Katharsis in the house, y’all. Be warned! Salty language and adult themes ahead. Proceed with caution.
Tag Archives: Oedipus Rex
In preparation for our final discussion and writing on Oedipus Rex, please review the following:
Review the Oedipus the King analysis post on the website.
Complete your MWDS for Oedipus Rex. Be sure to include plenty of apt text references to aid your discussion! Think carefully as you complete the MOWAW and question boxes on the second page; these will be very helpful to have handy during the discussion.
Consider the Aristotelian definition of a tragedy and a tragic hero and consider how they apply to the play and the character. Aristotle believed that plot was the primary element in tragedy, and the plot must follow these four principles: 1) The plot must be a whole, with a beginning, middle, and end; 2) The plot must be internally whole, with incidents relating to each other and not interrupted by a deus ex machina or completed by a coincidence; 3) The plot must reflect a serious treatment in terms of its complexity and universal appeal; and 4) The plot should not only include a change of fortune for the central character, but also some reversal or surprise and a recognition within that character of his/her changed status that brings about knowledge.
Consider how the character of Oedipus fits Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero: 1) neither completely good or bad; 2) of high stature; 3) suffers a change in fortune due to a tragic mistake (hamartia) of some kind–most often through hubris; and 4) has a “moment of truth” or insight into his tragic flaw and what it has taught him. The following questions will lead you to deeper thinking about the play and AP’s main focus, the MOWAW, or Meaning of the Work as a Whole. You do not need to prepare answers for them, but do think about how they apply to the play, the development of Oedipus as a character, and the MOWAW. You may wish to incorporate some of these ideas into your Major Works Data Sheet:
1. Is Oedipus a helpless victim of fate, or were there ever times when he could have acted to prevent his downfall? Was Oedipus made to do what the oracle had prophesied, or is he responsible for his own destiny?
2. Discuss the meaning of power and powerlessness as it applies to Oedipus. Consider the following questions: What is his blindness symbolic of? Is he powerless by his blindness, or is his newfound blindness a powerful means for him to finally understand his own fate? Which Oedipus is more powerful: the one who didn’t know his fate (at the beginning of the play), or the one who now knows (by the end of the play)?
3. In what sense may Oedipus be regarded as a better, though less fortunate, man at the end of the play? What has he gained from his experience?
4. In many works of literature a character has a misconception of himself or his world. Destroying or perpetuating this illusion contributes to a central theme of the work. Which characters in Oedipus Rex could be examined through this lens? Discuss what the character’s illusion is and how it differs from reality, and then explain how the destruction or perpetuation of the illusion contributes to the meaning of the work.
Our discussion will not be text-specific in that you will not be expected to support your ideas with exact quotations from the Roche translation. However, you will be expected to mention appropriate occurrences within the play that can back up your conclusions. Free downloads of Oedipus Rex are widely available, as are links to the text. Check this post for a list of possibilities.
Finally–and this is really important!–be prepared to speak. Your active participation is required for you to receive top marks on the seminar discussion.
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BONUS: Tom Lehrer, a professor of mathematics at Harvard University, is best-known for a catalogue of songs written in the 1950s and 60s, which discussed art, politics, and current events in humorous and satirical ways. This song is a rather irreverent (and funny) take on the most tragic of Greek dramas. Enjoy!
Still from the 1957 Sir Tyrone Guthrie production of Oedipus Rex.
Like all great plays, Oedipus the King develops a number of important themes. One is stated in the final lines:
And count no man blessed in his life until,
He’s crossed life’s bound unstruck by ruin still.
The play shows the fall of Oedipus from the place of highest honor to that of an outcast and demonstrates the uncertainty of human destiny. A second motif is man’s inability to control his own fate. Oedipus is a man who attempts to do his best at all times; he wants to help his people. He has taken what he considers the necessary steps to avoid the terrible fate predicted by the oracle (that he will kill his father and marry his mother). But humans are limited in their vision, no matter how they may attempt to avoid mistakes. The contrast, then, between humans seeking to control their destiny and other forces determining destiny is clearly depicted. But while fate (or the will of the gods) is always the superior force in the play, it works through human beings. It is Jocasta’s attempt to destroy the infant Oedipus, Oedipus’ desire to avoid his parents, and Oedipus’ search for the murderer that lead inevitably to the outcome. At the end, while Oedipus accepts his fate as he must, he still does not see himself entirely under the control of the gods:
Friends, it was Apollo, spirit of Apollo,
He made this evil fructify,
Oh, yes, I pierced my eyes, my useless eyes, why not?
It is significant that no attempt is made to explain why destruction comes to Oedipus. It is implied that man must submit to fate and that in struggling to avoid it he only becomes more entangled. There is then an irrational, or at least an unknowable, force at work. This idea is emphasized through the various attempts to communicate with the gods (through oracles) and to propitiate them. The plague is viewed as a punishment from the gods; the exiling of Oedipus is an attempt to placate them, but no one asks why the gods have decreed Oedipus’ fate. The truth of the oracles is established, but the purpose is unclear. The Greek concept of the gods, however, did not demand that all the gods be benevolent, since all forces were deified whether good or evil. Therefore, a god might visit evil upon human beings, and they had to be constantly on guard not to offend any of the many gods.
It is also possible to interpret this play as suggesting that the gods, rather than having decreed events, have merely foreseen and foretold what the characters will do when confronted with certain problems. Such an interpretation, while it shifts the emphasis somewhat, does not contradict the picture of humans as victims of forces beyond their control, no matter by what name we call those forces.
Another implication, which may not have been a conscious one with Sophocles, is that Oedipus is a scapegoat. The city of Thebes will be saved if one guilty man can be found and punished. Oedipus, in a sense then, takes the sins of the city upon himself, and in his punishment lies the salvation of others. Thus, Oedipus becomes a sacrificial offering to the gods…
Another motif—blindness versus sight—is emphasized in poetic images and in various overt comparisons. A contrast is repeatedly drawn between the physical power of sight and the inner sight of understanding. For example, Tiresias, though blind, can see the truth which escapes Oedipus, while Oedipus, who has penetrated the riddle of the Sphinx, cannot solve the puzzle of his own life. When it is revealed to him, he blinds himself in an act of retribution.
These themes indicate that Oedipus the King is a comment in part on humankind’s relationship to the gods and on humans’ attempt to control their own destiny. While the Greek views of these problems may not be ours, the problems and many of the implications are still vital and meaningful.
from Brockett, Oscar G. Historical Edition. The Theatre: An Introduction. New York: Holt, 1979.
Here is the closing scene from Igor Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex, filmed in Japan in 1992 with a multiracial case directed by Julie Taymor. Dame Jessye Norman is singing the role of Jocasta, while Philip Langridge (voice) and Min Tanaka (dance) create the role of Oedipus. Opera certainly fits Aristotle’s requirement for spectacle, does it not?
Drama as we know it today has its roots in the plays of ancient Greece. These plays were created as part of the worship of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine. The four Dionysian festivals, the Rural Dionysia, the Lenaia, the Anthesteria, and the City (or Great) Dionysia, celebrated the god, with plays performed in competition at all but the Anthesteria. Playwrights in competition would be expected to create and produce three tragedies and a satyr play. An excellent explanation of this process may be found at this link from Reed College.
Greek play performances differ quite a bit from modern theater. A key element of each performance was the chorus of fifteen. The chorus normally performed in unison, often with movement. The chorus served several functions. It could serve as an actor in the drama itself, establish the ethical framework of the play (the Prologue in Romeo and Juliet is very much like a Greek choral ode), act as a spectator modeling the reactions the playwright hopes to evoke in the audience, and, most importantly, set the mood of the play and enhance its dramatic effect. Choral performances often involved movement and dance which broke up the action of the play and allowed the audience time to absorb the themes being expressed. Older men were often assigned parts in the chorus, adding to the dignity and wisdom the chorus represents.
Three actors apart from the chorus played all the major parts in a Greek play. Most actors wore a simple chiton fastened by brooches, tall boots, and a series of masks which represented the variety of characters the actor was playing. Depending on the demands of the play, an actor might play a single role throughout or switch roles. As in Shakespeare, men played all the roles.
Although Greek theater featured comedies, satyr plays, and dithyrambs (hymns to Dionysus sung and danced by a chorus of fifty), it is the Greek tragedies that were held in the highest esteem. The philosopher Aristotle, in his Poetics, defined tragedy this way:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.
In essence, a tragedy contained the following elements, listed in order of importance:
The ideal Greek play should have a complex plot involving a change in fortune for the main character. Reversals, recognitions, and suffering are common features.
The central character of a Greek tragedy is usually a good person who holds a position of honor or status. The character’s downfall can occur because of a mistake he makes (hamartia) either knowingly or unknowingly. The concept of hamartia is the origin of the “tragic flaw” often referenced in Shakespeare.
The language of the play should be well-chosen to enhance the meaning and message of the work.
The songs and dancing of the chorus should be an integral part of the play.
Although the visual presentation of the play was considered a key element, Aristotle viewed it as the “least artistic” element of tragedy. Think of a movie which is all visuals and action and very little plot, and you’ll understand what Aristotle means.
The audience of a well-presented Greek play should undergo a catharsis, a purging of the emotions of pity and fear. Dr. Barbara F. McManus, Professor of Classics Emerita, College of New Rochelle provides an excellent, detailed explanation of these aspects of Greek theatre here.
A translation of Aristotle’s Poetics may be found at the Classics Archive at MIT.
Adapted from Brockett, Oscar G. Historical Edition. The Theatre: An Introduction. New York: Holt. 1979.
If you wish to download a copy of Oedipus Rex to your phone or tablet, you may find copies here:
Project Gutenberg (links to .html, .epub, and Kindle-formatted versions)
Oedipus Rex for Kindle ($.99 charge)
Oedipus Rex for Nook ($.99 charge)
Download or listen to a streaming audio version of the play at Librivox.
The full text of the play may be read online here.
Another translation of the play may be read online here.
The opening credits of Disney’s animated film Hercules (yes, that’s the Roman name, but retraining Americans to say the proper Greek “Herakles” is a high bar even for Disney to clear) plays with the concept of the Greek chorus. Included in this short clip are references to the rise of the pantheon of gods after the defeat of the Titans, the role of the muses in Greek mythology, the characteristic art of Greek vases, a gorgeous presentation of Mount Olympus (check out Apollo and his flaming chariot of the sun!), and, of course, the musical pun of the gospel style of the song and its title, “The Gospel Truth.”
As a side note, the stentorian introduction is voiced by the late actor Charlton Heston, whose fame was solidified based on his roles in the films The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, so there’s another performing arts pun for you: who better to narrate the tale of an epic hero than, well, the quintessential Hollywood epic hero? Enjoy!
Choose two additional words from the remainder of the list to study. You will be asked to apply the words using examples, i.e. WORD: tiger DIRECTION: place where you would find one of these ANSWER: Asia, The Jungle Book, Frosted Flakes box, etc.