|VCCS Litonline Introduction to Literature
English 112 (English Composition II)
Click on the
sphinx to read the play.
Oedipus the Wreck
Study Guide Questions
Objective: To guide your analysis of the
The following questions were harvested from inquiries sent to
the Oedipus Forum at Litonline. Thanks to the teachers of these
students. Though numbered, the questions are in no particular order.
These are the sort of questions commonly asked in high school or college about
On Tiresias*: What are the function and importance of
Tiresias in the two Sophocles plays, Oedipus and Antigone. What does he bring to the characters he confronts? How is he treated? What does
his message have to do with the larger themes of the plays?
"U" in 1999 asked how Tiresias, who has
been both a woman and a man, might be just the right seer for Laius, Oedipus,
and later Creon. In view of the curse brought on the family by
Lauis rape of a boy and the prediction of murder and incest hanging over
Oedipus, what links can you see for Tiresias?
Robert (1999) offered these highlights
from the life of Tiresias:
Tiresias accidentally came across Athena while she was bathing, so she blinded him.
mother's pleading Athena gave Tiresias the gift of prophecy to compensate for his blindness.
Among his prophecies were: A
warning to Pentheus to recognize and honor Dionysus when he first appeared in Thebes.
A prediction of the greatness of Heracles.
He revealed to Oedipus that Oedipus had
unknowingly murdered his own father.
Advice to Odysseus on how to placate
On the Chorus: Malcolm Timbers suggests that, since this
was a religious play, the chorus function something like angels [think
perhaps of the heralding archangels who announced the will of God to Mary
(the "Annunciation") and others, warned Joseph to take his family
to Egypt (to avoid Herod's slaughter of the innocents) as well as the angels
of the Christmas scene]. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
What is the
function of each choral ode?
Who are the chorus?
Some say they represent elders or citizens of Thebes. Others say they
share the perspective of the audience. What do you say? Can both
of these perspectives be true, or are they mutually exclusive?
Holly in NY says, "Writing the
audience into the play via the chorus makes the audience more invested in
the play, and therefore more willing to listen to its message."
If you've read both plays, you might
even consider how the chorus in Oedipus the King differs from the
chorus in Antigone.
Sparklew12 (2001) asked how the
chorus' views on life and the gods differs from Jocasta's.
Thai at NCTC (1998) and Maria (1999) passed along these
What is the dramatic function of the chorus in Oedipus?
How does the playwright represent
What values are associated with
What dramatic purpose do they
What part of the community do they
What message do they convey to the
Physical vs. moral
blindness: Oedipus can see, but he arrogantly believes that he
can circumvent prophecy; Tiresias cannot see physically, but he is expert at
divining the will of the gods. Defend the previous sentence with
multiple examples. At the end of the play, then, why does Oedipus
blind himself; is this an act of weakness or one of strength? (phishyali,
An earlier, anonymous, contributor to
the forum suggested that various characters suffer from this moral
blindness, e.g. Jocasta, who can't see swollen-footed Oedipus, who looks
like Laius, as her son.
this inventory of passages using blindness symbolically from a student at
the University of Michigan and these comments on
the blindness motif.
Agree or disagree with this assessment
by Steve Whiting (1998): "Oedipus's pride prevents him from seeing the
truth, and this is why he takes such a fall. Oedipus is blinded by his pride
and cannot accept that he could not avoid his fate. The irony is that the
only time Oedipus is not blinded by his pride, is when he blinds himself
Truth and Lies: Who lies to
Oedipus and who tells him the truth? How do truth and lies help
determine O's actions during his life?
Reason vs. Rashness: Liz E.
(1999) contributed this example; can you see a pattern of such instances?
"Oedipus lacks reason throughout the play. He is a stubborn individual,
he will not give up the search for truth. He is too dense to understand that
when Jocasta tells Oedipus to stop the quest for knowledge in his origins,
he believes that it is because of social class."
Fate vs. free
will: To what extent is Oedipus a dupe of the gods who have sealed
his fate? To what extent does Oedipus bring about his own downfall?
[Hint: If someone prophesied that you would kill your father and marry your
mother, the prudent person would avoid killing all men and resist marrying
an older woman.]
foreknowledge in the gods make Oedipus
choose to whack Laius on the road to Thebes, for instance? On the
other hand, Sandy in 2001 and others suggest that fate is an outcome
that is set; there are many paths to that fate (e.g. Oedipus could have been
kidnapped instead of abandoned by his parents), but one's fate is
mario a.k.a "jest" in 2001 suggested that the
gods are to blame for intervening in the family. Starting with the
prophecy, list everything that may have been done by the gods to steer
Laius, Jocasta, and Oedipus to fulfill their predicted fate. For
instance, Ray Pham in 2001 notes: "The gods know that, in human
nature, the shepherd will spare his [the baby's] life and Laius will try to
avoid it [the prophecy]."
lee81_98 in 1999 offered this question
and starter comment: "'Sophocles' chief desire was to reveal the
moral dilemmas of humanity in the
grip of fate. The shaping of human destiny was to him a product of the
individual's character and the whims of chance.' Consider the validity of this statement with
regard to Oedipus Rex. Fate (=the prophecy) + free will (=his tragic flaw
--his choice) = his destiny What major issues or points are relevant?"
Natalie (1999) offered this thesis:
"Through Oedipus, Sophocles emphasizes that despite the fact that humans
have control over the choices they make in their lives, they will always be
led to the same fate they were
destined to fulfill"--as if "all the little streams will
end up in one big river" was her analogy.
Oedipus the God?:
Shauna (1999) wondered if Oedipus's attempts to escape his fate and even his
search for truth constitute an attempt to be all-seeing and all-knowing?
[Or does Oeidpus actually gain stature because he is striving against the
What is the
role of the gods in this
play? Luca B. asked (1999)
Antagonist?: K. Parker (1999)
wanted to know, if Oedipus is the protagonist in the play bearing his name,
who is the antagonist? [That is, with whom is Oedipus in conflict?]
Who is your nominee for antagonist?
Why, do you think, is the play, Oedipus the King, still read today?
What does the play hold for a modern audience? For instance--
Consider the nature vs. nurture
argument: Does this play reflect on the notion that our lives are
determined either by our genetic heritage or by our upbringing?
Ray's teacher (1998) offered a focus
on issues of morality for modern readers: "Name 3 moral issues in the
play, discuss the impact each had on characters and events in the play. Then
connect these same three issues to specific events and people in the times
which you lived. Close the essay with a conjecture as to what effect these same moral dilemmas will have on people and events in the twenty-first century."
Does Oedipus ever
transcend his fate,
or is he only a man who killed his father and married his mother?
Brendan Sheppard (1999; NVCC)
answered: "An elegant trap
is set for a likable character and neatly unfolds around him. Though we
already know his fate has already snared him, we enjoy his desperate search
for the truth that will destroy him and revel in his anguish. We wonder,
also if his act of blinding, rather than killing himself was his own doing,
or decreed by the gods." With what parts of this answer do you
agree or disagree? Why?
Dwells (1999) offered the
mingling of public and private lives
as related to protagonists' [and one might say, politicians'] downfalls: "The idea that many tragic heroes fall because of
intermingling of the private and public life is a
premise that I have been wrestling with. Othello
is a perfect example of this. I was curious on
others thoughts on this topic regarding Oedipus."
Research: Find modern analogs
for Othello and Oedipus, people whose public lives suffered due to shame or
scandal in their private lives. Were any of these instances tragic?
good? Kenneth F. (1999) wondered if anything good came from
what happened to Oedipus? How many positive results can you see?
Janine (2000) from Thomas Nelson CC said:
"Oedipus is important to contemporary society because, we all have
a yearning to know our futures. And to know the future means that you must choose whether or not you believe what you have been told. This boils down to a discussion between fate and free will, which we all still struggle with today.
Anyone could sit for hours and discuss which is true and which is a bunch of bologna. Also
Oedipus has what I call "Napoleon syndrome," a need and urge to feel right and needed,
omnipotent and in charge all the time. If he had left well enough alone, he would have lived his life in the dark, but at least he would be happy.
necessity: What purpose or point (theme?) is served by having Oedipus
live and having Jocasta die during this play?
Katy (1998) was trying to help her boyfriend with this question: What
ulterior motives does each character have? CAUTION: Oedipus accuses
Creon, Tiresias, and even Jocasta of having ulterior motives, but he may not
be right about any of them. For instance, he thinks that Jocasta is
trying to get him to give up his investigation, at one point, because she
doesn't want him to find out that he isn't royalty. WRONG! She doesn't want
him to find out that she is the son she ordered abandoned on Mt. Cithaeron.
What theme statements might be created from Oedipus the King based on
these conflicts? Jinny (1999) added this background about a
critic of tragedy: "Ferdinand Brunetier saw tragedy as a struggle of wills. The theatre in general, he said, is nothing but a place for the development of human will attacking obstacles opposed to it by destiny, fortune, or circumstances.
The struggle of wills is the struggle of person against person, or person
against forces greater than himself." Corsters (2000)
provided the list on the left.
|a. man against man
b. man against himself
c. man against nature
d. man against society
- man vs. woman
- age vs. youth
- society vs. individual
- living to dead
- men vs. gods
Tigger4167 (1998) offered this theme question that relates the play
and real life: "How important is illusion in life? Give examples
to support (relate 1 to Oedipus)."
From an unsigned 1998 posting:
"What is the role of love in this play?"
g. From Lina (1999): "This drama makes
statements about attempts to circumvent fate, love of a son toward his
father, guilt, and incest. Take each and explain the statements he is
making. What/why might the author be 'teaching' in his story?"
h. From Lina, also, (1999): "What knowledge from the story do you gain about the Greek
a) the gods b) the prophets c) love of country d) sanctity of life?"
i. From Lisa (1999) offered this list of
themes/ideas in the play--
places of nurture
cyclic nature of life
distinction between levels in society
influence of the past on the present
power of the gods/extent of fate
j. Wertix (1999) offered this theme
statement: "If you try to do the right thing, sometimes
wrong things will happen."
k. Deb (2000) paraphrased
final comment: "The basic theme of this
play is the irony of fate? In other words, no mortal, no matter how powerful
or wealthy can be pronounced happy until he/she is dead; for no man/woman,
however wise, knows what tomorrow will bring?"
l. Andrea (2000) offered this prompt for
an essay on full knowledge vs. partial knowledge: "I think that men
aspires to full knowledge; partial knowledge involves perils as well as
protections. Who are the characters with partial knowledge and what happens
when they seek full knowledge? What theme . . . , then, do you draw from
considering this idea of 'knowledge' in Oedipus?"
m. Victoria Alexaki (2000) observed that an Old
Testament adage might apply to this play: "'The sins of the father are visited upon the sons?' The gods will serve
justice even if it takes generations."
How does this notion illuminate the role of the gods in the play and the
question of Oedipus's own guilt or innocence?
Is Oedipus a good man? Aristotle says in his Poetics that the
most effective tragedy will be about someone who is basically a good man
brought low because we will care about what happens to him. (If a bad
person has a bad end, not much pity is wasted on the cad, and the audience
might not fear for him; [they might even cheer when he gets his.]) Can
a savior of the city be a hero if he has a quick temper and has pain inflicted
on old men? So
is Oedipus a good man, deserving of our pity, someone whom we dread to see
What is Oedipus's "tragic
flaw"? his arrogance? his unrelenting desire for truth?
his desire to be, again, the savior of Thebes? his striving against
the gods and fate?
Hope (1999) accused
Oedipus of being
stupid. Creon accuses
Oedipus of jumping to conclusions without evidence. To what extent is
Oedipus stupid, or "blind," as opposed to demanding that the evidence add up
and be conclusive when it applies to him? What's at stake for Oedipus?
So why would he be reluctant to conclude that he is the source of the plague
The Defense of Oedipus:
Jennifer A (1999) suggested that there are at least four indications that
Oedipus may be innocent in some sense. Make a case for the "court of
public opinion." She lists these--
"The gods control his
"The servant changed his
destiny when he saved his life."
Changed Oedipus: How does
Oedipus change during the play?
Teddy (1999) suggested a
"before and after" approach: Contrast the focus of Oedipus's attention in his
first scene vs. that of his last scene. Is he any less self-centered?
Trace the milestones in
Oedipus's fall from greatness across the timeline of his entire life.
Lina (1999) suggested for a
character analysis of Oedipus: "Cite his
strengths, weaknesses, desires, abilities, etc. I know his power of
being king and his intelligence counts as a strength; his fear [is] that the
prophecy will be true. I think he is self-centered; he has the ability to
answer riddles." Adam H. (1999)
fills in some ideas for Lina's question:
Weaknesses: blindness to the truth
"It is paradoxical how he
is supposedly such a great riddle solver and yet he can't solve the riddle of
Desires: "He clearly needs
control over his people and their love in return. He desires to help
them in their situation with the famine and the troubles throughout the land."
Abilities: "his ability to
satisfy his mind and make himself think that the oracle is in effect a hoax.
He goes way out of his way throughout the play to satisfy this feeling. I hope
that helps you with your first question."
Jen (2000) wanted to know
what Oedipus's attitude toward the gods was and if it changed.
What makes a hero?
Ally (2000) asked: "There seem to be many comments about Oedipus that
classify him a hero because he solved the riddle of the sphinx. Aren't the
qualities of a great hero such of his/her personal attributes, not simply
When did Jocasta know that Oedipus was the baby she had ordered to be
killed? She should have known him when she first saw his feet (the
name, "Oedipus," literally means "swollen foot," or
maybe even "wounded foot"), but did she? Pinpoint in the
play when Jocasta seems to know--is it only right before she kills herself,
or could it have been some time before that? ("eng1/2 s.w."
sees Jocasta's suicide as abandoning her child once more--permanently.)
Christina (2001) offered this
question: How are Lady Macbeth and Jocasta similar in the ways they try to
comfort their husbands?
Anna Taylor (1999) wanted
to know if we readers could identify with Jocasta in some way. What is
her purpose in this play, then?
Jocasta and the
Oracle: Why does Jocasta try to undermine prophecy? Does
Jocasta love Oedipus? They made four kids, but did they care about each
other? The movie version of this play with Christopher Plummer and Lilly
Palmer was a real movie, and the royal characters were played as obviously
lovers. Does Jocasta, then, downplay the prophecies to spare her
beloved husband--or is she trying to spare herself public shame? (based
on question from eng 1/2 M.R A.V in 2002)
Ged asks whether Creon is ambitious or not:
|As an actor playing Creon this is the biggest question you need to answer, I feel that Creon at the start of the play is not interested in taking over the throne
"I have every advantage of a king, none of a king's back breaking load, what more could I want?"
[Does Creon get ambitious when he becomes regent for Oedipus's
children? By the time of the Antigone, Creon has been on
the throne for perhaps 20 years. Does he pit one brother against
the other in order to keep the throne?]
Scene: Lana de Lioncourt (1998) asked: "What
is the purpose or function of the final meeting between Oedipus and Creon?"
Totoro suggests including this quotation in your answer: "Who on
Earth could have been born with more hate from heaven? Whom never citizen or
stranger may Receive into their dwellings, or accost, But thrust out of doors;
and 'tis no other Laid all these curses on myself, than I!"
An anonymous response from 1999 suggested
that Oedipus "was holding to his word.
He swore that the murderer would be punished--so he punished himself. He was
also acting in remorse."
Trace instances of verbal irony (including intentional sarcasm?) in the
confrontations between Oedipus and Creon as well as Oedipus and
Teresias. Does Jocasta speak verbal irony, or does her attempt to calm
Oedipus by debunking prophecy result in dramatic irony--the unexpected
happening? (based on a 2002 question by ARK in 2002)
Angelina129 in 2001 provided a prime example from
Oedipus: "Whoever killed King Laius might-who knows?/Lay violent hands even on me-and
soon./I act for the murdered king in my own interest."
Garrett in 2001 suggests a lot of verbal irony is in
the "antistrophes" [even-numbered verses] of the choral
Erin in 2002 starts with one example; can you give other examples and state
the impact of dramatic irony on the story of Oedipus? Tash in 2001
added How does the dramatic irony increase the sense of tragedy?
|Dramatic irony is created when a statement made
by a character has one meaning for the speaker and and additional and
quite different one for the audience. For example, at the beginning of
the play, Oedipus is enraged at Laius' death and he wants to hunt down
the killer; he talks about all the terrible things he wants to do to
the killer, yet the audience knows that he is the killer.
This is dramatic irony.--Erin
Here's a starter list from
runnerchic77 in 2000 (1-4) and Brandon in 1998 (5-9):
One riddle, the Sphinx's riddle,
makes him a great powerful king while the other riddle, Tiresias' riddle,
will destroy him.
Tiresias is blind and can see the truth, hence him being a blind prophet. Oedipus can see but can't see the truth (killing his father and Jocasta being his mother), but once Oedipus sees the truth he blinds himself.
When the gods tell Oedipus his fate, Oedipus runs away from Corinth-- apparently away from his "parents"--and
goes to Thebes. But he is actually running towards his problems not away.
He is abandoned on Mt. Cithaeron as
a baby and is saved. Now he is going back to the same Mountain to die.
Oedipus becomes the Sphinx. He protects the city, but in time becomes a pollution. The Sphinx protected the city, but would kill anyone who answered the riddle falsely.
- The riddle of the Sphinx is Oedipus's own life.
Think about it.
- The truth was ALWAYS right in front of Oedipus (his feet). He was blind to the facts. Ironically, the only time he saw the truth was when he blinded himself physically.
- Laius and Jocasta helped fulfill the destiny by not insuring the death of their child. They played it off as going perfectly as planned, although the
gods had already ruled out this destiny.
- Tiresias is essentially what Oedipus becomes.
Dan (1998) offered this
Oedipus's personality: "The traits that bring Oedipus down (pride,
persistence, intuition) are also what allowed him to save Thebes to begin
with? It just seems to add another layer of depth to the play."
Cvitch (1998) asked what
there in the Prologue?
Cvitch (1998) also asked in what ways
did Oedipus criticize his people during his confrontation with Tiresias?
Brendan Sheppard points to the scene
during which Oedipus confronts Creon as ironic: "When Oedipus accuses Creon (Jocasta's brother) of plotting with the seer to accuse him (Oedipus) of Lauis' murder,
that is irony. Creon is a great friend to Oedipus, and the seer, by at first refusing to reveal the murderer is trying to protect Oedipus, not plot against him.
This is ironic because what is actually occurring is the opposite of what is perceived.
This adds to the story because we enjoy an omniscient perspective, knowing the truth and the perception are at odds, and watching with impish glee as wrongs occur as a result."
hyperbole (exaggeration): Are there places in the
story where exaggeration seems to be deliberately used by the speaker,
making the event reported larger or more important than it is.
(Hint: Check Creon's report of the Oracle and Teresias' predictions
foreshadowing: Malcolm Timbers suggests at his
Geocities page that the blinding of Oedipus is foreshadowed, perhaps
because the audience didn't know about that if Sophocles made another
demise for Oedipus besides Homer's claim that he died in battle. What
instances of foreshadowing are there in the play, and how to they help
build a sense of inevitability?
"dichronic" time in this
"avalanche" play: Kali (1998) pointed out the use of
flashbacks to recover pieces of Oedipus's past and the cumulative force
of inevitability that comes down on Oedipus when he recognizes that he
is the killer of Laius AND that Laius was his biological father (and
Jocasta his real mother). Trace (chart?) the movement of time in
the play and list the clues that accumulate to pin down exactly who
contrast: For example, Ng
(1999) suggested these conflicts--man vs. man (Oedipus vs. Creon), man
vs. nature (Oedipus vs. the plague), man vs. himself (Oedipus altruism
vs. his pride), man vs. the gods (Oedipus vs. the oracles, [also Laius
and Jocasta] vs. the prophecy).
reversal (of fortune)
recognition: When the
shepherd and former servant of Laius confirms that he gave the baby to
the shepherd from Corinth and that he got baby Oedipus from Queen
Jocasta, Oedipus realizes that he is that baby, that the man he killed
where three roads meet was Lauis, and that Lauis was his father--and
Jocasta his mother. Aha! and ruin (reversal of fortune from king
to exile) occur in the same instant.
symbolism: Amy (2000)
wanted to know if any of the characters in the play are symbolic.
Beyond Amy's question, if not the characters, then are any props or
objects perceivable as symbols?
suspense: Deirdre Stewart
(2000) asked how Sophocles fostered suspense in this play. [Here's the
problem: Sophocles' audience knew this story as well as some folks know
their Bible stories, so they knew the outcome. So if the audience
knows the ending, how does a dramatist keep them interested? What
does the audience NOT know that the dramatist can provide?]
one scene: Beverly Dira
of the Philippines (2000) and a classmate offered these two questions: "The
drama has only one scene. How did Sophocles solve the problem of
presenting the events that had happened before and those that happened
away from the scene of the drama? Give examples from the text."
Judee (2000) answered: "events that have happened and away from
stage - simply thru their speech, of many different characters"
"The most prominent and obvious one is the part where the Messenger
comes out and describes in DETAIL Jocasta's suicide and Oedipus'
mutilation of himself.
"About the events that happened before the play, e.g. Lauis' murder: Find the part where they 1st mentioned it; it
is carried thru as a discussion because they have to find out who caused the murder
because there's the plague that's killing everyone.
Greek plays emphasize a lot on language, so it's very important to look
for imagery that links to the [story line] in the play."
investigative results: "In
the course of the investigation regarding Laius' murder, many facts came out supporting the suspicion that Oedipus killed
Laius. What were these statements and accusations? Why was Oedipus not convinced initially and what was his reaction to such accusation? What do these facts reveal Oedipus as a character?"
Judee (2000) answered this one, also:
"It starts from Teresias, when
he insinuates that Oedipus is the murderer.
continues to the man from Corinth
are straightforward questions and definitely CAN be found in the text
itself without much hassle at all. Just give your teacher the quotes and explain how they tell
you, the reader, that Oedipus is the murderer.
yourself in Oedipus' shoes: As a proud and smart man, will he believe that he could be the 'thing' that's
causing his 'own children' (the citizens) misery?"
to interpret: Provide the significance, a connection to the rest of
the play, literary merit, and historical context for one of the
following statements from the play--
Oedipus says, "Alas! All out! All known, no more concealment! o light! may
I never look on you again, revealed as I am, sinful in marriage, sinful in shedding of blood!"
Poonum28 in 2001 passed along this question about what is universal
in this play: "Aristotle wrote that the difference between history and poetry is that
poetry is a more philosophical and serious business than history; for poetry speaks more of
universals (what can happen) than history of particulars (what did happen). What do
you think is universal about the play Oedipus Rex? Is it the plot, the characterization, the theme or some combination of these or other elements? Explain
your answer using concrete references to the play."
Staging: Peter Phillips asked
(1999): "Which would you say is more dominant in Oedipus Rex--the dialogue or visual spectacle (Chorus singing/dancing etc.)?
Which plays a greater part in the exploration of the thematic concerns of the play?"
Shoes: Chris Youl (1999) pointed out: "To prove to the audience that the
[choral] actors were larger than life they used to wear shoes that had been enlarged on the sole to make themselves look larger."
Appearance: from an anonymous
submission in 1999: What does Oedipus look like
Based on a note by jacadij (1999): How are the broaches from
Jocasta's garments symbolic? What else in the play in symbolic?
Inspired by a question from jacadij (1999): From the priest's
description of the "ship of state" awash in a raging see of plague
to the "red hail" described by the messenger, this play is full of
figurative language, especially in the choral odes. Find, cite by line
number, quote, and explain 5 important images. How do these images
help to set a tone for the play--and what is that tone?
- Aruna (1999) suggested a motif about
Do you see multiple images about hands? Document it and explain how it
impacts on the tone or theme of the play.
- Who is the
Better Foil?: How are Creon and Tiresias both foils of
Oedipus--whose personalities have traits opposite to Oedipus, thereby exposing
aspects of O's character? Of the two (Monk, 1999, wanted to know)
who is the more effective at bringing to our notice O's personality traits?
- Was Oedipus a Wreck? Jeff Pool (2000) invited
everyone to consider the name of this website. Is Oedipus truly a
"wreck"? In what sense? [Is every wreck an accident, for
* Character names have
variant spellings, depending on
which of two systems used to represent the ancient Greek sounds is used by a
translator. Tiresias, aka Teiresias or Teresias Creon, aka Kreon
Jocasta, aka Iokaste Oedipus, aka Oidipos
Laius, aka Laios The same can be true for names of the
gods; for instance, Phoebus Apollo might be spelled Phoibos Apollo.
The URL for this page is: http://vccslitonline.cc.va.us/OedipustheWreck/studyguide.htm