Oedipus the King – discussion questions

What were your initial thoughts about the character of Oedipus?  Did your thoughts about him change as you read through the drama?

“Dramatic irony is a relationship of contrast between a character’s limited understanding of his or her situation in some particular moment of the unfolding action and what the audience, at the same instant, understands the character’s situation actually to be.” Where do we see dramatic irony in this drama?

Why was Teiresias hesitant to share what he knew about the death of King Laius?

Did Teiresias really believe that it would be better for everyone if truth were to remain undisclosed?  Jocasta also asks Oedipus to stop investigating his lineage (line 1063).  Is truth always best known.  Always best shared?  Is it always best for guilt to be made public?  In government?   In marriage?  In the church?  Is ignorance bliss?  Is bliss the greatest good? 

Oedipus says, “Indeed I am so angry I shall not hold back a jot of what I think.”    Can kings afford to get angry?  Other leaders?  Pastors?  What should leaders do with their anger? [Anger - select quotes]

The Chorus advises Oedipus that “those who are qick of temper are not safe.”  Oedipus responds that plots must be dealt with quickly.  (lines 615-620)  Which one is right?

Teiresias is blind but sees.  Oedipus has eyes but is blind. (line 413)  Why is Oedipus, the man who solved the riddle of the Sphinx, so slow to solve the riddle of his own identity?

At what point does steadfastness and perseverence become mere obstinancy? (line 550)

Creon says to Oedipus, “But do not charge me on obscure opinion without some proof to back it.  It’s not just lightly to count your knaves as honest men, nor honest men as knaves.  To throw away an honest friend is, as it were, to throw your life away, which a man loves the best.”  Have you ever been accused falsely?  Betrayed?  Have you ever accused a friend or family member on the basis of “obscure opinion without some proof to back it?  do you think that this is a major problem in the church?  In politics?  What does the Bible say about this?

What does Creon mean when he says “time in the only test of honest men, one day is space enough to know a rogue”?

Oedipus asks, “Was I not born evil?  Am I not utterly unclean?”  What is the Christian response to these questions?

The Chorus contrasts insolence with eager ambition. (lines 874-884)  Are they opposites? 

Jocasta declares, “Now when we look to him [Oedipus] we are all afraid; he’s pilot of our ship and he is frightened.” (lines 921-922)  Can leaders show fear?

Freud was fascinated with this drama, particularly that element of it described by Jocasta, “As to your mother’s marriage bed, –dont fear it.  Before this, in dreams too, as well as oracles, many a man has lain with his own mother.  But he to whom such tings are nothing bears his life most easily.”  Should we just gag and go on, or is there something  in this that should be considered by us?

Why did Oedipus blind himself?  Do you believe his explanation for why he blinded himself? 

Creon refuses to banish Oedipus until he has consulted the gods.  How does this compare with the manner in which Oedipus governed?  Do you think Creon will prove to be a great leader as he takes over the reigns of government?

The last line of the drama is “Count no mortal happy till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain.”  Huh?  How does this compare with what Aristotle says about happiness in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics?  With what Solon says about happiness when discoursing with King Croesus?

Who (or what)  is to blame for this great big mess? The gods?  Oedipus?  Jocasta? Fate?  (MSNBC reported that it was George Bush’s fault.)

Where do we see hubris in these lines of text?  Where do we see the conflict between the forces of nomos and physis?

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Some notes on Oedipus from Aristotle’s Poetics:

“Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity. Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect.”

“Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune. The best form of recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation, as in the Oedipus.”

“A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune
of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous- a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.”

“A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue, rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than worse. The practice of the stage bears out our view. At first the poets recounted any legend that came in their way. Now, the best tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses- on the fortunes of Alcmaeon, Oedipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus, and those others who have done or suffered something terrible. A tragedy, then, to be perfect according to the rules of art should be of this construction.”

“Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.”