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Oedipus Rex | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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In Episode 3 of Oedipus Rex, why doesn't Oedipus recognize that he is Laius and Jocasta's baby?

Despite all of the mounting evidence, especially the pin in the ankles and the murder witness being the same person who gave him away, Oedipus holds on to a blind hope that keeps him from understanding what Jocasta knows. His defense mechanisms come into play, and he accuses Jocasta of being worried about him losing his nobility because he is not Polybus and Merope's son. It appears he is completely insulated from the fact that he is the baby Jocasta gave up. It is almost sure that the shepherd lied about robbers attacking Laius now, but Oedipus will not believe it until he hears it from the shepherd. He does not understand that Jocasta really is trying to protect him from a horrible realization. This episode is a strange combination of Oedipus's blindness to the truth and his determination to seek it. He does not have to do so, and the gods do not demand it, but he cannot help himself because the lives of his people are at stake.

In Oedipus Rex, Episode 3, what do the words "I will suffer—that will be enough" illustrate about Jocasta?

In Episode 3 Jocasta's statement demonstrates her compassion. Oedipus has accused her of being ashamed of the possibility of his low birth status, but the fact that she is willing to suffer to convince the gods to have mercy on her people and Oedipus proves she is acting to protect her family. She knows she has participated in bringing about a terrible prophecy, and she is now aware that Oedipus has done the same. She realizes he does not yet believe he is her child or that he killed Laius. She knows that, when he finds out, life as they know it will become unbearable, and she does not want him to go through that pain. She has accepted the idea of knowing this secret and keeping it from him to keep him sane, happy, and together with his children because she loves him. She hopes it will be enough for the gods that she is suffering with this knowledge.

In Oedipus Rex how does Creon serve as a foil to Oedipus?

Creon is a foil, or an opposing character, to Oedipus in that he thinks about what he is doing before he acts and does not speak when he lacks information. Oedipus, however, jumps in and tries to save his people from a plague that is clearly a punishment from the gods. He also judges people without knowing the facts. Oedipus loses his ability to reason as he progresses through his search to find out the truth about his birth, and he does not consider the personal costs to his family if he finds out the prophecy has come true. While it is admirable that he wants to know the truth and does not want to live a lie, he destroys his entire family in the process. Creon thinks about how Oedipus feels even after he has blinded himself and sworn to leave Thebes. Creon is kind and generous, but he is not a person who wants to rule a kingdom, while Oedipus believes he is such a great leader he can outwit the gods. Creon is concerned with making sure the gods are not offended, but Oedipus does not consider that until it is too late, and it is Creon who tells him he has to follow what the gods tell him to do. Next to Creon, Oedipus's faults, as well as his good qualities, are even more obvious.

In Oedipus Rex why does the Chorus ask questions of the gods rather than of human beings?

The Chorus, from the very start of the play, understands better than any of the other characters that the gods are all powerful and only they can say what will happen to human beings. If people do not pay attention to prophecy and respect the gods, says the Chorus, miserable punishments will be inflicted on them. Although the Chorus loves Oedipus at the start of the play and pities him at the end, it still holds fast to the idea that Apollo is in charge and that the reason the royal family in Thebes is suffering so much is because it either does not believe in the oracle or it tries to bypass its predetermined fate. At the beginning of the play, the Chorus says it does not know what the people in power are doing, and throughout it leaves that to the gods to explain. The Chorus begs for explanations, mercy, and justice from the gods, realizing the fruitlessness of asking questions of faulty human beings who are unable to understand that their suffering increases with their ignorance.

In Oedipus Rex how does Oedipus's refusal to grasp the truth until the shepherd speaks illustrate dramatic irony?

Dramatic irony means the audience has more information than one or more of the characters in a literary work. In Oedipus Rex there are so many clues throughout the play that point to the prophecy having come true that it is actually surprising it takes Oedipus so long to recognize it. The audience knows quite early on that Oedipus's fate has caught up to him. His wife has figured it out as well when the messenger arrives and tells his story, but Oedipus does not admit it until the very end. It is ironic that the ruler who is so determined to find out the truth is so reluctant to admit that truth. In addition, in the process of trying to use his intelligence to solve the mystery of his identity, instead of making anything better, Oedipus destroys his entire family and his own identity as a ruler of the people.

In Oedipus Rex, Episode 4, how does Oedipus's anger affect the plot?

In Episode 4 Oedipus wants to know the truth from the shepherd, who is also the servant who witnessed King Laius's murder. But the shepherd is terrified that he will be put to death if Oedipus figures out he did not follow through with Jocasta's orders and that he will be to blame for the entire situation, including the plague in Thebes. Oedipus has no sympathy at all for the shepherd, though, which he shows when he first has the shepherd's hands tied and then threatens to kill him if he does not tell all that he knows. The shepherd is a very old man, and yet Oedipus treats him roughly because he has lost all reason and is now obsessed with knowing the truth about his parentage, no matter who gets hurt in the process. Oedipus's anger and pride cause him to lose perspective and do more harm than good.

In Oedipus Rex how does Sophocles raise the levels of tension and suspense in the play?

Sophocles raises the tension and suspense by feeding the audience clues one by one throughout the play and having each character figure out what has happened separately. Also, even though in Sophocles's time the audience would have known the myth already, the fact that the action of the play happens in a single day also makes the story feel more terrifying and out of human control because one day is short in comparison to the length of time that has passed since the murder of Laius. The interjections of the Chorus, praying to the gods and commenting on the downfall not only of human beings but also of religion itself, increase the sense of unavoidable crisis. So much destruction to a family in such a short time on the heels of an uncontrollable plague can only be the work of the gods, and that is Sophocles's point: human suffering shows a lack of control over fate, and only the gods know what will happen next.

In Oedipus Rex which of Oedipus's actions show he has some free will regarding his fate?

When Oedipus first hears the rumor that his parents are not his real parents, he has a choice: he can either ignore the rumors or he can find out whether they are true. He chooses to seek advice from the oracle without telling his parents and receives a prophecy. If he had gone home and told his parents, he might have found out he was adopted and might have been more careful about whom he killed and whom he married. However, Oedipus chooses to run away. He could have chosen not to kill the travelers who would not give him the right of way, but he did not. He let his anger rule his decisions and made a terrible choice of his own free will. He chose to help the people of Thebes, which was certainly the right thing to do, but he could have chosen otherwise. And he could have, at any point in the story, decided he had heard enough and did not need to press for any more information. But he chose to seek the truth, and this choice becomes his downfall. His fate was destined, but on some level he also chose his fate.

In Oedipus Rex how is it possible for Oedipus to be guilty and innocent at the same time?

Oedipus is guilty of having committed the sin of killing his own father and not only sleeping with his mother but also fathering children with her. He is also guilty of the sin of pride because, even though Teiresias tells him why he is the cause of the plague, he refuses to believe it might be true. He claims to be seeking the truth, but he denies it every step of the way until he can no longer deny it in the face of all the evidence people have presented to him. However, he is also innocent because his actions have all been motivated by the desire to avoid committing the sins mentioned in the prophecy. His intentions are good, and he has absolutely no idea he has committed these sins because he does not know who he really is or who Jocasta and Laius are in relation to him. Thus, he is guilty of the sins, but, at the same time, he is innocent of the intention to commit them.

In Oedipus Rex how does Sophocles ensure that the audience will end up pitying Oedipus despite his crimes?

Oedipus begins the play as the savior of Thebes, and the opening scene portrays him as a ruler who is deeply touched by the suffering of his people. Oedipus promises to do anything he can to stop the plague, and he consults not one but two oracles, sending Creon to Apollo and calling in Teiresias. While Oedipus does have faults—namely, his pride and his inability to control his anger—his intention remains throughout the play to keep his promise to his people. The gods have made sure the terrible prophecy has come true for Oedipus even though he has done everything in his power to avoid committing those sins. He tried to protect the people who were his parents, and he was a good husband and father as well as a good and compassionate ruler. It seems unfair that he is being made to suffer so much and his entire family has been destroyed given that he is, at heart, a good person. The audience has pity for him because Oedipus's fate could just as easily belong to any one of them, good people who have a few flaws and are unaware they have committed sins for which they will pay dearly thanks to the gods and their power.

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