allusions in a
concise manner and I know that this is accurate.)
Motif of Light and Darkness
“I will start afresh and bring everything into the light.”
“Night’s agony grows into tortured day. Zeus, let thy thunders
crush, thy lightning slay.”
What is moral engineering
 What does it mean to be moral?
 What is engineering?
 What might it mean to “engineer” morals?
 What might be problematic about “engineering” morality?
What is moral engineering?
 Moral engineering is the product/intent of a government
or some other organized group/system/organization to
bring/engineer/develop/lay the ground works
for/design/direct the moral education/course/
definition that a society takes.
 In the case of Greek Drama, the dramatists worked hand in
hand with the government, doing their part to produce
strong, moral citizens in order to produce a morally strong
Tragedy & Moral Engineering
 Through tragedy, they showed the audience that all of us were
capable of being instrumental in bringing about our own downfall.
 “ I think they used people of consequence to have the fall from
happiness, etc., that much more frightening. If that could happen
to a rich and powerful man, what hope do I have? Well, if you
choose to steer your life away from excessive pride and arrogance
and realize that your actions can precipitate your demise, maybe
you can avoid developing a tragic flaw and avoid a catastrophe.”
Moral Engineering
The design and construction of a society in which “moral”
behavior is facilitated.
Link to video on Education Portal:
Symbols of Supplication
Who are the supplicants and why have they come?
 Why did the people carry boughs to the twin altars of Pallas?
Why did they place sacred embers of divination beside the
river of Ismenus? How does the presentation of boughs to
Oedipus impact the setting of the opening scene?
 What is divination?
 Harry Potter class?
What makes Oedipus special?
(From the introduction in your text…)
 Prosperous
 Complacent in this prosperity
 Too confident in his sufficiency
 Too ready to take offense or impute blame when rattled by
approach of trouble
Think about these elements as you begin to analyze Oedipus.
What Makes Oedipus a Tragic Hero?
 In what ways does he fit the definition of a tragic hero that
you read when you researched Aristotle’s ideas about the
tragic hero?
Elements of Tragedy
 Downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through some
combination of hubris, fate, and the will of the gods.
 Tragic hero encounters limits of human frailty: flaws of
reason and hubris.
 The gods (through oracles, prophets, fate), or nature factor
into the conflict.
Aristotle on Oedipus
 in his Poetics, Aristotle considered Oedipus the King to be the
tragedy best matched his prescription for how drama should
be made
 Tragedy
Aristotle – The Poetics
 The Poetics is in part Aristotle's response to his teacher, Plato,
who argues in The Republic that poetry is representation of
mere appearances and is thus misleading and morally suspect.
Aristotle's approach to the phenomenon of poetry is quite
different from Plato's. Fascinated by the intellectual challenge
of forming categories and organizing them into coherent
systems, Aristotle approaches literary texts as a natural
scientist, carefully accounting for the features of each
"species" of text. Rather than concluding that poets should
be banished from the perfect society, as does Plato, Aristotle
attempts to describe the social function, and the ethical
utility, of art.
 Aristotle says that the tragic hero should have a flaw and/or
make some mistake (hamartia). The hero need not die at
the end, but he / she must undergo a change in fortune. In
addition, the tragic hero may achieve some revelation or
recognition (anagnorisis--"knowing again" or "knowing
back" or "knowing throughout" ) about human fate, destiny,
and the will of the gods.
Aristotle / Poetics
the artist gives shape to the universal, not the accidental. Poetry,
Aristotle says, is "a more philosophical and serious business than
history; for poetry speaks more of universals, history of
(catharsis): tragedy first raises (it does not create) the emotions of
pity and fear, then purifies or purges them.
Aristotle / Poetics
 The tragic hero is "a [great] man who is neither a paragon of virtue and justice
nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or
wickedness but because of some mistake.”
 a) a great man: "one of those who stand in great repute and prosperity, like
Oedipus and Thyestes: conspicuous men from families of that kind." The hero
is neither a villain nor a model of perfection but is basically good and decent.
 b) "mistake" (hamartia): has also been translated as "flaw" or as "error." The
great man falls through--though not entirely because of--some weakness of
character, some moral blindness, or error. We should note that the gods also
are in some sense responsible for the hero's fall.
 One of the most difficult concepts introduced in the Poetics is
catharsis, a word which has come into everyday language
even though scholars are still debating its actual meaning in
Aristotle's text. Catharsis is most often defined as the
"purging" of the emotions of pity and fear that occurs when
we watch a tragedy. What is actually involved in this purging
is not clear. It is not as simple as getting an object lesson in
how to behave; the tragic event does not "teach us a lesson"
as do certain public-information campaigns on drunk driving
or drug abuse.
 Hans-Georg Gadamer's attempt to describe catharsis in his
study Truth and Method can serve both as a working definition
and an introduction into the problem of establishing any
determinate definition of this elusive concept:
 What is experienced in such an excess of tragic suffering is
something truly common. The spectator recognizes himself
[or herself] and his [or her] finiteness in the face of the power
of fate. What happens to the great ones of the earth has
exemplary significance. . . .To see that "this is how it is" is a
kind of self-knowledge for the spectator, who emerges with
new insight from the illusions in which he [or she], like
everyone else, lives. (132)
Hubris and Hamartia
 Often said to be his "hubris/hybris" (both spellings are
acceptable). What is hubris? NOT really "pride"-- a poor
translation. Rather, it is the quality of not keeping awareness of
your human limitations: the opposite of sophrosyne (=
"moderation"). Compare the meaning of the saying of Thales
inscribed above the temple of Apollo at Delphi: gnothi sauton:
"know thyself" = "know that you are not a god, that you have
human limitations"
 hamartia = "error“
Hamartia and Hubris
Fate or Free Will?
 The idea that attempting to avoid an oracle is the very thing which
brings it about is a common motif in many Greek myths.
 The degree to which a Oedipus controls his own fate is a subject
of debate. Do the gods predetermine his fate or does the oracle
simple predict it through an omniscience that comes from
knowing him so well.
 Oedipus makes choices which makes it pity and fear= catharsis!
 He does not have a choice in his own circumstances but he
certainly does choose his own actions.
 “A fig for divination” (49).
 “Where are you now, divine prognostications!” (51).
 “Chance rules our lives, and the fortune is all unknown. Best
live as best we may, from day to day” (52).
Ship of State
 It comes up again….
Jocasta page 50:
“We are afraid, seeing our master-pilot distraught.”
Think about how this relates to Aristotle’s concept of the tragic
hero. Oedipus is a man who is highly regarded by this people,
someone whose fall would likely inspire catharsis.
Pride as a Theme
 “Pride breeds the tyrant”
 “The woman, with more than woman’s pride, is shamed by
my low origin. I am the child of Fortune, the giver of good,
and I shall not be shamed.”
 “O Oedipus, that proud head!” (59).
 How are the themes of pride and fate intertwined?
 Light and darkness
 Seeing and blindness
 Purification
“O Light! May I never look on you again, revealed as I am,
sinful in my begetting, sinful in marriage, sinful in the
shedding of blood!”
“Show me the man whose happiness was anything more than
illusion followed by disillusion” (59).
“Yesterday my morning of light, now my night of endless
darkness!” (59).
 How does the theme of purification relate to the idea of
It is with this theme that we begin the last section of the play
from the words of the Attendant:
 Not all the waters of Ister, the waters of Phasis, can wash the
dwelling clean of the foulness within, clean of the deliberate
acts that soon shall be known, of all the horrible acts most
horrible, willfully chosen” (59).
 b) "recognition" (anagnorisis or "knowing again" or
"knowing back" or "knowing throughout" ): a change from
ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate. For
example, Oedipus kills his father in ignorance and then learns
of his true relationship to the King of Thebes.
 Recognition scenes in tragedy are of some horrible event or
secret, while those in comedy usually reunite long-lost
relatives or friends. A plot with tragic reversals and
recognitions best arouses pity and fear.
 a) "reversal" (peripeteia): occurs when a situation seems to
developing in one direction, then suddenly "reverses" to
another. For example, when Oedipus first hears of the death
of Polybus (his supposed father), the news at first seems
good, but then is revealed to be disastrous.
 c) "suffering" (pathos): Also translated as "a calamity," the
third element of plot is "a destructive or painful act." The
English words "sympathy," "empathy," and "apathy"
(literally, absence of suffering) all stem from this Greek
Quote from a Critic
 “Let us pause to note the king's tragic virtue. Though
Oedipus is a man from the ancient myths, Sophocles has him
speak with the fervor of an Athenian of his own time, one for
whom the city is an object of religious devotion. Were it not
for Oedipus' intellectual acuity and restlessness, and his care
for the people, the tragedy would not unfold; he would never
learn that he himself was the cause of the plague. Nor should
we wriggle out of the difficulty by attributing to Oedipus a
haughty overvaluing of human knowledge, a refusal to submit
to the wisdom of the gods. Here at least we learn that
Oedipus has admitted being stumped and has sent to the
oracle of Apollo at Delphi to find out what he can.”
Modern Day Tragic Heroes
 Willy Loman (The Death of a Salesman)
 Troy Maxson (Fences)
The Psychology of Oedipus
 With a partner, your task is to trace Oedipus’ tragic path by
identifying and evaluating the key choices he makes in the
play. (This includes things he says). For each passage from
the text, label the “moment” with an adjective that describes
his emotions or his state of mind. Consider not only the main
idea of what Oedipus is saying, but also his diction. What
words in particular stand out to you and why? Also consider
how the use of allusions, elements of paradox and irony, and
the connotation of particular words contribute to the layers
of meaning in the text.
Links to Go with Tragedy Terms BYOD
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