Oedipus Rex | Study Guide

Sophocles

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Oedipus Rex | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Oedipus Rex, translated from Latin as "Oedipus the King," is one of the greatest works of tragedy in the ancient world and was first performed around 430–426 BCE. Considered Sophocles's greatest masterpiece, it is the first in a trilogy of plays centered on the mythical king, the others being Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. Though inherently noble, Oedipus is the victim of a prophecy in which he kills his own father and weds his mother despite his attempts to avoid this fate.

1. Oedipus Rex placed second at an ancient Greek version of the Oscars.

Oedipus Rex was first performed around 430–426 BCE at the Great Dionysia, a theater festival that began in Greece as early as the 6th century BCE. The year of the play's premiere, the first-place prize went to a playwright named Philocles, while Sophocles's play was named runner-up.

2. The first mention of the Oedipus myth occurs in Homer's Odyssey.

While Sophocles would immortalize the story of Oedipus in his plays, the Theban king is first mentioned in Homer's The Odyssey. Odysseus encounters Jocasta, Oedipus's mother and wife (though by a different name, Epicaste) in the Underworld, allowing Homer to briefly summarize the legend. In Homer's version, however, while Oedipus discovers that he has fulfilled a curse by killing his father and marrying his mother, he does does not blind himself out of despair as he does in Sophocles's play but remains king and mourns his fate. In both works, Epicaste's fate remains the same: she hangs herself after the truth about Oedipus is revealed.

3. Aristotle considered Oedipus Rex the pinnacle of tragedies.

The incredibly influential philosopher's text Poetics, written about 50 years after the death of Sophocles, was an analysis concerning Oedipus Rex. Aristotle considered the play to be the archetypal work of the tragedy genre.

4. An all-male version of the play was staged in New York City.

The Faux-Real Theatre Company produced a version of Oedipus Rex that attempted to replicate the original production of the play in ancient Greece by featuring oversized masks, colorful wigs, and an all-male cast.

5. Orson Welles stars in a film adaptation.

The 1968 film Oedipus the King features the renowned American actor and director as Tiresias, a blind seer who can predict the future. Despite a cast of renowned actors, the film received primarily negative reviews upon release, being called "near-comical" by New York Magazine.

6. Oedipus defeats the mythical Sphinx by solving a riddle, but other versions of the myth include another riddle.

Sophocles's version of the Oedipus myth only includes the most famous riddle of the Sphinx: What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night? Some older versions of the myth provide a second riddle the Sphinx used to confuse and trick travelers. The riddle asks: There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. What are they? The answer is "night and day."

7. Sigmund Freud used the Oedipus myth as the basis for his groundbreaking work in psychology.

The Oedipal myth popularized by Sophocles in his drama was further explored by Sigmund Freud, who used the myth as a cornerstone of Freudian psychology. For Freud, it applies to both male and female children and is a natural phase. Freud posited that all children experience the Oedipal Complex, usually between the ages of three and five, when a child becomes jealous of the parent of the same sex because the child unconsciously desires the exclusive love of the parent of the opposite sex.

8. An earlier mention of the Oedipus tale was found on a papyrus fragment.

Pieces of papyrus, an ancient type of paper made from a plant, were discovered to have parts of the narrative of Oedipus written on them. The fragments were credited as the work of Stesichorus, the first known great Western poet, and were dated to the 6th century BCE.

9. A film adaptation changes the setting to 20th-century Colombia.

The 1996 contemporized take on the ancient myth, titled Edipo Alcalde and translated to Oedipus Mayor for its English language release, replaces the Theban plagues with rebel wars in Colombia. The protagonist is forced to mediate between warlords and the Colombian army and later causes the same tragic family calamity as Sophocles's Oedipus. The film was directed by Colombian Jorge Alí Triana. Colombian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Gabriel García Márquez, co-wrote the screenplay.

10. The oracle Oedipus consults may have been influenced by natural hallucinogens.

The Oracle of Delphi, who prophesizes Oedipus's fate, appears in numerous myths and legends from ancient Greece. Researchers have proposed theories to explain how the oracle became so renowned for her accuracy, most notably suggesting the use of a hallucinogenic plant or that vapor or gases from fissures in the ground rose up to cause a trancelike effect on the oracle.

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