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English 112 (English Composition II)
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Oedipus the Wreck

Research Questions

The Task: Carefully document what you find out from the play itself and from sources other than the play about one of the topics below.  Research questions differ from study guide questions in that they usually require information beyond the play, in this case about ancient Greek traditions, values, history, and myth in order to help make more sense of the play.  So you add credibility to your write-up each time you cite source information and explain it (even to disagree with it) as an aid to your interpreting some facet of this play about Oedipus.

  1. Religious play?: In what sense is Oedipus the King a religious play?  (Hint: Look up the festival of Dionysus, as well as considering the verses spoken by the chorus.) (Hint: Based on a question by Simon--Trace the ideas about gods--such as Apollo, Athena, and Ares.  How does the chorus perceive them, or what does the chorus expect of them and why? 

    1. A Religious Debate?:Guru (1999) pointed out that there may be a sort of debate between Sophocles and the philosopher Socrates: "If you consider the political and social occurrences in the 5th century B.C., Oedipus Rex can seem religious, even to the point of didactic: Socrates questioning the truth of the Gods as recorded in Euthyphro by Plato, and Sophocles strong ties to the State. Debbie (2000) linked the two as showing the danger of searching for truth.

    2. Cultural Impact of the Play?: Genevieve Gahokanson (2000) wanted to know how the play influenced its era and how the culture of the time influenced the play.  Find out, perhaps writing a "contemporary review" to assess the impact the play had on its era.  Don't forget that Aristotle used the play as an archetype of tragedy in his Poetics.

    3. Cassie Luther (2000) had to write an essay on the religious rituals in the play.  Any ideas?  [Hints: How would you stage the opening procession and Jocasta's prayers?  Are there sacrificial animals, palm fronds, incense?  Why?  How would you explain these rituals to someone who was seeing the play for the first time?]

    4. Christianity Distorts Our View of Oedipus?  A TOK student passed on this thesis.  Defend it with research (Hint: Does knowledge of Shakespeare's tragedies distort our view of Oedipus?)

  2. Belinda (1999), a student of Mr. Madway at Thurgood Marshall HS made an interesting analogy between the Greek gods and the Old Testament view of God behind the ten commandments.  To what extent are they alike, as seen through the prayers and expectations of their people?

  3. Balance, Proportion, and Moderation:  From the University of Illinois--Chicago:  "How did Oedipus violate the classical Greek ethos of balance, proportion, and moderation?" Find out what these three principles mean and apply them to the play and to the personality of Oedipus.

    1. A "supermom" wondered how Oedipus represents the Athenian ideal.  [Hint: The answer is related to question 2, but Oedipus might be the opposite of the ideal, as question 2 from, as UI-Chicago suggests. ]

  4. Tiresias: Luca B. (1999) wanted to know how Tiresias became blind and how he got his power to see the will of the gods or the future. 

  5. Laius: According to the myth of this family (the house of Cadmon), what did Laius do to deserve having a son who was destined to kill him?  (Hint: This family seems to demonstrate a number of taboos; in Oedipus, for instance, there is incest, father-killing, and king-killing.) (based on a question by jeuvntus321 in 2002 and Erika in 2000, a college student in Tennessee)

    1. Whitters (2001) offers this info. on Laius: "Oedipus' father Laius was cursed by the gods because he disrespected a family who he was staying with. In Greek mythology it was very important to be kind to your host. Some say that Lauis had a sexual encounter with his host's son. As a result, a curse was put on him that his son would kill him and then sleep with his wife. One night Laius got drunk and accidentally impregnated his wife, thus beginning the whole curse."

    2. John Porter has a good answer to this question, but also consider the second paragraph on why Sophocles edits the story of Laius as he does for his play on Oedipus.

    3. King Kayos (2000) adds that the Sphinx was sent by Apollo: "Apollo, being the protector of children, as well as the god of the Sun > Light > the Truth, cursed Laius and his descendants (this was justice to the ancient Greeks) and, in his rage, commanded the Sphinx to ravage the land."

    4. For Oedipus entire family tree, including ancestors and offspring, see Carlos Parada's chart at the Greek Mythology Link.  Find out about O's ancestors, especially Cadmus, Labdacus, and Laius.  Did each one offend the gods?

    5. Based on research done for 3a - 3d, above, figure out how to fill in for "somehow" in the following thesis, offered by "Nemisis" in 1999: "Adam, of the Bible's Genesis, was created by god with the ability to stand but destined to fall. God in no way promotes or facilitates the fall yet he knows from the moment of Adam's creation that he will fall. Oedipus's fall did not occur merely to amuse the god's. His fall came about from the necessity to restore the order of nature. Man's merely existing cause disorder in the natural order of nature. Somehow Oedipus's fall allowed for this order to be restored, which was an important issue to the Greek people. So in conclusion Oedipus is free to act as he wishes but his inevitable predetermined demise is crucial to the restoration of the natural order of the universe."

    6. DJ (1999) wanted to know what Oedipus's grandfather, Labdacus, did to bring the curse to the family.  Labdacus was the father of Laius.

  6. Tragic hero:  

    1. In what sense does Oedipus fulfill the requirements for a tragic hero as stated in Aristotle's Poetics?  

      1. Gerome Greenwood (1998) suggested that because Oedipus committed a murder, he did not qualify as a tragic hero in Aristotle's sense of an essentially good man brought down by his own over-reaching pride.  Find out what Aristotle actually said about Oedipus. 

      2. Thomas Becket (1998) disagreed: "I do not agree with Gerome Greenwood. As the oracle says, Oedipus did not murder his father, he killed him, in self-defense. Therefore Oedipus is not guilty of any crime and is a tragic hero."

      3. Lostinthewoods (1999) offers these observations relating Oedipus to Aristotle:

        1. "They must start with a high standing in society. Oedipus starts out in the highest place in society as king.
        2. The character must end the play in a low place in society. Oedipus finishes the play in possibly the lowest place in society as a blind, exiled, drifter. He has nothing.
        3. The character must have a tragic flaw in their character. This differs from Elizabethan tragedy in that the classical hero cannot escape this flaw, and their destiny is fated to them. Oedipus cannot escape his fate, no matter what he does. His desire for justice and hunger for the truth drives him towards his fate."
      4. Vocabulary of Tragedy: Sarah (1999) asked how "Oedipus contains arete [human striving], hubris [human pride], and harmatia [human frailty; a personality flaw] and how these properties allow him to heroically examine fate and control it to a point, but ultimately fall victim to it."
    2. In what ways does Oedipus fulfill the requirements of a hero in a "hero cycle"? (based on a question by "Chickpea" in 2002)

      1. Alex in 2001says, "The fact that Oedipus killed his father, whether in self defense or not, thus making him a criminal is irrelevant. He is a hero, although maybe not the most liked, because he undergoes the three stages of the Hero's Journey-- departure, fulfillment, and return. He departs from Thebes as a baby, sent to the mountain. He fulfills his destiny by killing his father, and returns to further fulfill his destiny, by marrying his mother. He is a tragic hero, despite the fact that he was not the most noble of creatures."

      2. Luna HHS in 2001 asked how Oedipus compares to Luke Skywalker.

      3. Someone else's teacher suggested that Oedipus could be compared to Othello as a tragic protagonist.

    3. Scapegoat: Thad at MSU asked (1999) how Oedipus fit into the set of myths about sacrificial kings used as scapegoats.  Find out.

  7. Oedipus Rex vs. Oedipus at Colonus: Mike suggested this one in 2002--

    For Rex, the usual interpretation described a fatalistic morality: your fate is unavoidable and it is best to accept it. Oedipus and other characters try to avoid their fate and experience great pain in return.

    In a philosophy course, we read Rex and Colonus and came to a different understanding. In Colonus, Oedipus proclaims his innocence and the error committed by everyone including himself in placing the blame on him. He did not know the true relationship between him and his parents and could not be morally responsible for it.

    I recently began thinking about the plays again and started to wonder what Sophocles intended for these plays. There seems to be contradicting moral paradigms: fatalism versus free will. Are the plays, although united by common story line, meant to be appreciated separately? Can anyone recommend good sources to read on the subject?  (Another reader recommended commentary published by Harold Bloom, who is William de Vane professor at Yale. Rae, 2001 recommends E. R. Dodds on why Oedipus seems to ignorant/blind to the meaning of events around him.)

  8. Letter to Creon 10 Years After Oedipus the King: "Bam Bam'" teacher seems to have a clever way to get students to read Oedipus at Colonus.  Here's the task: Read Oedipus at Colonus (either before or after your first attempt to write this letter as Oedipus to Creon).  In 10 years, Antigone would not have happened yet, so it is before the civil war of Seven Against Thebes.  What might Oedipus have learned by then?  Given hindsight and the wisdom of experience and reflection, what issues would Oedipus raise?

    1. T. Quinn from Chicago, Illinois, (2000) offered these notions to coach writers of this letter:  "Recognizing that Apollo is in some indecipherable way behind the events in his life, Oedipus nevertheless freely asserts his own integrity and insists on taking responsibility for his acts. His father, Laius, had exposed his son instead of simply killing him, presumably to avoid being held responsible for the child's death: when he died, it would be the gods' doing. For Oedipus, blaming the gods would be another attempt to escape. Instead, Oedipus insists, whatever Apollo might or might not have contributed to the circumstances in his life, "I did it." Paradoxically, his newfound awareness of the truth about his limits, of his essential ignorance, of the fact that he cannot ever know to what extent Apollo is responsible for his life's course, leaves him free."

  9. The Fates and the Oracle: Chrisynthia Bagley of Thomas Nelson CC (2002) and Laura Heinze suggest that since the Fates control the lives of gods and men, Oedipus had no choice.  The Oracle simply stated what would happen, now how it would happen.  Find out about the Fates and the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi.  How did the ancient Greeks regard these creatures--as people who reported the future or as those who made the future happen as they said it would?

  10. Staging the Play: Find out conventions of staging an ancient Greek drama.  

    1. Consider not just the cultural event, e.g. the Festival of Dionysus, where playwrights would present multiple plays, but also what the actors do.  

    2. The masks that serve as "previous" and "next" buttons at the bottoms of pages in this web are one "convention."  

    3. What did the chorus do?  Obviously, their parts are more poetic than regular lines in the play, but were they chanted, sung, or just spoken with an instrument or two in the background?

    4. How many actors would be on stage at once?  Did each actual actor play multiple roles, while his face was hidden behind one of those thick wooden masks?

    5. Why didn't the Greeks stage graphic violence, but instead have it reported through an eyewitness?

    6. Tracy (1999) was tasked with finding out why the number 3 is significant for this play.  [Is it just because Sophocles was the first playwright we know of to use 3 different actors and therefore have 3 different speaking roles onstage at once?  Or is there some more profound, symbolic association with the number 3 apparent in the play?

  11. Greek Pun: ajs2485 asked: When the chorus first enters they say, "What is God in his profound Delphi of gold and shadow? What oracle for Thebes, the SUN-WHIPPED city?"  Could Sophocles be using a pun, Son and Sun??

    Here are the ancient Greek spellings: sun = ήλιος ο   /   son = υιός ο


  12. Origin of the Oedipus story?: Malcolm Timbers points out that "Many stories have elements of the Oedipus myth. The Oedipus myth originated in Egypt where it is said that it was an actual event that happened." Find out about the origin of the Oedipus story, confirm the Egyptian Thebes was the original setting (or refute that idea), and site ancient analogs.  Is Moses like Oedipus?  Is Jesus?  Is Gilgamesh?

  13. Modern versions: Malcolm Timbers suggests that "Modern cinema is full of Oedipus stuff, the father being taken place of by some evil patriarch. The Star Wars movie is purely Oedipal in many ways."  Is Luke Skywalker more like Oedipus or unlike him?  Is Darth Vader like or unlike Laius?  Consider not just plot elements and character traits, but also their force as heroic characters.  Boynorth in 2001 asked how Neo in The Matrix might be like Oedipus.

  14. Throne theft?:  Did Oedipus take the throne of Thebes from Creon?  If they knew that Laius was dead, why didn't the town find his killer (perhaps via the Oracle) or name a successor?  Under what circumstances does Creon actually get the throne after Oedipus's son(s)? Find out what the legend of Oedipus has to say about Creon. (suggested by a comment from Luis Eduardo in 2001)

  15. Oedipus vs. JobAre the lessons from Oedipus the King and the Book of Job in the Old Testament mostly similar or different?  Which one suffers more?  How does free will impact on each man?

  16. "Know thyself"?: Lee in 2001 asked: "Did Thebes have a sign at the gate that said 'Know Thyself'?"  What irony, then, would be such an inscription?

  17. Oedipus the King vs. other Greek plays: Lilydove12 asked in 2000 how Oedipus Rex compares and contrasts with other known plays from ancient Greece.  There would be several ways to approach this broad topic--

    1. Find out about the evolution of drama in the Golden Age, e.g. the number of actors on stage at one time.
    2. How does the function of the chorus differ in tragedies as opposed to comedies, or from one tragedy to another, e.g. from Oedipus the King to Antigone.
    3. Were all plays about the relationship of the gods to mankind, or were some people vs. people, e.g. maybe Seven Against Thebes in which Oedipus's sons fight a civil war for the throne of Thebes (perhaps at Creon's instigation)?
    4. Ashwani (1999) and Lily (2000) asked how Oedipus in Oedipus Rex and Creon in Antigone are similar and different as tragic protagonists.  Read the "sequel" to Oedipus Rex and decide who is more arrogant, blind, and set up by the gods.  Jonathan (2000) suggested these leads--
      1. Oedipus wanted to challenge the law of the Gods, and Creon thought that his laws were more important than the Gods.
      2. Also, look at how they reacted to their people -- this is also different.
    5. Cards of UK (1999) asked about "Antigone and Jocasta: Do they behave in similar fashions? Do they hold similar roles? What about their similarities and differences?"
  18. Oedipus vs. a modern or historical figure: Judy asked in 2000 how Oedipus might be compared and contrasted to a parallel modern political figure. 
    1. Many people think that Richard Nixon's story would make a fine Greek tragedy.  Find out why.
    2. Another forum contributor suggested Pericles.  Does his life parallel that of Oedipus in some tragic way?
    3. How about Socrates, the philosopher who was forced to drink poison, executed for his beliefs?
    4. Try the Medieval astronomers, e.g. Galileo, who was threatened with torture during the Inquisition if he persisted in saying that he saw four moons around Jupiter with his telescope.
  19. The order of the Oedipus trilogy: Since Antigone is alive during Oedipus at Colonus, which is about the end of Oedipus's life, but she is dead at the end of Antigone, in what order did Sophocles write these three plays?  Are there other mismatches among the plays?  Are these flaws?  How might modern staging help erase such flaws (e.g. playing Antigone as a ghost not recognized as dead by her blind father)?
    1. Victoria (1999) offered these production dates: "Oedipus at Colonus was apparently produced the year after its authors death at the age of ninety in 405 B.C. The dating is only approximate because reliable evidence is lacking. Sophocles wrote his plays over a wide interval of years. Antigone was produced in 441 B.C, and Oedipus some fourteen or fifteen years later [in about 425 B.C.]." [So Antigone was first and then the two plays about Oedipus, but all were over a decade or more apart.]
  20. Mathematics in the play: Kanu Goyal of NN High School (1998) contributed this issue: "Has anyone noticed the use of mathematical terms in the play? I came across notions of how math—mainly numbers and math terms—are repeatedly shown in the play. Oedipus Rex, apparently, has mathematical imagery. Oedipus is described as 'not equated with the gods' and there are many other instances where such comparisons are made: measurement, commensuration, calculation, approximation, definition, and infinity. Numbers are apparently significant to this play.

    "So what does mathematical imagery suggest? Is Sophocles (author of the play) influenced by Pythagoras? Does he see the world in terms of math? Is his reasoning flawed? Is he mathematically 'off'? Or is he being challenged to think unmathematically in the play?"

  21. Portraying a Character: Dax910 (1999) was going to portray Oedipus in a production of the play.  Pick one scene from the play and write a set of actor's or director's notes on how one of the characters in the scene should be played.  Include notions on when the character should walk, gesture, speak louder, speak more softly, what attitudes or emotions should be evident from that character for which lines--including with what attitude the character should listen when another character is talking.
  22. Destiny: Ronnie Downey (1999; Northern Va. CC), in a forum entry titled, "The Gods Must Have Been Crazy," asked: "I just don't understand how the destiny of one man should cause turmoil in the lives of so many others. Was it their [the Thebans'] destiny to suffer because the gods just give destinies to a select few people? The whole theory of destiny according to the Greek gods disturbs me. Why would someone worship a deity that is so focused on destiny rather than happiness? The people have no control over their lives!"  Find out what you can about the Greeks' ideas on destiny to explain how they form a backdrop for this play.
  23. History of Tragedy: For commentators on tragedy, consider Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Leopardi, said high school student AP in 1999.  What do critics and commentators say about this play? (Pick one aspect; there has been a lot of writing about Oedipus.)
  24. Being There: Abby DC wondered (1999): "How do you think you would have responded to the play if you were a Greek citizen attending the theatre?"  Find out about the Festival of Dionysus in Athens and the shape and textures of a Greek theater.  What might it have felt like, sounded like, looked like, even smelled and tasted like to be at such a festival?
  25. Government: From an anonymous posting in 1999:  The Greek title of the play is Oedipus, the Tyrant.  In what sense is Oedipus a tyrant?  On the one hand, he appears to be a man who is given the throne rather than inheriting it.  Is that one definition of a tyrant?  On the other hand, Oedipus is a quick-tempered, rash man who is willing to inflict a certain amount of roughness on an old man to find out his truth.  Does O's arrogance make him a tyrant?  How many other definitions of "tyrant" may fit  Oedipus?  Find out what form of government Thebes (or Athens) might have had in the 5th Century B.C. or before and how that connects with the play.
  26. Sophocles: isabaer (1999) wanted to contrast Sophocles with other Greek playwrights: How was Sophocles' playwriting style similar to and different from that of Aeschylus and Eurides?  Why was the play Oedipus Rex important in the development of ancient Greek theater?
  27. Macbeth vs. Oedipus?: An anonymous posting (2000) suggested this connection.  Compare and contrast Shakespeare's Macbeth and Sophocles' Oedipus the King as tragedies.  What aspects do the two plays have in common?  In what ways do the plots or characters' motives or circumstances differ significantly?  Of course, consider the forces of prophecy vs. free will for both plays.  (Hint: Sorry Girl [2000] pointed out that both protagonists try to avoid their fate and are overtaken by it.  How accurate is this statement?)
    1. The Oracle vs. the Witches: Adreanaline (2000) noted one parallel: "In Oedipus the King, Creon consults the delphic oracle. This delphic oracle is able to foretell the future with aid form steam that rises up from a fissure at Delphi (a city in Greece). In Macbeth, the witches are able to foretell (prophesy) the future when standing around the cauldron, from which steam is rising up."
  28. Lear vs. Oedipus?: Melanie (2000) noted that both protagonists are blind.  But what other commonalities or significant differences exist between these two tragic figures.  (It's ok to range into Antigone to look for parallels among their children.)
  29. Jocasta, Desdemona, and Ophelia:  Contrast Jocasta's responsibilities to society with those of Desdemona, as the wife of General Othello in Shakespeare's play, and Ophelia (perhaps as girlfriend of Hamlet and if she had become Hamlet's queen).  What are their roles as psychological supports of their men?  Compare and contrast their tactics, their effectiveness, the reasons for their sad ends.  (Inspired by a question from Dede Camara in 2000)
  30. Jocasta vs. Penelope of the  Odyssey:  res (2000) offered this task: "comparing and contrasting Jocasta and Penelope as wives, mothers, their characteristics, heroism and cunning."
  31. Ancient vs. Contemporary Tragedies: (inspired by a question from "Cindibean1" in 2000) Compare and contrast ancient and modern tragedy.  You might use as examplars, Sophocles' Oedipus the King and the theory of tragedy summarized by Aristotle* and Death of a Salesman and playwright Arthur Miller's rebuttal to Aristotle, entitled "Tragedy and the Common Man,"* published in the New York Times in 1949, a couple years before the debut of his Death of a Salesman for the first time on Broadway.  (It was revived 50 years later with Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman.)  Also see the Litonline module on tragedy.

* Hint: Open the Poetics one section at a time (the MIT site has 3).  Use <Ctrl> + <f> to search the text from top to bottom for Oedipus.  You can also search for terms like reversal, flaw, messenger, etc.  Similarly, you can search Miller's text for pride, fate, maybe gods, irony, etc. 

See also Ed Friedlander's free-thinking site on Oedipus and some non-Aristotelian ideas about reading the play.  One highlight-- links to overseas productions of the play.  (The dramatic sculpture at right is pictured on Friedlander's site and on the website of Carlos Parada on Greek mythology.)

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logotest.gif (2025 bytes) This site was developed by Professor Eric Hibbison of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Virginia, under a Courseware Grant from the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) in Fall, 1997, and renovated under a VCCS Commonwealth Course grant in 2003 with the addition of the archive for the 1997-2003 forum on Oedipus the King.  If you have comments or suggestions about this site, email them to Prof. Hibbison at jsrlogo.gif (7866 bytes)