I love reading Oedipus Rex at the beginning of the year for a whole bunch of reasons. I love that the fact that we say the play out loud in class gives everyone an experience of a timeless text that they can’t unexperience. I love the richness of its language and the power of its performance. And I love the way that it embodies the concept of a dialogical text, especially insofar as it is informed by and informs the text that preceded it. Let me explain.
When Sophocles writes this play around 400 BCE, his audience already knows the story of Oedipus (a fact you encountered, or will encounter, in Knox). So his audience isn’t invested in just finding out what happens; they want to see what Sophocles is going to do with this story. The play is premiering on the final night of the big Athenian festival; the events of the week have all been prelims to the main event that is the performance of the tragedies in the main amphitheater, where the most popular and talented playwrights of Athens strive for the recognition that comes with winning something even more important than the combination of Oscar for Best Picture, Best Directing and Best Screenplay, as theater had a more important role in Athenian culture than movies do in ours.
These facts set the stage of applying what we’re learning about the effect of author’s choices to our study of Oedipus in a way that is informed by the fact that Sophocles was making conscious creative choices that would make his play better than the other tragedies written by playwrights who, like Sophocles, had won the drama festival before.
You’ll encounter a lot of this in Knox’s essay, an example of literary criticism that makes an argument, not a judgment, and provides as much information as it does perspective. Knox talks a lot about the facts of Athenian life, and I hope those of you who focused on Knox’s discussion of Sophocles’ time (the writer’s context) will share your insights with those classmates more attuned to the thematic elements of Knox’s essay (the enduring context).
You’ll also find references to Oedipus Rex liberally sprinkled throughout the parts of Poetics I’m asking you to read. In Poetics, written a couple of generations after Sophocles died, Aristotle takes a philosophical approach to determining what distinguishes excellent poems (he’s actually talking about what we call plays) from lesser ones. We are here to learn from Aristotle, not to argue with him or even agree with him, because if we did, Aristotle would come back from the dead and laugh in our faces, delivering to all of us a mental beating we would never recover from.
So while we are listening to Aristotle and reading Oedipus Rex as the best example of a Greek tragedy, we are also going to pay attention to those parts of the story that make the study of literature so engaging. We’ll look at the passages that present or suggest Sophocles’ insight into human nature. We’ll note the way each scene is structured into a beginning, middle and end so that the play has a clear movement of plot, conflict and character development. We’ll learn how to see some rhetorical devices at work in the syntax of some of the speeches, and to recognize the effect of those devices on the content of the speech. We’ll take time to notice the beautiful patterns of language (all the nautical references, for example, that would have been familiar to a people whose ascendance was the result of their favorable geography and aptitude for seagoing trade).
Next week, I’ll provide the same kind of contextualizing overview for Things Fall Apart. In the meantime, enjoy your performances of Oedipus Rex.