Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1853
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 the course of the play? Where does he stand in relation do other characters? Does this change? How and why?
- For discussion: When does he gain power? When does he lose it? How does Oedipus respond to the changes in his power? Compare and contrast Oedipus at the beginning of the play with Oedipus at the end of the play.
- For discussion: Which character in the play would make the best political leader? Why?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- What are the conflicts in the plot? Who are they between and why do they occur?
- What dramatic function does the Chorus serve in the play?
- How does Sophocles use dramatic irony in Oedipus Rex? What are some examples?
- What does the Chorus’s speech at the end of the play reveal about life?
- Discuss whether or not Oedipus is a victim of fate or his own actions.
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Play Presents a Fatalist and Pessimistic Worldview: Though interpretations vary, Oedipus Rex can be read as a depiction of humanity doomed, wherein any attempts to avoid one’s fate only serve to bring tragedy to pass. Cursed from birth, Oedipus’s family and life’s work as King of Thebes are destroyed by the unwitting culmination of his fate: to murder his father and marry his mother. Students will experience the dark themes and likely, as Aristotle anticipates, some of Oedipus’s own agony as they study the play.
- What to do: Introduce students to the idea of catharsis and the function of Greek tragedy in Greek society. The intention of the play was for audiences to share in the experience of the tragic hero and learn from his mistakes. In other words, Sophocles doesn’t necessarily make a statement as to whether or not Oedipus is doomed, but instead illustrates the human flaws that lead to tragedy. For Oedipus, his flaw, or hamartia, is commonly considered to be hubris, or excessive pride.
- What to do: With sensitivity, share with students that life, at times, can feel like a veritable sequence of unfortunate events. Tragedies, randomly, happen to people who try to do the right thing. Invite students to think about the feelings and coping mechanisms Oedipus uses, and apply them to their own experiences. Explain to students that sometimes it is easier to talk about tragedies in fiction than it is to talk about the particulars of our personal experiences. For this reason, humans have valued and studied literary fiction through time: to help develop the language needed to cope with life.
The Play Relies on the Suspension of Disbelief: The play follows Oedipus on the day in which the truth of his fate is revealed. Students may point out the striking coincidences that occur on this particular day. First, the audience has to believe that it is only now, years after the fact, that the gods are punishing Thebes with a plague for neglecting to solve the murder of its king. Then, on this same very day, the Messenger from Corinth arrives announcing the death of the King of Corinth. Perhaps most importantly, modern audiences are asked to believe that the events in Oedipus’s life were prophesied at birth.
- What to do: Describe the roles of playwrights in classical Greece. Sophocles did not invent stories for his stage; he dramatized myths that were well-known to his audience. As a result, the play isn’t about revealing the plot of the Oedipus myth; rather, it is about the specific moments of his self-revelation. Approaching the play from this lens, students can appreciate that the play is about more than a doomed man; it is about the possibility of mitigating suffering in the wake of tragic events.
- What to do: Review with students the role that the gods played in ancient Greek culture. The ancient Greeks used the gods and their respective myths to explain the unexplainable.
Incest Is Difficult to Talk About: One of the cruxes of Oedipus’s tragedy is that he is doomed to marry his mother. As audiences know, this prophecy comes to pass. He marries his mother Jocasta and has two daughters and two sons. Most students will agree that this is an uncomfortable and disturbing idea.
- What to do: Point out to students that finding incest disturbing and uncomfortable is something they have in common with the ancient Greeks. Cull the adjectives in the play used to describe it (such as “unnatural”) and ask them what adjectives they would use.
- What to do: Point out that nowhere in the play (or the myth) is there the suggestion of romance between Oedipus and Jocasta. Oedipus married Jocasta because he became the King of Thebes, and she was the queen. Remind students that in classical Greece, particularly for the upper classes, marriage was about property and inheritance, not about love.
- What to do: Invite students to engage in a feminist reading of Jocasta’s character. Her fate is intertwined with Oedipus’s prophecies, yet due to her status as a female she is presented with a different set of choices than Oedipus. Consider comparing and contrasting Oedipus’s and Jocasta’s access to free will over the course of the play.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching Oedipus Rex
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Focus on rhetorical appeals to Oedipus. A variety of characters try to sway Oedipus’s opinions and course of action over the course of the play. Who is successful? Why or why not?
Focus on defining Oedipus’s hamartia. Defining and describing Oedipus’s fatal flaw has been the subject of scholarship from antiquity until now. Ask your students to define Oedipus’s flaw or question if he even has one.
Focus on class conflict. Examine how Oedipus interacts with his various interlocutors: Creon, Jocasta, Tiresias, the Chorus, the Herdsman, and the Messenger. Ask students to define what gives a given character social or political power.
Focus on the role of religion in society. Consider how the gods and their oracles interact with society. What role to they play in the body politic? Ask students to compare and contrast religion in Greek society with the role of religion in American society today.
Focus on comparisons to the American Dream. Oedipus’s desire to determine his own fate can be read as analogous to the American Dream. As Oedipus tries to defy his fate, so too have individuals immigrated to the US in the hopes defying the life they were born into. Is this comparison apt? Ask students to think through the implications of Oedipus in contemporary America.
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