Hellenic Greece

Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) by Sophocles

This play was written for and performed at the Athenian Dionysia festival circa 429 BC. Sophocles' Oedipus didn't win the "best tragedy" contest at the festival that year, but he did create some lasting lessons in his version of the story. Originally based in the pre-Archaic folklore and religious mythology of the ancient Greeks, the characters, situations, and themes in the play are presented in a way that "contemporary" Athenians back in the 420s BC could apply to attitudes and events in their own era.

Please read the summary and the full text of the play, both below. Then, answer the following study questions (to be discussed in class):

  1. What do you think Sophocles is trying to teach the audience about leadership and heroism? Is Oedipus a hero? Why or why not? How does he stack up against Odysseus? Gilgamesh? Even though he is a Tragic Hero, does he fit the "epic hero" type discussed in the Lecture One lecture slides? Does he display arete (Greek virtue)?
  2. What is the religious message Sophocles is attempting to present? How do the religious beliefs and habits of the characters in this play differ from those in the Odyssey? Do you think this story shows a society that truly respects its religion? If not, is there a price to pay?
  3. Do the gods play the same role in this tragedy that they play in the Odyssey? If their portrayal is different, why is that so? How does Sophocles let us know that the gods are real and present?
  4. Think about the role of prophecy and fate in the play. What is the prophecy that affects Oedipus and his family? Do you think the prophecy is intended as a punishment? If so, for what? Who sinned? Who seems intended to pay the price? Is there a way that Sophocles would allow his characters to buck the prophecy? Why/why not?
  5. Are the horrible events at the end of the story (Jocasta's suicide, their daughters' shame, Thebes in political disarray, &c.) part of the prophecy, or could they have been avoided? Since the prophecy actually comes to pass before the action of the play begins, there is theoretical opportunity to prevent some of the most horrendous aftermath. How so? What can Oedipus do? Do you think he is capable of stopping the madness in time? Why/why not?
  6. How does Sophocles "idea check" philosophy in the play (hint: Jocasta says "Life is chance" - what does that mean?)? How does he seem to feel about philosophy?

Oedipus Full Text - Required



Oedipus Summary

From: Minute History of the Drama. Alice Buchanan Fort and Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. p. 17.

Date and circumstances of production are unknown. It is, however, known that Sophocles suffered defeat in the contests with this play, although it is generally regarded as his masterpiece.

SOME twelve years before the action of the play begins, Oedipus has been made King of Thebes in gratitude for his freeing the people from the pestilence brought on them by the presence of the riddling Sphinx. Since Laius, the former king, had shortly before been killed, Oedipus has been further honored by the hand of Queen Jocasta.

Now another deadly pestilence is raging and the people have come to ask Oedipus to rescue them as before. The King has anticipated their need, however. Creon, Jocasta's brother, returns at the very moment from Apollo's oracle with the announcement that all will be well if Laius' murderer be found and cast from the city.

In an effort to discover the murderer, Oedipus sends for the blind seer, Tiresias. Under protest the prophet names Oedipus himself as the criminal. Oedipus, outraged at the accusation, denounces it as a plot of Creon to gain the throne. Jocasta appears just in time to avoid a battle between the two men. Seers, she assures Oedipus, are not infallible. In proof, she cites the old prophecy that her son should kill his father and have children by his mother. She prevented its fulfillment, she confesses, by abandoning their infant son in the mountains. As for Laius, he had been killed by robbers years later at the junction of three roads on the route to Delphi.

This information makes Oedipus uneasy. He recalls having killed a man answering Laius' description at this very spot when he was fleeing from his home in Corinth to avoid fulfillment of a similar prophecy. An aged messenger arrives from Corinth, at this point, to announce the death of King Polybus, supposed father of Oedipus, and the election of Oedipus as king in his stead. On account of the old prophecy Oedipus refuses to return to Corinth until his mother, too, is dead. To calm his fears the messenger assures him that he is not the blood son of Polybus and Merope, but a foundling from the house of Laius deserted in the mountains. This statement is confirmed by the old shepherd whom Jocasta had charged with the task of exposing her babe. Thus the ancient prophecy has been fulfilled in each dreadful detail. Jocasta in her horror hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his eyes. Then he imposes on himself the penalty of exile which he had promised for the murderer of Laius.



Aristotle's Poetics (Not required)

http://www.authorama.com/the-poetics-2.html - Please read pages 1-18, and the preface. :) What are the elements and purposes of Tragedy? How does Oedipus fit the archetype?


Plato's Republic - Required

Books 5 and 7 - Long and somewhat difficult to follow, but read books five (a rationale for gender equality in ancient Greek city states) and seven (the allegory of the cave, which illustrates the journey of intellectual inquiry a skilled philosopher and future leader must use to understand the truths that will allow him, or her, to rule justly). :)


"Philosophy" is a Greek term meaning "love of wisdom" or love of knowledge. A dictionary might describe it in the following ways:

1. Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline.
2. Investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods.

3. A system of thought based on or involving such inquiry: the philosophy of Hume.
4. The critical analysis of fundamental assumptions or beliefs.
5. The disciplines presented in university curriculums of science and the liberal arts, except medicine, law, and theology.
6. The discipline comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology.
7. A set of ideas or beliefs relating to a particular field or activity; an underlying theory: an original philosophy of advertising.
8. A system of values by which one lives: has an unusual philosophy of life.

In the ancient Greek Socratic-Platonic context, the first two entries describe "philosophy" and its purposes best: philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom and truth in order to understand the ultimate reality as clearly as possible, with the intent to apply this knowledge in a leadership capacity. The Republic, after all, is a piece of political theory - an inquiry into the nature of justice and truth as it relates to governing a Greek city-state. The purpose of the piece is to help teach future leaders how to know the ultimate truth, and how to apply it as a philosopher king/queen. As a modern American person, what methods or areas of study do you think society views as the best route to ultimate truth? Is it rigorous inquiry into the nature of justice? morality? poltical systems, theory, and reality? More on this in a bit.

As you've seen in the textbook chapter on Hellenic Greece and as we'll discuss in class, what one considers the basis of sound philosophy varies depending on what a person views as the basis of truth. Some ancient Greek philosophers believed that you could only rely on truth that could be empirically and rationally proven by concrete matter that could be verified by the eyes and other literal senses. Others, like Socrates and Plato, believed that higher truths could only be explored by going beyond the physical world into the realm of abstractions and non-literal senses. Much later on, we'll see how the exploration of the spiritual, the psychological, and other matters of the soul and the subjective mind and heart would start to become significantly distanced from the scientific in many ways in the centuries prior to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. But at this point, there was no set requirement for a philosopher/intellectual to choose a path. In fact, the techy vs. fuzzy/humanities type choice structure didn't even exist yet! The divergent, apples-and-oranges nature of the concrete versus the abstract had not yet been permanently established (nor had the church, art, and tradition versus ebil scientists debate had time to develop...after all, this is WELL before the advent of Christianity). There was still a sense in some quarters that both could apply together, and in others, either could be right, and in still others, that with enough inquiry, one might be proven irrefutably correct, and the other irrefutably incorrect. Nowadays, how do you think modern, western culture values the varying types of truth-inquiry? Do we overvalue science and undervalue spiritual and social philosophies?

Plato was a student of the abstract philosopher Socrates (whom he uses as a character in Republic), and founder of the Academy in Athens sometime after 400 BC. The Academy was a training ground for those who wanted to be active in politics and city-state leadership. The Academy incorporated Socratic and Platonic ideas and methods, including the Socratic method, by which an instructor analyzes a student's ideas, then leads a student, through questions, to a new understanding of the subject at hand, minus the student's original weak premises and assumptions. Both Socrates and Plato believed that abstract thinking - rather than purely rational and empirical analysis of things like atoms and stars - was the basis of high quality truth-inquiry. Instead of looking to the natural world, they looked into the realm of the human mind, heart, and beyond, seeking to understand abstract and sometimes subjectively-understood concepts such as justice, wisdom, love, and beauty. The ultimate goal of Platonic thought was to get beyond the pitfalls of inferior perception of these concepts to find ultimate truths. While today we might not think that any ultimate, universal truths can really exist when contemplating abstract matters of the heart and the mind (see the science-spirituality dichotomy discussion above), Platonic thinkers believed that those who followed the Socratic method and devoted themselves to the isolated contemplation of philosophy could at least come close. More, those who achieved this enlightened state - male or female - Plato thought to be the best-equipped to run the government. This flew in in the face of the Solonistic-Periclean democratic tradition prevalent in "Classical" Greece, as Plato advocated a system of government ruled by philosopher-kings and queens, though the "meritocratic" ideal is something that modern Americans usually value to some degree. :) Once again, what do you think?

Plato's Republic Study Questions (To be discussed in class)

  1. What does the "Allegory of the Cave" metaphorically represent? How does it relate to Plato's philosophical beliefs?
  2. What kind of government do you think Plato felt was most advantageous, and why? What do you think he felt was wrong with the democratic system actually in place in Athens at the time? What values and goals did he think that the leaders and citizens of Athens should hold paramount, and how did he think they could reach them?
  3. According to Plato, what appears to account for the major social differences between men and women? Does he think that these gender differences are real and important, or suggested and reinforced by society? How does he suggest - through the character of Socrates, his real-life teacher - that the sexes should be prepared for life in and service to the polis?
  4. In Hellenic Greece, philosophy was often at odds with ancient Greek religion. How is Plato's philosophy at odds with religious tradition? How different or similar are the beliefs presented in Republic and Oedipus the King?