Greek Tragedy: Contemplation
of the Mystery of Undeserved Suffering
(497-406 BC): treasurer, general, friend of Pericles, author of over 100 plays,
winner of the tragedy competition more than 20 times, now an old man.
Oedipus Rex (425 BC): In the midst of the
war with Sparta, just after the death of Pericles, plague has broken out
in besieged Athens. The great experiment in democracy appears to be on
the brink of failure.
The Oedipus Myth:
easily 1000 years old. The play is set in this ancient time period. Why does
Sophocles choose to dramatize this myth to comment on the situation in
Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars?
Mysteries suffuse the situation at the outset of the action:
- Why did the Delphic Oracle lay such a terrible fate on Laios
- What have the Thebans done to deserve the
terrible plague which has descended upon them?
- Who can help them? The priests? (What would they
do to propitiate the gods?)
- No, Oedipus will help, the champion of reason,
the hero who liberated Thebes from the Sphinx. What
is the symbolic meaning of this victory?
But even after Creon has reported the Oracle's
words and Oedipus has put his plan into motion, the mystery deepens:
- Why was there no search for Laios'
murderer at the time of his death?
- Why such a long wait before renewing the search?
- Has Jocasta never
spoken with her husband about her previous life?
Is Oedipus' confidence in his ability to use his
reason to solve this new riddle a case of hubris- the kind of
reckless pride and arrogance that might bring down the wrath of the gods?
Irony is at the center of tragedy.
Tragedy celebrates ironic truth. The play itself is built on irony.
Everything that Oedipus says has a double meaning: as he understands the
truth and as the audience does. For example, in the Prologue, Oedipus
declares, "Then once more I must bring what is dark to light." (9)
Define dramatic irony.
- Each scene also builds to a climactic moment of
dramatic irony called perepeteia:
a sudden and unexpected reversal of circumstances.
- The tragedy itself builds to a final revelation
of ironic truth when the whole audience will be possessed by the spirit of
Dionysus. This moment is called catharsis.
- As we read Scene 1 and then Scene 2, be on the look out for dramatic irony. Call out, "Ewww!" when you hear a line dripping with dramatic
irony. (Underline!) When we reach the moment of perepeteia, call out,
"Oh my God!" (Big * in margins.)
Scene 1: The Soothsayer's Prophecy
Oedipus come up with a reasonable explanation for Teiresias'
accusation? (Tableaux Photograph)
- What is Oedipus' plan to root
out the truth? (How has he responded quite rationally to the crisis? Even so,
have his actions done anything to dispel the mysteries beneath the surface of
- What effect does Sophocles' use of dramatic
irony have on our impressions of Oedipus?
- Who is Teiresias?
Why does he say that there is no help in
the truth? How does Oedipus treat
the blind prophet even before his shocking revelation?
- Identify the moment of perepeteia. (Define perepeteia).
- Why does Oedipus get so angry
with him? When does his anger cross the line?
- Instead of hunting for a murderer, who is
Oedipus hunting now?
ODE 1: The Choral Response:
is the chorus'
response to Teiresias' shocking allegations?
does the chorus use to describe the revenge they desire against the killer of
do they use to describe their bewilderment at Teiresias'
does the chorus justify their rejection
of Teiresias' prophecy? Have they lost faith in
Scene 2: Jocasta’s Comfort
ODE 2: How does the chorus respond to
- Is Oedipus' accusation of Creon rational? (28-29)
- How does Creon defend himself?
Is his rationale convincing? (31-32) Why does this defense infuriate
Oedipus? (33) What would he have done if Jocasta
had not made her entrance?
- How does Jocasta try
to reassure Oedipus? (Identify Perepeteia #2)
- What details of Jocasta's speech does Oedipus hear, and what details does he ignore?
- Dramatic Irony in Scene 2
- How does Oedipus' behavior change once the evidence starts to point at him?
Scene 3: The Messenger from Corinth
Scene 4: Recognition: The Shepherd at the Mystery's Center
is the chorus'
comment on this devastating turn of events?
the relative calm at the outset of the scene: what is Jocasta doing?
news" does the messenger bring? What is strange about Oedipus'
reaction to the news?(48-50)
does Jocasta comfort Oedipus when he says that he still
fears fulfilling the second part of the prophecy- sleeping with his mother.(51) Notice the disturbing irony of the moment. What is
Sophocles doing to our notions of right and wrong?
#3. (51-54) What makes this moment a classic perepeteia?
does Oedipus learn the origin of his
handicap? What did the shepherd who saved the infant Oedipus also witness?
does Oedipus understand Jocasta's disapproval of his search for the identity
of his true parents? What does Oedipus mean when he calls himself a child of Luck?
does the chorus celebrate in Ode III? How is
this celebration deeply ironic? What does it indicate about the nature of the
does Sophocles choose to have the gory
violence occur off stage? What is the effect of hearing the messenger's
description of what he has seen rather than actually presenting it on
and why has Jocasta killed herself? Would Oedipus
have killed her? Why? (68-69)
doesn't Oedipus kill himself? Instead he blinds
himself. Was that in the prophecy?(68-69)
is the theatrical impact of Oedipus' entrance? Is this the moment of catharsis?(70) Which pain is worse, the physical or emotional? (71)
- Has Oedipus
been destroyed? How is he already adjusting to being blind? (72)
he have been better off never having been
does Oedipus mean when he describes his deeds as 'more primal than
sin itself'? (73)
does Oedipus ask Creon for exile? Why does
he want to live? Is he constructing his own fate here?(77)
the very end of the play, two new characters enter, Antigone and Ismene,
Oedipus' daughters. What is the impact of seeing Oedipus' children for the
first time? What kind of lives will these two lead? (77)
is the Chorus' final
verdict upon the action? The choragos
call on all of us to never take good fortune for granted because what happened
to Oedipus could happen to us. Is that Sophocles' final word as well? (81)