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Title: Oedipus Rex

Genre: Play (drama, tragedy)


Author: Sophocles
Period/ School: Ancient Greek
Publication Date: ~400 B.C.

The Author and His Times: Sophocles did not include the gods as characters in this play, likely
to emphasize the human nature of Oedipus’ tragedy. In Sophocles’ time, the traditional faith that
people had in the power of the oracle was faltering, and prophecy was a controversial topic. This
implies a loss of faith and a more humanistic outlook on the universe. Greeks were beginning see
their present as a logical evolution from the past, and hoping for progress in the future.

Form, Structure, Plot: Following the traditional structure of Greek plays, it is split into several
parts, including the prologue, parodos, episodes, stasimons, and exodus. Following the unity of
time and place, there are no flash backs, everything takes place in real time, and in one location.
The plot is linear. The play takes place within the space of a few hours. There are parallel
moments at the beginning and end of the play, when Oedipus says “I am Oedipus.”

Characters: There are four major characters: Oedipus, Tiresias, Jocasta, and Creon. The chorus
also has a large role. There are six minor characters. The major characters are more complex than
the minor ones, but Oedipus is the most developed. There is not enough time for any of the
characters to change their personalities drastically, though Oedipus is shocked when he makes
his important realizations. The character’s traits are revealed through how they act and behave.
Oedipus: 30-35, proud, rash, brave; strong but limps. He bears a physical deformity, showing
that he is not as god-like as he thinks he is at the beginning of the play. He makes decisions
quickly and is eager to carry them out; he thinks the decisions he makes are logical, but often
forgets the importance of being able to think clearly. Quick action was a mark of Athenian
society, and thus imbuing that same personality trait of Oedipus, and having it be one of the
elements that lead to his downfall, likely instilled fear in the heart of Athenian audiences that the
traits they valued would be the ones that destroyed them. He is smart, and enjoys feeling more
clever than others. Oedipus means “man of agony” but refers to foot ailments. He is the
embodiment of social progress. There are other times when he is equated with physicians and
mathematicians, emphasizing his connection with logic and enlightenment. He is the protagonist
of the story and his purpose is to call into question the competing forces of free will and destiny.
Oedipus: Oh my children, the new blood of ancient Thebes, why are you here? Holding at my alter,
praying before me, your branches wound in wool. Our city reeks with the smoke of burning incense, rings
with cries for the Healer and wailing for the dead. I thought it wrong, my children, to hear the truth from
others, messengers. Here I am myself—you all know me, the world knows my fame; I am Oedipus.
This quote shows two competing forces within Oedipus—his fierce pride, but also his lurking
insecurity and uneasiness. He sees that the townspeople revere him, and doesn’t understand why
they have so much faith in him. Thus, he acts more prideful in order to make himself feel
adequate in resolving the situation, and his pride is only exacerbated as the situation becomes
worse. This passage also reveals how deeply Oedipus feels about his subjects, which makes his
sacrifice to save them all the more wrenching.
Jocasta: 45-50; caring, smart, sensitive; appears young because of a magic broach; Jocasta acts
motherly towards Oedipus, trying to resolve the conflicts he has with others and encouraging
him to make more moderate choices, she is respected by the prominent figures in the community;
she is Oedipus’ wife and mother.
Jocasta: Have you no sense? Poor misguided men, such shouting—why this public outburst? Aren’t you
ashamed, with the land so sick, to stir up private quarrels? Into the palace now. And Creon, you go home.
Why make such a furor over nothing?
This quote shows the powerful effect that Jocasta has over Oedipus and Creon. She acts as a
mother and ultimate moral authority over both them, and is a strong voice for moderation.
Creon: 30, moderate, logical, fair; Creon has a forceful personality and strong convictions, but is
more willing to compromise and think things out than Oedipus is. He strives to do things
correctly, completely, logically, and fairly.
Creon: I haven’t come to mock you, Oedipus, or to criticize your former failings. You there, have you lost
all respect for human feelings? At least revere the Sun, the holy fire that keeps us all alive. Never expose
a thing of guilt and holy dread so great it appalls the earth, the rain from heaven, the light of day! Get
him into the halls—quickly as you can. Piety demands no less. Kindred alone should she a kinsman’s
shame. This is obscene.
In this scene, Creon behaves coolly and rationally. He shows Oedipus respect and sensitivity,
though there is clearly a distance between them that didn’t exist previously. In this scene Creon
reveals how different he is from Oedipus, he thinks things out carefully and asks the advice of
others, and is free from the weight of shame that Oedipus carries. However, the two men are
united by having shared a great horrific revelation.

Setting: Ancient Greece, Thebes; currently experiencing a plague. It is Oedipus’ desire to save
the city that ultimately leads to his discovering the truth of his parentage. The city’s struggles
mirror Oedipus’ destruction and create a dismal atmosphere at the play’s opening.

Diction: The diction is formal. Fagles carefully chooses his use of italics to emphasize a truth
that the audience is supposed to see but the characters do not, or to reinforce the verbal tone of
one of the characters speaking. The recurring words related to sailing, farming, hunting,
calculations, and medicine also enforce the characterization of Oedipus and his relation to central
theme of the play. Doctorial and mathematical images are abundant. There are allusions to
figures in ancient Greek mythology, and the choral odes tend to be written in a more flowery
manner, whereas the dialogue tends to be plainer and truer to life. Oedipus speaks in a more
forceful, and arrogant, manner than the rest of the characters, and Jocasta speaks kindly.
Tiresias: What rock of Cithaeron won’t scream back in echo? The day you learn the truth about your
marriage, the wedding-march that sang you into your halls, the lusty voyage home to the fatal harbor!
And a crowd of other horrors you’d never dream will level you with yourself and all your children.
The words that Tiresias uses in this scene are designed to instill in Oedipus the greatest sense of
fear and uncertainty possible. He taunts Oedipus with what he does not know, and every word is
threatening. His reference to the “fatal harbor” reinforces the motif as Oedipus as a sailor, and
the circular nature of his life.
Oedipus: I count myself the son of Chance, the great goddess, giver of all good things—I’ll never see
myself disgraced. She is my mother! And the moons have marked me out, my blood-brothers, one moon
on the wane, the next moon great with power.
This quote contrasts chance and destiny. Oedipus seems to believe in both, connecting himself
closely to the powers of chance, but also claiming that his destiny is marked by the passage of
astrological features. His reference to himself as the “son” of chance is also ironic, considering
that at this point he does not know who is mother is.
Oedipus: Oh but this I know: no sickness can destroy me, nothing can. I would never have been saved
from death—I have been saved from something great and terrible, something strange. Well let my destiny
come and take me on its way!
The sickness that Oedipus mentions is parallel to the sickness that Thebes suffers. He also has
only a vague grasp on the magnitude of his sins, and still believes in the power of destiny.

Syntax: The sentence structure on the whole is direct, though there are exceptions. Many
discussions, especially at the most pivotal moments, are in the form of riddles, reflecting the
uncertainty inherent in Oedipus’ struggle, and mocking his supreme riddle-solving ability.
Sentences tend to be complete, except in moments of greatest emotional intensity, which is likely
done to tense the audience. They also are shorter and quipped when characters are arguing or
distressed. Flow and rhythm and created by the translation, and the sentences flow nicely during
calmer periods in the story, but pick up intensity and fragment during the most dramatic scenes.
The abrupt nature of the syntax makes the audience feel uneasy and adds intensity and drama.
Creon: Just one thing, hear me out in this.
Oedipus: Just one thing, don’t tell me you’re not the enemy, the traitor.
Creon: Look, if you think crude, mindless stubbornness such a gift, you’ve lost your sense of balance.
Oedipus: If you think you can abuse a kinsman, then escape the penalty, you’re insane.
This passage makes heavy use of parallel structure, which, because it is Oedipus who repeats
Creon, makes him appear childish and incapable of progress, and thereby exposes his insecurity.
It adds tension to the scene by showing the extent of Oedipus’ anxiety.

Concrete Detail/ Imagery: There are many references to the ocean, farming, and hunting.
Oedipus is also compared to doctors and mathematicians. Vulgar images are used to jar and
shock the audience, especially regarding Oedipus’ relationship to his mother. The Chorus’
language is often the most elaborate, and uses the most imagery of death and destruction.
1. Chorus: Thebes is dying, look, her children stripped of pity…generations strewn on the ground
unburied, unwept, the dead spreading death and the young wives and gray-haired mothers with them
cling to the altars, trailing in from all over the city—Thebes, city of death, one long cortege and the
suffering rises wails for mercy rise and wild hymn of the Healer blazes out clashing with our sobs our
cries of mourning.
2. Oedipus: Dark, horror of darkness my darkness, drowning, swirling around me crashing wave on
wave—unspeakable, irresistible headwind, fatal harbor! Oh again, the misery, all at once, over and over
the stabbing daggers, stab of memory raking me inside.

Symbolism: At the end of the play, Oedipus removes his eyes, spiritually separating him from
the grief that he has caused himself and others. He was blind to the truth of his existence before,
but once he understands it he must be blind to everything else.

Figurative Language: There are references to the ocean, tides, and harbors, emphasizing the
circular nature of Oedipus’ fate and the futility of trying to escape what destiny has ordained for
him. Oedipus is compared to a sailor, farmer, and hunter, showing that he has conquered the sea,
land, and animals, though failed to defeat the gods or even understand himself. The comparisons
created between Oedipus and the enlightened ideals of the times show anxiety regarding modern
technology and the underlying fear that humans are not as powerful and all-knowing as they
believe their discoveries make them. The chorus uses apostrophes during their odes. The city of
Thebes is personified by the chorus. Apostrophes are used in the choral odes. These features add
emotional intensity to the chorus’ speeches, and make them appear as a complex assortment of
characters who are invested in Oedipus’ actions.

Ironic Devices: The story of Oedipus was well-known to ancient Greek audiences, so they knew
what the shocking revelation would be. It is Oedipus’ own persistence and dedication to
discovering the truth that ultimately leads to his downfall. It can also be speculated that if
Oedipus had not gone to such great lengths to avoid the Oracle’s prophecy, it might indeed have
never come to pass. Oedipus also uses irony himself when he speaks to others sarcastically, often
when he feels threatened or upset, which further reflects the childishness of his temperament.

Tone: Tension mounts as Oedipus comes close to realizing the truth. This sense of frustration is
aggravated by the fact that the audience already knows how the play will end. The end of the
play is very dismal. The chorus projects a feeling of hopelessness as they beg Oedipus for
assistance at the beginning of the play; their tone becomes more pleading as Oedipus begins to
act more rashly. The sense of hopelessness, uncertainty, and despair returns at the end.

Theme: There is a struggle between the gods and man, between destiny and free will. It seems
that we are in control of our lives, but this is not the case, for our lives are set out in advance by
the gods. Thus, the question is raised of whether or not the things we do and decisions we make
have a difference. You cannot avoid your fate, and you may suffer not for something you did, but
for crimes committed by people from past generations. The harder you try to run from your
density, the more painful it will be when it catches up to you. Progress is not possible. Another
theme that influences many of Oedipus’ actions is the importance of personal responsibility.
Despite the difficulties that Oedipus faces, and the arguments that they were not his fault, he
carries the blame on himself so that the curse will end with him. This implies that free will does
exist, as least to a certain extent. The play presents a conflict between two conceptions of the
universe—one in which everything is preordained and unavoidable, and one in which everyone
is free but freedom means nothing. Another theme is the importance of the search—the search
for the truth about life and about oneself. This is the redeeming quality that Oedipus has left, he
is shattered by the truth, but empowered by completing the journey. Searching for the truth is a
human quality, and by searching Oedipus captures a part of the human spirit, the desire to think,
know, understand. Oedipus’ journey is all the more wrenching because he is searching for the
truth about himself, facing as many internal difficulties as external ones, and thereby embodies
many facets of the internal struggles that everyone faces at some point or another in their lives.

Significance of Title: Informs readers that the play is about Oedipus during his time as king.

Memorable Quotes:
Chorus: O generations of men the dying generations—adding the total of all your lives I find they come
to nothing…does there exist, is there a man on earth who seizes more joy than just a dream, a vision?
And the vision no sooner dawns than dies blazing into oblivion.
This quote emphasizes the underlying fear in the play that all human progress and achievement
essentially amount to nothing when compared to the forces that we cannot control.
Oedipus: How do we cleanse ourselves—what rites? What’s the source of the trouble?
These questions highlight another anxiety in the play, the fear that people can do something so
horrendous that there is no chance of escape or recovery, there is no way to find purity or make
ourselves right again. This is one of the problems that Oedipus grapples with.
Tiresias: I charge you, then, submit to that decree you just laid down: from this day onward speak to no
one, not these citizens, not myself. You are the curse, the corruption of the land!
This is an important ironic moment for the audience—they know the truth of Tiresias’ words, but
Oedipus does not. This quote also points to an interesting paradox in the play: the hero must also
be the villain, the curse must also be the cure. The disease that Oedipus wreaked on Thebes was
too great to be cured by anyone but himself.
Oedipus: More hated by the gods? I am the man no alien, no citizen welcomes to his house, law forbids it
—not a word to me in public, driven from every hearth and home. And all these curses I—no one else but
I brought down these piling curses on myself! […] Wasn’t I born for torment? Look me in the eyes! I am
abomination—heart and soul!
This passage questions destiny and free will. It is the moment when the system that Oedipus
created ensnares him, and he no longer has anything else to protect him from the truth.

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