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Unit 2, Lecture 2: Oedipus the
The Price of Knowledge in
Oedipus the King
Plot and Theme of Oedipus
• Oedipus as the story of a man who solves a
mystery only to destroy himself
• Fate, self-will, and honest love of truth work
together to produce a dramatic disaster which I’ll
examine through
– Analysis of plot structure (exposition, rising action,
climax, resolution) and
– Application of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy
• This story of a man who is destroyed through his own
quest for knowledge exhibits a common Sophoclean
theme: the tragic self-understanding of a hero causes
him to rise above the forces which have brought him low
A look at the major characters
• Oedipus, a “detective” out to solve the mystery of
Thebe’s plague: he believes in the intellect’s conquering
power and who exhibits “excess” in two areas
– His will to remove all obstacles
– His hunger to solve all riddles
• Tiresias, the blind prophet whose direct knowledge of
truth convinces him that knowledge is sorrow.
• Jocasta, the wife of Oedipus who is an ally of Tiresias in
letting “sleeping mysteries lie
• Creon, brother of Jocasta who, falsely accused of
usurping Oedipus, ironically winds up as king in his place
• The Chorus: the Theban citizens who trust in Oedipus’s
capacity to deliver them while fearing his tendency to
Plot Structure of Oedipus:
• Introducing the conflict
• Introducing Oedipus’s Character and History
– A man of brilliant intellect who has delivered a city through
solving a mystery (44-5)
– A man of action (82)
– A man of impatience and self-will (98-105)
– A man of great pride (147—155)
• The parodos (entry of chorus) expresses meaning of the
– A hunger for rescue
– A plea to the gods
• The parodos prepares the way for the episodes of the
rising action in which conflict and character will produce
a series of “complications”
Rising Action: lst and 2nd
• “Solution” of plague’s mysterious cause only gives rise to
the first complication: who killed former King?
– Oedipus’s demand and Oedipus’s curse
– Attempted solution: Call in Tiresias
– Gives rise to second complication
• Why is Tiresias saying these terrible things about me?
– Tiresias is reluctant (“How terrible—to see then truth/when the
truth is only pain to him who sees’ [358])”
– Accusatory: “You are the murderer whom you seek! (413)”
– Riddling: “This day will bring your birth and your destruction”
(499) [See also 516-525)
– Attempted solution (1): a “conspiracy between Creon and
– Attempted solution (2): Prophecies do not need to be feared
• As we shall see, this leads to a third complication.
Rising Action (Cont.)
• Who did Oedipus kill at the triple
– What Oedipus fears
– What Oedipus reveals
– How Jocasta tries to reassure
• First stasimon:
– What the chorus hates:
– What the chorus dreads
Rising Action: Complications
• A new hope and a new mystery
– A messenger brings tragic news
– Sad news leads to a joyful hope
– The latest hope gives way to the final mystery
• Who are Oedipus’s parents?
– The mystery has changed
– The protagonist’s character is fully revealed
– The climax is now prepared for
Climax: The Truth at Last
• The Corinthian messenger once took a baby
from the hands of a Theban Shepherd
• That Shepherd is the one Oedipus has sent for
• The will-to-power has been purified into a will to
• The reversal of his fortune coincides with the
recognition of the truth
– Aristotle on “peripeteia”
The Resolution
• Jocasta’s death Oedipus’s self-blinding
– Truth for him is a darkness leading to darkness
– Light not needed because everything he sees is now a source of
– But beyond the horror of what he finds, is the dignity of his
courageous recognition. Purified by his sufferings, Oedipus’s
speeches at the end of the play cause us to think more of his
courage than his curse.
• And as the chorus says, “count no man happy till he dies’
we experience to the full the emotions of “pity and fear”
that Aristotle says is the aim of all worthy tragedy.