In plays, like novels, there may be one or more subplots, so watch for those. Ask yourself, why did the author include this subplot, and how does this subplot compare and contrast with the major plot line? What techniques are used? Irony? Verbal? Situational? Dramatic? Foreshadowing? Symbols? In a play, are there instances of the following? Why and how are they important, and what information do they provide the audience? Soliloquy? Aside? (Production elements such as music, lighting, pantomime, props, etc. also may be significant in some dramas.)

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An interesting aspect of Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles in about 429 BCE, is that it has no subplots. This conforms to what Aristotle observed about the best Greek tragic plays of the 5th century BCE, which he discussed in Poetics.

In Poetics, Aristotle wrote that a tragedy was "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude..." (Part VI). By "complete" Aristotle meant that the story of the play, the plot, should be wholly self-contained.

[T]he plot manifestly ought to be constructed on dramatic principles It should have for its subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It will thus resemble a living organism in all its unity. (Part XXIII)

According to Aristotle, the plot is "the soul of a tragedy" (Part VI).

The plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. (Part VIII).

In other words, a tragedy has a single plot with a beginning, middle, and end; is complete in itself; and has no subplots.

Aristotle further observed that the events with occur in a tragedy should have a cause-and-effect relationship. (Part IX) One event must lead logically to another, everything must happen for a reason, and that reason must be integral to the plot.

The plot in Oedipus Rex is focused solely on the search for King Laius's murderer. The play is driven forward by that single objective. Every event that occurs in the play is focused on that goal and leads to the outcome of finding the killer. Nothing occurs in the play that is extraneous to that objective.

Aristotle considered Oedipus Rex to be a near-perfect example of a 5th century BCE tragedy because it contains all of the elements which Aristotle considered essential to a great tragic play.

Oedipus, the "tragic hero" of the play, suffers from the tragic flaw of hubris, which is excessive pride. This leads Oedipus to make a mistake in judgement, hamartia. Oedipus vows to discover who Laius's murderer is. He's been told that he did it, but refuses to believe because of his pride that he is the murderer.

Oedipus's pursuit of the identity of the murderer leads him to peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, when the messenger arrives from Corinth and tells Oedipus that King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth are not his true father and mother.

This leads, in turn, to anagnorisis, a recognition scene, when Oedipus discovers the truth about himself. He realizes that he killed King Laius, who was his true father, on the road that day.

The resulting catastrophe, or tragic downfall, takes Oedipus from his exalted position as King of Thebes to the depths of degradation as a self-exiled murderer of his own father.

Oedipus's downfall engenders a catharsis, a release of feelings of pity and fear for the audience. Aristotle believed catharsis was the ultimate goal and ultimate achievement of any tragic play.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team