crs home | site insex | blackboard |

home AScholtz home

Ancient Tragedy, Greece and Rome

Andrew Scholtz, Instructor

Ancient Tragedy, Study Guide. . .

Sophocles Oedipus the King

Text Access

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays. Trans. Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. Print.

Journal Topics

Class 1 on OAC

Looking ahead to the rest of the semester, when we'll be trying to form a more complete idea of what tragedy is, I want you to think about Sophocles' Oedipus the King (OTK) as a tragedy in relation either to your everyday idea of what "tragedy" is, or of what you understood tragedy to be prior to class. Are you, for instance, beginning to see something "Greek" about these Greek tragedies (really, Athenian-Greek tragedies) we've been reading? That's not a very well-articulated question, but I think you get the idea, namely, What are the themes that seemingly set these tragedies apart, perhaps from other ideas of the tragic?

In class I plan to have us approach the question as follows. You may (but don't have to) approach the question that way, too:

  • Is OTK "tragic" in ordinary senses? For instance,
    • "We’ve suffered a tragic loss"
    • "Tragedy hit when…"
  • Is, in other words, some such understanding of "tragic" valid for OTK? Does that get at what OTK is all about?
  • And whether it does or doesn't, does OTK somehow go beyond those standard definitions of the word?
    • For instance, do you sense that the tragic in OTK is more than saying it's sad?
    • If so, what is that tragic surplus?
  • Finally, and recalling other tragedies read for class, can we now start generalizing about what Greek tragedy is? If so, what is it?

Class 2 on OAC

Do we see anything resenbling any of the following, and if so, what? Explain. . . .

  • "Tragic Formula" ("The Ancient Law of hubris and atē")
    • koros
    • hubris
    • atē
    • dikē
  • "Aeschylean progression"
    • verbal --› visual
    • ambiguous --› clear
    • human --› divine
  • Cycle of violence?
  • Knowledge through suffering?
  • Aristotelian patterns/elements?
    • Character-based motivation (ēthos)?
    • Hamartia?
    • Complex plot?
      • Recognition?
      • Reversal?
    • Pity? Fear? Catharsis?

And what do we learn?

General Questions

  • "Pride breeds the tyrant," hubris phuteuei turannon.
    What is a tyrant? Is Oedipus one?
  • What "moral code," if any, lies behind the play?
    People talk about the role of fate, of chance, of justice, of the gods, of personal responsibility and freedom, and so on. Is Oedipus guilty, and if so guilty of what, and how so? How does he behave as father? As son? As husband? As king? HOW HAVE WE MOVED BEYOND THE MORAL UNIVERSE OF ANTIGONE (if we have done so)?
  • Is it a good thing what happens to Oedipus? Does he grow, does he benefit from the ordeals this play puts him through? Or are these growing pains you wouldn't wish on your worse enemy? To learn, is it necessary to suffer?



map with ThebesSee also the study guide to Antigone.

When Oedipus the King starts, Oedipus, who, so far as anyone knows, is the son of king Polybus of Corinth, has already been made king of Thebes, and been given in marriage to Jocasta, the widow of Laius, Thebes' late king. That's for slaying the Sphinx, whose riddle Oedipus has solved. But Thebes languishes under plague; Creon, Oedipus' brother in law, has been sent to Delphi to find out what can be done.

The drama of the play unfolds mostly in connection with Oedipus' understanding of the full import of the situation.


We don't know the exact date of Oedipus the King, but we think it was written after the year 429 BCE, a period of ongoing crisis (war, plague) for Athens. It therefore comes after the Antigone in terms of production chronology, though its story takes place prior to Antigone.

So, do you think any of this might be reflected in the text? If so, how so? Athens, where the play was produced, was at the time a democracy, while Thebes, sworn enemy of Athens, was an oligarchy.


AScholtz home | BU home | || © Andrew Scholtz | Last modified 11 March, 2015