Oedipus Tragedy Unit Final

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Essential Questions


Introductory Activities


Aristotle’s Poetics


Aristotle on Tragic Heroes


Research Topics


Discussion Questions


Writing Topics


Oedipus & Modern Poetry


Writing a Modern Tragedy


Common Core Anchor Standards 23

Oedipus the King


Introductory Activities
1. POETRY “Sins of the Father” by W.D. Ehrhart A theme that runs throughout the myths of the great houses (Atreus, Cadmus) is that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. A sin may not be punished by its perpetrator in his lifetime, but instead be passed on to a descendent who is innocent.
(When students do research into Oedipus’s family-- the house of Cadmus-- they will learn that Laius, Oedipus’s father, raped Chrysippus, the son of Pelops, king of Pisa. Chrysippus killed himself and the king laid a curse on Laius: when Laius and Jocasta had a son, this child would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother.)
One way to introduce the question of the inevitability of fate in a context students will readily understand is by reading and discussing W. D. Erharts’s poem abut bullying.
The speaker, whose daughter is distraught after having been bullied at school, is caught up short when he realizes that he himself was guilty of bullying several fellow students when he was an adolescent:
It makes me want someone to pay. It makes me think—O Christ, it makes me think of things I haven't thought about in years. (ll 8-11) The last lines seem to suggest a certain kind of cruel justice: Now there's nothing I can do but stand outside my daughter's door listening to her cry herself to sleep. (ll 21-23) Available online at The Writers Almanac [access date: Jan. 1, 2013] http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/12/06 “Sins of the Father” by W.D. Ehrhart, from The Bodies Beneath the Table. Adastra Press, 2010.

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Introductory Activities (cont.)


Ask students to visit an online news site and type the word “tragedy” into the search box. They may then select an article to read and report back to the class about how the idea of “tragedy” is understood in the 21st century.

After the discussion, launch into reading a selection of the Poetics* to compare how Sophocles understood tragedy in relation to literary theory. To what extent is human pride or an “error in judgment” (usually attributed to ignorance or blindness) responsible for a tragedy? Can natural disasters in which no human involvement plays a part be considered “tragic”?

(*See Poetics, sections XIII-XV)


Ask students to brainstorm a list of public figures and/or literary characters, past or present, who have suffered some sort of fall, not necessarily resulting in death. Then ask them to debate whether these figures would qualify as “tragic” according to Aristotle (see p. 6).

Tiger Woods (golf legend) Lance Armstrong (cycling legend) Oscar Pistorius (the “blade runner”) Bernard Madoff (investment guru) Jerry Sandusky (Penn State coach) Whitney Houston (pop singer) 2Pac Shakur (hip-hop artist) Notorious B. I. G. (hip-hop artist)

Abraham Lincoln (16th president of the U.S.) Darth Vader (Luke Skywalker’s father in Star Wars) Steve Biko (Anti-apartheid freedom fighter) Saruman (a wizard in Lord of the Rings) Piggy (a character in Lord of the Flies) John Kennedy Jr. (only son of JFK)

Oedipus the King


Aristotle’s Poetics (the essentials)

Poetics available at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1974/1974-h/1974-h.htm NOTE: if time is an issue, skip to the next page for a summary of Aristotle’s description of the tragic hero. At the very least, students must be familiar with that.
READ Parts VI-VII, IX (last pgh.)-XVI, XVIII (last pgh.) and answer the following:
1. According to Aristotle, what are the six parts to a tragedy? Why does he consider plot the “soul of the tragedy”? How does he distinguish between character and action? Simple and complex action? (section VI)
2. What is the proper structure of the plot? (section VII, IX last pgh., X, XI) 3. What are the separate parts into which tragedies were divided? (section XII) 4. In constructing the “perfect tragedy,” what are the circumstances that occasion fear and pity?
What situations are NOT tragic? (section XIII-XIV) 5. Why should a tragedy observe the three classical unities of time, place and action? (See Freytag’s
Triangle) 6. What qualities should the character of the tragic hero possess? (section XV)? 7. What kinds of recognition does Aristotle identify? Which does he consider the most effective?
(section XVI) 8. How important is the chorus? (section XVIII last pgh.)

DEFINE Parts of a Greek tragedy: prologue, parode (parados), episode (scene), stasimon (choral ode), exode (exodos) Freytag’s Triangle: structure and unity of plot based on Aristotle’s description of the unity of action: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution (the other two unities are time and place) Parts of the choral ode: strophe, antistrophe, epode Deus ex machina (“god from the machine”)

Denouement (“untie the knot”) also: catastrophe, resolution Catharsis (“purification”) Anagnorisis (“knowing again” or recognition) Hamartia (“missing of the mark”; often mistranslated as “tragic flaw”) Peripeteia (“reversal”) In medias res (“in the middle of things”)

Freytag’s Triangle: http://www2.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/freytag.html Glossary of Drama Terms: http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072405228/student_view0/drama_glossary.html Greek Terms Used in Tragedy: http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/drama/classical%20drama/terms.html Literary Terms and Definitions: http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit_terms.html Outline of Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy in The Poetics: http://www.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/poetics.html Tragedy the Basics: http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/Tragedy.htm

Aristotle on Tragic Heroes
Just as it was true in Aristotle’s time, our attention today is riveted on those who are “like us but better than us” (neither blamelessly good nor wickedly evil) who make errors in judgment that may lead to a reversal in fortune and a recognition of guilt resulting from having experienced a change from ignorance to knowledge. When people like this fall, we feel pity and fear because we can see ourselves in them.
To what extent does Oedipus’s fall elicit a similar catharsis (purging of the emotions of pity and fear) in the audience? Oedipus’s fall should leave the audience with a profound sense of tragic waste.
In the Poetics, Aristotle described the most successfully constructed tragic heroes* as exhibiting the following:
• The hero is basically a good person, albeit usually a proud or even arrogant one, but nevertheless one we admire and with whom we sympathize.
• He is of high estate (since the higher they are, the harder they fall); in Greek tragedy, the heroes were kings.
• He commits hamartia or an error in judgment (hamartia is an archery term meaning “a missing of the mark”) that leads to his downfall, from a high estate to a low estate. IMPORTANT: Hamartia is NOT synonymous with “tragic flaw.” This is a mistranslation, but the term is widely used.
• He undergoes a recognition. There can be no tragedy (or resulting catharsis in the audience) if the hero fails to make the discovery that causes his ignorance to be transformed into knowledge.
*Aristotle singles out Oedipus of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as the epitome of a tragic hero.

Oedipus the King


Research Topics on Oedipus the King
• In order to appreciate the cultural context of classical Greek tragedy, it is necessary to conduct some research into the life and times of Sophocles.
• Volunteer for one of the topics below. Everyone is to read and take notes on Bernard Knox’s essays “Greece and the Theater” (pp. 13-30) and the “Introduction” to Oedipus the King (pp. 131-153) in your text.
• Then, working in small groups, you will do further research and prepare an annotated bibliography of 5-8 credible sources pertaining to your topic.
• Your group will lead a discussion on it, accompanied by visual aids, lasting 30 minutes. You must involve your audience in active participation.

TOPIC 1 Sophocles and Pericles
Research the life of Sophocles and situate him in the history of Athens in the fifth century BCE. Why did such a flowering of the arts occur at this time? To what extent was Pericles responsible for Athens’ Golden Age? Explain why Pericles is important in Greek history. Focus on the values he praised in his Funeral Speech for the Athenian war dead (delivered 431 BCE in the first year of the Peloponnesian War: see http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/funeral.html). What does Pericles value in men of Athens? In Athens itself? Quote some relevant passages. (After reading Oedipus the King you will judge whether Oedipus lives up to these ideals of the Athenian man and his belief in intelligence. If so, then why does he suffer?)

TOPIC 2 Conventions of Greek Tragedy
How was a Greek tragedy staged? What sorts of costumes did the actors wear? What did the stage look like? How was a Greek tragedy structured? (Be specific about the parts and supply English translations of Greek terms). How was music and dance incorporated into the performance? What are the three unities and why did Greek playwrights observe them? See Aristotle on unity of action. (Include pictures and diagrams of various theatres).
(continued next page)

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TOPIC 3 Origins and Development of Greek Tragedy What were the origins of Greek tragedy, comedy and satyr? How did theatre evolve in style and content from Thespis, Aeschylus, Sophocles through Euripides and Aristophanes? Read the myths associated with Dionysus and explain why Greek tragedy became associated with him. What was the nature and purpose of the Great Dionysia? What role did it play in city life? How was it organized? How did a playwright win? Who were the most frequent winners?
TOPIC 4 The Curse on the House of Cadmus Account for the curse on the house of Cadmus from the founding of Thebes (beginning with Zeus’s abduction of Europa) to its destruction as depicted in Aeschylus’ play, Seven Against Thebes. A good place to start is Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless tales of Gods and Heroes, Part V The Royal House of Thebes pp. 372-391). Hamilton does not go into ALL the family secrets: thus, you will need to do some research on Laius’s provocation of Pelops, the King of Pisa. Why is it useful to know these myths? Include a family tree. Explain how Sophocles drew upon the “Theban Cycle” for the subject matter of three of his most well-known plays (Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus).
TOPIC 5 Philosophy and Religion in Oedipus the King What religious and philosophical themes are reflected in Oedipus the King as a result of the debate over the importance of the gods and the validity of prophecy that was current in Sophocles’ time? How did the Greeks view fate, destiny and hubris? How important was the oracle at Delphi in Greek life? How did the god Apollo become associated with prophecy? What role does Sophocles assign to Tiresias in the play? (Look up the myths surrounding Tiresias and explain how and why he went blind and later made a prophet). Account for the presence of the sphinx at the gates of Thebes.

Oedipus the King


Oedipus the King Discussion Questions
DIRECTIONS: Take notes on the following questions as you read and study the play. Use them as starting points for class discussions. Refer to page and line numbers as you note key passages.
1. What is the function of the long speech delivered by Oedipus as the play begins? What does it suggest about him? How would you characterize his tone? What kind of a king has he been? Why does the priest remind Oedipus of his victory over the sphinx so long ago? Why is there a plague on the land?
(Note that pestilence is associated with the crime of a king; Shakespeare exploited this idea in his own tragedies. The health of the kingdom is dependent upon the “health” of its sovereign. The sentient universe reacts to hidden sin.)
2. At Creon’s return, Oedipus dismisses the suggestion that he relate the oracle to him privately and asks that it be given in the hearing of all. What does this suggest about Oedipus’ virtues? His confidence? Does he seem at all arrogant? (Note that Oedipus already knows about the plague and has acted upon it; why does he ask the priest about the suppliants anyway?)
3. Sophocles wants to account for why the investigation of Laius’ murder has been deferred. Is Creon’s answer satisfactory? Does the play suggest that Oedipus should have asked these questions a long time ago? Did ambition contribute to his error in judgment? Explain.
4. Point out the dramatic irony in Oedipus’ first speech (Prologue). Then go back over the Prologue and find other examples. Do the same for the remainder of scene one.
(Note that dramatic irony is one of the distinguishing literary features that Sophocles brought to his material. Another is the imagery of light and dark and of seeing and blindness.

Oedipus the King


In dramatic irony, the audience is made aware of information unknown to some of the actual characters in the play. The audience possesses information the characters do not, and is so able to measure words and deeds against their understanding of the truth.)
5. The Chorus enters chanting a song or ode called the Parados. It is accompanied by dancing and flute music. Here, the Chorus represents the elders of Thebes. They remain on stage (at a level lower than the principals) for rest of the time. The choral odes and dances separate scenes and comment on the action, reinforce the emotion, and interpret the situation. When the chorus participates in dialog, the lines are spoken by the Choragos, their leader. Analyze the Parados: what is the Elders’ commentary on action so far, what emotions are reinforced, and what is their interpretation of the situation? Note the imagery of suffering and death. What is their attitude toward the gods?
(SUGGESTION: Try reading the chorus out loud. Sophocles used a chorus of 15. A group of 7-8 students can read the strophe and another group of 7-8 can read the antistrophe and the entire group can read the epode together. Depending on the size of the class, even two students reading together will produce the right effect. Some editions of the play label the strophe, antistrophe and epode, if there is one. If yours does not, simply assign parts according to stanzas --the first stanza is the strophe and the second is the antistrophe. If present, the epode is the stanza that follows the antistrophe and normally takes the form of a short line following a longer one. The important question to ask is: What is the effect of hearing one part of the speech spoken from the right side of the acting space and the other from the left? The strophe simply refers to the part of the chorus accompanied by dance movement from right to left; the antistrophe is the answer and movement is from left to right. The epode is a sort of conclusion.)

Oedipus the King


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Oedipus Tragedy Unit Final