Assigned: Sophocles. Oedipus the King (612-58).
Oedipus the King
1. Aristotle refers often in his Poetics to Oedipus Rex as an example of an excellent tragedy. Audiences have always found the play compelling — how do you explain its success?
2. In what sense is Oedipus, though a king, also an "everyman" figure? In other words, how might this play be said to explore something fundamental about the limitations involved in being human?
3. From lines 1-89, what qualities do the people attribute to Oedipus? What heroic qualities does he attribute to himself? Aside from saving Thebes, what is Oedipus being called upon to do?
4. From lines 169-245, what assumptions do the Chorus make about the relationship between humans and the gods? How does Oedipus contradict them immediately afterwards?
5. From lines 340-526, Oedipus engages with the blind prophet Tiresias. What is the basis of Oedipus' appeal to Tiresias — how does he try to get the truth from him? How is Oedipus' attitude towards Tiresias and the kind of knowledge he represents inconsistent?
6. From 527-72, why do the Chorus not accept the charges Tiresias has leveled against Oedipus? What would constitute proof for them?
7. From 573-750, Oedipus and Creon argue — how does Creon interpret Oedipus' anger? What charges does he make against the king, what prediction does he offer about Oedipus' future?
8. From 751-953 Jocasta inquires about the disagreement between Oedipus and her brother Creon. What information does she pass on to Oedipus that only makes his misery worse? What does Oedipus reveal about his past, and how much does he now understand about his guilt?
9. From 954-97, the Chorus assess the situation as it stands. What makes them anxious? How do their remarks affect your understanding of their trustworthiness as judges of the drama unfolding before them?
10. From 998-1182, first Jocasta and then she and Oedipus hear unexpectedly from a Corinthian Messenger. What does his information about Polybus at first lead both to assume about the power of prophecy and the course of human life, and what subsequent revelation proves devastating to them? How is this scene "ironic"?
11. From 1183-1350, Oedipus carries on to the bitter truth, which he hears from the old Herdsman mentioned by the Corinthian Messenger. Why doesn't he stop the process of unconcealment? What lesson does the Chorus draw from his ruin?
12. From 1351-1449, a Messenger describes what happened when Oedipus entered the palace and saw that Jocasta had hanged herself. How might hearing this event rather than seeing it change an audience's perspective on the events?
13. Regarding the same episode, what symbolic implications emerge from Oedipus' blinding himself? Do you find his action courageous and heroic, or do you interpret it some other way? Explain.
14. From 1450 on, Oedipus laments and seeks exile. How does he understand what has happened to him? Why is it necessary that the audience hear him after all that has occurred?
15. By the end of the play, what is the status of Oedipus as a tragic hero? Do you think that an audience would pity him, or judge him harshly? What do you think of the Chorus' final pronouncement? Explain.
Lawall, Sarah, ed. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd edition. Volumes 1ABC. New York: WW Norton, 2002. ISBN A = 0393977552, B = 0393977560, C = 0393977579.