Of all the Greek myths, the story of Oedipus, the King of Thebes, is perhaps the most compelling and tragic. Cursed before birth and haunted by prophecy, Oedipus struggles against his cruel, inexorable fate and suffers unbearably when it is realized; the nature and the depth of his suffering are unparalleled in Greek mythology. The myth of Oedipus is recounted and the story is developed further in the works of Sophocles. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, Sophocles chronicles the fall of Oedipus and the continuing devastation of the House of Thebes. Though it is speculated the three plays were not written in chronological order—and each play certainly stands alone—Oedipus the King would be the first of the three if the plays were arranged to tell the story of Oedipus chronologically. To fully appreciate the drama, which Sophocles develops primarily through dramatic irony, it is essential to know the story in Greek mythology on which it is based.
In the Greek myth of Oedipus, the king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta, are told by Apollo that any son they produce will kill his father. Frightened by the prophecy, they attempt to avoid their fate when Jocasta later bears a son; the infant’s ankles are pinned together, and he is sent away to die in the wilderness. A kind shepherd takes pity on the baby and delivers him to the childless king and queen of Corinth. They dote upon their adopted prince and name him Oedipus, which translates roughly as “swollen feet,” the name reflecting the wounds he sustained as a baby. As a young man, Oedipus learns from Apollo that he is meant not only to kill his father but also to marry his mother. Believing that the king and queen who adopted him are his natural parents, Oedipus leaves Corinth for good so that the prophecy will not be fulfilled. His departure sets him literally on the road that leads to his ultimate fate. Outside Thebes, Oedipus kills King Laius in a dispute, saves Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, and then marries the widowed Queen Jocasta. Together they have four children, and the House of Thebes, with Oedipus as the king, is established. When Oedipus and Jocasta eventually learn his true identity and realize how the terrible prophecy has been fulfilled, they are both destroyed by the knowledge, although in different ways, and the House of Thebes is cursed for generations.
In Oedipus the King, Sophocles does not dramatize the entire myth; the play focuses instead on why and how Oedipus comes to realize that Laius was his father and that Jocasta, his wife and the mother of his children, is his own mother, as well; once the terrible truth is revealed, Sophocles devotes the remainder of the drama to the anguish and self-hatred Oedipus feels and to his desire for punishment. Amazingly, it is not the horrific plot of the myth that drives Oedipus the King; instead, the play develops as an ironic mystery. Determined to discover who killed King Laius many years before and to cleanse Thebes of such corruption, Oedipus unwittingly pursues and eventually arrives at the truth of his own identity and his actions. Sophocles uncovers clues, one by one; he presents witnesses, some willing and some not; and he offers final proof of the tragedy which has befallen Oedipus and his family. The play is full of suspense—not the suspense of finding out who killed Laius, as that is known through myth, but the suspense of waiting for Oedipus to realize he has not escaped his destiny and to confront its tragic consequences.
In a culture that believed in the supernatural, whether or not there was space for the individual or community to make its own decisions was a question particularly important to the Athenians as they tried to set up a democratic society. Sophocles carefully explored the anxiety behind this question with Oedipus the King, heightened by the religious context of the play. Thought to have composed more than 120 plays during his career, Sophocles won twenty-four competitions (eighteen at the Festival of Dionysia, a religious festival in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility). When Oedipus the King was performed in Athens circa 429 BCE, the myth of Oedipus was well known to his contemporaries; it was deeply embedded in Greek culture and consciousness. Moreover, the Athenians of his time generally still believed in the power of the oracle at Apollo’s temple in Delphi, although traditional religious beliefs were beginning to wane in Greek society. Thus the ancient Greeks’ interpretation of Oedipus the King would have differed somewhat from that of a modern audience, but they most likely would have pondered some of the same mysteries in the play that will always engage us as mortal beings. Do we determine our own destinies? Does the search for truth achieve the greatest good? Are the present and the future controlled by the past? Why, among many, do the innocent suffer? In regard to considering these questions, universal and timeless, we are not so very different from Sophocles’s audience in Athens.
Our reaction to Oedipus is no doubt similar, as well. We pity him—the abandoned infant left to die, the young man compelled to leave the only home he had ever known, the king who loves his family and despairs for his people when Thebes is suddenly beset by misery and death. Even as Oedipus callously dismisses Jocasta’s fear and rages against others in his unyielding, willful pursuit of the truth, we feel pity, knowing what awaits him at the end of his search. When the play concludes, we feel sorrow for the self-mutilated king, blood streaming like tears down his face, forever blind now to the wonders of the world. Led away by Creon, Oedipus will be exiled from Thebes, tortured further by the knowledge that his actions have driven Jocasta to suicide and have doomed his children’s future. According to Aristotle, Oedipus the King is the model for drama. Setting aside for a moment the play’s intriguing plot and profound themes, its power to evoke intense human empathy would be reason enough to accept Aristotle’s view. Written during the Golden Age of Greece, Oedipus the King endures as a masterpiece in world literature; in its expression of the human condition, the tragedy remains as relevant today as it was in ancient Athens more than two thousand years ago.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Trace the primary themes in Oedipus the King, including destiny and fate, the search for knowledge, and the corrupting influence of excessive pride.
2. Explain the role of prophecy and the role of the oracle and discuss how ancient and contemporary audiences would relate to them.
3. Identify examples of the motifs of fate, light, and blindness and discuss their significance.
4. Explain how the chorus functions in the play and discuss what is achieved through the choral odes.
5. Describe the fatal flaws of Oedipus.
6. Identify and explain moments of dramatic irony in the play.
7. Describe the tragic hero’s search for truth.
8. Explain the role of Tiresias.
9. Explain the role of the hero.
10. Understand several major sociopolitical concerns addressed by Greek tragedy including the masses vs. the elite, gods vs. Man, rhetoric vs. deeds, and gender roles.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Lesson Guide
• The Lesson Guide is organized to study the play in sections as indicated by line numbers. Lesson Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Lesson Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each section and to acquaint them generally with its content.
• Before Lesson Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Lesson Guide vocabulary lists include words from the play that vary in difficulty.
1. The vocabulary lists for each section are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.
2. Working from the Lesson Guide vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each list that are most appropriate for them.
Essay and Discussion Questions
The essay and discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.
2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.
Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the play; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and...
(The entire section is 798 words.)
1. The primary cause of Oedipus’s destruction is hubris (excessive pride), yet in many ways Oedipus was “born for torment”; he is abandoned as an infant and left to die, and as a young man, he must leave his family in Corinth, never to return. What emotional effect does Oedipus’s past have on the reader? How does it affect the reader’s emotional reaction to Oedipus when he is issuing orders as the King of Thebes?
2. Contrast the behavior and actions of Oedipus with those of Creon when each is called upon as a leader of Thebes. At what point in the drama does Oedipus give preference to his personal concerns over the concerns of others? Draw examples from the text to support your answer....
(The entire section is 451 words.)
Apollo: Greek mythology god of light, truth, the arts, archery, healing, and prophecy
Athena: Greek mythology daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom and war craft
blight: sickness; stain
Cadmus: founder of Thebes
conspirators: participants in a crime
Delphi: site of the most famous of Apollo’s oracles located on the Corinthian Gulf
denounce: to condemn
despondent: depressed, dejected
dread: fear, foreboding
harbor: to keep
implore: to beg
kinsman: family member
Laius: former king of Thebes
luxuriates: basks, indulges...
(The entire section is 1123 words.)
cortege: a funeral procession
onslaught: an attack, an assault
Thracian: related to Thrace, the uncivilized area north of Greece
1. Who makes up the chorus? What is the intent and function of the first choral ode which begins, “Zeus! / Great welcome voice of Zeus, what do you bring?”
The chorus is comprised of “the citizens of Thebes” and functions as a symbol of Thebes itself. Having not heard Creon’s information gleaned from the oracle, the chorus appeals to a series of gods to spare Thebes from Death; they call upon Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Dionysus, and Artemis. The choral ode serves to emphasize the suffering in...
(The entire section is 513 words.)
absurdities: lies, stories
brunt: force, burden
decree: an official order
dire: ominous, horrible
flinch: to shrink back, to cringe
Fury: one of three winged, horrible goddesses who punishes perpetrators of unavenged crimes
futile: unsuccessful, in vain
hatch: to bring into being (especially in secret)
heady: strong, influential (as in rivalries)
infamy: notoriety, fame rooted in dishonor
mantic: relating to the power of divination; prophetic
quack: a fraud, a fake
revile: to berate, to insult
(The entire section is 1178 words.)
frenzied: frantic, furious (as in movement)
grope: to fumble, to feel
lash: the mark or wound left from a whip; a whip
lurks: waits, prowls
pious: devout, of highest moral standards
summoned: called, bid forth
unerring: without mistake
1. After he initially blames Tiresias, whom does Oedipus next accuse of plotting to ruin him? Summarize the speech Oedipus gives that begins, “O power— / wealth and empire, skill outstripping skill. . . .” Which aspects of Oedipus’s character does it reveal?
Oedipus rages and blusters against Tiresias and then against Creon. He claims Creon conspired with...
(The entire section is 770 words.)
abuse: to insult or assault verbally (in context)
clairvoyant: a seer, a prophet
deluded: duped, mistaken
induce: to encourage, to bring forth
qualm: a reservation, a concern
slur: an insulting or disparaging remark
surmise: to guess
1. Why does Creon return? What does he claim is the worst fate possible?
Creon hears of the charges Oedipus leveled against him and returns to refute them, saying the charges are heinous and can do grave damage to his reputation: “No, there’s nothing...
(The entire section is 1193 words.)
henchman: a servant or follower willing to do dishonest or illegal acts for his leader
retract: to take back or correct a statement
1. What is Jocasta’s first item of proof that Oedipus could not have killed Laius? What does she have to say with regard to prophecy?
Jocasta attacks the verity of the prophets and the oracle, citing the earlier prophecy that their son would kill his father: “But Laius, / so the report goes at least, was killed by strangers, / thieves, at a place where three roads meet,” while their son “wasn’t three days old and the boy’s father / fastened his ankles” and had a henchman toss him onto the...
(The entire section is 960 words.)
gorging: devouring, gobbling
inviolate: pure, not violated or profaned
reverence: worship, admiration
strife: discord, conflict
1. How does the chorus characterize destiny? How does their view of destiny differ from that of Oedipus and Jocasta?
Unlike Jocasta and Oedipus, who believed they could change fate, the chorus sings the praises of destiny and the “great laws” that “tower above us, reared on high.” The chorus says that “no man gave [the great laws] birth,” and destiny is above the power of mortals to change it.
(The entire section is 420 words.)
defilement: desecration, ruin
Hermes: Greek mythology god of boundaries and transitions and a messenger between the mortal and divine worlds
on the wane: the part of the lunar cycle in which the moon grows slimmer
1. What news does the messenger bring from Corinth?
Polybus is dead, and the people of Corinth wish to make Oedipus their king.
2. Describe Jocasta’s actions at the altar of Apollo and her address of the gods following the news of Polybus’s death. What do they reveal about her character?
Jocasta brings a...
(The entire section is 1031 words.)
Arctarus: “guardian of the bear”; one of the brightest stars in the sky
dirge: a hymn, a chant
1. What behavior does Oedipus exhibit when the old shepherd is reluctant to tell him the truth? Why is the shepherd reluctant?
Oedipus is without compassion for the shepherd, impatient and quick to anger; he orders his guards to “twist his arms back, quickly” in order to get the old man to talk, then threatens to both torture and kill him in order to force him to tell the king the truth. The shepherd does not want to reveal “the horrible truth” of Oedipus’s origins: he knows that Oedipus was the baby...
(The entire section is 1452 words.)
1. Choose the word that completes the following passage: “Banish the man, or pay back blood with blood. / _______ sets the plague-storm on the city.”
2. How did Oedipus become the king of Thebes?
A. He ascended the throne as the rightful heir.
B. He solved the riddle of the Sphinx.
C. He overthrew Creon to take the throne.
D. He was prophesied to become king.
E. He saved Jocasta from a band of thieves.
3. Who are the two people Oedipus...
(The entire section is 804 words.)
1. Describe the various roles of the chorus in the play. Include specific examples from the text in your discussion.
The chorus, a key “character” in any Greek tragedy, performs several critical functions in Oedipus the King. Made up of a group of “Theban citizens and their Leader,” the chorus represents the viewpoint of the people of Thebes; through the odes, they express what the Thebans are thinking and feeling. This is especially significant in establishing the people’s relationship with their gods and with the oracle of Delphi who communicates to them the will of Apollo. As the play begins, the chorus pleads with a full pantheon of Greek gods to save Thebes from the terrible plague that has...
(The entire section is 3415 words.)