52 terms

Sophocles Mid-term study guide

British literature

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became king of Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx. His sharp mind and quickness to action have made him an admired and successful leader (/ great husband of the late king's wife). When the priests come to petition him after a plague strikes the city, he has already set into motion two plans to deal with the city's crisis. Throughout the play, he makes decisions boldly and quickly, if not always wisely. In his attempts to discover the truth about the murder of Laius, he falsely accuses Creon and Tiresias of treachery, and even forces the reluctant shepherd to tell his story, which publicly reveals SOMEONE to be the murderer and husband of his own mother. The same leadership skills that have brought him fame and success—decisive action, a desire to solve mysteries using his intellect—drive him to his own destruction.
Brother of Iocasta. Whereas Oedipus is the charismatic leader who speaks openly in front of his people, THIS PERSON is more political and perhaps more scheming. He is offended and alarmed when Oedipus accuses him of treason, but he speaks calmly and tries to show the error of the accusation by appealing to Oedipus's sense of reason. At the end of the play, however, he is more than willing to step into the power vacuum after Oedipus's terrible fate has been revealed. Even then, however, he cautiously makes sure to follow the dictates of the gods, rather than to trying to resist fate as Oedipus has done.
The blind prophet or seer. He knows that the terrible prophecy of Oedipus has already come true, but doesn't want to say what he knows. Only when Oedipus accuses him of treachery does the blind man suggest that Oedipus himself is guilty of the murder of King Laius. He leaves Oedipus with a riddle that implies, plainly enough for the audience to understand, that Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother.
Wife of Oedipus. Also, mother of Oedipus. When the play begins, she no longer believes in the prophecies of seers. She tries to convince Oedipus not to worry about what Tiresias says. As more evidence points toward the probability that Oedipus has in fact fulfilled a terrible prophecy, she begs him not to dig any further into his past. He will not be persuaded. Realizing that her son killed her first husband, that she is now married to her son, and that Oedipus is about to bring all of this to light, this lady takes her own life.
The Chorus
In this play, this represents the elder citizens of Thebes, reacting to the events of the play. They speak as one voice, or sometimes through the voice of its leader. It praises, damns, cowers in fear, asks or offers advice, and generally helps the audience interpret the play.
A Priest
He comes to the royal house to tell Oedipus of the city's suffering and to ask Oedipus to save Thebes once more.
A Messenger
The person from Corinth informs Oedipus that King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth were not his actual parents. The person gave Oedipus as a baby to the Corinthian king and queen. The person got the baby from a Theban shepherd whom he met in the woods. Oedipus's ankles were pinned together at the time—in Greek, the name "Oedipus" means "swollen ankles."
A Shepherd
The former servant of King Laius who took pity on the baby Oedipus and spared his life. Was an eyewitness to the death of King Laius. When Oedipus commands the servant to tell him what he knows about Oedipus's origins, and he refuses, and only relents under punishment of death.
Daughter of Oedipus and half-sister of Oedipus. Still a small child in Oedipus Rex, she appears at the end to bid farewell to her father. She is the main character of Sophocles's Antigone.
Daughter of Oedipus and half-sister of Oedipus. Like Antigone, this little girl is a small child and appears only at the end of the play when her father says goodbye to her.
Fate vs. Free Will
In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus has fulfilled his terrible prophecy long ago, but without knowing it. He has already fallen into his fate. One could argue that he does have free will, however, in his decision to pursue the facts about his past, despite many suggestions that he let it go. In this argument, Oedipus's destruction comes not from his deeds themselves but from his persistent efforts to learn the truth, through which he reveals the true nature of those terrible deeds. Oedipus himself makes a different argument at the end of the play, when he says that his terrible deeds were fated, but that it was he alone who chose to blind himself. Here, Oedipus is arguing that while it is impossible to avoid one's fate, how you respond to your fate is a matter of free will.
Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich,
he will grope his way toward a foreign soil,
a stick tapping before him step by step.
Guilt and Shame
Thebes is suffering because the person guilty of the murder of King Laius has not been brought to justice. Oedipus sets himself the task of discovering the guilty party—so guilt, in the legal sense, is central to Oedipus Rex. Yet ultimately it is not legal guilt but the emotion of guilt, of remorse for having done something terrible, that drives the play.
After all, one can argue that neither Oedipus nor Jocasta are guilty in a legal sense. They committed their acts unknowingly. Yet their overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame for violating two of the basic rules of civilized humanity—the taboos against incest and killing one's parents—are enough to make Jocasta commit suicide and to make Oedipus blind himself violently.
Triple crossroad
Oedipus killed King Laius at a place "where three roads meet," or a triple crossroad. Typically, crossroads symbolize a choice to be made. Yet because the murder of Laius occurred in the distant past. Oedipus's choice has already been made, and so the triple crossroads becomes a symbol not of choice but of fate.
Swollen ankles
As an adult, Oedipus still limps from a childhood injury to his ankles. This limp, and his very name—which means "swollen ankle," and which was given to him because of a childhood ankle injury—are clues to his own identity that Oedipus fails to notice. As such, Oedipus's ankles become symbols of his fate. His ankles, literally, are the marks of that fate.
The play begins in the royal house of Thebes. The stage directions state that Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx many years earlier and has since ruled as king of Thebes. As the play begins, a procession of miserable-looking priests enters. Oedipus follows soon after, walking with a slight limp and attended by guards.
Oedipus limps because Laius and Jocasta (who he doesn't know are his parents) pinned his ankles together when he was an infant to thwart the prophecy that he would kill Laius (they failed). The limp marks Oedipus's fate, even though he does not know it yet.
Oedipus asks the priests why they have come. He knows that the city is sick with plague. He tells them they can trust him to help in any way he can. In a moving speech, a priest tells Oedipus the city's woes: the crops are ruined, cattle are sick, women die in labor and children are stillborn, and people are perishing from the plague. The priest begs Oedipus to save Thebes, just as Oedipus once saved it from the Sphinx.
The reference to the Sphinx reminds the audience that Oedipus is a genuine hero. Oedipus saved Thebes from the Sphinx by answering the Sphinx's riddle. In other words, he became a hero by figuring out the truth.
Oedipus says he knows of the trouble and has been trying to think of a solution. He has already sent Creon, his brother-in-law, to the oracle at Delphi to find out what the god Apollo advises. Just then, the priest notices that Creon is returning from this mission.
Oedipus is a vigorous and active leader. He has already anticipated the priests' request for help and has done what a good Greek ruler should do—seek advice from an oracle.
Creon tells Oedipus and the assembled priests the words of the god Apollo, according to the oracle. Before Oedipus became king, the previous king, Laius, was murdered, and his murderer was never discovered. According to the oracle, the killer lives in Thebes. He must be caught and punished in order to stop the plague.
As when he faced the Sphinx, Oedipus is presented with a puzzle to solve: the identity of Laius's murderer. Shame was believed to have real-world consequences. The plague results from the shame of not punishing Thebe's former king's murderer.
Oedipus asks Creon about the circumstances of Laius's death. Creon says that Laius left the city to consult the oracle of Apollo and never returned. Only one eyewitness to the murder survived and returned to Thebes. This man claimed that a band of thieves killed the king. Oedipus asks why no one tried to find the murderers. Creon responds that, at the time, Thebes was under the Sphinx's curse. Oedipus then promises that he'll take on the task of finding the murderer.
Oedipus is a hero and a man of action. Had his king been murdered, nothing would have stopped him from finding the murderer, just as he is promising to let nothing stop him now. Creon is more pragmatic and less inclined to take action. Having just escaped the Sphinx, searching out Laius's murderer seemed impossible to Creon.
The chorus, which has not heard the news from the oracle, enters and marches around an altar, chanting. The chorus catalogs the misfortunes of Thebes and calls on many gods by name to come to the city's aid.
The chorus, which represents the elders of Thebes, appeals to the gods as the agents of fate and rulers of the world to save the city.
Oedipus orders anyone who knows anything about Laius's murderer to speak, in exchange for light treatment and possibly a reward. But, Oedipus declares, if anyone has useful information and does not speak, the citizens of Thebes must banish this person. Oedipus curses the murderer—"Let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step." He adds that even if the murderer ends up being a member of his own family, he or she should receive the same harsh banishment and punishment.
Oedipus acts quickly to find the killer. He thinks he knows what happened—thieves killed Laius—but is actually blind to the truth. Acting blindly, he curses himself. Greek audiences would have known the Oedipus story, and so in this scene Oedipus would seem to be describing his own fate, or even bringing this fate upon himself.
Oedipus criticizes the people for not hunting more vigorously for Laius's killer. He says he will fight for Laius as if Laius were his own father. Oedipus curses anyone who defies his orders. The leader of the chorus suggests that Oedipus send for Tiresias, the blind seer. Oedipus announces that he has already done so. Soon, blind Tiresias arrives, led by a boy.
Another example of Oedipus's strong leadership. He's one step ahead of the suggestions his subjects make to him and has already sent for Tiresias. Yet in saying he would fight for Laius as if he were his own father, Oedipus further displays his own blindness to the truth.
Oedipus asks Tiresias, the prophet, to help Thebes end the plague by guiding him to the murderers of King Laius. But Tiresias does not want to tell Oedipus what he knows. He asks to be sent home and says he will not tell his secret. Oedipus insults Tiresias, but the prophet still refuses to speak.
The blind seer sees the truth, but tries to protect Oedipus by remaining silent. This puts him into conflict with Oedipus, who is merely trying to be a good leader and save his city.
Now angry, Oedipus accuses Tiresias of plotting to kill Laius. This upsets Tiresias, who tells Oedipus that Oedipus himself is the cause of the plague—Oedipus is the murderer of Laius. As the insults fly back and forth, Tiresias hints that Oedipus is guilty of further outrages.
Oedipus, thinking he understands more than he does, is too quick to judge Tiresias. Though Tiresias is a noted seer, Oedipus is too angry to listen to him
Oedipus convinces himself that Creon has put Tiresias up to making these accusations in attempt to overthrow him. He mocks Tiresias's blindness and calls the man a false prophet. The leader of the chorus tries to calm the two men down. Tiresias warns Oedipus that Oedipus is the blind one—blind to the corrupt details of his own life.
Oedipus, a man of action, describes blindness as an inability to see. Tiresias, the seer, describes it as an inability to see the truth. In calling Tiresias a false prophet, Oedipus shows his willingness to fight against any prophecy he disagrees with.
As the men continue to argue, Tiresias prophesies that Oedipus will know who his parents are by the end of the day, and that this knowledge will destroy him. He leaves with a riddle: the killer of Laius is a native Theban whom many think is a foreigner; he will soon be blind; he is both brother and father to his children; he killed his own father. Both men exit.
The riddle is a reference to the riddle of the Sphinx. Solving that riddle gave Oedipus his fame. Solving this one will destroy him. In other words, Oedipus's own qualities doom him. This riddle is pretty obvious, but Oedipus is not ready or willing to solve it.
The chorus enters, chanting about the murderer of Laius, pursued now by the gods and the words of a prophecy. The chorus concludes that it will not believe the serious charges brought against Oedipus without proof.
The chorus helps the reader and the audience interpret the play. Here, the reader understands that the people of Thebes are still on Oedipus's side. He is still their champion.
Creon enters, upset that he has been accused of treachery. Oedipus enters. He launches further accusations at Creon. Creon tries to defend himself against the charges. He claims he has no idea what Tiresias was going to say, and has no desire to be king. He suggests that Oedipus is being unreasonable and paranoid. Oedipus refuses to listen, and says he wants Creon dead. Jocasta—Oedipus's wife and Creon's sister—approaches.
Creon perhaps protests too much when he says he has no desire to be king (as his actions at the end of the play and in Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus will show). However, he is right that Oedipus is making strong accusations without evidence. Oedipus appears quite unreasonable, overcome by anger and the desire to take some decisive action.
Jocasta tells Oedipus and Creon that it's shameful to have public arguments when the city is suffering. When she learns that Oedipus wants to have Creon banished or killed, Jocasta begs Oedipus to believe Creon. The chorus echoes her plea. Oedipus thinks that this means the Chorus also wants to see him overthrown. The chorus swears they don't.
Oedipus remains in a high state of agitation. He is defensive and still inclined to see a conspiracy. Some critics have argued that Oedipus is so quick to see conspiracies because he actually senses his own guilt, but is trying to hide from it.
Moved by the chorus's expression of loyalty, Oedipus allows Creon to go free, though he says that he still doesn't believe that Creon is innocent. Creon exits, declaring that Oedipus is both wrong and stubborn.
Oedipus seems willing to listen to his subjects in this scene, though he doesn't take the advice of those who tell him not to pursue the story of his birth.
Jocasta asks how Oedipus's argument with Creon started. Oedipus tells her that Creon sent Tiresias to accuse Oedipus of Laius's death. Jocasta responds that Oedipus shouldn't worry about the seer's accusation because the revelations of prophets are meaningless.
Jocasta declares outright that prophecy is a sham. She doesn't believe in the truth of oracles or prophecies, which, by extension, implies that she does not believe in the gods.
Jocasta tells a story from her past: When Laius and Jocasta were still married, an oracle told Laius that he would be killed by his own son. In response, when Jocasta and Laius's son was three-days-old, his ankles were pinned together and one of Laius's servants left him to die on a mountain. Laius was not killed by his son, but instead by strangers, at a place where three roads meet. So, Jocasta concludes, seers don't know what they're talking about.
Jocasta once believed in oracles enough to sacrifice her infant son. But now that she's sure the prophecy didn't come true, she no longer believes in prophecies. But in explaining why she doesn't believe in prophecies, she provides the details that make Oedipus suspect the prophecy might be true. Like Oedipus, she dooms herself.
Jocasta's story troubles Oedipus, so he asks Jocasta for more details about the murder of Laius. He grows even more concerned when she tells him that the murder took place just before Oedipus arrived in Thebes, and describes what Laius looked like and how many men accompanied him. Now truly worried, Oedipus asks Jocasta to send for the lone survivor of the murder of Laius and his men to come to Thebes and tell them what he saw that day.
While Oedipus was quick to accuse Creon, he is just as quick to abandon his conspiracy theory once new evidence arises. Now he's back in detective mode.
Jocasta asks to know what's troubling Oedipus. Oedipus tells her his life story. His father Polybus and his mother Merope were king and queen of Corinth. One day, at a banquet, he heard gossip that the king and queen were not really his parents. To learn the truth he went to the oracle at Delphi, where he received a prophecy that he would sleep with his mother and kill his father.
Oedipus reveals the second major prophecy of the Oedipus story. The first prophecy, given to Laius and Jocasta, mentions only that the son would kill the father. The prophecy given to Oedipus brings up the other shameful atrocity: incest.
Terrified, Oedipus never returned to Corinth in order to ensure that the prophecy would not come true. As he wandered, he one day reached the place where Jocasta says King Laius was killed. There he had an incident with a group of men who pushed him off the road and tried to kill him. He defended himself, and ended up killing them. Oedipus now fears one of the men he killed was Laius, and the curses that he himself showered upon the old king's murderer will now come down upon his own head.
When he realizes that he may have killed Laius, Oedipus worries that the punishment of exile that he promised for Laius's killer will fall on his own head. That would be bad enough—by his own decree, he would be banished. But because he still thinks he thwarted the prophecy by leaving Corinth, however, he doesn't realize that the gods will punish him as well.
The chorus tells Oedipus to remain hopeful until he questions the witness he has sent for. Oedipus takes heart—after all, the witness, a shepherd, had said that a group of thieves killed Laius, not just one man. Jocasta also tells him not to worry, because the murder of Laius does not fit the prophecy anyway. Apollo said that her son would kill her husband, and her son was left to die in the mountains. They exit.
Oedipus gets some reprieve from his fears and doubts. If he investigates no further, he can walk away believing that he isn't the murderer of Laius. Yet in believing that the prophecies have not come to pass he too is now dangerously close to denying the power of the gods.
The chorus, alone on stage, chants about the gods who rule the world from Olympus, striking down those who gain power by disregarding the gods' laws and protecting those men who faithfully serve the state. But then the Chorus goes on to say that if a sinner is not punished or if the prophecies and oracles of the gods turn out to be untrue, then there is no reason to worship or have faith in the Gods.
The chorus suggests that the stakes are very high. At this moment the prophecies look unlikely, and if these prophecies don't come true, why should people believe any prophecies? If the words of the gods aren't true, doesn't that call into question the existence of the gods?
Jocasta enters and makes an offering to Apollo to appease Oedipus's mind. Just then, a messenger—an old man—arrives from Corinth, with news that the people there want to make Oedipus their king. Polybus, king of Corinth—the man Oedipus believes to be his father—has died. Jocasta is overjoyed because she views Polybus's death as further proof that the prophecies are false.
The news from Corinth seems like further evidence to support Jocasta's claim that prophecies are meaningless. If King Polybus has died of natural causes, then Oedipus can't fulfill the prophecy and kill his own father.
Oedipus enters and learns the news. Relieved, he celebrates with Jocasta and agrees with her that the oracles and prophecies are "dead," and that chance alone rules the world.
The idea that chance, rather than the gods, rules the world is deeply blasphemous. It is significant that from this moment on, things come crashing down.
Jocasta urges Oedipus to live without fear. Yet Oedipus admits that because his mother is still alive, part of the prophecy might still come true.
Even so, Oedipus is not completely able to deny either his guilt or his belief in fate.
The messenger asks what Oedipus is afraid of. Oedipus tells him the prophecy—that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother—and says that this is why he has never returned to Corinth. The messenger tells Oedipus he never had anything to fear. Polybus and Merope weren't his real father and mother.
By leaving Corinth, Oedipus thought he was thwarting the prophecy, but instead he was carrying it out. Here the messenger thinks he is helping Oedipus, but is in fact dooming him. Fate is unavoidable.
The messenger tells Oedipus that he (the messenger) came upon a baby on the side of Mount Cithaeron, near Thebes. He freed the baby's ankles, which were pinned together, and gave the baby to Polybus to raise as a gift. That baby grew up to be Oedipus, who still walks with a limp because of the injury to his ankles. When Oedipus asks for more details about who his parents were, the messenger says he doesn't know, but was given the baby by another shepherd who was a servant of Laius.
The detail about the pinned ankles links Oedipus to the baby who Jocasta and Laius tried to kill. Oedipus's swollen ankles are marks of his fate. Yet Oedipus, who solved the riddle of the Sphinx, still can't see it. His search for the truth has actually blinded him to the truth.
Jocasta reacts sharply to this last piece of news. Meanwhile, the chorus tells Oedipus that this other shepherd, Laius's old servant, is the same man as the eyewitness to the murder of Laius.
Jocasta has realized the awful truth: her current husband is in fact her son.
Jocasta now begs Oedipus to abandon his search for his origins. Oedipus thinks she's worried that he will discover he's the son of some slave or commoner, a fact that might shame her. She insists that isn't it, and continues to beg him not to question the shepherd. He won't listen to her. At last, she lets out a wrenching scream, calls Oedipus a "man of agony," and flees through the palace.
Though she knows the truth, Jocasta desperately wants to hide from it, hoping that by maintaining some bit of doubt they might escape their guilt and fate. But Oedipus is still blind, and refuses to stop. He relentlessly pursues the very truth that will destroy him.
Oedipus declares that he must know the secret of his birth, no matter how common his origins. A shepherd approaches. The messenger confirms that it's the same man who gave him the baby. Oedipus and the messenger question the old shepherd. When they bring up the subject of the baby, the shepherd refuses to speak.
This is a moment of great dramatic irony, when the audience knows the truth, and other characters know the truth, but the main character still does not. As many characters have before, the shepherd tries to stop the discovery of the truth.
Only after Oedipus threatens to torture the shepherd does the shepherd admit that he gave the baby to the messenger. The shepherd then refuses to name the father and mother of the baby. Oedipus threatens to kill the shepherd if he does not speak. Finally, the shepherd gives in: the parents of the baby were Laius and Jocasta. The shepherd says he was told to kill the baby boy because of a prophecy that he would grow up to kill his father. But the shepherd took pity on the baby and gave it to the messenger.
The shepherd is the last roadblock between Oedipus and disaster, and fittingly, he is the most reluctant to speak. In his blind need to know the truth, Oedipus forces his way past every obstacle. He truly dooms himself, even going so far as to threaten to kill the shepherd, to make him speak the very words which seal Oedipus's fate.
Realizing who he is, and that the prophecies have come to pass, Oedipus lets out a terrible cry and rushes into the palace. The messenger and shepherd exit.
Now Oedipus knows everything. His fate is revealed, his blindness lifted, and his guilt and shame descend upon him.
The chorus, left alone on stage, chants first of Oedipus's greatness among men, and then about how fate brought about his horrifying destruction. The chorus adds that though Oedipus saved Thebes (from the Sphinx), the city would have been better off had it never seen Oedipus.
Though he committed them unwittingly, Oedipus's deeds are so shameful that even the Thebans whom he saved from the Sphinx find him repulsive and wish they were blind to him.
A second messenger enters with news of events in the palace. Jocasta locked herself in her room to mourn Laius and her own fate. In hysterical grief, Oedipus ran through the palace searching for Jocasta with sword drawn, cursing her. He knocked down her door to find hat she had hanged herself. Now weeping, Oedipus embraced Jocasta and lowered her to the floor. He took two golden brooches (pins) from her robes, and plunged them into his eyes until he was blind, screaming that he no longer wanted to see the world now that he knew the truth.
Oedipus's deliberate self-mutilation remains one of the most shocking acts in theater. But, as typically happens in Greek drama, the violence takes place off stage and then is described on stage by someone who witnessed it. The truth, and the shame and guilt its discovery released, have killed Jocasta and blinded Oedipus.
The chorus and the messenger are struck with grief and pity. Oedipus enters, but they can't bear to look at him. Blood pouring from his eyes, Oedipus speaks of his agony, of darkness, of insanity. He begs to be cast out of Thebes as a cursed man. He wishes he'd never been saved as a baby.
Oedipus is still revolting because of his past deeds, but his act of blinding himself has immediately made him worthy of pity too. He's now a victim more than a villain.
Oedipus gives a long and heart-rending speech about the terrible things he has done and that have happened to him, as ordained by Apollo. Yet he insists that it was his own hand that blinded himself, he claims, not the hand of fate. The chorus asks why he blinded himself instead of killing himself. Oedipus says he could not bear to look his father and mother in the eyes in Hades (hell), and, alive, he cannot look bear to look at the faces of his children or his countrymen. He asks the chorus to hide him, kill him, or hurl him into the sea.
Although Tiresias predicted that Oedipus would end up blind, Oedipus emphasizes that it was his own choice to blind himself. He did not choose to kill his father or marry his mother. That, he says, was the will of the gods. But blinding himself was an act of his own free will, a response to the fate and shame that the gods have forced on him.
Creon enters. The Chorus expresses hope that he will restore order to Thebes. Creon forgives Oedipus for his past actions, and orders that Oedipus be brought inside so that his shame may be dealt with privately. Oedipus begs Creon to banish him in order to save Thebes. Creon agrees to do it, but only after consulting an oracle to make sure that the gods support such an action. Oedipus notes that his sons are old enough to take care of themselves, but begs Creon to look after his daughters, Antigone and Ismene.
Just as Oedipus restored order by defeating the Sphinx, Creon restores order now. Creon has assumed the role of leader without missing a beat. Notice his different leadership style, though. Where Oedipus was a man of action and was willing to try to defy fate, Creon is much more cautious and makes sure he is doing the will of the gods before acting.