1) Discuss some of the mythic and ritual elements, and the logical, rhetorical, and ethical aspects of Oedipus the King. Think about how Oedipus proposes to purge the city of the murder-pollution, the key arguments between Oedipus, Tiresius, and Creon, and the arguments Oedipus made to himself and acted upon to defeat the prophecy, the rhetorical device of irony that permeates the play, and the ethics of everyone's actions, the family members and others involved in the tragedy.
According to the traditional interpretations of classical drama, Oedipus the King was brought down by the gods or fate because of his pride, egoism and arrogance, which the ancient Greeks called hybris (hubris). His father King Laius left him exposed to the elements on a mountainside when he was three days old because he believed the prophecy that his son would murder him then marry his mother, so he imagined that he was saving his own family line from disgrace. Yet when he met his son on the road to Delphi many years later, he and his chariot driver were treated him in a very rude and contemptuous manner, so Oedipus killed them, without even knowing who Laius was. Neither man was willing to give way on the road, and would not tolerate the insults of the other, so the old prophecy was fulfilled. Oedipus goes on to become king of Thebes, and ends up marrying his mother Jocasta and having children with her. When a plague and blight strikes the city, though, he insists on finding out the cause and then discovering the murderer of Laius, ignoring all warnings that he really should not want to know the truth. Here again, Oedipus feels great pride in his wisdom and cunning, but both he and Jocasta and disgraced and destroyed when everyone in Thebes learns the truth of their sins.
Laius never appears in the play except through the memory of Jocasta and others who remembered him, but he was also an angry, prideful and even tyrannical man. Thinking a three day old infant was a threat to him and his dynasty he “gave it to be cast away” (Ford 105). Oedipus recalled meeting an old man in a chariot on the road the Delphi, and how Laius and his driver “threatened to thrust me rudely from the path.” He did not know that this man was Laius, much less that he was his father, only that who would not suffer and abuse and insults from him, especially when “he brought full down on my head the double-pointed goad” (Ford 108). So he killed Laius and his driver, as well as two other servants, although one fled back to Thebes and was protected by Jocasta. Oedipus demanded to meet him as well as the shepherd that placed the infant on the hillside, and in his hybris would listen to no arguments from Jocasta to the contrary. This is when she says that he will hear from her no more because “he will not use his past experience, like a man of sense, to judge the present need” (Ford 111).
Oedipus simply imagines that she will be offended to discover that he was not born to a noble family but perhaps to a peasant or slave. In her woman’s pride, he imagines that she will despise his “base parentage” and orders his men to “go, fetch me here the herd, and leave yon woman to glory in her pride of ancestry” (Ford 116). Then he pressures the shepherd to tell him the truth or suffer torture and death, despite the man’s pleas to “forbear for God’s sake, master, ask me no more” (Ford 119). Oedipus never listens to any advice like this, and keeps pressing forward to find the truth, even though it means his own destruction. When he finally does, Jocasta hangs herself, crying out “Laius” as she “bewailed the marriage bed whereon, poor wretch, she had conceived a double brood, husband by husband, children by her child” (Ford 122).
In the end, the downfall of Oedipus occurs because of his own uncontrolled pride and arrogance at being a great and wise king of Thebes and his absolute determination to find out the truth in spite of all advice. After all, the city is suffering greatly because of the curse of some god, so he must find out who killed Laius, although at first he refuses to accept the fact that he did it. He did not know that the old man he killed on the road was his father, only that he had been insulted and humiliated by him and retaliated with lethal violence. This was the ancient pride of kings and aristocrats, who would not tolerate insults from any other man, although even by that point Oedipus was not certain who his real parents were. He even imagines that Jocasta now looks down on him with aristocratic contempt because he might not have been as high born as she was. When he learns the truth, however, he says that his sins are so great that even going to the gallows could never atone for them, so he blinds himself and goes into exile from Thebes.
2) Analyze the following passage from Oedipus at Colonus starting around line 140 (depending on your version). What sort of reception does Oedipus receive upon first arriving in Colonus? How does Oedipus present himself? What is the role of the chorus in the Oedipus trilogy?
Oedipus and his daughter Antigone arrive at the village of Colonus outside of Athens having been told by an oracle that he will die here. He is an old man at this point and death will be a most welcome release for him. None of the villagers want him there since they regard him as a morally condemned man who will bring a curse to their land. In this particular scene, the Chorus represents the elders of the village as well as the general opinion of the audience that Oedipus is a criminal who should not be allowed to remain, especially because he is on ground that is sacred to the Furies. Only when he appeals to King Theseus is he permitted to stay, and as predicted from the beginning of the play he will be buried in Colonus. Over time, the elders in the Chorus come to sympathize with Oedipus in even protect him from being removed by Creon, which is a “unique instance of the Chorus’ physical intrusion in the action” of a Greek play (Markantonatos 28). In all three plays, the Chorus sets the moral and political tone, condemning Oedipus for his blindness and arrogance when he was king, but sympathizing with him and Antigone in the other two parts of the trilogy. It recognizes that he is a flawed and tragic character but also deserving of mercy and pity since the evil he did was by chance or fate rather than he own free will.
In this passage that marks the first appearance of the elders of Colonus in the Chorus, they inform the audience that they are devoutly religious men, and our suspicious of this stranger and foreigner who has appeared in their city. He may be a bandit or a criminal, forced to flee from his own country, or a man who does not respect and fear the gods. Oedipus informs the elders that he is not an outlaw who has been exiled from another city, but that he is also “no favorite of fate” (Storr 11). Even before the Chorus knows his true identity, their main concern is that he not offend the Furies by lingering in their sacred grove. Antigone leads him away from there to a place where he can rest, and then he tells the elders who he really is and the circumstances that brought him to Colonus.
Their first reaction when they hear his name is that he should leave immediately, but Antigone pleads his case and Oedipus appeals to the traditions of justice and hospitality for which Athens is famous. He declares that he is “a man more sinned against than sinning”, and that he killed his father unknowingly in an act of self-defense (Storr 16). He never did evil by choice or intention, and simply did not know that he was marrying his own mother until it was too late. Oedipus definitely does not see himself as an arrogant or hubristic man who was brought low by the gods, but a victim of unfortunate circumstances that he could not control. He informs the elders that he is religious and respects the will of the gods, but if they let him stay they will receive a great blessing. All the Chorus can promise is that they will send a messenger to the king, who will come in person when he learns of his famous (or infamous) visitor and determine whether he can remain. In the end, King Theseus welcomes Oedipus warmly and the Chorus becomes his strongest supporters and sympathizers against both of his sons and Creon, and he finally dies and is buried in Colonus.
3) Aristotle claims that THEATER/dramatic plays when performed live represent the totality of human life more fully than other art forms like music, painting, etc and go on to discuss Aristotle's theory of the kathartic (or cathartic) power of art; that art has therapeutic/healing powers. He specifically refers to the emotions of pity and fear being aroused and released during the course of the drama as healthful.
Certainly the tale of Oedipus is unremittingly sad and tragic, since he was not at all an evil or psychopathic character who intentionally murdered his father and married his mother. Had he been such a villainous personality, the audience would have achieved catharsis or emotional release only by having him put on trial and punished at the end of the second play, and within the legal context of the time the penalty would of course have been death. Since he had not done evil by design but only by circumstances that he could not avoid, the proper emotional catharsis would have been empathy or pity, as well as respect for Antigone as she remains loyal to her father to the end. Oedipus has punished himself by giving up power and all its trappings, then by putting out his eyes and wandering the countryside as a poor and homeless beggar.
He has lost absolutely everything, and no longer has any reason to feel proud or arrogant, but rather is simply looking for a place where he can find his final rest. At first the audience might agree with the initial reaction of the Chorus and wish this cursed figure would simply disappear, but the words of Oedipus and his sad fate makes them change their minds. Perhaps this is not really therapy or healing in the modern psychological sense, but the audience can at least come to feel that Oedipus has suffered enough for his mistakes and that he should be allowed to day in peace. There is at least some sense of justice in that, particularly since his conduct and bearing are more noble and honorable than his two sons or Creon. The former simply want to use him for their selfish political ends while the latter is determined to see him punished, even after his death.
Perhaps the audience might not have been so sympathetic had they actually witnessed him killing his father, even by accident, or committed other terrible deeds. They would probably just been repulsed had he blinded himself on stage, but the sight of a sightless old man also invokes their sympathy. After all, Oedipus is really asking for very little except a place to die and be buried. No real ‘healing’ ever takes place for him, no matter how much the audience might wish that his life had turned out differently. His fate was simply terrible and was basically set in motion by the original sin of his father, who had left him to die because of his own fears. That started the whole tragic chain of events that led to the downfall of Oedipus and finally his death, far away from home in a strange land. None of this sounds particularly realistic, of course, and Oedipus is by no means as typical character or ordinary man. Few men becomes kings after all, and fewer still end up married to their mothers, but he pays for all this and justice demands in the end that he be permitted to rest in peace, without being tormented by the madness of the Furies or simply driven out of Colonus to die by the roadside.
Ford, James H. The Greek Classics: Sophocles Seven Plays. El Paso Norte Press, 2006.
Markantonatos, Andreas. Oedipus at Colonus: Sophocles, Athens, and the World. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007.
Storr, Francis. Oedipus at Colonus. Digireads Publishing, 2009.