Greek Tragedy: Contemplation of the Mystery of Undeserved Suffering

Sophocles (497-406 BC): treasurer, general, friend of Pericles, author of over 100 plays, winner of the tragedy competition more than 20 times, now an old man.

Oedipus Rex (425 BC): In the midst of the war with Sparta, just after the death of Pericles, plague has broken out in besieged Athens. The great experiment in democracy appears to be on the brink of failure.

The Oedipus Myth: easily 1000 years old. The play is set in this ancient time period. Why does Sophocles choose to dramatize this myth to comment on the situation in Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars?


Mysteries suffuse the situation at the outset of the action:

  • Why did the Delphic Oracle lay such a terrible fate on Laios and Oedipus?
  • What have the Thebans done to deserve the terrible plague which has descended upon them?
  • Who can help them? The priests? (What would they do to propitiate the gods?)
  • No, Oedipus will help, the champion of reason, the hero who liberated Thebes from the Sphinx. What is the symbolic meaning of this victory?

But even after Creon has reported the Oracle's words and Oedipus has put his plan into motion, the mystery deepens:

  • Why was there no search for Laios' murderer at the time of his death?
  • Why such a long wait before renewing the search?
  • Has Jocasta never spoken with her husband about her previous life?

Is Oedipus' confidence in his ability to use his reason to solve this new riddle a case of hubris- the kind of reckless pride and arrogance that might bring down the wrath of the gods?

Irony is at the center of tragedy. Tragedy celebrates ironic truth. The play itself is built on irony. Everything that Oedipus says has a double meaning: as he understands the truth and as the audience does. For example, in the Prologue, Oedipus declares, "Then once more I must bring what is dark to light." (9) Define dramatic irony.

  • Each scene also builds to a climactic moment of dramatic irony called perepeteia: a sudden and unexpected reversal of circumstances.
  • The tragedy itself builds to a final revelation of ironic truth when the whole audience will be possessed by the spirit of Dionysus. This moment is called catharsis
  • As we read Scene 1 and then Scene 2, be on the look out for dramatic irony. Call out, "Ewww!" when you hear a line dripping with dramatic irony. (Underline!) When we reach the moment of perepeteia, call out, "Oh my God!" (Big * in margins.)

Scene 1: The Soothsayer's Prophecy

  • What is Oedipus' plan to root out the truth? (How has he responded quite rationally to the crisis? Even so, have his actions done anything to dispel the mysteries beneath the surface of the action?)
  • What effect does Sophocles' use of dramatic irony have on our impressions of Oedipus?
  • Who is Teiresias? Why does he say that there is no help in the truth? How does Oedipus treat the blind prophet even before his shocking revelation?
  • Identify the moment of  perepeteia. (Define perepeteia)
Can Oedipus come up with a reasonable explanation for Teiresias' accusation? (Tableaux Photograph)
  • Why does Oedipus get so angry with him? When does his anger cross the line?
  • Instead of hunting for a murderer, who is Oedipus hunting now?

ODE 1: The Choral Response:

  • What is the chorus' response to Teiresias' shocking allegations?
  • What metaphors does the chorus use to describe the revenge they desire against the killer of Laius?
  • What metaphor do they use to describe their bewilderment at Teiresias' wild accusation?
  • How does the chorus justify their rejection of Teiresias' prophecy? Have they lost faith in Oedipus?

Scene 2: Jocasta’s Comfort

  • Is Oedipus' accusation of Creon rational? (28-29)
  • How does Creon defend himself? Is his rationale convincing? (31-32) Why does this defense infuriate Oedipus? (33) What would he have done if Jocasta had not made her entrance?
  • How does Jocasta try to reassure Oedipus? (Identify Perepeteia #2)
  • What details of Jocasta's speech does Oedipus hear, and what details does he ignore?
  • Dramatic Irony in Scene 2
  • How does Oedipus' behavior change once the evidence starts to point at him?
ODE 2: How does the chorus respond to the news?

Scene 3: The Messenger from Corinth

  • Note the relative calm at the outset of the scene: what is Jocasta doing?
  • What "good news" does the messenger bring? What is strange about Oedipus' reaction to the news?(48-50)
  • How does Jocasta comfort Oedipus when he says that he still fears fulfilling the second part of the prophecy- sleeping with his mother.(51) Notice the disturbing irony of the moment. What is Sophocles doing to our notions of right and wrong?
  • Describe Perepeteia #3. (51-54) What makes this moment a classic perepeteia?
  • How does Oedipus learn the origin of his handicap? What did the shepherd who saved the infant Oedipus also witness?
  • How does Oedipus understand Jocasta's disapproval of his search for the identity of his true parents? What does Oedipus mean when he calls himself a child of Luck?
  • What does the chorus celebrate in Ode III? How is this celebration deeply ironic? What does it indicate about the nature of the approaching catharsis?

Scene 4: Recognition: The Shepherd at the Mystery's Center

What is the chorus' comment on this devastating turn of events?

Exodos: Catharsis

  • Why does Sophocles choose to have the gory violence occur off stage? What is the effect of hearing the messenger's description of what he has seen rather than actually presenting it on stage?(68-69)
  • How and why has Jocasta killed herself? Would Oedipus have killed her? Why? (68-69)
  • Why doesn't Oedipus kill himself? Instead he blinds himself. Was that in the prophecy?(68-69)
  • What is the theatrical impact of Oedipus' entrance? Is this the moment of catharsis?(70) Which pain is worse, the physical or emotional? (71)
  • Has Oedipus been destroyed? How is he already adjusting to being blind? (72)
  • Would he have been better off never having been born?
  • What does Oedipus mean when he describes his deeds as 'more primal than sin itself'? (73)
  • Why does Oedipus ask Creon for exile? Why does he want to live? Is he constructing his own fate here?(77)
  • Near the very end of the play, two new characters enter, Antigone and Ismene, Oedipus' daughters. What is the impact of seeing Oedipus' children for the first time? What kind of lives will these two lead? (77)
  • What is the Chorus' final verdict upon the action? The choragos call on all of us to never take good fortune for granted because what happened to Oedipus could happen to us. Is that Sophocles' final word as well? (81)