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Sophocles: Oedipus the King (Volume A)

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1 Sophocles: Oedipus the King (Volume A)

2 Sophocles Athens, Colonus education golden age
Peloponnesian War (431 B.C.E.) theater changes tritagonist Sophocles grew up in the village of Colonus, a short distance north of Athens, and was likely from a wealthy family and received a good education. Athens was a major power in the Mediterranean world, a period known as the golden or classical age, until the start of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C.E. Sophocles made technical changes to theater, including the use of scene painting and enlargement of the chorus, and brought in a third character (tritagonist) for complex dialogues. Bust of Sophocles. Marble, Roman copy after the Greek original of the 4th century B.C.E. Palazo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums.

3 Aristotle’s Poetics: Tragedy
tragedy and imitation style: embellished, different parts catharsis 6 elements: plot, character, language, thought, spectacle, and melody plot: recognition, catharsis, reversal unhappy endings probability and inevitability deus ex machina chorus Aristotle outlines the content for good tragedy: it imitates real, serious, and completed action; uses stylized language; induces catharsis (the outpouring of pity and fear) in the audience; and mixes metrical speech and song. The six elements of tragedy are divided into the form (media), the manner of presentation, and the objects of imitation. Plots should be nonepisodic and follow the structure of recognition (a character realizes his predicament), catharsis (the character and audience are inspired to fear and pity), and reversal (the change in plot line to achieve stasis at the play’s end). Tragic plays should have unhappy endings, characters should behave and experience what is probable and inevitable, and the gods should not be relied on to resolve events that are central to the play’s action (only preceding or subsequent actions) as divine intervention is unreasonable. Chorus is not an arbitrary character in the tragedy, but (in emulation of earlier times, when the Chorus played a role in the religious rites from which tragedy evolved) should play an integral role in the performance. Plot is the sequence of events and, according to Aristotle, the most essential aspect of tragedy because a tragedy is a representation of human action. In his Poetics, Aristotle lists all the elements of theater in the following order: plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle.

4 Elements of Plot recognition (anagnorisis) catharsis
reversal (peripeteia) Aristotle claims that the best plots feature recognition (anagnorisis) and reversal (peripeteia) that occur close together and even simultaneously. One example of recognition and reversal happens when the messenger arrives to tell Oedipus that Polybus of Corinth is dead and that Oedipus will be the new king. Good tidings quickly end when it is revealed that Polybus is not Oedipus’s true father and that a herdsman gave the child to the messenger many years ago. The rapid juxtaposition of recognitions and reversals and the ebb and flow of the plot add dramatic intensity and build interest and suspense from beginning to end. The image is a painting titled Oedipus Separating from Jocasta, by Cabanel (1843).

5 Catharsis, Hamartia Catharsis is the release of extreme emotions for the audience, related both to fear and anxiety. Hamartia is a Greek concept translated as a “mistake,” not as an intentional bad deed or evil character, but rather some tragic flaw or twist of fate that is out of the protagonist’s hands. In this play, Oedipus does not kill Polybus and bed Jocasta out of incestuous desire or perversion; rather, the entire city and Oedipus suffer on account of the mistake made by his parents, who did not insure that he was executed at birth. The image is a painting by Benigne Gagneraux, titled The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods (1784).

6 Thebes, Corinth The left image shows an ancient plan of Thebes, while the right shows the Temple of Apollo at Corinth.

7 Delphic Oracle: Know Thyself
Both images feature Delphi, the location of Apollo’s oracle and important sacred site for the ancient Greeks. The right image, specifically, shows the temple of Apollo; the caption reads: located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus near Delphi. This is the original location of the Delphic Oracle.

8 Sphinx feminine merciless cunning lion-bird-woman
Ironically, while Oedipus knows the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, “mankind,” he doesn’t know the answer to the more fundamental question of his own identity. He has no idea of his true parentage, and in the action of the play he discovers that he is both son and husband to Jocasta, both father and brother to his two children. ‘ The sculpture is a sphinx of the Naxians, housed in the Delphi Archaeological Museum, Greece.

9 Adoption Delphic Oracle exposure blood guilt adoption Corinth, Thebes
According to Sophocles, Laios (king of Thebes) learned from the Delphic Oracle that his son would kill him, so he ordered a shepherd to have his son by Jocasta exposed on Mount Kithaeron. Exposure, a fairly common practice in the ancient world, involved leaving the baby in a wild place, presumably to die; it allowed parents to dispose of unwanted children without incurring blood guilt. A shepherd, however, discovers the infant, and takes him to Corinth, where he is raised by King Polybos and Queen Merope. The sculpture features The child Oedipus brought back to life by the shepherd Phorbas, who took him off the tree. By Antoine-Denis Chaudet (1801), housed in the Louvre Department of Sculptures.

10 Tiresias physical blindness versus visions and prophecy
judge for the gods Tiresias appears in other Greek works, including the Odyssey (Odysseus travels to Hades to visit Tiresias immediately after being released by Circe). One myth explains Tiresias’s physical blindness as a punishment by the goddess Hera. Tiresias had judged unfavorably (according to Hera) in a debate as to whether men or women enjoyed sexual intercourse more; having lived at one point as a woman, Tiresias responded that 90% of sexual pleasure belonged to women, while men gained only 10% of the total pleasure; Hera, furious at this claim (given her husband Zeus’sexual proclivities), blinds Tiresias, while Zeus empowers him with the gift of foresight to compensate for the loss of his eyesight. The scene between Tiresias and Oedipus dramatizes the paradox of vision in the play. The old prophet is blind but can see the truth; Oedipus has sight but does not know who he is or from where he comes. Having answered the riddle of the Sphinx, Oedipus does not hesitate to solve the present problem in the play of finding Laius’s murderer and the cause of the pestilence. Oedipus’s confidence leads him astray from reason. When Tiresias, the seer, formulates the riddles about Oedipus and the identity of the murderer, Oedipus does not even consider dropping his investigation and inquiry. Students may notice that, in the Oedipus cycle, Oedipus gains the powers of prophecy after physically blinding himself. How are sensory vision and fortune-telling related (or at odds) with each other? The watercolor depicts Tiresias appearing to Odysseus during a sacrifice (1780–85), from the Underworld chapter in the Odyssey. By Johann Heinrich Fussli, housed in Albertina.

11 Politics democracy Oedipus/ Creon Antigone Oedipus at Colonus
Oedipus is a tyrannical figure from the mythic past conceived by Sophocles in the age of democracy. A very different leader than Oedipus, Creon is more reserved, deliberate, and smooth in speech. His character is consistent in subsequent plays such as Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. Creon’s reliance upon law and order leads to tragedy in Antigone, while his decency and fairness provide Oedipus a final haven in Oedipus at Colonus. While Oedipus displays many qualities of an arrogant despot, Creon seems specifically characterized as a democratic leader.

12 Chorus/ Play’s Lesson “Don’t claim any man god’s friend until he has passed through life and crossed the border into death—never having been god’s victim” (lines 1744–46) In Greek tragedy, the closing lines of a play (usually issued by the Chorus, who iterate the gods’ decree and guide the audience in how to perceive the play’s content) reveal the play’s “moral” or lesson. In this play, the Chorus clearly states that no human can be exempt from suffering in this world; peace is achieved and the gods’ folly for twisting man’s fate removed only after a person dies. How is this theme pervasive throughout the play, and is it a tragic theme?

13 Discussion Questions Oedipus’s pride might be considered a tragic flaw, but does pride truly bring about his downfall? Looked at another way, could the pestilence afflicting Thebes be rooted out without Oedipus’s single-minded determination to solve the latest riddle, regardless of the consequences? In many ancient Greek works, the hero possesses a quality that acts as both flaw and benefit. Oedipus’s pride gives him strong leadership skills and wisdom, but it also prevents him from realizing that he has become a victim of fate. Do you believe he feels remorse for everything that has transpired, or is he blameless (not having realized that he was killing a king and his own father)?

14 Discussion Questions Oedipus blames Apollo for bringing his sorrow to completion but claims that the act of putting his eyes out was his own. Certainly there is a sense that Oedipus does not deserve his fate, but what, then, is he responsible for, and what does the audience learn from the experience of the play? Remind students that above the entryway to the Delphic Oracle for Apollo is inscribed the words “Know Thyself.” Oedipus’ biggest flaw is that he does not know himself, but to what extent is he responsible for this, being that he was unaware of being adopted? Could Oedipus have avoided his fate had he been told the truth by his adoptive parents?

15 This concludes the Lecture PowerPoint presentation for The Norton Anthology
of World Literature

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