Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Thebes (theebz). Ancient city in east-central Greece, northwest of Athens, where all the action in Sophocles’ play takes place. As the seat of power of King Oedipus, Thebes represents civil power, though as Oedipus comes to realize, his royal power must be subservient to the divine power of Apollo, whose temple is nearby.
*Mount Cithaeron (si-THE-ron). Mountain in southern Greece on which Oedipus was chained and abandoned as an infant. The image of the mountain as the mysterious “parent” of the king whose parentage is clouded continually recurs throughout the choral odes.
*Trivia. Crossroad where the roads from Daulia, Delphi, and Thebes meet. At this auspicious location Oedipus kills, in self-defense, a man who he later learns was his father. The converging of the roads echoes the intertwining threads of Oedipus’s fate.
*Delphi. Oracle at the Temple of Apollo that is the source of all divine wisdom for the ancient Greeks. To Oedipus, it represents the place where he learns the truth about his past.
*Corinth. Distant Greek city from which a messenger arrives at the end of the play to announce the death of King Polybus, who Oedipus mistakenly believes is his father. Corinth represents the untroubled home of the only parents Oedipus ever knew.
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Sophocles lived and worked in a time of great cultural significance, not only in the history of Athens but the greater sense of western democratic culture. Wars with Persia and Sparta, the development of democratic culture, public architectural projects, and theatrical entertainments, as well as the rise of a distinctively rhetorical culture (a culture based on the strength of language and writing) are important features of the Athens during Sophocles's life, known as the Golden Age of Athens.
Soon after Cleisthenes established democracy in Athens in 507 B.C., Athens was threatened by outside enemies. At the beginning of the fifth century B.C., the Persians, led by Darius, crossed the Aegean to conquer Athens. After its triumph over Miletos in 494, the Persian army began to be defeated, with Athens winning the decisive victory at Marathon in 490. The battles of Salamis, Platea, and Mycale in 480-79 were also won by Athens, and the Persian forces (led by Xerxes I) finally lost the war. The Athenians prided themselves on their victory over Xerxes; roughly fifteen years after Sophocles's birth, Athens had become an Empire in its own right, forming the Dehan League in 478-77. From 492-60 the city-state was led by Pericles, a populist leader who is famous today for his military skill, his rhetorical prowess, and his public building projects—including the Parthenon. Sophocles himself took part in some of Pericles's projects and in the city's military life,...
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The Genre of Greek Tragic Drama
Ever since Aristotle's high praise regarding its structure and characterization in his Poetics, Oedipus Rex has been considered one of the most outstanding examples of tragic drama. In tragedy, a protagonist inspires in his audience the twin emotions of pity and fear. Usually a person of virtue and status, the tragic hero can be a scapegoat of the gods or a victim of circumstances. Their fate (often death or exile) establishes a new and better social order. Not only does it make the viewer aware of human suffering, tragedy illustrates the manner in which pride (hubris) can topple even the strongest of characters. It is part of the playwright's intention that audiences will identify with these fallen heroes-and possibly rethink the manner in which they live their lives. Theorists of tragedy, beginning with Aristotle, have used the term catharsis to capture the sense of purgation and purification that watching a tragedy yield in a viewer: relief that they are not in the position of the protagonist and awareness that one slip of fate could place them in such circumstances.
The dramatic structure of Greek drama is helpfully outlined by Aristotle in the twelfth book of Poetics. In this classical tragedy, a Prologue shows Oedipus consulting the priest who speaks for the Theban elders, the first choral ode or Parodos is performed, four acts are presented and followed by odes...
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Compare and Contrast
Fifth Century B.C.: The development of trial by jury in the law courts and the art of sophistry as practiced by philosophers such as Zeno, led to the creation of the first hired lawyers. The ability to persuade a public audience was an important feature of cultural life, and philosophers tutored leaders such as Pericles in oratorical skills.
Today: Rhetorical efficacy remains the chief attribute of today's courtroom lawyers. The public has limited access to these trials unless they garner media attention, as, for example, did the infamous trial of former football star O. J. Simpson, who was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her acquaintance Ronald Goldman.
Fifth Century B.C.: In one of many bids for popularity, Athens ruler Pericles spent extraordinary sums of money to support the arts through pageants, processions, public banquets, and monetary allowances for theatrical performances. The theater was associated with the cultural and religious festivals of the Great Dionysia, in whose annual competitions Sophocles won over twenty first-place awards.
Today: Public funding for the arts constitutes less than one percent of the federal budget, and the Republican leaders in Congress have proposed to eliminate this public source of support in favor of a privatized system of grants generated by donations from actors and other private citizens. While the theater continues to be a popular form of...
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Topics for Further Study
In his Third Letter on Oedipus, Voltaire, a French Enlightenment philosopher and writer, expressed incredulity at the fact that Oedipus, upon discovering that the shepherd who witnessed Laius's murder was still alive, decides to consult an oracle rather than actively to seek the testimony of this witness. How does Voltaire's questioning of Oedipus's decision-making reveal the differences in religious belief between Athenian society in the fifth century B.C. and the Enlightenment? Research the status of belief in oracles in Athenian culture and compare it to the debates between the Jesuits and Jansenists in Voltaire's France. Discuss this difference in the context of Oedipus Rex.
During the fifth century in Athens, the skill of sophistry—the ability to be a rhetorically persuasive public speaker, and to gain political power through the effectiveness of one's speech performances—was becoming an increasingly important aspect of civic culture. One of the most famous sophists, Protagoras, is famous for saying "Man is the measure of all things," and this statement is indicative of the sophists' attitude toward man's potential to learn to excel at rhetoric and thereby win court cases, for example, even if their causes are unjust. Research this aspect of Athenian society, and juxtapose the powers of rhetorical persuasion with the treatment of fate in Oedipus Rex. You might wish to start by looking at the well-known first choral ode in...
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There is an outstanding sound recording from 1974 of the opera-oratorio adaptation of Oedipus Rex by Igor Stravinsky and Jean Cocteau; the text is translated by e. e. cummings. It is available from Columbia Music.
Oedipus Rex was adapted as a film by Tyrone Guthrie, starring Douglas Campbell, Donald Davis, Eleanor Stuart, and Douglas Rain, Motion Pictures, 1957. The translation is by poet William Butler Yeats.
The play was also adapted for film by Pier Paolo Pasolini, starring Franco Citti, Silvano Mangano, Julian Beck, and Pasolini himself as the High Priest, Euro International Films, 1967. This epic film was shot in Morocco. Its interpretation of the Oedipus story is bleak, emotionally demanding, and self-consciously autobiographical.
Another film version from the 1960s is that of Philip Saville, starring Christopher Plummer, Lilli Palmer, Orson Welles, and Donald Sutherland, Universal, 1968.
Rainer Simon, a German filmmaker, directed Der Fall Dipus, or The Oedipus Case. Set in summertime Greece when a foreign military detachment camp out near Thebes and film the Oedipus story, the film stars Sebastian Hartmann, Tatiana Lygari, and Jan-Josef Liefers, 1990, Toro Film.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) adapted the play for film, starring Michael Pennington, Claire Bloom, and John Gielgud, 1991, Films for the Humanities, British Broadcasting Corporation. Excellent...
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What Do I Read Next?
Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus, produced posthumously by his grandson in 401 B.C., tells the story of Oedipus's wanderings after going into exile. He was attended by Antigone, his daughter, to Colonus, and there Theseus protected him until he died. Before he died he cursed his sons Eteocles and Polyneices that they should kill each other, and after Eteocles had ruled for a time he refused to surrender the throne to his brother, who gathered seven champions known as the Seven against Thebes. They attacked the city at each of its seven gates. The brothers died in battle. Oedipus at Colonus is the second play in the trilogy of Theban plays, which also includes Antigone (the final play) and Oedipus Rex.
In Antigone, the title character (Oedipus's daughter) and her uncle, Creon the king of Thebes, quarrel because the king will not permit the burial rite to be performed for her brother, Polyneices, who was condemned as a traitor. Creon punishes Antigone for her attempts to bury her brother by sealing her alive inside a stone tomb. She hangs herself, and her husband-to-be Haemon, Creon's son, stabs himself next to her body.
The History of the Peloponnesian War, by the Athenian citizen and general Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.), is a careful, compelling, and often first-hand account of the war between Athens and Sparta (431-404 B.C.), which occurred during the heyday of Sophocles's career.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Macmillan, 1907.
Aristotle. The Poetics. Translated by W. Hamilton Fyfe. London: Heinemann, 1927. Aristotle's important discussion of effective tragic form includes many references to the exemplarity of Sophocles's play, and provides a useful understanding of classical poetic theory.
Bates, William Nickerson Sophocles, Poet and Dramatist. London: Oxford University Press, 1940. In a chapter on Oedipus, Bates summarizes the plot and offers general, laudatory remarks on Sophoclean tragedy, followed by discussions of the protagonist and Jocasta.
Bowra, C. M. Sophoclean Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944. Bowra's focus is on the role of Apollo and the gods in the play, offering a historical reading that contextualizes the oracle in Athenian society.
Bushnell, Rebecca W. Prophesying Tragedy: Sight and Voice in Sophocles's Theban Plays. Cornell University Press, 1988. Bushnell compellingly argues that Oedipus's desire to speak and his aversion to silence together create a character whose faith in the efficacy of human words unsuccessfully challenges oracular knowledge.
Davies, M. "The End of Sophocles's O.T." Hermes, Vol. 110, 1982, pp. 268-77. Davies argues that the last scene of the play, in which Creon ushers Oedipus into the palace but does not send him into exile as some...
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