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Notes and Questions for Sophocles' Oedipus the King
[Fagles translation. Read "Greece and the Theater" (13-30, especially pp. 21-30).]
[Introduction 131-53]

"The Oedipus Story
Oedipus Links

Notes: (159) Oedipus, means "swollen foot" in Greek. Sophocles also puns on the Greek form of Oedipus' name, Oidipous. The verb oida means "I know" or "I see," while dipous means "two-footed." Note how the themes of knowledge and feet are brought together in the very letters of Oedipus' name. See Knox's introductions, pp. 27, 139 and 152.
(161, line 54) what do you know? = in Greek, oistha pou, a pun on Oedipus' name, Oidipous and a clear reference to the theme of knowledge / ignorance. See note, p. 406.

Dramatic Irony occurs when a character says something that the audience knows to be ironic, but which the character does not. For example, when Oedipus says to his people, "I know / you are sick to death, [from the plague] all of you, / but sick as you are, not one is as sick as I" (162), he means to say that he really feels their pain. But the audience knows that Oedipus is "sick" in another sense--he is polluted with the crimes of patricide and incest.
(164, line 109) corruption = miasma, ritual stain.
(170, line 219) that raging god of war = Ares, patron of Thebes.
(line 243) that god of death that all gods hate! = here, the reference is to Ares.
(173, line 296) our seed = in Greek, homosporon, which can also mean "blood relation." See Knox's note on p. 407.
(182, line 458) witch-hunt = "driving out the pollution" in Greek. See note, p. 408.
(185) Turning his back . . . Like all stage directions, this one is added by the translator or editor. See note, pp. 408-409.
(185, line 519) a stick, in Greek, skeptron, a word used in Oedipus the King for the king's scepter, the "staff" used to kill Laius (206, line 895), and the stick used for support by Oedipus at the end of the play.
(201, lines 784-800) An oracle came . . . Notice that Jocasta mentions no prophecy about the son committing incest with the mother. See also p. 208, lines 944-48.
(211, lines 1012-14) lead us . . . Oedipus--There is some unusual (for Greek) rhyming in this passage, emphasizing Oedipus' lack of true knowledge. See note, p. 411.
(219, line 1125) Cithaeron = mountain where Oedipus was exposed as a boy.

1. Find instances of dramatic irony throughout the play (see note above). What do you think were the effects of dramatic irony on the Greek audience? Try to find ways in which these examples of dramatic irony might be related to the themes of human ignorance and godlike knowledge. How might they be related to religious prophecy and / or the literary technique of foreshadowing?

2. Who do you think is responsible for the tragedy of Oedipus? (Some candidates: the gods (Apollo), fate, Oedipus' hubris, Tiresias, Jocasta and Laius, the sphinx.)

3. Try to find examples of Oedipus' hubris. Why do you think Oedipus accuses Creon and Tiresias of plotting against him? Even if he does have certain flaws, do you think they justify his horrible fate and final punishment? (See introduction, pp. 150-51.)

4. Give some examples of how the symbols of blindness / sight are connected with the themes of ignorance / knowledge in this play. How do you think the solution to the riddle illustrates Oedipus' knowledge and ignorance?

5. Oedipus actually has to find the answer to several riddles: a) the Sphinx's riddle, b) the riddle of who killed Laius, and c) the riddle of his own birth. In what ways are these riddles and their answers similar and different? In what ways could the play be said to be about the riddle of existence?

6. There's a lot of talk about feet in this play. How are the motifs of the swollen foot and the limp related to the answers of the riddles? Can you find some ways in which they are related to the symbols of blindness / sight and themes of ignorance / knowledge?

7. What are some psychological reasons why Jocasta doesn't believe in prophets or oracles (201, 208, 213, 215)? (See also pp. 135-37 [introduction], 187, 209-10 [chorus], and 214 [Oedipus].) What do you think prophets and / or oracles represent in these tragedies?

7a. Compare / contrast the role of Tiresias in this play and Antigone with that of Cassandra in the Agamemnon. For example, why is each not listened to or is unable to tell what he / she knows?

8. Do you think Oedipus is innocent? (If he is innocent, why doesn't he get angry and curse the gods? Does he blame the gods? If he is guilty, what are some of his flaws?)

9. Why do you think the gods are so nasty to Oedipus? Do you think Oedipus has any free will, or is he just a plaything of the gods? For one view, read Knox's general discussion of fate and free will (143-49) and his specific discussion of Oedipus' free will (149-53).

10. In what ways is Oedipus' fate representative of that of every Greek? (See the chorus on p. 233 and the note at the top of p. 413.) In what ways is Oedipus portrayed as a representative Athenian? (See Knox's introduction, pp. 136-142.)

11. What do you think Sophocles is saying about the gods in this play? about fate or destiny? (The choruses and the numerous examples of dramatic irony can give you clues to the author's views.) Why do you think Oedipus does not curse the gods for his fate?

12. What functions does the Chorus have in this play? Any differences from how it was used in the Agamemnon or Eumenides?

13. Although Oedipus gives some reasons for blinding himself, can you think of some others? What do you think Oedipus learns from his suffering? (See Knox's introduction, pp. 152-3.) What do you think the audience learns?

14. Compare and contrast the return home of Oedipus with the return of Odysseus. In what ways does Oedipus’ story follow a typical hero’s journey (packet 47-50)? What kind of hero do you think Oedipus is? (For one view, see introduction, p. 150.)

The Oedipus Story
(from Apollodorus’ Library 3.5.7-9 )

[5.7] After Amphion's death Laius succeeded as King of Thebes. And he married a daughter of Menoeceus; some say that she was Jocasta, and some that she was Epicasta. The oracle had warned him not to beget a son, for the son that should be begotten would kill his father; nevertheless, flushed with wine, he had intercourse with his wife. And when the babe was born he pierced the child's ankles with brooches and gave it to a herdsman to expose. The herdsman exposed it on Mount Cithaeron; but the shepherds of Polybus, king of Corinth, found the infant and brought it to his wife Merope. She adopted him and passed him off as her own, and after she had healed his ankles she called him Oedipus ["swell foot"], giving him that name on account of his swollen feet.

When the boy grew up and excelled his fellows in strength, they spitefully implied that he was not the child of Periboea and Polybus. He inquired of Periboea, but could learn nothing; so he went to Delphi and inquired about his true parents. At Delphi, the oracle of Apollo told him not to go to his native land, because he would murder his father and lie with his mother. On hearing that, and believing himself to be the son of his nominal parents, he left Corinth, and riding in a chariot through Phocis he encountered his real father Laius, driving in a chariot in a certain narrow road. When Polyphontes, the herald of Laius, ordered Oedipus to get out of the road and killed one of his horses because he disobeyed and delayed, Oedipus in a rage killed both Polyphontes and Laius, and continued on the road to Thebes. [Note some slight differences between this version and the one told in Oedipus the King (145-146).]

[5.8] Creon, son of Menoeceus, succeeded to the kingdom. In his reign a heavy calamity befell Thebes. For Hera sent the Sphinx, a female monster who had the face of a woman, the breast and feet and tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird. And having learned a riddle from the Muses, she sat on Mount Phicium, and propounded it to the Thebans. The riddle was this: -- What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed? [Other versions of the riddle say, "What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?"] Now the Thebans were in possession of an oracle which declared that they should be rid of the Sphinx whenever they had solved her riddle; so they often met and discussed the answer, but whenever one of the Thebans would attempt an answer, the Sphinx would snatch him away and gobble him up. When many had perished, Creon made a proclamation that whoever should answer the riddle would receive as reward both the kingdom and the wife of Laius. Soon after, Oedipus arrived at Thebes and solved the riddle, declaring that the answer was man: for as a babe he is four-footed, going on four limbs, as an adult he is two-footed, and as an old man he gets a third foot, a staff, as support. So the Sphinx threw herself from the citadel, and Oedipus both succeeded to the kingdom and unwittingly married his mother, and fathered sons by her, Polynices and Eteocles, and daughters, Ismene and Antigone.

[5.9] When the secret came to light afterwards, Jocasta hanged herself, and Oedipus was driven from Thebes, after he had put out his eyes and cursed his sons, who saw him cast out of the city without lifting a hand to help him. And having come with Antigone to Colonus in Attica, where is the precinct of the Eumenides, he sat down there as a suppliant, was kindly received by Theseus, and died not long afterwards.

Quoting Drama: as with epic poetry, you may refer to the quote's place in the work either by line number or by page number. Be consistent. To avoid confusion, write out "line" or "lines" at first [e.g., (Furies, line 26)] until the reader knows what your numbers refer to. If you start out putting down only numbers [e.g., (Agamemnon 26)], the reader will assume you are referring to page numbers.

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