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Oedipus Rex | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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How do Oedipus's anger and pride cause his downfall in Oedipus Rex?

When Oedipus hears the drunken man say he is not the son of Polybus and Merope, his pride and anger initiate the problems that follow. Instead of believing his parents, whom he says were insulted by this accusation, he sneaks off to the oracle to ask whether they are really his parents because he is angry about the way people are talking about him. He does not get his answer, but he receives a terrible prophecy instead—that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Rather than trust that the gods know better than he does, he runs away, thinking he can outsmart them. When Teiresias tells him he is the cause of the plague in Thebes, meaning that he killed Laius, Oedipus does not stop to think whether this information might be true. He immediately becomes angry and not only sends Teiresias away but also wants to put his brother-in-law, Creon, to death for treason. It is only Jocasta who prevents him from acting on his anger. Even when all of the evidence is brought to Oedipus about being adopted, having his ankles pinned together as a baby, and Laius's death occurring at the crossroads where he had killed an old man and his entourage, he becomes angry at Jocasta. He thinks Jocasta runs back into the castle because she is ashamed he does not come from royalty, and he accuses her of being too proud. He does not examine his own actions and put them together until the very last piece of evidence is given to him by the old shepherd: Laius and Jocasta tried to kill their child, and Oedipus is that child. Oedipus, proud of his intelligence and cunning, assumes right up until the end that he has outwitted fate. Pride and anger cause him to be blind to the facts and the power of Apollo before he eventually blinds himself.

In Oedipus Rex what role does the Chorus play when it interacts with other characters?

The Chorus leader speaks with both Oedipus and Creon to emphasize that the gods are in charge of fate. He recommends to both characters that they consult with the oracle and with the godlike prophet Teiresias. The Chorus leader also serves as the voice of reason, noting when characters are speaking in anger and suggesting ways to redirect situations so that Oedipus, in particular, does not remain stuck in his anger and do foolish things as a result. Oedipus refers to the Chorus leader as his friend, even when the Chorus states that it wishes it had never seen him. The Chorus leader will always tell the truth and serve as a guide to what is right, and he recognizes both the good qualities and the flaws in Oedipus that have led to his downfall.

In Oedipus Rex how do Oedipus's good qualities affect the plot?

Oedipus cares deeply about his people and grieves for their suffering, so he is determined to avenge the death of their king. Once he begins to find out details that show him he has done something horrible, however, he keeps asking questions. He never gives up his quest for the truth, even though he could stop any time and just forget about it. If he stopped trying to find the truth, his people would continue to suffer. When he said his pain was nothing compared to that of his people, he really meant it. Oedipus is a ruler who cares about his subjects in a very personal way. This is an excellent quality in a ruler, though it means Oedipus will suffer immensely from the truth he eventually discovers. His fate may have come back to haunt him, but he removes himself from the city once he is sure it is he who has caused the pestilence. If he was not an honest person, the plot would have unfolded very differently.

What details about Jocasta in Oedipus Rex make her part in the story tragic?

Greek tragedy aims to arouse fear and pity in the audience through plots that involve human suffering. Therefore, the play's characters can be good at heart but still have their lives destroyed. This situation makes the audience feel sympathy for those they feel do not deserve their circumstances. Jocasta may seem like a character who is selfish at heart because she tries to avoid the truth and does the unthinkable, having her own child killed. However, she commits this act because, as soon as the child is born, she discovers he will grow up to kill her husband and marry her. In order to protect herself and her husband from such a horrible fate, she does the only thing she can think of: she gets rid of her son. She does not do it because she is inherently evil but to save her husband's life. In her marriage to Oedipus, Jocasta is protective, helping her husband make better decisions than he sometimes is ready to make. She stops him from banishing Creon and halts their argument. Then, when Oedipus is in danger of losing everything because of the prophecy, she tries to protect him from that knowledge. She is willing to endure staying married to him and suffering through her own fulfilled prophecy if he remains ignorant of it. However, she knows if he finds out who he is he will go mad. The kingdom will lose its ruler and fall apart because the only person left to take over is Creon, who, for all his kindness and nobility, is afraid of being king. Jocasta fails to protect anyone from fate because the gods are more powerful than she is. Despite her good intentions, her life is destroyed, and her part in the story is tragic.

What is the difference in language between the Chorus and other characters in Oedipus Rex?

First, the Chorus sings when it speaks in each stasimon, so its lines are more lyrical and musical than the lines of the other characters. Second, the Chorus uses much more vivid descriptions when it sings. The only character who comes close to that level of dramatic description is the second messenger when he describes the sight of Oedipus putting his eyes out. Otherwise, because the Chorus is singing about gods, it uses words of praise and descriptions that show how powerful the gods are. The Chorus's lines are very formal, structured more like prayers than conversation. The other characters sometimes talk about the gods but do not spend all of their time singing the gods' praises or praying to them. Their language is less formal when they speak to each other than when they pray.

In Oedipus Rex how do Jocasta's and Teireseas's attempts to shield Oedipus from the truth relate to the theme of blindness?

In Episode 3 Jocasta eventually figures out who Oedipus is but tries to keep the truth from him because she fears it will destroy him. She asks him to stop asking questions and just carry on as he is. She cultivates a willful blindness to the facts in order to protect Oedipus. In Episode 1, even though Teiresias ends up telling Oedipus he is the cause of the plague and is Laius's killer, he only does so because Oedipus forces him to speak about it. When he first comes to consult with Oedipus about the reasons for the plague and the identity of the killer, he refuses to speak about it when he realizes who Oedipus is. He recognizes Oedipus as the son of Laius, and he knows that, if he says what he has seen in the prophecy, he will destroy people's lives. He tries to avoid this situation and to protect Jocasta and Oedipus from the truth, so he also adopts willful blindness until he is made to speak.

In Oedipus Rex how does Oedipus's confrontation with the traveler reveal one of his flaws?

In Episode 2 Oedipus tells Jocasta about his confrontation with the traveler and his entourage. He says that the guide tried to run him off the road and that the old man inside the carriage hit him on the top of the head with a whip. Instead of just letting these people pass or perhaps fighting and then leaving quickly, Oedipus killed the man in the carriage and then killed everyone else in the party. He reacted with anger, which is understandable, but his level of rage and his decision to kill everyone is an example of how his anger is violent and uncontrollable, a serious character flaw.

In Oedipus Rex how does Oedipus exemplify the qualities of a Sophoclean hero?

A Sophoclean hero is a character who takes his or her own route to do what is right and to protect people, even if it conflicts with what the gods want or have said will happen. Oedipus has a sense of pride and strength that make him heroic even if they also contribute to his blindness regarding the true power of the gods. His wit and intelligence allow him to save Thebes from the Sphinx, and he fully believes he will be able to save his people from the plague that has taken over the city. He stands up for people who cannot stand up for themselves even if it may cost him his life. In Oedipus Rex this dedication to his people costs him his happiness and his sight, as well as his kingdom and his power. The disaster that he, Jocasta, and Laius created does not take away from the fact that Oedipus acts as a hero to a great many people. He is even willing to leave Thebes to make sure his people no longer suffer, which is also a heroic act.

In Oedipus Rex how does Oedipus's fear of Laius's killer act as an example of foreshadowing?

In Episode 1 Oedipus says the person who killed Laius may turn his hand against Oedipus to harm him as well. By searching and finding the killer, Oedipus believes he will protect himself from harm. However, he does not know that he himself murdered Laius. Therefore, if Laius's killer harms Oedipus, that would mean that Oedipus harms himself. This foreshadows the end of the play, when Oedipus in fact does harm himself. Having discovered the truth about his marriage to Jocasta and his role in Laius's murder, he stops short of suicide but blinds himself instead. He then banishes himself from the city, making himself dead to his subjects and no longer their king. Oedipus's mistaken belief that, by finding Laius's killer, he will protect himself from harm foreshadows the inevitable fulfillment of his fate as prophesied by Teiresias.

In Oedipus Rex how is dramatic irony created when Oedipus says Laius never had a son?

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows information that one or more characters in the play do not. In Episode 1 the fact that Oedipus previously promises to fight for Laius echoes Teiresias's claims that Oedipus is, in fact, Laius's killer. Then, when Oedipus says Laius never got the son he hoped for, dramatic irony occurs in two ways: First, it directly conflicts with Teiresias's claim that Oedipus will end up being the son of Laius, so Laius, in fact, did have a son. Second, it is true Laius did not get the son he wanted: no father would want a son who would eventually kill him. Oedipus had no idea then that Laius did have a son, but, because audience members in Sophocles's day would have been familiar with the Oedipus myth, they would immediately know this information. They would also know that his statements are the opposite of what ends up being true in the play. Such opposing clues for the audience create dramatic irony.

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