Places Discussed

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Last Updated on April 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 213


*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

*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.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on June 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 954

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 called stasimons, and in the Exodos, or final act, the fate of Oedipus is revealed.


Tragedies in fifth-century Athens were performed in the marketplace, known in Greek as the agora. The dramatic competitions of the Great Dionysia, Athens's annual cultural and religious festival, were held in a structure made of wood near the Acropolis. The chorus performed on a raised stage. There were no female actors, and it is still unknown (though much speculated upon) whether women attended these performances. It is also noteworthy that the performance space was near the Priyx, the area in which the century's increasingly heated and rhetorically sophisticated political debates took place—a feature of Athenian cultural life that suggests the pervasive nature of spectacles of polished and persuasive verbal expression.

The Chorus

The Greek chorus, like the genre of tragedy itself, is reputed to be a remnant of the ritualistic and ceremonial...

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origins of Greek tragedy. Sophocles added three members of the chorus to Aeschylus's twelve. In terms of form, the choral ode has a tripartite structure which bears traces of its use as a song and dance pattern. The three parts are called, respectively, the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode; their metrical structures vary and are usually very complex. If the strophe established the dance pattern, in the antistrophe the dancers trace backwards the same steps, ending the ode in a different way with the epode.

With respect to content, the choral odes bring an additional viewpoint to the play, and often this perspective is broader and more socio-religious than those offered by individual characters; it is also conservative and traditional at times, potentially in an effort to reflect the views of its society rather than the protagonist. The Chorus's first set of lyrics in Oedipus Rex, for example, express a curiosity about Apollo's oracle and describes the ruinous landscape of Thebes. Its second utterance reminds the audience of the newness of Teiresias's report: "And never until now has any man brought word/Of Laius's dark death staining Oedipus the King." The chorus reiterates some of the action, expressing varying degrees of hope and despair wilh respect to it; one of its members delivers the play's final lines, much like the Shakespearean epilogue. Sometimes the chorus sings a dirge with one or more characters, as when it suggests to Oedipus not to disbelieve Creon's protestations of innocence.


The play's action occurs outside Oedipus's palace in Thebes. Thebes had been founded, according to the myth, by Cadmus (a son of Agenor, King of Phoenicia) while searching for his sister Europa, who had been abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. A direct line of descent can be traced from Cadmus to Oedpius; between them are Polydorus, Labdacus, and, of course, Laius.

Imagery and Foreshadowing

Associated with knowledge and ignorance are the recurring images of darkness and light in the play, and these images work as examples of a kind of foreshadowing for which the play is justly famous. When the play begins, the priest uses this set of contrasts to describe the current condition of Thebes: "And all the house of Kadmos is laid waste/All emptied, and all darkened." Shortly after this moment, Oedipus promises Creon: "Then once more I must bring what is dark to light,'' that is, the murder of Laius will out and Oedipus will be responsible for finding and exposing the culprit(s). Metaphorical and literal uses of darkness and light also provide foreshadowing, since it is Oedipus's desire to bring the truth to light that leads him to a self-knowledge ruinous and evil enough to cause him to blind himself. After the shepherd reveals his birth he declares, "O Light, may I look on you for the last time!" In saying this he sets up for the audience, who are, presumably, familiar with the legend of Oedipus, his subsequent actions. The second messenger describes his command to himself as he proceeds to perform the gruesome task: "From this hour, go in darkness!" thereby enacting both a literal and metaphorical fall into the dark consequences of his unbearable knowledge. These are but a few examples of how imagery and foreshadowing as techniques can meet, overlap, and mutually inform one another in the play; through subjective interpretation, many more may be found.




Historical and Social Context