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Study Questions for Sophocles' Oedipus Rex

Vocabulary: anagnorisis, peripeteia, catharsis, catastrophe, chorus, choragos, dramatic irony, dramatis personae, hamartia, korthorni, miasma, moira, motif, Oedipal Complex, protagonist, strophe, antistrophe, omen, tragedy.

Introduction: What is moira?

Lecture or Handouts: When did Sophocles live? Oedipus is the first play in a trilogy. What are the other two plays in the trilogy? Summarize the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx. Who had the honor of being the choragos in a Greek stage production? How did Greek drama originate? Hint: It wasn't for entertainment!

Identify the following characters, monsters, deities:

Oedipus, Ismenus, Creon, Chorus, Teiresias, Jocasta, Herder of Laius, Polybus, the Sphinx [Various deities include Pluto, Pallas Athena, Artemis.]

Reading Questions:

  • What agricultural problems has Thebes been having at the opening of the play?
  • Why are seers like Ismenus trying to create prophecies and why are folks crowding to the shrine of Pallas Athena to make offerings?
  • What three "blights" have fallen on the city in lines 27 onward?
  • When the chorus states that the realm of Pluto "is full fed," what does that mean?
  • What is the "fell songstress" referred to in lines 40-45, and why do the crowds consider Oedipus especially suitable for solving mysteries or riddles as a result of his encounter with this singer?
  • In lines 64 onward, Oedipus refers to the people of the city as "my poor children." What does this reveal abut Oedipus's attitude toward his relationship with the city of Thebes?
  • Who or what is the Oracle at Delphi and why do the Thebans hope this Oracle can help them?
  • Who was King of Thebes before Oedipus took the job?
  • Why didn't the Thebans avenge the king's death? (i.e., What new and more pressing problem distracted them from finding and punishing the murderer?)
  • When the chorus sings in the first strophe, they call upon three gods. (1) Apollo (the Healer of Delos who inhabits the Pythian shrine), (2) Athena, and (3) Artemis. Why are these three gods suitable for invocation before hunting a murderer? Why not call upon Nike (Victory), Rhea (Justice), or Zeus the Avenger?
  • In Strophe 3, the Chorus prays that Ares should flee "in sudden rout." Why do they want Ares to run away? Why do they call upon Apollo (the morrow's sun) and Father Zeus to slay the immortal Ares? Isn't killing a god technically impossible? So what is Sophocles getting at figuratively?
  • In Antistrophe 3, the Chorus calls upon Apollo (the Lycean King) and Bacchus. We hear that Bacchus has "golden-snooded hair." What is a snell, and what does it mean to be snooded? Why is it appropriate to call on Bacchus?
  • Oedipus gives a practical set of reasons why he should seek out the murderer. List one of these reasons.
  • In lines 233 onward, what public proclamation or call does Oedipus make to the people of Thebes reminiscent of "crime stoppers"?
  • In lines 240 onward, what does Oedipus declare as punishment for Lais' murderer? In lines 254-55, what events is this murderer forbidden to take part in?
  • What does Oedipus declare about his pronounced curse if it should turn out that Oedipus himself has given him admittance to his own hearth?
  • Oedipus asks Teiresias, "Is this a plot of Creon, or thine own?" Why might Oedipus think Creon is plotting against him?
  • What does Teiresias mean when he says that Oedipus is a "double-foe / To thine own kin" in lines 449-50?
  • Why is Teiresias bringing up marriage songs or hymeneals and saying Oedipus will wail when he learns of that song?
  • After you've finished reading the entire play, review line 488 and explain the dramatic irony.
  • What does Creon claim about his own attitude to becoming a king in lines 615 onward?
  • In lines 640, how does Creon say Oedipus should punish him if any evidence shows that he conspired with the prophet?
  • Why does the Choragos think Jocasta is particularly fit to be a peacemaker in the feud between Creon and Oedipus when she first appears on stage in lines 675-78?
  • Why does Jocasta say the two men ought to be ashamed of themselves for fighting?
  • What evidence does Jocasta offer to Oedipus in lines 764 onward that no man has "scot or lot in the prophetic art" (i.e., that prophecy doesn't work)?
  • What did Laius do the ankles of his three-day old son? (After you've read the play and seen the story's end, explain how this connects with Oedipus's name?)
  • In line 785, the stage directions suggest what about Oedipus's emotional reaction to hearing Jocasta's tale?
  • After you've finished reading the entire play, review lines 803-804 and explain the dramatic irony behind Jocasta's description of Laius's appearance.
  • After you've finished reading the entire play, review lines 1137-39 and explain the dramatic irony behind Oedipus's statement that Jocasta's honor cannot be besmirched because of Oedipus's lineage.
  • Explain the symbolism of Oedipus looking up to the sun in lines 1270-75. Why does Sophocles have Oedipus look at the sun at this particular point in the story.

Food for thought: Does prophecy allow for the existence of free-will?

Sample Identification Passages: Be able to identify who wrote the following passages, what literary work the passage comes from, who is talking or described, and explain what the context or importance of each passage is.

A. "A blight is on our harvest in the ear,
A blight upon the grazing flocks and herds,
A blight on wives in travail; and withal
Armed with his blazing torch the God of Plague
Hath swooped upon our city emptying
The house of Cadmus, and the murky realm
Of Pluto is full fed with groans and tears."

B. "Hear what I then resolve; I lay my ban
On the assassin whosoe'er he be.
Let no man in this land whereof I hold
The sovereign rule, harbor or speak to him;
Give him no part in prayer or sacrifice
Or lustral rites, but hound him from your homes."

C. "And now that I am Lord,
Successor to his throne, his bed, his wife,
(And had he not been frustrate in the hope
Of issue, common children of one womb
Had forced a closer bond twixt him and me,
But Fate swooped own on him), therefore I
His blood-avenger will maintain his cause
As though he were my sire, and leave no stone
Unturned to track the assassin. . . ."

D. "Seer who comprehendest all,
Lore of the wise and hidden mysteries,
High things of heaven and low things of the earth,
Thou knowest, though thy blinded eyes see naught,
What plague infects our city; and we turn
To thee, O seer."

E. ". . . The wretch
Who murdered Laius--that man is here.
He passes for an alien in the land
But soon shall prove a Theban, native born. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
To a strange land he soon shall grope his way.
And of the children, inmates of his home,
He shall be proved the brother and the sire.
Go and ponder this. . . ."

F. " . . . I went
To Delphi, and Apollo sent me back
Baulked of the knowledge that I came to seek.
But other grievous things he prophesied,
Woes, lamentations, mournings, portents dire;
To wit I should defile my mother's bed
And raise up seed too loathsome to behold,
And slay the father from whose loins I sprang."

G. "Then jostled by the charioteer in wrath,
I struck him, and the old man, seeing this,
Watched till I passed and from his car brought down
Full on my head the double-pointed goad
   Yet was I quits with him and more; one stroke
Of my good staff sufficed to fling him clean
Out of the chariot seat and laid him prone.
And so I slew them every one."

H. "Did they not point at me as doomed to slay
My father? but he's dead and in his grave
And here am I who ne'er unsheathed a sword;
Unless the longing for his absent son
Killed him and so I slew him in a sense.
But, as they stand, the oracles are dead--
Dust, ashes, nothing, dead as Polybus."

I. "Ah me! ah me! all brought to pass, all true!
O light, may I behold thee nevermore!
I stand a wretch, in birth, in wedlock cursed,
A parricide, incestuously, triply cursed."

J. ""For he of marksmen best,
O Zeus, outshot the rest,
And won the prize supreme of wealth and power.
By him the vulture maid
Was quelled, her witchery laid;
He rose our savior and the land's strong tower.
We hailed thee king and from that day adored
Of mighty Thebes the universal lord."

K. "Then we beheld the woman hanging there,
A running noose entwined about her neck.
But when he saw her, with a maddened roar
He loosed the cord; and when her wretched corpse
Lay stretched on earth, what followed--O 'twas dread!
He tore the golden brooches that upheld
Her queenly robes, upraised them high and smote
Full on his eye-balls, uttering words like these:
'No more shall ye behold such sights of woe'"


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