Study Guide for Sophocles' Oedipus the King

by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Department of Classics, Temple University

updated 25 September 2013

This guide is designed to be used in conjunction with the translation by Peter Meineck (Hackett Press).

There is an on-line text with extensive hyperlinks.

Preliminary background:

Oedipus rules over Thebes, a city whose mythological background is important to understanding the play. Oedipus even begins the play by calling its residents the "new blood of ancient Cadmus" (not "ancient Thebes", as Fagles' liberally translates the Greek).. In short, Cadmus founded the city of Thebes after he killed a dragon, and he sowed the dragon's teeth into the ground, from which sprang Thebes' first inhabitants. Thus, Thebes' current residents are mainly descended either from a hero who tamed the wild beast, or from the beast itself. Think about the relation of this background to the larger theme of civilization and savagery in this drama.

 

Compare the the myth in Sophocles with the beginning of Euripides' tragedy, The Phoenician Women. What additional information is supplied there (look at several screens) ? How is Euripides' version different?

Look for references in the first scenes to Oedipus' conquest of the Sphinx, represented in the vase painting you can view here. A second vase depicts this scene as well; do you see a different emphasis? There are also images of a sculpture of a sphinx from Delphi which was made 100 years before this drama. Do you see any significance in the nature and appearance of the sphinx? In what way does his this victory recall Cadmus' slaughter of the dragon? Sophocles' play never explicitly tells the riddle of the Sphinx; why not?

Throughout the play you will need to consider the relationship between Oedipus and the gods. Why are the gods doing this to him, or at least allowing this to happen.

Also, what is the relationship in this play between fate and free will?

Prologue (1-150):

Thebes turns to Oedipus to save them again by ridding them of a terrible plague. Sophocles may have written this play shortly after a great plague which struck Athens; Thucydides' History presents a powerful depiction of this plague. (Read on for several screens in the Thucydides link) Compare the two and how they function in each text.

All call upon the Healer Apollo. What does Apollo have to do with healing? Why should Oedipus consult this god's oracle? Visit Delphi, taking advantage of the available pictures.

Consider: does Oedipus strike you as arrogant in this scene and others, or is Oedipus a case of the saying of that great philosopher and baseball great Dizzy Dean -- "It ain't bragging if you can do it" ?

Pay close attention to any references to sight, eyes or blindness, as vision is an important metaphor in this play.

After Creon enters and tells the words of Apollo, note the discrepancy between the number of outlaws in the account of each character. Why do you think Oedipus says "thief" while Creon says "thieves"? This will happen again later.

If you have read Pericles' Funeral Oration, consider the extent to which Oedipus embodies the characteristics of the ideal Athenian as described by Pericles.

Parodos (151-212):

The Chorus calls on a series of gods for help. Why invoke these gods in particular?

First Scene (216-462):

This scene is filled with many instances of dramatic irony. Find at least three.

Why does Tiresias refuse to help Oedipus?

Why can't Oedipus understand the information Tiresias does give to him?

Note the complexity of Oedipus' character, a mixture of paranoia and an earnest desire to save the city.

First Stasimon (463-511):

The Chorus is completely confused by the accusations of Tiresias.

Consider the images of hunting and wildness here, as they will return later.

Second Scene (573-953):

Arguably, this is the key scene.

Is Creon especially admirable here? Compare his actions and wishes to Oedipus'.

Read carefully Jocasta's account of her lost child which begins at 705, and then Oedipus' reaction to it. Does anything in his reaction strike you as strange? Consider this especially in light of the almost identical story he tells later in the same scene . Why doesn't Oedipus make a connection?

Pay close attention to Jocasta's denunciation of oracles.

Think about the larger resonances of Oedipus' comment (845) "How can one be the same as many?"

Second Stasimon ()

The Chorus describe a wild, impious, violent man. Whom do they mean?

What is the connection between this wild man and "the sacred dance" (896) ?

Third Scene (911-1085):

Consider the general force of Jocasta's on-going aspersion of oracles in the light of what is about to happen.

Note: lines 980-2 are underlined in the German translation of this play which Freud owned

1032: why is the connection between Oedipus' name and his ankles so important?

At what point do you think that Jocasta begins to suspect the truth?

When the Shepherd arrives, why won't he talk willingly?

When Jocasta runs off the stage, Oedipus thinks she is afraid he will be proven a peasant. Why does this idea make him so happy (1076ff) ? And how does Jocasta seem to you now?

Third Stasimon (1086-1109):
The Chorus' takes Oedipus' hope and runs with it, imagining him to be the foundling son of a god.

Fourth Scene (1215-1310):

Aristotle believed this was the finest tragedy because the protagonist's recognition of the truth coincides with the reversal of his fortunes. Where, exactly, does this occur in the play?

Note the half-line exchanges between Oedipus and the Herdsman; this marks the heightened suspense and excitement in the dialogue. With the remark "Her own baby?" Oedipus' world collapses.

Fourth Stasimon (1186-1221):

Oedipus is now a paradigm of misfortune.

Fifth Scene (1222-1432):

What was Oedipus trying to do when he finds his wife-mother dead?

Is blinding an appropriate punishment? Why doesn't he commit suicide?

1295 The Messenger instructs all to "pity" Oedipus. Think about the other references to pity in this drama.

Kommos (1298)-1415:

A kommos is a scene of lamentation in lyrical meters between actor and chorus.

How would you describe Oedipus' state of mind and attitude here? Does anything surprise you about the way he views his disaster?

Think about the Chorus' near panic about him, their complete inability to respond coherently to his presence.

Sixth Scene and Exodus (1416-end):

Again: How would you describe Oedipus' state of mind and attitude here?

Is Creon fair to Oedipus? Consider especially his admonition at 1523. Consider how the drama would change if the closing lines of the chorus were absent; some scholars believe the texts ends with Creon's words.

Why are Oedipus' daughters in particular so special to him?

What effect has blindness had on his knowledge?


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