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Title: Oedipus the King Author: Sophocles Pub. Date: 430 BC Genre: Tragedy Biographical info about the author: Sophocles was born in Colonus in about 493 B.C. and died in 406 B.C. He lived through times in Athens of both extreme prowess after the Persian Wars and of decline after the Peloponnesian Wars. Sophocles was clearly a prolific playwright, credited for over 120 plays. He participated in many drama competitions, including the Festival of Dionysus, which he won. Sophocles was highly influenced by Homer, keeping with the concept of looking backward to Greece's history for inspiration during the Classical Period in which Sophocles lived. He studied under the playwright Aeschylus whom he beat in a drama contest. Sophocles was active in Athenian politics and culture as a diplomat, a general, and a priest. He became Treasurer of the Dalian Confederation and collected taxes from states ruled by Athens. He was a general in multiple wars and conducted negotiations in the Peloponnesian War. Of his 120 plays, only 7 complete tragedies survived. He has won many awards as a notable playwright and an important part of Athenian history. Historical information about the literary era: In this time in Athens, a plague caused major suffering around the time of the Peloponnesian War. This plague is reflected in the setting of Oedipus Rex and the plague of Thebes. In terms of literary styles of the era, the Classical Period involved looking into the past for inspiration, namely to authors like Homer who wrote the first epic poem. This period evolved from music and dance from ceremonies honoring Dionysus in Athens. This period featured drama and tragedy, a genre developed by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Comedy also evolved in this period, and a notable Comic was Menander. Most works in this era feature economy of words, direct expression, subtlety of thought, and attention to form. Characteristics of the Genre: A tragedy includes a tragic hero who has characteristics such as noble status, a tragic flaw or hamartia, and an inflated ego or hubris. He usually commits an unintentional crime and later takes responsibility for his actions. He then undergoes a reversal or fall, often causing him to make a discovery on his metaphorical or physical quest. The audience reading/watching a tragedy will undergo catharsis and experience fear, pity, and awe. Some common motifs of classical tragedies like Oedipus Rex include savior versus destroyer, blindness versus sight, the role of the gods, the search for truth, and wisdom gained through suffering. Plot Summary: In the opening scene, the people of Thebes gather around Oedipus at his altar and have the priest request Oedipus's aid. The land is barren and the death toll is unbelievable due to the plague. Oedipus vows to save the city by whatever means necessary. He has sent his brother-in-law Creon to the Delphic Oracle to hear from the gods the way to protect the people of Thebes and eliminate the plague. He returns with a message from Apollo that to rid the land of the plague, the murderer of Laius must be discovered and killed, and that the murderer is in the city at present. Oedipus promises his people that he will personally drive out the murderer, not knowing that it was he who did it. Oedipus next consults the blind prophet Tiresias. Tiresias can see the truth but chooses to keep it from Oedipus, knowing that it will only bring more pain. Oedipus, in his recklessness, insults the respected prophet and accuses him of the murder. This brings Tiresias to exclaim the true prophecy that Oedipus is the murderer. Oedipus disregards this entirely and then goes on to accuse Creon and Tiresias of conspiracy. Before Tiresias leaves he reveals the full prophecy, that the murderer is the son and husband to the same woman, an unspeakable sin. Oedipus argues viciously with Creon, the brother of his wife Jocasta. She reassures Oedipus that no prophecies come true because the prophecy that Laius would be killed by his son was not fulfilled. She believes that her son died in the forest immediately after birth. She recalls that Laius was killed by thieves at a three way crossroads on his way from the Delphic Oracle. Oedipus is weary of this story as it sounds familiar to him, and he prods Jocasta to describe more of it to him. As she does, he realizes that it was he who murdered Laius on the road in a fit of rage and self-defense. Oedipus explains that he was searching for truth behind a rumor he had heard about his birth and that he was not the son of the king and queen of Corinth. At the oracle he was told his fate, that he would murder his father and marry his mother. A messenger tells Oedipus that he was not the birth child of Polybus and Merope, the king and queen of Corinth, and that a shepherd had brought Oedipus to them when he was an infant. Oedipus tracks down this shepherd and questions him despite Jocasta's warnings. When the shepherd arrives Jocasta leaves, fearing the truth of her situation. Oedipus pressures the shepherd and threatens him, causing him to reveal that the baby that was brought to Corinth was the son of Laius and that Laius and Jocasta were trying to get rid of him for fear that the prophecy of Laius's murder by the hands of his son would come true. Oedipus deduces that he indeed was the child of Laius and Jocasta and that he was also the murderer of Laius. Jocasta hangs herself in her bedroom upon piecing together the truth. Oedipus, in despair, gauges his eyes out with her pins. Oedipus asks for exile and for Creon to care for Oedipus's children. Creon obliges and takes the throne as king of Thebes. Name 1. Oedipus Role in the Story 1. King of Thebes 2. Priest 2. Priest of Zeus, messenger for the people 3. Creon 3. Brother of Jocasta, next King of Thebes 4. Chorus/Leader 4. Elders of Thebes 5. Tiresias 5. Blind prophet 6. Jocasta 6. Queen of Thebes, Oedipus's mother and wife 7. Messenger 7. Bearer of news 8. Shepherd 8. Witness, catalyst Significance 1. Oedipus is the central character and tragic hero of the play. He serves as the protagonist. He is simultaneously his own and his city's savior and destroyer. His pursuit for the truth and his foretold fate lead to his downfall as well as Jocasta's. 2. The role of the Priest of Zeus is to unravel Oedipus's flaws to the audience. He brings bad tidings to Oedipus and sets the stage for the tragedy, Oedipus's position of power, and Oedipus's impulsiveness. 3. Creon serves as a foil to Oedipus and acts as the voice of reason in many cases. His calmness highlights Oedipus's urgency and recklessness. 4. The Chorus and Leader argue both points of view when discussion scenes. They highlight different aspects of the plot and can progress the plot through foreshadowing and characterization. They contribute to the audience's catharsis as they undergo some sort of catharsis as well, going from admiring Oedipus to fearing for him to pitying him while also being relieved that his prophecy was fulfilled and that the gods remain true to their word. 5. Tiresias plays a symbolic role through his attitude of revealing the prophecy to Oedipus. He makes Oedipus mad by initially not revealing the necessary information to save Thebes; this causes Oedipus to act impulsively and ultimately leads to Oedipus's downfall. 6. Jocasta progresses the play by learning and projecting that the prophecy of her husband and son came true. She plays both a spousal and maternal role to Oedipus. She also demonstrates despair over her incestuous actions by hanging herself in her bedroom. 7. The messenger is the catalyst for Oedipus the King’s downfall. He informs Oedipus about his “father’s” death, and that they aren’t his actual parents. The messenger gave Oedipus to Polybus and Merope when Oedipus was a baby because he didn’t want him to die in the forests like Laius decreed. 8. The shepherd was the one who in a way allowed the entire play to occur. He did not kill Oedipus as a child but instead brought Adjectives 1. reckless, arrogant, frantic, ignorant 2. messenger, pleading 3. diplomatic, eventempered, calm, rational 4. wise, knowledgeable, emotional, pensive 5. physically blind, "seer" 6. pious, sacrilegious, loving 7. kindhearted, disloyal 8. cowardly, timid, self-involved, follower him to a different city where he was raised and fulfilled his prophecy. Setting: The classical tragedy by Sophocles is set in the ancient city of Thebes. Thebes is presented in a time of major drought and famine. The people and the land are plagued and barren. Nobility is important, and there is a very well defined social structure. Society has also defined rules of conduct and morality, much like those of present times. The play begins years after a major prophecy was decreed at the Oracle of Delphi. The prophecy was that King Laius, who was punished for sinning against a child by not being allowed to procreate with his wife, Jocasta, will have a son illegally. It was believed that this son would grow up to murder Laius and “lay with” Jocasta. Because of this prophecy, Laius and Jocasta decided to expel the infant to the woods; what they didn’t know was that the shepherd who was asked to leave the child actually brought him to a different city. The play begins after the prophecy has been fulfilled, and major plot points develop around the discovery that the prophecy did indeed come true. Significance of the opening scene: The opening scene of Oedipus the King has Oedipus standing before the people of Thebes asking them why they are at his altar and why they are praying before him. Oedipus then has the priest speak for the people, and the priest explains that Thebes is suffering. Oedipus is characterized here as arrogant and prideful as well as impulsive and reckless when he immediately promises to discover the source of the plague and to destroy him, unknowing that the source is Oedipus himself. This scene opens with dramatic irony that is present throughout most of the play. A message from Apollo calls for the death of whomever killed King Laius. The audience knows that it was Oedipus, so the stage is set for the audience to experience catharsis, as they already fear for his life. Significance of the closing scene: The closing scene is tragic and horrid. By this point, Oedipus has uncovered the truth of his sins and leaves Thebes as a broken, blind man in exile. Creon does not hesitate to exile Oedipus but does allow for Oedipus to see his children one final time. This scene solidifies Oedipus's role as a tragic hero. His hamartia is marked here by the fulfillment of the prophecy and his tragic downfall from nobility to exile. The closing scene also instigates catharsis in the audience or readers. It elicits awe at Oedipus’s strength in taking responsibility for his actions, and it causes the readers to feel a significant amount of pity for the man whose life went from being a glorious one to being a shameful and miserable one. This scene brings out fear in the audience by conveying the idea that no man is safe from downfall; if it can happen to a king it can surely happen to a common man. Symbols/Archetypes: 1. The scars on Oedipus's feet symbolize the mark on Oedipus's life that he will suffer in the end as he did in the beginning. They also show that Oedipus was chosen to have the fate that he had. 2. Oedipus's name is a symbol itself, meaning literally "Swollen Foot," because it is the key to his true identity. This helps create dramatic irony because the audience knows the story behind the scars but Jocasta cannot see the connection. 3. Tiresias is a major archetype as an all-knowing prophet who sees figuratively but not literally. His physical blindness allows him to see deeper things such as the truth behind Oedipus's destiny. He attempts to protect himself and Oedipus by withholding the message, knowing that the outcome will be grim. 4. In terms of the Aristotelian theory of tragedy, Oedipus is a tragic hero because he appears perfect but has tragic flaws. Aristotle points out that Oedipus' tragic flaw is his hubris, or excessive pride, and selfrighteousness and recklessness. He also points out certain characteristics that qualify one as a tragic hero. Using Oedipus as an ideal model, Aristotle says that a tragic hero must be an important or influential man who commits an error in judgment, and who must then suffer the consequences of his actions. The tragic hero must learn a lesson from his errors in judgment, his tragic flaw, and become an example to the audience of what happens when great men fall from their high social or political position. So Oedipus fulfills this archetype. 5. Oedipus was blind in more than one way. He was blind to the truth about his own life. Oedipus had no idea that his real parents were Laius and Jocasta. He was so blind that he got mad at anyone who was foolish enough to suggest such an idea. As more and more of the story started to fall into place, Oedipus was forced to open his eyes to the truth. Oedipus did kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus was the person causing the bad times in Thebes. As soon as Oedipus knew and accepted the truth and began to see figuratively, he blinded himself physically. This play explores the archetypical difference between seeing literally and seeing physically. Possible Themes/Topics for Discussion: 1. The search for truth - Oedipus goes to great lengths to find the truth. He elicits it multiple times from unwilling messengers, and each piece of the puzzle that he learns causes more pain to him. The majority of Oedipus's personal journey is the discovery of the reality of his life and the way it impacts his present. Ultimately, knowledge in this case is damaging, and Oedipus could learn that sometimes knowledge is better left undiscovered. The final scene in which he comes to a full realization and stabs his eyes out is an example of this lesson. He is noble in this quest, and his determination and ability to fully accept the consequences of his actions is admirable. 2. Fate versus free will - Oedipus was destined from birth to murder his father and sleep with his mother. This theme is demonstrated throughout the play, namely in the way that Oedipus reacts upon discovering different portions of his destiny. For instance, when in the end he gouges his eyes out with pins, it is allegedly his own personal reaction out of free will to do so. However, it is questionable as to whether he was destined from birth to be blinded and exiled as a man for his arrogance and sins. Some argue that he could have realized his flaws and his excessive pride prior to his epic downfall even though he was never faced with any negative consequences up until then. Rather, he faced positive consequences and was able to gain more and more power. This idea also blurs the line as to whether it was his decisions or his destiny that led him to his ultimate personal defeat. 3. The danger of memories - Oedipus delves too deep into his past to be able to escape. This culminates in the suicide of Jocasta and his downfall. If Oedipus had learned that some memories are better left in the past and that sometimes forgiveness as well as taking responsibility for one's actions is necessary, he might have been able to move on. His excessive pride leads to his inability to do this. 4. Wisdom through suffering – Oedipus, Tiresias, and Jocasta both exemplify this theme. Through their incredible suffering in their discovery of the truth, they have both gained wisdom and personal strength. Jocasta and Tiresias had gained wisdom prior to the start of the play, Jocasta through the loss of her husband and the perceived loss of her son, and Tiresias through his blindness. Jocasta had learned the importance of love and to hold on to her love, so when she met Oedipus, though it was not technically her choice to marry him, she loved him deeply, as well as her children she had with him. Tiresias is also wise, likely due to his inability to see leading him to rely on other instincts and allowing him to not be deceived by his sense of sight. Oedipus though is the main sufferer, and through his terrible realizations and his brutal self-mutilation and immediate exile he made great strides in learning about himself. He relinquishes his pride when he speaks with Creon and surrenders his power, and he relies instead on love, as seen when he calls for his daughter in the closing scene. 5. Blindness – This suffering leads to the final theme, blindness. Tiresias, though physically blind, is considered a “seer.” His heightened senses allow him a supernatural ability to predict the future and to see into people’s characters and motives. Oedipus also eventually gains this ability of heightened morality and sight without seeing when he blinds himself. It took him losing his sight to be able to truly see who he was and why the way he was living was wrong. Describe the author’s style: Sophocles writes the play in a poetic form, using iambic pentameter in some of the dialogue and lyric and iambic trimeter in other instances. He often includes dramatic irony and foreshadowing through repetition of the prophecy by many different messengers. Additionally, he writes with precise and extensive imagery and other forms of figurative language such as clever metaphor to deliver a picture for the reader and to establish characterization on a more personal, relatable level. Example that illustrates style: "I thought it wrong, my children, to hear the truth from others, messengers. Here I am myself--you all know me, the world knows my fame: I am Oedipus" - Oedipus (Sophocles 1427). This quote demonstrates the poetic nature of the play as well as an aspect of the adherence to the definition of a tragedy as it includes him taking responsibility. Quote: 1. "Drive the corruption from the land, don't harbor it any longer, past all cure, don't nurse it in your soil— root it out!" (Sophocles 1429) Significance in demonstrating theme: 1. This is a message from Apollo delivered by Creon. This institutes the dramatic irony that is present throughout the play. It also initiates the downward spiral on which Oedipus proceeds to travel as he vows to personally drive out the murderer to alleviate the pain of the people of Thebes. This again relates to the search for knowledge and the inability to let the past remain in the past. 2. “You pray to the Gods? Let me grant your prayers.” -Oedipus (Sophocles 1433) 2. This quote is significant because it emphasizes how highly Oedipus thinks of himself. In the play, it defines his hubris because he views himself as more authoritative and righteous than the gods themselves. This demonstrates the theme of the limits of free will. Although Oedipus views himself as more powerful and important than a god, he is actually a puppet to the prophecy that has been bestowed upon him by the gods since his birth. 3. “I curse myself as well…if by any chance he proves to be an intimate of our house, here at my hearth, with my full knowledge, may the curse I just called down on him strike me!” - Oedipus (Sophocles 1434) 3. This demonstrates the theme of free will versus fate. He curses the man who caused the fate of Thebes and his downfall and ironically curses himself justly. In trying to boast and brag about his abilities, he reinforces his future self-harm, bringing into question the validity of free will or whether he was destined from the start to curse himself to fulfill the prophecy his father's sins set upon him. It also demonstrates the style with which Sophocles wrote, featuring intense dramatic irony. 4. "You with your precious eyes, you're blind to the corruption of your life, to the house you live in, those you live with—who are your parents? Do you know? All unknowing you are the scourge of your own flesh and blood, the dead below the earth and the living here above, and the double lash of your mother and your father's curse will whip you from this land one day, their footfall treading you down in terror, darkness shrouding your eyes that now can see the light!" (Sophocles 1438) 4. This quote demonstrates the extent to which the prophecy will ruin Oedipus's life. It also shows his arrogance and ignorance in terms of not being willing to accept the truth and instead referring back to his noble status. Oedipus therefore is a tragic hero since he demonstrates incredible hubris, and this quote proves this. It also relays the prophecy in different terms. It also relates to the theme of the quest for knowledge. 5. "What good were eyes to me? Nothing I could see could bring me joy." -Oedipus (Sophocles 1463) 5. This is significant because Oedipus realizes the truth of his actions, and through blindness, he is now able to truly see. This is the point when Oedipus defends his decision to humble himself through blindness since he could not “see” before. This demonstrates the themes of wisdom through suffering and blindness. It takes Oedipus the entire play to accept the truth, which he was blind to until this point.