|VCCS Litonline Introduction to Literature
English 112 (English Composition II)
Click on the
sphinx to read the play.
Oedipus the Wreck
Carefully document what you find out
from the play itself and from sources other than the play about one of the
topics below. Research questions differ from study guide questions
in that they usually require information beyond the play, in this case about
ancient Greek traditions, values, history, and myth in order to help make more
sense of the play. So you add credibility to your write-up each time you
cite source information and explain it (even to disagree with it) as an aid to
your interpreting some facet of this play about Oedipus.
In what sense is Oedipus the King a religious play? (Hint: Look
up the festival of Dionysus, as well as considering the verses spoken by the
chorus.) (Hint: Based on a question by Simon--Trace the ideas about
gods--such as Apollo, Athena, and Ares. How does the chorus perceive
them, or what does the chorus expect of them and why?
Religious Debate?:Guru (1999) pointed out that there may be a sort
of debate between Sophocles and the philosopher Socrates: "If you consider the political and social occurrences in the 5th century
B.C., Oedipus Rex can seem religious, even to the point of didactic: Socrates questioning the truth of the Gods as recorded in Euthyphro
by Plato, and Sophocles strong ties to the State."
Debbie (2000) linked the two as showing the danger of searching for truth.
Cultural Impact of the Play?: Genevieve Gahokanson (2000) wanted to
know how the play influenced its era and how the culture of the time
influenced the play. Find out, perhaps writing a "contemporary review"
to assess the impact the play had on its era. Don't forget that
Aristotle used the play as an archetype of tragedy in his Poetics.
Cassie Luther (2000) had to write an
essay on the religious rituals in the
play. Any ideas? [Hints: How would you stage the opening
procession and Jocasta's prayers? Are there sacrificial animals, palm
fronds, incense? Why? How would you explain these rituals to
someone who was seeing the play for the first time?]
Christianity Distorts Our View of
Oedipus? A TOK student passed on this thesis. Defend it
with research (Hint: Does knowledge of Shakespeare's tragedies distort our
view of Oedipus?)
Belinda (1999), a student of Mr.
Madway at Thurgood Marshall HS made an interesting analogy between the Greek
gods and the Old Testament view of God behind the ten commandments. To
what extent are they alike, as seen through the prayers and expectations of
Balance, Proportion, and Moderation:
From the University of Illinois--Chicago: "How did Oedipus violate the classical
Greek ethos of balance, proportion, and moderation?" Find
out what these three principles mean and apply them to the play and to the
personality of Oedipus.
A "supermom" wondered how Oedipus
represents the Athenian ideal. [Hint: The answer is related to
question 2, but Oedipus might be the opposite of the ideal, as question 2
from, as UI-Chicago suggests. ]
Tiresias: Luca B. (1999) wanted
to know how Tiresias became blind and how he got his power to see the will
of the gods or the future.
According to the myth of this family (the house of Cadmon),
what did Laius
do to deserve having a son who was destined to kill him? (Hint: This
family seems to demonstrate a number of taboos; in Oedipus, for instance,
there is incest, father-killing, and king-killing.) (based on a question
by jeuvntus321 in 2002 and Erika in 2000, a college student in
Whitters (2001) offers this
Laius: "Oedipus' father Laius was cursed by the gods because he disrespected a family who he was staying with. In Greek mythology it was very important to be kind to your host. Some say that
Lauis had a sexual encounter with his host's son. As a result, a curse was put on him that his son would kill him and then sleep with his wife. One night
Laius got drunk and accidentally impregnated his wife, thus beginning the
Porter has a good answer to this question, but also consider the second
paragraph on why Sophocles edits the story of Laius as he does for his play on
King Kayos (2000) adds that
was sent by Apollo: "Apollo, being the protector of children, as
well as the god of the Sun > Light > the Truth, cursed Laius and his
descendants (this was justice to the ancient Greeks) and, in his rage,
commanded the Sphinx to ravage the land."
Oedipus entire family tree,
including ancestors and offspring, see
chart at the
Greek Mythology Link. Find out about O's ancestors, especially
Cadmus, Labdacus, and Laius. Did each one offend the gods?
Based on research done for 3a - 3d,
above, figure out how to fill in for "somehow" in the following thesis,
offered by "Nemisis" in 1999: "Adam, of the Bible's Genesis, was created by god with the ability to stand but destined to fall. God in no way promotes or facilitates the fall yet he knows from the moment of Adam's creation that he will fall. Oedipus's fall did not occur merely to amuse the god's. His fall came about from the
necessity to restore the order of nature. Man's merely existing cause disorder in the natural order of nature.
Somehow Oedipus's fall allowed for this order to be restored, which was an important issue to the Greek people. So in conclusion Oedipus is free to act as he wishes but his inevitable predetermined demise is crucial to the restoration of the natural order of the universe."
DJ (1999) wanted to know
grandfather, Labdacus, did to bring the curse to the family. Labdacus
was the father of Laius.
In what sense does Oedipus fulfill the requirements
a tragic hero as stated in
Greenwood (1998) suggested that because Oedipus committed a murder,
he did not qualify as a tragic hero in Aristotle's sense of an
essentially good man brought down by his own over-reaching pride.
Find out what Aristotle actually said about Oedipus.
Becket (1998) disagreed: "I do not agree with Gerome Greenwood.
As the oracle says, Oedipus did not murder his father, he killed him, in self-defense. Therefore Oedipus is not
guilty of any crime and is a tragic hero."
Lostinthewoods (1999) offers these
observations relating Oedipus to Aristotle:
- "They must start with a high
standing in society. Oedipus starts out in the highest place in society as
- The character must end the play in a low place in society. Oedipus finishes the play in possibly the lowest place in society as a blind, exiled, drifter. He has nothing.
- The character must have a tragic flaw in their character. This differs from Elizabethan tragedy in that the classical hero cannot escape this flaw, and their destiny is fated to them. Oedipus cannot escape his fate, no matter what he does. His desire for justice and hunger for the truth drives him towards his fate."
Vocabulary of Tragedy: Sarah (1999) asked how "Oedipus
arete [human striving], hubris [human pride], and harmatia
[human frailty; a personality flaw] and how these properties allow him to heroically examine fate and
control it to a point, but ultimately fall victim to it."
In what ways does Oedipus fulfill the requirements of
a hero in a "hero cycle"? (based on a question by
"Chickpea" in 2002)
Alex in 2001says, "The fact that Oedipus killed his father,
whether in self defense or not, thus making him a criminal is irrelevant. He is a hero, although maybe not the most liked, because he undergoes the three stages of the Hero's
Journey-- departure, fulfillment, and return. He departs from Thebes as a baby, sent to the mountain. He fulfills his destiny by killing his father, and returns to further fulfill his destiny, by marrying his mother. He is a tragic hero, despite the fact that he was not the most noble of creatures."
Luna HHS in 2001 asked how Oedipus compares to
Someone else's teacher suggested that Oedipus
could be compared to Othello as a tragic protagonist.
Scapegoat: Thad at
MSU asked (1999) how Oedipus fit into the set of myths about
sacrificial kings used as scapegoats. Find out.
vs. Oedipus at Colonus: Mike suggested this one in 2002--
For Rex, the usual interpretation described a fatalistic morality: your fate is unavoidable and it is best to accept it. Oedipus and other characters try to avoid their fate and experience great pain in return.
In a philosophy course, we read Rex
and came to a different understanding. In
Colonus, Oedipus proclaims his innocence and the error committed by everyone including himself in placing the blame on him. He did not know the true relationship between him and his parents and could not be morally responsible for it.
I recently began thinking about the plays again and started to wonder what Sophocles intended for these plays. There seems to be contradicting moral paradigms: fatalism versus free will. Are the plays, although united by common story line, meant to be appreciated separately? Can anyone recommend good sources to read on the subject?
(Another reader recommended commentary published by Harold Bloom, who is William
de Vane professor at Yale. Rae, 2001 recommends E. R. Dodds on why
Oedipus seems to ignorant/blind to the meaning of events around him.)
Letter to Creon 10 Years After
Oedipus the King: "Bam Bam'" teacher
seems to have a clever way to get students to read Oedipus at Colonus.
Here's the task: Read Oedipus at Colonus (either before or after your
first attempt to write this letter as Oedipus to Creon). In 10 years,
Antigone would not have happened yet, so it is before the civil war
of Seven Against Thebes. What might Oedipus have learned by
then? Given hindsight and the wisdom of experience and reflection,
what issues would Oedipus raise?
T. Quinn from Chicago, Illinois,
(2000) offered these notions to
coach writers of this letter: "Recognizing that Apollo is in some indecipherable way behind the events in his life, Oedipus nevertheless freely
asserts his own integrity and insists on taking responsibility for his acts. His father, Laius, had exposed his son instead of simply killing him, presumably to avoid being held responsible for the child's death: when he died, it would be the gods' doing. For Oedipus, blaming the gods would be another attempt to escape. Instead, Oedipus insists, whatever
Apollo might or might not have contributed to the circumstances in his life, "I did it." Paradoxically, his newfound awareness of the truth about his limits, of his essential ignorance, of the fact that he cannot ever know to what extent Apollo is responsible for his life's course, leaves him free."
The Fates and the
Oracle: Chrisynthia Bagley of Thomas Nelson CC (2002) and Laura
Heinze suggest that since the Fates control the lives of gods and men,
Oedipus had no choice. The Oracle simply stated what would happen, now
how it would happen. Find out about the Fates and the Oracle of Apollo
at Delphi. How did the ancient Greeks regard these creatures--as
people who reported the future or as those who made the future happen as
they said it would?
Staging the Play:
Find out conventions of staging an ancient Greek drama.
Consider not just the cultural event, e.g. the
Festival of Dionysus, where playwrights would present multiple plays,
but also what the actors do.
The masks that serve as "previous" and
"next" buttons at the bottoms of pages in this web are one
What did the chorus do? Obviously, their parts
are more poetic than regular lines in the play, but were they chanted,
sung, or just spoken with an instrument or two in the background?
How many actors would be on stage at once? Did
each actual actor play multiple roles, while his face was hidden behind
one of those thick wooden masks?
Why didn't the Greeks stage graphic violence, but
instead have it reported through an eyewitness?
Tracy (1999) was tasked with finding
out why the number 3 is significant for this play. [Is it just
because Sophocles was the first playwright we know of to use 3 different
actors and therefore have 3 different speaking roles onstage at once?
Or is there some more profound, symbolic association with the number 3
apparent in the play?
ajs2485 asked: When the chorus first enters they say,
"What is God in his profound Delphi of gold and shadow? What oracle for Thebes, the
SUN-WHIPPED city?" Could Sophocles be using a pun, Son and Sun??
Here are the ancient Greek spellings:
sun = ήλιος ο /
son = υιός ο
Origin of the Oedipus
story?: Malcolm Timbers points out that "Many stories have elements of the Oedipus myth. The Oedipus myth originated in Egypt where it is said that it was an actual event that happened."
Find out about the origin of the Oedipus story, confirm the Egyptian
Thebes was the original setting (or refute that idea), and site ancient
analogs. Is Moses like Oedipus? Is Jesus? Is Gilgamesh?
Modern versions: Malcolm
Timbers suggests that "Modern cinema is full of Oedipus stuff, the father being taken place of by some evil patriarch. The Star Wars movie is purely Oedipal in many ways."
Is Luke Skywalker more like Oedipus or unlike him? Is Darth Vader like
or unlike Laius? Consider not just plot elements and character traits,
but also their force as heroic characters. Boynorth in 2001 asked
how Neo in The Matrix might be like Oedipus.
Did Oedipus take the throne of Thebes from Creon? If they knew that
Laius was dead, why didn't the town find his killer (perhaps via the Oracle)
or name a successor? Under what circumstances does Creon actually get
the throne after Oedipus's son(s)? Find out what the legend of Oedipus has
to say about Creon. (suggested by a comment from Luis Eduardo in 2001)
Oedipus vs. Job:
Are the lessons from Oedipus the King and the Book of Job
in the Old Testament mostly similar or different? Which one suffers
more? How does free will impact on each man?
"Know thyself"?: Lee
in 2001 asked: "Did Thebes have a sign at the gate that said 'Know Thyself'?"
What irony, then, would be such an inscription?
Oedipus the King vs. other
Greek plays: Lilydove12 asked in 2000 how Oedipus Rex
compares and contrasts with other known plays from ancient Greece. There
would be several ways to approach this broad topic--
- Find out about the
evolution of drama in
the Golden Age, e.g. the number of actors on stage at one time.
- How does the
function of the chorus differ
in tragedies as opposed to comedies, or from one tragedy to another, e.g. from
Oedipus the King to Antigone.
all plays about the relationship of
the gods to mankind, or were some people vs. people, e.g. maybe Seven
Against Thebes in which Oedipus's sons fight a civil war for the throne of
Thebes (perhaps at Creon's instigation)?
- Ashwani (1999) and Lily (2000) asked how
Oedipus in Oedipus Rex
and Creon in Antigone
are similar and different as tragic protagonists. Read the "sequel" to
Oedipus Rex and decide who is more arrogant, blind, and set up by the
gods. Jonathan (2000) suggested these leads--
- Oedipus wanted to challenge the law of the Gods,
and Creon thought that his laws were more important than the Gods.
- Also, look at how they reacted to their people -- this is also different.
- Cards of UK (1999) asked about "Antigone
and Jocasta: Do they behave in similar fashions? Do they hold similar
roles? What about their similarities and differences?"
- Oedipus vs.
a modern or historical figure: Judy asked in 2000 how Oedipus
might be compared and contrasted to a parallel modern political figure.
- Many people think that Richard Nixon's
story would make a fine Greek tragedy. Find out why.
- Another forum contributor suggested
Pericles. Does his life parallel that of Oedipus in some tragic way?
- How about Socrates, the philosopher who was
forced to drink poison, executed for his beliefs?
- Try the Medieval astronomers, e.g. Galileo,
who was threatened with torture during the Inquisition if he persisted in
saying that he saw four moons around Jupiter with his telescope.
- The order of
the Oedipus trilogy: Since Antigone is alive during Oedipus at
Colonus, which is about the end of Oedipus's life, but she is dead at the
end of Antigone, in what order did Sophocles write these three plays?
Are there other mismatches among the plays? Are these flaws? How
might modern staging help erase such flaws (e.g. playing Antigone as a ghost
not recognized as dead by her blind father)?
- Victoria (1999) offered these production
dates: "Oedipus at Colonus was apparently
produced the year after its authors death at the age of ninety in
405 B.C. The dating is only approximate because
reliable evidence is lacking. Sophocles wrote his plays over a wide interval
of years. Antigone was produced in 441 B.C,
and Oedipus some fourteen or fifteen years later [in about
425 B.C.]." [So Antigone was first and
then the two plays about Oedipus, but all were over a decade or more apart.]
in the play: Kanu Goyal of NN High School (1998) contributed this
issue: "Has anyone noticed the use of mathematical terms in the play? I came across notions of how mathmainly numbers and math termsare repeatedly shown in the play. Oedipus Rex, apparently, has mathematical imagery. Oedipus is described as
'not equated with the gods' and there are many other instances where such comparisons are made: measurement, commensuration, calculation, approximation, definition, and infinity. Numbers are apparently significant to this play.
"So what does mathematical imagery suggest? Is
Sophocles (author of the play) influenced by Pythagoras? Does he see the world in terms of math? Is his reasoning flawed? Is he mathematically
'off'? Or is he being challenged to think unmathematically in the play?"
- Portraying a
Character: Dax910 (1999) was going to portray Oedipus in a
production of the play. Pick one scene from the play and write a set
of actor's or director's notes on how one of the characters in the scene
should be played. Include notions on when the character should walk,
gesture, speak louder, speak more softly, what attitudes or emotions should be
evident from that character for which lines--including with what attitude the
character should listen when another character is talking.
Ronnie Downey (1999; Northern Va. CC), in a forum entry titled, "The Gods Must
Have Been Crazy," asked: "I just don't understand how the destiny of one
man should cause turmoil in the lives of so many others. Was it their [the
Thebans'] destiny to suffer because the gods just give destinies to a select
few people? The whole theory of destiny according to the Greek gods disturbs
me. Why would someone worship a deity that is so focused on destiny rather
than happiness? The people have no control over their lives!" Find
out what you can about the Greeks' ideas on destiny to explain how they form a
backdrop for this play.
- History of
Tragedy: For commentators on tragedy, consider Aristotle, Nietzsche,
and Leopardi, said high school student AP in 1999. What do critics and
commentators say about this play? (Pick one aspect; there has been a lot of
writing about Oedipus.)
- Being There:
Abby DC wondered (1999): "How do you think you would have responded to the play if you were a Greek citizen attending the theatre?"
Find out about the Festival of Dionysus in Athens and the shape and textures
of a Greek theater. What might it have felt like, sounded like, looked
like, even smelled and tasted like to be at such a festival?
From an anonymous posting in 1999: The Greek title of the play
is Oedipus, the Tyrant. In what sense is Oedipus a
tyrant? On the one hand, he appears to be a man who is given the
throne rather than inheriting it. Is that one definition of a
tyrant? On the other hand, Oedipus is a quick-tempered, rash man who
is willing to inflict a certain amount of roughness on an old man to find
out his truth. Does O's arrogance make him a tyrant? How many
other definitions of "tyrant" may fit Oedipus? Find
out what form of government Thebes (or Athens) might have had in the 5th
Century B.C. or before and how that connects with the play.
isabaer (1999) wanted to contrast Sophocles with other Greek
playwrights: How was Sophocles' playwriting style similar to and different
from that of Aeschylus and Eurides? Why was the play Oedipus Rex
important in the development of ancient Greek theater?
- Macbeth vs.
Oedipus?: An anonymous posting (2000) suggested this connection.
Compare and contrast Shakespeare's Macbeth and Sophocles' Oedipus
the King as tragedies. What aspects do the two plays have in
common? In what ways do the plots or characters' motives or
circumstances differ significantly? Of course, consider the forces of
prophecy vs. free will for both plays. (Hint: Sorry Girl 
pointed out that both protagonists try to avoid their fate and are
overtaken by it. How accurate is this statement?)
Oracle vs. the Witches: Adreanaline (2000) noted one parallel: "In
Oedipus the King, Creon consults the delphic oracle. This delphic oracle is able to foretell the future with aid form
steam that rises up from a fissure at Delphi (a city in
Greece). In Macbeth, the witches are able to foretell (prophesy) the future when standing around the cauldron, from which steam is rising up."
- Lear vs.
Oedipus?: Melanie (2000) noted that both protagonists are blind.
But what other commonalities or significant differences exist between these
two tragic figures. (It's ok to range into Antigone to look for
parallels among their children.)
Desdemona, and Ophelia: Contrast Jocasta's responsibilities to
society with those of Desdemona, as the wife of General Othello in
Shakespeare's play, and Ophelia (perhaps as girlfriend of Hamlet and if she
had become Hamlet's queen). What are their roles as psychological
supports of their men? Compare and contrast their tactics, their
effectiveness, the reasons for their sad ends. (Inspired by a
question from Dede Camara in 2000)
- Jocasta vs.
Penelope of the Odyssey: res (2000) offered this
task: "comparing and contrasting Jocasta and Penelope as wives, mothers,
their characteristics, heroism and cunning."
- Ancient vs.
Contemporary Tragedies: (inspired by a question from "Cindibean1"
in 2000) Compare and contrast ancient and modern tragedy. You might
use as examplars, Sophocles' Oedipus the King and
the theory of tragedy
summarized by Aristotle* and Death of a Salesman and playwright
Arthur Miller's rebuttal to
Aristotle, entitled "Tragedy and the Common Man,"* published in the New
York Times in 1949, a couple years before the debut of his Death
of a Salesman for the first time on Broadway. (It was revived
50 years later with Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman.) Also see
module on tragedy.
* Hint: Open the Poetics one section at a time (the MIT
site has 3). Use <Ctrl> + <f> to search the text from top to bottom for
Oedipus. You can also search for terms like reversal, flaw, messenger,
etc. Similarly, you can search Miller's text for pride, fate,
maybe gods, irony, etc.
Ed Friedlander's free-thinking site
on Oedipus and some non-Aristotelian ideas about reading the play. One
highlight-- links to overseas productions of the play. (The dramatic
sculpture at right is pictured on Friedlander's site and on the website of
Carlos Parada on Greek mythology.)
The URL for this page is: http://vccslitonline.cc.va.us/OedipustheWreck/research.htm