How is Oedipus the King related to Greek culture?

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The play Oedipus the King, or Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles is an excellent example of an ancient Greek tragedy. The play reflects (and helped create) the essential pieces of a Greek tragedy and also reflects the culture's religious beliefs. Further, drama was an important part of Greek culture, and the Festival of Dionysus included a drama competition where playwrights would stage new plays and vie for the title of the festival's best production.

First, Oedipus is a great example of a tragedy. It shows the fall of a tragic hero due to a tragic flaw. The hero is the King of Thebes; Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx, saved the city, and has been its ruler ever since. The audience was familiar with the story of Oedipus, as this was a popular and well-known myth in Greek culture. Therefore, the play has many instances of dramatic irony, like when Oedipus vows to find the killer without knowing he is actually the killer. Finally, the play features a Chorus whose odes comment on the action of the play. The Chorus serves as the voice of the community and reflects the audience's cathartic process of emotional purging described by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. We and the Chorus feel pity and fear for Oedipus as we watch the play and feel cleansed of those emotions after the tragedy has ended.

The play includes many references to the Greek gods, particularly Apollo, whose Oracle is consulted repeatedly and whose prophecy forms the crux of the play. Prophecy is taken very seriously; in fact, when Jocasta learns that her son will kill his father and marry his mother, she sends him to be left to die on a mountainside, thinking this is the only way to prevent the prophecy. Oedipus himself fears that he will commit these sins, so when he hears the prophecy as a young man in Corinth, he flees the city because he is worried he will kill his (adopted) parents (he does not know they are not his biological parents). The characters in the play do not seem to think they have full agency and that instead the gods determine their lives' trajectories. Oracles are held in high esteem; Teiresias, the blind prophet, is consulted and trusted by the people. The Chorus is repeatedly shown referencing prophets and gods. We know from the play that many of the ancient Greeks believed in the truth of oracles and that they worshipped numerous gods.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Socrates's play Oedipus Rex is reflective of Greek culture in several ways:

1.  The character of Oedipus himself is made tragic by his hubris, or excessive pride.  In the Greek culture, such arrogance was definitely frowned upon.  The Oedipus Triology clearly examine the faultiness of pride.

2.  In the time of the Greeks, people struggled with the idea of fate vs. freedom of choice.  Because of the controversy that this issue caused, plays dealt with it as a theme to purport an opinion on whether the gods chose a way for people or there was actually such a thing as human decision.

3.  Unlike other pagan cultures, the ancient Greeks did believe in an afterlife.  Oedipus Rex, followed by Oedipus at Colonus demonstrate this belief as Oedipus the king, blinds himself out of guilt for his pride; then, while he is at Colonus, he knows that his suffering has conferred special spiritual benefits, and his dead body will confer benefits on the land in which it lies.

4.  The seer played an important role in the life of the Greeks.  Many seers were highly paid, educated members of the elite who were consulted in the areas of daily life, political decisions, and military campaigns since the Greeks wished to maintain a positive relationship with the gods and not tempt the fates.  Their belief in an afterlife also encouraged their reliance upon the seers.

keeganjbradford | Student

Oedipus Rex is one of Sophocles's most famous plays, and one that is highly reflective of Greek culture. Oedipus the King is a character who reflects the Greek culture of Sophocles's time in three primary ways:

Oedipus is a victim of fate. The Greeks believed that gods were able to intervene in human affairs. Oedipus Rex deals with the question of if humans are able to choose their own fate, or if the gods have already decided their fates for them.  

Oedipus is a victim of his hubris, which means "excessive pride." Oedipus arrogantly believed himself able to outsmart and outrun the prophecy of the seer. Seers were a prominent part of Greek life and were often consulted in matters of great importance. Aristotle calls this major flaw that leads to a character's downfall "hamartia." This kind of pride would have been widely considered by Greeks of the time as "hamartia."

Oedipus blinds himself. Greek literature often used blinding to signify punishment from the gods, and Oedipus blinding himself is symbolic of the divine justice and punishment of the gods for being arrogant enough to believe he could escape the prophecy of the seer.

Source: Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities, Volume 1 By Lawrence S. Cunningham, John J. Reich.