The setting of the Oedipus
the King as in the case of most Greek tragedies, does not
require a change of scene. Throughout the play the skene with
at least one door represents the facade of the royal palace of
Thebes. Even when action takes place inside the palace, such
suicide and Oedipus's
self-blinding, there is no shift of scene. These interior actions
are described in a speech delivered by a messenger rather than
enacted before the audience (1237-1286).1 The messenger
speech eliminates the need for scene changes, which, due to the
limited resources of the ancient theater, would have been difficult
and awkward. Sophocles,
made a virtue of the necessity of this convention of the ancient
theater by writing elaborate messenger speeches which provide
a vivid word picture of the offstage action.
refer to lines in the Oedipus the King.
EXERCISE FOR READING, COMPREHENSION
Prologue (1-150) - Oedipus,
Priest and Creon
What is the dramatic
purpose of the prologue? How does Oedipus characterize himself
(8)? What is his attitude toward the suppliants (13-14)?
What conditions in Thebes does
the Priest describe (25-30)? How do the suppliants view Oedipus
(31-34;40;46)? The Priest refers to Oedipus's saving of Thebes
from the Sphinx
(35-38), a monster with human female head and breasts and a lion's
body with wings. The "tax" (36) which the Thebans paid
the Sphinx was in the form of young men killed by the monster
when they were unable to answer the riddle:2 "What
has one voice and four feet, two feet and three feet?" The
answer which only Oedipus was able to provide was "man"
(crawling on all fours as a baby, walking unaided on two feet
throughout most of his life and finally walking with the aid
of a cane in old age). What request does the Priest make of Oedipus
we associate riddles with children, these enigmatic questions
were taken very seriously by primitive cultures and are often
prominent in myths, which have their origin in a prehistoric
era. Accordingly, riddle solvers were highly respected for their
Dramatic irony is a much-used
literary device in this play. Remember that the Athenian audience
came into the theater already knowing the story of Oedipus and
his horrible fate. Explain the irony of 60-61. What step has
Oedipus already taken to deal with the problem (68-73)? According
to Creon what did Apollo3 say must be done in order
to cure Thebes of its pollution4 (95-107)? According
what were the circumstances of Laius's death (114-123)? What
motive does Oedipus assign to the killer of Laius (124-125)?
What is Oedipus resolved to do (135-137)? Explain the irony of
had gone to obtain this information from Apollo's
oracle at Delphi (also referred to as Pytho; Apollo himself is
sometimes called Phoebus and Loxias), where the god's prophecies
and advice were given to applicants by his priestess, the Pythia.
4A pollution is a religious uncleanness which is usually
the result of murder or of other serious crimes (intentional
or unintentional) and infects anyone and anything which comes
into contact with it. Because of the presence of Oedipus, a man
polluted by the two terrible crimes of patricide and incest,
Thebes is subject to a plague and other disasters.
What is the reaction
of the Chorus to the advice of Apollo
('the Delian Healer') to Thebes (154-157)? What conditions in
Thebes does the Chorus describe (170-182)? The Chorus then asks
to defend Thebes from Ares,
who is usually the war god, but here is a god of destruction
in general (190-202), and finally calls upon Apollo ('Lycean
and Bacchus (Dionysus),
who was born in Thebes, for help (204-215).
First Episode (216-462) -
Oedipus, Chorus and Teiresias
Explain the following
ironies in Oedipus's speech (218-220; 236-248; 249-251; 259-265).
Why does Oedipus summon Teiresias (278-287)? What is Teiresias's
reaction to Oedipus's request for help (316-344)? How does Oedipus
view Teiresias's behavior (345-349)? What does Teiresias reveal
to Oedipus as a result of the king's angry accusation (353;362)?
Note the emphasis on sight and blindness in the dialogue between
Oedipus and Teiresias (e.g.,367; 371). What irony is implicit
in this emphasis?
What suspicion does Oedipus
begin to harbor about Creon (385-389)? What superiority does
Oedipus claim over Teiresias (390-398)? Note the frequent equation
of physical sight with knowledge throughout this scene and the
rest of the play. What is the irony of this equation? Teiresias
then tells Oedipus the horrible truth about himself (413-425).
What does Teiresias predict will happen to Oedipus (417-423;
First Stasimon (463-512)
What is the Chorus's
view of Teiresias's accusations against Oedipus (483-495; 504-511)?
Second Episode (513-862)
- Creon, Chorus, Oedipus and Jocasta
What motivates Creon's
entrance at the beginning of this episode (513-522)? Why does
Oedipus accuse Creon of conspiracy (555-556; 572-573)? How does
Creon defend himself against Oedipus's accusation (583-604)?
What does Oedipus threaten to do (618-630)?
What does Jocasta attempt to
do (634-668)? Is she successful (669-697)? Lines 649-697 are
sung by Oedipus, Creon and Jocasta in conjunction with the Chorus.
That the characters break into song at this point is an indication
of their heightened emotions.
How does Jocasta try to assure
Oedipus that he not guilty of Laius's death (707-722)? What is
Jocasta's view of prophecy (723-725)? Why is Oedipus frightened
by the information given by Jocasta (726-745)? What happened
to the one surviving witness to the killing of Laius (758-764)?
Whom does Oedipus believe are
his parents and where does he think he was born (774-775)? Why
did Oedipus go to the Delphic Oracle and what was he told there
(779-793)? Where did Oedipus arrive as a result of this information
(798-799)? What happened at this place (801-813)? What does Oedipus
fear (813-822)? Does Oedipus suspect at this point that Laius
is his father and Jocasta, his mother (822-827)? Explain your
answer. What detail in Jocasta's story of Laius's death does
Oedipus take comfort in (842-847)? How does Jocasta try to reassure
Oedipus (848-858)? What request does Oedipus make (859-860)?
Second Stasimon (863-910)
What wish does the Chorus express in the first stanza (863-872)? In the beginning of the second stanza the Chorus says that hubris 'arrogant disregard for the rights of others' produces the tyrant, without a doubt referring to Oedipus, since in Greek the title of the play is Oedipus Tyrannos and also on account of
the mention of the "foot"5 (878). The Greek
word tyrannos is most often used in Tragedy as a synonym for "king" and therefore usually has no pejorative meaning, but its use in this stasimon in connection with hubris suggests its other more sinister meaning in Greek, corresponding to what we mean by our word "tyrant". In your opinion is Oedipus a tyrannical ruler? Is he guilty of hubris?
If your answer to these two questions is "yes", is
he therefore responsible for his own fate? In what way specifically
can the words of the Chorus in the second and third stanzas (873-896)
apply to Oedipus? What concern does the Chorus express in the
fourth stanza ("the earth's navel" = the Delphic Oracle)
of the name Oedipus presented in the play is "swollen foot"
referring to the piercing of his feet as an infant (1032-1034).
6In connection with this stanza, it should be noted
that the Delphic Oracle was not universally popular at Athens
when this play was presented because Apollo was supporting the
Spartans in the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides,1.118).
Religiously conservative Athenians like Sophocles
however, did not waver in their faith in the god.
Third Episode (911-1085)
- Jocasta, Messenger, Oedipus and Chorus
Jocasta appears at the beginning of this scene alone on stage.
What prayer does she make and to whom (911-923)? After her prayer
a Messenger arrives. What news does he deliver to Oedipus (924-963)?
What is Oedipus's reaction to this news (964-972)? What is Jocasta's
reaction (977-983)? What further information does the Messenger
give to Oedipus (1008-1046)? Whom does the Chorus identify as
the herdsman mentioned by the Messenger (1051-1053)? Why does
Jocasta ask Oedipus not to seek out the herdsman and then leave
(1056-1075)? How does Oedipus interpret Jocasta's emotional behavior
(1076-1079)?. What is Oedipus's view of the role of Chance (sometimes
translated as 'Fortune') in his life (1080-1085)? Is Oedipus's
view correct? Explain your answer.
Explain the irony of the arrival
of the Messenger occurring just after Jocasta's prayer. Is the
Messenger's news really the good news he thinks it is?7
connection be sure to read what Aristotle
in his Poetics
(1452a.XI) has to say about the arrival of the Messenger as the
peripety of the play.
Third Stasimon (1086-1109)
In the first stanza the Chorus addresses the mountain Cithaeron
on which Oedipus was exposed as a baby. In the second stanza
the Chorus addresses Oedipus and speculates about the identity
of his parents. Whom do they suggest as possible parents (1098-1101)?
Fourth Episode (1110-1185)
- Oedipus, Chorus, Messenger and Herdsman
By whom had the Herdsman been employed (1117-1118)? Why is the
Herdsman reluctant to answer the questions of Oedipus and the
Messenger? What revelation does the Herdsman make (1128-1181)?
Fourth Stasimon (1186-1222)
What general comment on human life does the Chorus make based
on the example of Oedipus (1186-1196)? Summarize briefly the
account of Oedipus's life given by the Chorus in the next two
stanzas (1197-1212). What horrible fact with regard to Oedipus's
marriage does the Chorus point out (1214-1215)?
Exodos (1223 to end) - Second
Messenger, Chorus, Oedipus and Creon
What news does the Second Messenger announce (1235-1279)? What
is the symbolic significance of Oedipus's self-blinding (cf.
the Teiresias scene and 1484)? What does Oedipus intend to do
The next section of the exodos
is a kommos in which Oedipus joins in song with the Chorus,
lamenting his fate (1297-1366). Whom does Oedipus blame for his
What reasons does Oedipus give
for his self-blinding (1369-1385)? How does Oedipus feel about
Creon at this point (1419-1421)? What requests does Oedipus make
of Creon (1436-1437;1446-1467)? What future does Oedipus foresee
for his two daughters (1489-1502)? What important truth about
his life does Creon point out to Oedipus (1522-1523)? What general
lesson does the Chorus draw from the example of Oedipus's life