Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Oedipus the King

In any study of Greek plays it becomes apparent that the mechanics of the text of the works by Sophocles is couched in the belief systems, mythologies and the culture in which he lived. In his plays the gods brought about the hero's downfall, because of some tragic character flaw. It was the Greek's supernatural world of gods who provoked suffering and evil in men. Aristotle was impressed by Sophocles ability to use plot and structure to develop his perfectly structured play “Oedipus the King”. In any tragic play, Aristotle indicates “the plot is the soul of tragedy and the characters come second”. (Norton Introduction to Literature, pg 670, 2006)

Tragic drama originated as plays for the Athenians at an annual festival celebrating a mythical hero god of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. Actors and writers where encouraged to compete with each other at this dramatic event in order to win a prize. As a thriving tragic poet, Sophocles' first competition at this annual festival occurred around 468 B.C. where he won a prize. This launched more competitions and more wins for the brilliant poet of tragic drama. Sophocles grew up not far from Athens. He was proficient in all the arts especially music and poetry. He was also a very good gymnast. His asset in agility and the arts gave him a leading choral part in the chorus at the era's military victory celebrations and in the chorus to his plays. The Greeks loved him for who he was and his works of art. (theaterdatabase, 2010)(ablongman, 2010)

Aristotle, the great teacher and philosopher, enjoyed his universal studies and the study of the past Greek masters had its own appeal. Sophocles' “Oedipus the King” was one play Aristotle exemplified as a perfect play, because the play fit so perfectly into his definition of tragedy. “A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language; . . . in dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.” Aristotle defines tragedy as “the imitation of an action” which is the structure of action in a play. The plot is the “primary” part of tragedy and denotes the central character's change from good fortune to bad by means of self or fate. The plot's completeness must provide unity of action and an uniform order of the universe that has a domino effect on the central character; whereby the audience themselves can envision the cause-and-effect chain that arouses pity and fear, in other words, compassion and awe. (iep.utm, 2010)(paredes.us, 2010) (Norton Introduction to Literature, pg A9, 2006)

Plot and structure is the glue to dramatic plays. Conflict is the main propeller for the plot and the most revealing feature of tragedy. It is an opposing force that tightly constructs the cause-and-effect chain of action between human against human, human against environment (external forces, society, or fate) and human against self. Conflict progresses in five stages: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion. Sophocles' “Oedipus the King” clearly defines this progression of conflict and the plot's unity of action in the following manner: (Norton Introduction to Literature, pp. 670-672, 676-679, 2006)

Exposition ( lines 1 -116)

The exposition arouses the tone and action of this play by introducing the plot's conflict and incentive. The city of Thebes is sickened by the plague. This event prompts Oedipus to send Creon to see the Apollo, the god of truth; the oracle's reply was to find the murder of King Laius and banish the person from Thebes. (Norton Introduction to Literature, pp. 670-672, 676-679, 2006)

Rising Action (lines 262-1116)

The rising action in this play describes the various obstacles that frustrates the central character (Oedipus) attempt in reaching his goal. Oedipus acknowledges the advice from the Apollo and declares a curse on the murderer of Laius. Oedipus summons the old blind prophet Teiresias to obtain an answer of who the murderer is. The Choral ode prays to the gods to save Thebes from the plague and expresses hesitance to what Oedipus's investigation may find. “ As you have held me to my oath I speak: / I neither killed the king nor can declare / the killer; but since Phoebus set the quest / it is his part to tell who the man is.” (Norton Introduction to Literature, pp. 670-672, 682-703, 2006)

Teiresias refuses to tell Oedipus the truth but eventually relays to Oedipus “ you are the land's pollution” and “ … you are the murderer of the king / whose murderer you seek”. Oedipus becomes enraged with this news, because he surmised himself as innocent. The Chorus is supportive to their King Oedipus. After hearing this news from Teiresias, Oedipus argues and accuses Creon and Teiresias as being treasonous toward him. Jocasta comes out of the house to calm Oedipus and quell any claims of a conspiracy. While justifying the error of the profit, Jocasta reiterates how her first husband King Laius, died. She mentions the site where her husband died, “a place where three roads meet”. This causes Oedipus to become very suspicious; whereby, he summons the only survivor, a herdsman, who witnessed the Laius's death. Meanwhile a messenger from Corinth presents himself to Oedipus and Jocasta to relay that Oedipus's father King Polybus had died from old age. Thrilled with this news, Oedipus reiterates the original prophecy to the messenger and how relieved he is that the god Loxias was wrong; at this time the messenger empathetically proceeds to tell Oedipus and Jocasta that Polybus and Merope were not Oedipus's real parents and he obtained his name Oedipus (meaning swollen feet), because “the tendons of [his] feet were pierced and fettered” He also finds out that the missing link to the prophecy's puzzle is a herdsman who was once “Laius' man” and is still lives. The Chorus confirms and directs Oedipus to Jocasta who knows the herdsman well. (Norton Introduction to Literature, pp. 670-672, 682-703, 2006)

Climax (Lines 1117 - 1262)

The climax is the turning point of the plot. The immersion of fate is revealed. Oedipus true existence is told by the stories between the messenger and the herdsman. Oedipus' mother gives her baby (Oedipus) to the herdsman to “Make away with it.” The humbled herdsman saves Oedipus from death by giving him to the Corinth's messenger to be raised by the barren parents, King Polybus and Merope. Oedipus is so distraught by this story he cries out

“O, O, O, they will all come, /all come out clearly! Light of the sun, let me / look upon you no more after today!” The Chorus chants “Oedipus, you and your fate! / Luckless Oedipus, whom of all men / I envy not at all. (Norton Introduction to Literature, pp. 670-672, 703-707, 2006)

Falling Action (line 1263 - 1589)

The falling action in the plot is where the conflict contains a final moment of suspense just before the central figure loses against the antagonist, in this case there are two antagonist, self and fate. The Dramatic revelation of the truth by the prophecy is Oedipus killed his father and married his mother who gave birth to his children. This realization took its tole on both Jocasta and Oedipus. Jocasta is so over come by disbelief that she commits suicide; afterwards, Oedipus finds her and becomes shamed with guilt and sorrow, and then pokes his eyes out in order to see the truth. Also, Oedipus makes amends with Creon and requests exile. Before the two men exit, Oedipus wants to remain a little longer with the children, at which time Creon gives a revealing quote “Do not seek to be master in everything, / for the things you mastered did not follow you throughout your life”. (Norton Introduction to Literature, pp. 670-672, 707-715 2006)

Conclusion (line 1591)

The conclusion is finalize with the chorus ode singing “see him now and see the breakers of misfortune swallow him!” The audience concludes Oedipus leaves Thebes with the painful discovery of humility and the respect for the gods; the plague is resolved; and Creon becomes the next king of Thebes. (Norton Introduction to Literature, pp. 670-672, 715, 2006)

Sophocles' masterful play “Oedipus the King” exhibits what Aristotle calls the “perfect tragedy”. It is a tragic play where the gods triumph over a Greek hero. The plot, the “soul of tragedy”, unravels the five stages of conflict in a tight uniform structure. The falling action and conclusion reveals reconciliation, acknowledgement, and catharsis that is experienced not only by Oedipus but also by the audience. The words of wisdom is noted by the final Chorus chant: “Look upon that last day always. Count no mortal happy till / he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain.” (line 1592-1593)


Booth, A. & Hunter P.J. & Mays K.J. (Ed.). (2006). “Oedipus the King "

The Norton Introduction to Literature: Portable Ed. (pp 676-715) Indianapolis, IA: North, Inc.

Booth, A. & Hunter P.J. & Mays K.J. (Ed.). (2006). “Elements of Drama"

The Norton Introduction to Literature: Portable Ed. (pp 670 – 672) Indianapolis, IA: North, Inc.

Booth, A. & Hunter P.J. & Mays K.J. (Ed.). (2006). Climax

The Norton Introduction to Literature: Portable Ed. (pp A2) Indianapolis, IA: North, Inc.

Booth, A. & Hunter P.J. & Mays K.J. (Ed.). (2006). Conclusion

The Norton Introduction to Literature: Portable Ed. (pp A2) Indianapolis, IA: North, Inc.

Booth, A. & Hunter P.J. & Mays K.J. (Ed.). (2006). Exposition

The Norton Introduction to Literature: Portable Ed. (pp A3) Indianapolis, IA: North, Inc.

Booth, A. & Hunter P.J. & Mays K.J. (Ed.). (2006). Falling Action

The Norton Introduction to Literature: Portable Ed. (pp A3) Indianapolis, IA: North, Inc.

Booth, A. & Hunter P.J. & Mays K.J. (Ed.). (2006). Rising Action

The Norton Introduction to Literature: Portable Ed. (pp A7) Indianapolis, IA: North, Inc.

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Retrieved June 6, 2010, from Paredes website


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Retrieved June 6, 2010, from iep.utm website


Anonymous (2010). SOPHOCLES (C. 497 - 406 B.C.)

Retrieved June 6, 2010, from iep.utm website


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