Some questions to think about as you’re reading “Oedipus the King”

The purpose of these questions is to help guide your reading and thinking about the play. They are not an “assignment.”

  • Here’s the general question you should be grappling with throughout your reading of the play. If a tragic narrative depicts a kind of inevitable disaster, then what is the source of the “inevitability” in this play? Or another way of coming at this same question is this: Oedipus is a tragic hero who is finally undone by forces that are much greater than he is. What are these forces? What do they represent? A quick set of issues about this question: there is no “right” answer, but some are better than others; second, it is useful to try to start with specifics. What is the precise nature of the problem Oedipus faces?
  • What is Oedipus like? List out some characteristics he appears to have; use specific examples from the text to illustrate the characteristics you identify.
  • One of the peculiarities of Sophocles’ play is that he depicts the “tragic” decisions Oedipus makes as having already happened; the fateful events of Oedipus’ life have already occurred at the time the action of the play takes place. Why do you think Sophocles wrote the story in this way?
  • What is Creon like? What are his characteristics?
  • What are some of the ironies in Oedipus’ search for the truth? Please note that Oedipus searches for truth on several different occasions; he searches for Laius’ murderer; he searches for his own origins, and so on. What is the result of these searches?
  • Consider the metaphor of “sight” in this play, especially in the interaction between (seeing) Oedipus and (blind) Tiresius. What does “seeing” mean in their interaction? What ironies are there in this meaning? And what is the significance of Oedipus’ decision to stab out his own eyes once he learns (“sees”) the truth?
  • One common interpretation of tragedy is that the tragic hero has a “flaw” that brings about his demise. Does Oedipus have a tragic flaw? If so, what is it? If not, what is “responsible” for bringing about his demise? What effects do we produce when we think that Oedipus’ tragic flaw is the reason he is destroyed?
  • The audience of this play would have been quite familiar with the Oedipus myth, much like (for instance) contemporary audiences would be familiar with the Moses story or the stories about Noah and the flood. Thus Sophocles, like contemporary film directors who make movies about Noah or Moses, was using this well-known story to explore other themes, both with regard to the human condition in general and with regard to Athenian culture and politics. Now speculate: What are some of the themes that you think Sophocles is exploring through this play?
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