Fate vs. Free Will: The thrust of the play centers around whether or not its characters have the power to change their fate. Laius and Jocasta try to avoid the prophecy about their son when they give their child to a shepherd to be killed; Oedipus tries to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother when he decides never to return to Corinth. Oedipus could be considered doomed because of his display of hubris, his prideful belief that he can defy his fate and the gods. The events of the play suggests that while humans are not able to control the events of their lives, employment of free will does grant them the ability to mitigate the suffering therein.
- For discussion: Describe the different attributes each character has. Are some characters better able to control their lives than others? How, why, and to what end?
- For discussion: How does Oedipus’s understanding of himself and his destiny change over the course of the play? How is he able to control his destiny?
- For discussion: What does the play suggest about the role of free will in an individual’s life? Does it align with your worldview? Why or why not?
Knowledge vs. Ignorance: Oedipus’s confidence in his own reasoning is a great virtue when he is in conflict with the Sphinx, but a great flaw when his prophecy plays out. The problem of knowledge is of great concern in the play. Discrepancies in knowledge and the revelation of fact drive its dramatic tension. Further, possessing knowledge and choosing whether or not to reveal it are sources of power. Some have argued that Oedipus’s excessive pride reveals itself not in his attempted defiance of fate, but when he ignores the advice of those around him and continues his search for knowledge at all costs.
- For discussion: What knowledge did Oedipus seek? Was he justified in doing so? Was his search for knowledge futile?
- For discussion: What would have happened if Oedipus had stopped pursuing the truths of Laius’s death and his own prophecy? Could Oedipus realistically have set aside his quest for knowledge? Why or why not?
- For discussion: In what ways do sight and blindness symbolize knowledge and/or wisdom in the play? How do sight and blindness reveal more about the characters?
- For discussion: Why do different characters want to withhold information? Are they justified in keeping their secrets? Why or why not?
- For discussion: Does Oedipus Rex distinguish between knowledge and wisdom? In terms of the play, what does it mean to be wise?
- For discussion: Is the ability to reason our savior, as it was with Oedipus’s Sphinx, or our ruin, as it was with Oedipus’s prophecy? In other words, is ignorance bliss? Why or why not?
The Prince and the Body Politic: As king of Thebes, Oedipus sees himself as on a public quest to find Laius’s killer and rid Thebes of its plague. As such, he is positioned to interact repeatedly with the public he governs. Unlike plays by his contemporaries, Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex features a chorus that takes an active role in the narrative, introducing the plague at the start of the play, expounding on errors the characters make, and even convincing Oedipus to spare Creon. In the play, the Chorus acts as the body politic and is in active dialogue with the ruler of the nation-state, Oedipus. In a different sphere as a private citizen, Oedipus is the recipient of a tragic prophecy. Creon, Tiresias, Jocasta, and the Herdsman all attempt to persuade him to relinquish his pursuit, or at least discuss the matter privately. Through his status as a governor in the ancient world and the conflicting demands of his private and public obligations, Oedipus depicts the struggles facing even well-meaning individuals trying to work for the public good.
- For discussion: Why does Oedipus insist on questioning others in public? What end does it serve?
- For discussion: What crimes against the people has Oedipus committed? What purpose does Oedipus’s exile serve?
- For discussion: How does Oedipus’s political power shift over...
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