Notes for oedipus the king

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(translated by David Grene, 1942)

See, as well, the Course Notes on Sophocles' Oedipus by John Porter.


line 1 Cadmus: mythical founder of Thebes (see also the note at line 1533 of Oedipus at Colonus).

22 Pallas: = Athena, daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom.

22 Ismenus: a river near Thebes.

37 Sphinx: a monster with the head of a woman, the body of a lion and the talons of a bird; each day its riddle went unanswered it ate a Theban; Oedipus came, solved

the riddle, and was made king (the Sphinx is said to have self-destructed, in rage).

70 Apollo: son of Zeus; god of archery, light, prophecy, healing, and plague; often called Phoebus.

71 Pythian Temple: Delphi, the oracular centre of Greece; sacred to Apollo, who is often called the Pythian.

97 Phoebus: = Apollo.

151 God from the shrine of Pytho: = Apollo.

154 Delian healer: = Apollo.

160 Artemis: sister of Apollo.

177 the coast of the Western God: = Death.

186 the healing God: = Apollo.

187 golden daughter of Zeus: = Aphrodite, goddess of love.

190 War God: = Ares, son of Zeus.

195 palace of Amphitrite: = the ocean (Amphitrite was the wife of Oceanos).

205 Lycaean king: = Apollo.

211 Bacchic God: lines 209-214 all refer to Dionysos (also called Bacchus), the god of wine and ecstasy.

411 Loxias: = Apollo.

421 Cithaeron: a mountain near Thebes.

469 Pegasus: the winged horse, ridden by Bellerophon.

473 Parnassus: the mountain at Delphi.

483 the augur: = Teiresias.

491 Labdacus: father of Laius. Polybus: king of Corinth; reputed father of Oedipus.

868 Olympus: mountain which was the home of the gods.

898 navel of the earth: = Delphi.

899-900 Abae...Olympia: other oracular centres.

940 Isthmus: a reference to Corinth, kingdom of the reputed father of Oedipus.

994 Loxias: = Apollo.

1036 from this you're called your present name: "OED" = "swollen;" "PUS" = "foot" (cf. "octopus"); note that "OED" also means "see and/or know."

1227 Phasis...Ister: rivers near Thebes.
1. Divide the play into scenes, numbering them, and create a one sentence summary of each.

2. You are going to produce this play on a very low budget. What is the minimum number of actors, not counting the chorus, which you would be able to use?

3. What is the minimum amount of background information you need to understand the action of this play? (Note: All of it is in the play itself.)

4. What do lines 35-39 refer to? In other words, what was a Sphinx and how did Oedipus save the city from it? Looking at other references to the Sphinx in the play may help.

5. What is the "riddle of the Sphinx"? Why does Sophocles not tell us in the play? Does he make use of the riddle itself in any way?
**6. Do you see any irony in lines 149-150?

**7. Judging by the first scene only, is Oedipus a good king? For what reasons? Do the Thebans perhaps overrate Oedipus? Does he perhaps overrate himself?

**8. What ironical elements do you find in Oedipus' second speech?

**9. Can you find a mistake in the "theological logic" of the first choral interlude?

**10. What ironical elements do you find in Oedipus' proclamation following the first choral interlude?

**11. Twice within the first 300 lines of the play Oedipus shows that he has anticipated good advice which is given him. What are the two incidents and what is the effect of his anticipation?

**12. Who is "the man that is wise" at line 3l7?

**13. Collect the references to "eyes," "seeing," "learning," "understanding," "knowing," and "teaching" in the Teiresias scene. Is there any irony here? What about foreshadowing?

**14. Oedipus makes two false assumptions about the murder of Laius in the Teiresias scene. What are they? In terms of these two assumptions, what does the scene tell us about his character?

**15. In part of the interchange between Teiresias and Oedipus (350-368) the mystery of the play is clearly explained. Why does it take Oedipus some 700 lines to work it out?

**16. Does the short speech of the chorus at 404 forward suggest a kind of reversal of roles? What are its implications?

**17. Teiresias begins to speak in an oracular way at line 408. Explicate his riddles in terms of the revelations of the later parts of the play.

**18. Compare the first (151-215) and second (462-512) choral interludes. What feelings does each emphasize?

**19. What do you make of Oedipus' question at line 437?

**20. Is there any irony in the end of Oedipus' first speech to Creon (532 forward)?

**21. What do you make of Oedipus' lashing out at Creon? Is he being reasonable? What do you make of the two references to eyes at 528-531?

**22. Summarize the ideas in Creon's reply to Oedipus at 583-615. Do you agree with the chorus' assessment?

**23. Discuss the first Jocasta scene. What do you make of the relationship between her and Oedipus? What of the one between her and her brother?

**24. What new information do we get from Jocasta in her speech at 707-725? What new information does Oedipus get? Comment on his reaction.

**25. What new information do we get from Oedipus in lines 771-833? Comment on Jocasta's reaction.

**26. By line 784 both husband and wife have claimed that they have outwitted a specific oracle. What are the ironic implications?

**27. Bearing in mind the specific revelation Oedipus is reacting to in 821-834, do you see any irony?

**28. In her speech at 849-859 why do you suppose Jocasta mentions prophecies?

**29. At 874 some manuscripts read "tyranny breeds insolence" (the Greek word for "insolence" is "hybris"). Which reading do you think fits best?

**30. After her strong statement of disbelief in oracles at 849-859 what do you make of Jocasta's re-entry speech at 911-923?

**31. What news does the messenger from Corinth bring (up to line 963)? What are its implications? Is there anything disturbing in Jocasta's reaction at 945-949 and in

Oedipus' reaction at 964-973?

**32. In attempting to ingratiate himself, what new information about Oedipus' past does the messenger provide? What does Oedipus think the solution might be?

**33. At line 1033 Oedipus clearly indicates that he knows that there is something strange about his ankles. Does this fact shed any new light on question 24 above?
34. What sort of person is the messenger from Corinth?

35. "Lines 980-983 are the closest that any part of any version of the Oedipus Myth comes to the so-called 'Oedipus Complex' described by Freud." Discuss.

**36. Discuss the interchange between Oedipus and Jocasta at 1054-1073. What is the essence of the misunderstanding? What does this scene show you about the principles of the two characters?
37. How would you describe the interview between Oedipus and the herdsman?
**38. Read the second messenger's speech 1238-1285 aloud. What is lost by having the gore occur off stage? What is gained?

**39. Why doesn't Oedipus simply kill himself upon finding Jocasta dead? Would he not be, as the chorus put it, "better dead than blind and living"?

**40. Compare Creon's line at 1521 with the two lines preceding line 570. What is the effect of the ideas he expresses?

**41. What qualities does Creon reveal in his final scene?

**42. To what extent is it true that Oedipus' best qualities lead to his blindness? Is there a paradox here?

**43. Did Oedipus have a chance? Did he get a raw deal? Where did he go wrong?

**44. What are the major questions raised by the play? To what extent are they answered?
45. Which scene would be the most effective on stage? Which would be the least effective?

Consider that many of the events in the traditional story of Oedipus (killing his father, solving the riddle of the Sphinx, marrying his mother, etc.) have already occurred when the play opens. Why? Why does Sophocles concentrate on the life of Oedipus after his becoming king of Thebes?

How would you describe the character of Oedipus? What sort of a person is he? Consider how Oedipus sees himself (as seen for example in the play's opening speech and his later dialogues with Creon and Tiresias). What character traits and dispositions are dominant in his personality?
What is the effect of Oedipus's insistence and promises regarding the hunting down and punishing of the murderer of Laius? What does this suggest concerning his character as well as the meaning of Sophocles's play?
What may be the purpose and significance of the interactions between Oedipus and characters like Tiresias and Creon?
Why does Tiresias hesitate to tell Oedipus the truth of his identity?
What is the significance of Oedipus's slow coming into awareness of that identity?
What is the significance of the physical blindness of the prophet Tiresias? Is blindness an important and repeated symbolic motif in the play? How can we interpret Oedipus's act of self-blinding? Is his physical blindness symbolically similar to or different from that of Tiresias?
What do you make of the various situations at the end of the play (the suicide of Jocasta, Oedipus's self-blinding and exile, his prediction of a miserable life for his own children)? Why are the outcomes so tragic and extreme? What is the significance of the curse/prophecy that seems to haunt the family of Oedipus?
Is Oedipus an innocent victim of an unjust fate or does he bear some responsibility in the outcome of his life? Is his fate the result of unavoidable necessity or does he contribute to it through his own choices? Could he have changed the fate described in the prophecies? How?
Oedipus Rex

1. Why is Thebes suffering a plague?

2. What curse does Oedipus swear against the murderer of Laius?

3. Of what plot does Oedipus suspect Creon and Teiresias?

4. How does Jocasta try to reconcile Oedipus and Creon?

5. But what does she say which arouses Oedipus’ suspicions against himself?

6. What "good" and "bad" news does the messenger from Corinth bring?

7. What does the messenger say to reassure Oedipus, which causes Jocasta to leave?

8. What does Oedipus learn from the herdsman?

9. What punishment does Oedipus inflict upon himself?

10. Does Creon grant Oedipus’ wishes?

While students read (what you might need to know):

During the Prologue:

This part of the play was normally read by a lone

actor. Oedipus calls the citizens of Thebes 'the children of Cadmus'

because he was the mythical character who founded the city, after slaying

a dragon and sowing its teeth to make the first inhabitants. Apollo is

invoked because he was the god of healing and a plague has blighted the

city. Is Oedipus' pride evident from the very first lines? Note any references

to sight; it is used throughout the play as a metaphor for insight.


At this point the Chorus would usually make their entrance.

First Scene (lines 245 - 526):

This scene is filled with many instances of dramatic irony. For example,

when Oedipus condemns the murder which has brought about the plague

he is in fact condemning himself (the man who unknowingly killed his own

father and took his mother as his wife). Note particularly the character

Tiresias who clearly knows more than he's letting on. Is he trying to

protect Oedipus?
First Stasimon (527 - 572) or closing of the scene:

The Chorus seems completely confused - are they following Tiresias or

Second Scene (573 - 953):

Is Creon being admirable here? Why should Oedipus have such a strange

reaction to Jocasta's account of her lost child? What is the significance of

her baby's ankles having been pinned? (Oedipus means 'swollen ankles' - a

major clue, but why doesn't he make the connection?).

The reference to the 'sacred dance' (line 895) refers to the god Bacchus

(aka Dionysus), god of wine, changing seasons and frenzy.
Third Scene (998 - 1214):

Consider Jocasta's ongoing aspersion of oracles in the light of what is

about to happen. At what point does she begin to suspect the truth? Why

does Oedipus remain ignorant? Note the way the Chorus takes Oedipus'

hope and runs with it, imagining him to be the foundling son of a god.
Fourth Scene (1215 - 1310):

Aristotle believed Oedipus Rex to be the finest of all tragedies because the

protagonist's recognition of the truth coincides with the reversal of his

fortunes. Where exactly does this occur?

Fourth Stasimon (1311 - 1350):

Oedipus has become the paradigm of misfortune.

Fifth Scene (1351 - 1432):

What was Oedipus trying to do when he found his mother/wife dead? Is

blinding an appropriate (self) punishment?
Sixth Scene and Exodus (1499 - end):

Does anything surprise you about the way Oedipus views disaster in this

scene? Is Creon fair to Oedipus? Why do Oedipus' daughter remain so

special to him? What effect does blindness have open Oedipus' wisdom?

After the students read:

Return now to the theme of fate which is central to this play (and indeed,

all Greek drama). Discuss the social attitudes that identify the ancient

Greeks. What are the Greek concerned about in this play? How did they

feel about prophesy, priests, the gods, and fate? How did pride (hubris)

and arrogance affect Oedipus' fate? What in his personality brought about

his fate when others tried to turn him away from it?

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