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English 112 (English Composition II)
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Oedipus the Wreck

Objective for this Page: To summarize Oedipus’s predicament and the play’s themes, to explain the context for ancient audiences, and to provide links for more background.

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Summary of Oedipus the King

Background

Problems

Two problems arise for Oedipus during this play:

1. He has a mission from the gods to find the killer of Lauis, the previous king of Thebes, where Oedipus has now ruled for about a decade. He must kill or exile the murderer.

2. He wants to find out who his real parents are because a prophecy has foretold that he will kill his father and sire children with his mother.

Both problems are resolved at the same moment--the climax of the play.

Themes

This shocking play includes king-killing, father-murdering, incest, suicide, and public disgrace. Thematically, it raises questions that are eternal: If the gods (God) know what will happen, how can people make free choices or have free will? If the gods (or Providence) put tests in our way that we fail, are we responsible for the consequences? Would knowing the future, as Oedipus does, cause us to behave any differently?

In terms of character, Oedipus seems altruistic, concerned about the welfare of his people, the savior of Thebes, but he is also arrogant (insensitive? "blind"?), rash, quick to anger, and maybe a little paranoid. For example, if you had been told by a reliable source that you would kill your father and marry your mother, what sorts of precautions would you take? Why doesn't Oedipus take any of these precautions?

The audience in Sophocles' time would have known this story as well as we know the story of Jesus' crucifixion, so suspense comes not from what's going to happen but from wondering when Oedipus will realize the truth--that he has fulfilled the prophecy. That is, just as there's no suspense from wondering what will happen to Jesus in those movies that are televised every Holy Week and Easter because we know he's going to get arrested and crucified and (in most versions) rise from the dead, there was no suspense for ancient Athenians who watched Sophocles' dramatization of this famous story. There's dread in both of these stories, however; if people admire Jesus and Oedipus, then nobody wants to see them suffer, not Pilate or Jesus' followers, not Jocasta, the messenger, the shepherd, or even Tiresias. But the suffering is preordained; it has to occur to satisfy divine justice.

Your textbook's introduction to the play will tell you more about the theater for which Sophocles was writing his play. Ancient Greek theater was very stylized, like opera or Japanese Noh drama. So there are few movie-like productions of this play.  The best that I've seen that was done as a movie starred Christopher Plummer as Oedipus and Lilli Palmer as Jocasta.

Many of the problems in this play will also arise later in Shakespeare's Hamlet--king-killing, revenge on a murderer, incest, entitlement to the throne, a divine mission, and the good of the state (justice vs. vengeance).

Links for More Background

For further background, consult John Porter's helpful course notes for his Classics 110 course at the University of  Saskatchewan, especially these pages:

Porter also summarizes three typical interpretations of the play ("fatalistic," "fatal flaw," and "aesthetic") and puts the play in the context of the ancient "Greek Enlightenment" and the philosophies of the era.

Another U. of Saskatchewan professor, Lewis Stiles, provides brief identities of the gods and places mentioned in the play by line and a set of  almost four dozen study questions that parallel and highlight the development of the play.  Prof. Stiles does the same for the sequel, Antigone.

See photos in a 4-page virtual tour of the theater of Dionysus from the Roman era of ancient Athens.

The play has been in production in various places in the modern era for well over a century.  Illustrations from some productions are linked on the pages of this web.  See also

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