Oedipus the King, Sophocles Questions by sparkunder19

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									                                 Novel Guide: Oedipus the King, Sophocles

Previous to the beginning of the play, Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes, hear a terrible
prophecy—they will bear a son who will grow up to kill his father. They are horrified to discover that Jocasta
is pregnant. When the child is born, they give it to a shepherd, who is to leave the baby bolted to Mount
Cithaeron to die [they have put an iron bolt through his ankles; the name Oedipus actually means “swollen

Yet the shepherd is unable to commit this terrible crime; instead, he gives the child to another shepherd, who
gives the child to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth to raise. When Oedipus is a teenager, he
attends a party where a drunk man tells him he is not the true son of King Polybus and Queen Merope.
Upset, Oedipus goes to the oracle at Delphi to find out the truth; the oracle tells him that he is destined to kill
his father and sleep with his mother. He vows never to return to Corinth to insure the prophecy will not come
true. At Phocis [where the three roads meet] he meets a group of travelers who hit him with a stick—Oedipus
is so angered that he kills all the travelers but one.

Since he has vowed never to return to Corinth, he finds himself at Thebes, a city under the power of the
terrible Sphinx, a creature shaped like a winged lion, with the breast and face of a woman [part woman, part
lion, part bird]. The sphinx will not leave the city until someone answers the riddle “what walks on four legs in
the morning, two legs at mid-day, and three legs at night?” Oedipus answers the riddle and becomes king
when he marries Queen Jocasta.

Years pass—and here is where the play begins—in MEDIAS RES [in the middle of the action]. There is
another plague upon Thebes. Oedipus has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle to find out what to
do. What will happen when Oedipus finds out the terrible truth?

A bit of background:
Sophocles [496-406 B.C.], Aescylus and Euripedes were the three great Greek tragic dramatists; by 450 B.C.
Sophocles had written at least twenty-four plays and had initiated significant changes in the form of tragedy.
Although Sophocles wrote more than one hundred dramas, only seven complete plays survive.

Oedipus the King is associated with two other plays by Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. The
story of Oedipus is simple and well-known. Oedipus arrives at Thebes a stranger, and finds the town under
the curse of the Sphinx, who will not free the city unless her riddle is answered correctly. Oedipus solves the
riddle and, since the king of Thebes has recently been killed, becomes king and marries the queen. All of this
occurs before the play begins—it begins in medias res, in the middle of the action.

Greek Theater: Performances of Greek plays were held in open-air arenas, like the theater of Dionysus,
which was built into a hillside, giving the seating area a natural rise so thousands of spectators had a clear
view of the action. At the foot of the seating area was a large, circular orchestra where the chorus sang or
chanted and danced in slow, stately movements.

Greek Actors: Because of the immensity of Greek theaters, the actors—exclusively men—increased their
height and impressiveness artificially. Each actor wore a mask painted with a single, exaggerated
expression: a sad face for a troubled king, a haggard face for a weary soldier. Each mask had a funnel-
shaped mouth opening, like a megaphone, to help project the voice. Elevated boots, padded clothing, and a
high headdress could make a six-foot actor appear over seven feet tall. These masks also allowed actors to
play more than one role. The acting style for Greek drama differed from the realistic style of modern drama.
The Greek actor could not change facial expressions while on stage, and any gestures had to be noticeable
from a distance; as a result, the Greek acting style was broader and more formal than contemporary acting.

Greek Audiences: Unlike most modern audiences, who put a premium on originality, Greek audiences were
familiar with the plots and characters of the dramas presented since most plots were derived from myths,
legends, or other traditional stories. This familiarity enabled them to focus on the irony of the situations and
the poetry of the words.

The Greek Concept of Tragedy: A tragedy shows how a character’s proud or willful choice lead to
inescapable disaster—peripedy. Yet a tragedy is more than a story in which a wrong is punished. Tragedies
are complex studies of human beings in conflict with themselves, with society, and with the gods.

         Vocabulary: please pay careful attention to the following ideas when reading the play

CATHARSIS: a purging of emotions; the purification or “draining off” of repressed/dangerous feelings.

CHORUS: a group of 12-15 men who represent either the ideas/feelings of the townspeople or one of the
major characters. The role of the chorus differed from play to play; each chorus was used to recall/interpret
past events, to initiate/comment on the action, or to foretell the future.

DENOUEMENT: literally means “unraveling,” the end of the story illustrates the result of the characters’

HAMARTIA: the frailty or error that brings about the fall of the tragic hero; the tragic flaw of the tragic hero.

HUBRIS: a type of HAMARTIA—excessive pride or self-confidence that brings about the fall of the tragic

IRONY: a term used to describe a contrast between what is expected, or what appears to be, and what really
is. There are three main types of irony:
 VERBAL IRONY: in verbal irony, the actual meaning of a statement is different from [often the opposite
     of] what the statement literally says. [Verbal irony is the simplest and the most common type of irony.]
 SITUATIONAL IRONY: situational irony refers to an occurrence that is contrary to what is expected.
 DRAMATIC IRONY: in dramatic irony, the audience or reader knows events or facts not known to a
     character. To get really picky, there are two types of dramatic irony: in the first, the irony depends more
     on the structure of the drama than the words of the characters, for example, when Oedipus seeks
     throughout the play for the murderer of Laius, the former king of Thebes, when he is actually the guilty
     one. The second type occurs when a character speaks lines understood in a double sense by the

MEDIAS RES: to begin in the middle of the action.
ORACLE: literally means “a message” in Greek; the oracle was a high priestess who would mediate to ask
the god Apollo questions—when she received his response, there was no debate—the oracle’s predictions
always came true.

PERIPEDY: the sudden reversal of fortune of a tragic hero; when the tragic hero moves from happiness to
misery, from fortune to misfortune.

PARADOX: a figure of speech indicating a seeming contradiction that may nonetheless be true; a situation or
action exhibiting inexplicable or contradictory aspects.

SPHINX: a creature shaped like a winged lion, with the breast and face of a woman [part woman, part lion,
part bird].

TRAGIC HERO: a person of stature who is neither villainous nor exceptionally virtuous who moves from
happiness to misery [this sudden reversal of fortune is called PERIPEDY].

Questions to consider while reading
Part One, p. 1-19
1. Why do the priests come to speak to Oedipus?
2. What are our first thoughts about Oedipus—what does he reveal about himself in the exposition?
3. Creon returns from the oracle—what does he say?
4. What does Oedipus curse the murderer with?
5. What does Oedipus seem to fear when he discusses the murder of the former king?
6. Blind Tiresias is sent for by Oedipus; the prophet is later called “the only man in whom truth is inborn.”
What is the paradox of blindness that Tiresias represents?

Part Two, p. 19-78
1. What does Tiresias tell Oedipus?
2. What is Oedipus’s reaction?
3. Oedipus accuses Creon of a conspiracy—why?
4. What is Creon’s reaction to Oedipus’s conspiracy claim?
5. Oedipus tells Jocasta he is angry about what Tiresias the prophet says—what does Jocasta say about
6. The Corinthian Messenger arrives to tell Jocasta and Oedipus that Polybus is dead. To Jocasta this is
further proof that the prophecies hold no truth [because Oedipus didn’t kill his father, Polybus, as was
predicted]. The messenger tells Oedipus that he wasn’t the son of Polybus, that the messenger had been the
second shepherd [who took Oedipus to Corinth]. Jocasta begs Oedipus to give up the search—why?

While reading, please pay particular attention to the following:
    Hubris: the sin of pride—Oedipus is so prideful that he brings about his own downfall, his peripedy
        [his tragic fall].
    The paradox of blindness—Oedipus can not see the truth, even when it is right in front of him;
        Tiresias, on the other hand, can not physically see yet he knows the truth.
        The oracle—and the Greek idea of prophecy. The oracle at Delphi is a sorceress who meditates
         to the god Apollo [the god of truth and light]; the answer of the oracle is always true.
        The theme of fate as an inescapable force—the play illustrates that you can not escape your fate.
        Dramatic irony—this type of irony occurs when the audience is aware of facts the characters are
         unaware of.

                                          Oedipus: Significant Quotes
Please state the significance of the following quotes and, if possible, relate the quote to the following:
             the sin of pride
             the paradox of blindness
             the oracle / prophecy
             the theme of fate as an inescapable force

1. “Here I am, myself, world-famous Oedipus” [Oedipus 3].

2. “As for the murderer himself, I call down a curse on him…May he drag out an evil death-in-life misery”
   [Oedipus 15].

3. “You are the murderer, you are the unholy defilement of this land” [Tiresias 23].

4. “As it is now, I have everything I want from you, and nothing to fear; but if I were king, I would have to do
   many things I have no mind to…Time alone reveals the just man” [Creon 40-1].
5. “I am dreadfully afraid the blind prophet could see” [Oedipus 53].

6. “Apollo said clearly that Laius was to be killed by my son. But that poor infant never killed Laius; it met its
   own death first. So much for prophecy” [Jocasta 59].

7. “The man who goes his way
   Overbearing in word and deed,
   Who fears no justice,
   Honors no temples of the gods—
   May an evil destiny seize him
   And punish his ill-starred pride” [Chorus 61]

8.    “In god’s name, if you place any value on your life, don’t pursue the search. It is enough that I am sick to
     death” [Jocasta 77].

9. “I am lost, accursed, and hated by the gods beyond all other men” [Oedipus 97].

Please use the space below for your notes:

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