Justification for Teaching

Oedipus Rex is the first of Sophocles' Theban plays (though it was the second written), followed by Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. With all of the customary elements of a Greek tragedy, it is a great introduction to the genre. The universal themes of guilt, sorrow, and justice all make this an engaging and understandable text from another time.

One of the most important aspects of Greek tragedy is that the tragic hero's errors lead to his or her downfall. Fate may play a part, but it is not the sole determiner. The Oracle at Delphi may have delivered a prophecy to Oedipus, but Oedipus' own actions make that prophecy come true.

In the classroom, students can break down the elements of a traditional Greek tragedy and compare it with tragedies by Shakespeare. Dramatic irony is a big part of Oedipus Rex, so students can study the device using this play. Sophocles also uses eyes and blindness as motifs throughout the play, so students can examine how he develops these motifs and analyze their meanings.

To fully understand Oedipus Rex, students need to be made aware of the play's background — the curse laid on Laius' bloodline for his crime, the lengths Laius and Jocasta go to in order to ensure the curse doesn't come to fruition, the prophecy the Oracle told to Oedipus, Oedipus' murder of Laius, and the story of the Sphinx and how Oedipus came to be king of Thebes. Otherwise, the superb dramatic irony of the play will be lost.

Key Literary Elements & Techniques

  • Symbolism
  • Dramatic irony
  • Tragic Hero

Themes and Motifs

  • Eyes and blindness — Sophocles uses eyes and blindness several times throughout the play as a metaphor for being able to "see" the truth 
  • Guilt — Oedipus spends most of the play searching for the person guilty of murdering his father, not suspecting that he is actually the murderer. Thebes will not be free of its "pollution" (the cause of the plague besieging the city) until the guilty party is found and removed.
  • Fate vs. free will — Oedipus receives a prophecy that he will murder his father and marry his mother. But the only way for this prophecy to come true is for Oedipus to act in a way that makes it come true.

Related Works

Themes of guilt

And Then There Were None

Crime and Punishment

Themes of fate

The Odyssey

Macbeth

Antigone

Key Facts

  • Recommended Grade Band: 9 – 10
  • First performed: ca. 429 BCE
  • Length: 80 pages

Movies

Oedipus Rex has been adapted to film a number of times. Two of the major productions were released in 1957 and 1967. The 1957 film is more of a traditional production, while the 1967 film begins in pre-war Italy. Both films are faithful to the plot.

Your Students will love:

  • The dramatic irony of the play, which infuses seemingly innocuous events with sinister meaning
  • Reading a story in which the seemingly opposed ideas of fate and free will are neatly reconciled

Students may have problems with:

  • Understanding Sophocles' language

Other Prestwick House Teacher's Guides to Literature

See all our Teacher's Guide to Literature blog posts here.

Oedipus Rex