So you’re going to teach Oedipus Rex. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, this classic text has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it has its challenging spots, teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. It will give them unique insight into Greek tragedy and the work of Sophocles, and important understanding surrounding fate, free will, and the dangers of pursuing truth at all costs. This guide highlights the text’s most salient aspects to keep in mind before you begin teaching.
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Facts at a Glance
- Publication Date: 429 BCE
- Recommended Grade Level: 9 and up
- Author: Sophocles
- Country of Origin: Greece
- Genre: Drama, Tragedy
- Literary Period: Classical Greece
- Conflict: Person vs. Self, Fate vs. Free Will
- Literary Devices: Dramatic Irony
- Setting: Thebes, Ancient Greece
- Mood: Fatalistic, Defiant, Grim
Texts that Go Well with Oedipus Rex
The Allegory of the Cave by Plato. In The Republic, Plato presents an extended metaphor for the search for intellectual enlightenment. Parallel to the way in which Oedipus Rex narrates Oedipus’s quest for knowledge, so too does Plato tell the story of a group of prisoners who, after a lifetime chained in a world of shadows, try to break free and see the light. Though different in content and structure, Plato considers a similar thematic question: in the search for knowledge, how do humans adapt to the pain that so often accompanies illumination?
Hamlet and King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Both of these Elizabethan plays echo themes and imagery present in Oedipus Rex. In Hamlet, the title character struggles to avenge his father’s murder by his uncle, who has quickly married his mother in the aftermath of the crime. In King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester attempts to help the desolate King Lear, but is blinded by Lear’s daughter Regan. Only once blind is Gloucester able to understand the true natures of his own sons, Edgar and Edmund.
Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone by Sophocles. Though not written as a trilogy, these two plays expound subsequent episodes from Oedipus’s story. Oedipus at Colonus depicts his redemptive death near Athens, and Antigone follows his daughter in her conflict with Creon, who has become King of Thebes. In both plays, the children of Oedipus find themselves affected by the curse of their father’s prophecy, which extends down his line to bring ruin to them all.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. A story of tragic heroes during the Great Depression, this novella enacts fatalist themes present in Oedipus Rex. The story’s protagonists seem destined to be migrant ranch workers, but they dream of pooling their resources and owning a farm of their own. Though they are well-meaning, they are also flawed, and subject to forces beyond their control.
Poetics by Aristotle. In his discussion on Greek theater and the arts, Aristotle details Oedipus Rex as the ideal Greek tragedy. In particular, Aristotle highlights the play’s use of reversal, discovery, and character. Poetics remains an influential text, as Aristotle’s examination of comedy, epic, and tragedy serve as one of the first formal analyses of literature in the Western tradition.
“The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot uses the figure of the prophet Tiresias to evoke questions of fate and free will, as well as to provide a lens through which to perceive the blunt unsacredness of modern life. Eliot references a myth in which Tiresias lived part of his life as a woman, giving the character perspective that crosses not only temporal boundaries but also gendered ones.