The Fall of the House of Oedipus

Oedipus_At_ColonusOedipus looked like he had it all—fame, power, love, family, and a position as the wise ruler of a great city. But by the end of Sophocles’ trilogy, not only has Oedipus been transformed into a sacrilegious monster, but his family has also destroyed itself from within. In Oedipus Rex, perhaps the most famous of all Greek tragedies, we see the metamorphosis of Oedipus himself from beloved king to polluted outcast as he discovers many difficult truths about his own identity. In Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus finds his ultimate redemption, but in the process curses his family. Finally, in Antigone, even after Oedipus is dead the looming shadows of his incest and murder remain, tearing apart the remains of his house.

At the centre of all these plays is the issue of knowledge—what we think we know, what we can know, and what we actually know. How do we know that what we think is right is really the truth? There are serious consequences to being wrong, but are there ways to correct our understanding, or are we doomed to learn the hard way, from experience? The things we think will give us an advantage, like power and family, actually often exacerbate the problem. While the situations in these tragedies move to the extreme, the problems are ones we deal with every day. Through close reading and discussion of the Theban plays, we can find ways to better understand the dynamics between knowledge, decisions, and change in our own lives.

Read more in my guest blog post, Oedipus: An Identity Crisis.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“Who could behold his greatness without envy?
Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him.”

– Sophocles, Oedipus the King


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Zoë Eisenman is Chair of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago and an instructor at Great Discourses. She is a teacher and scholar with over 20 years’ experience leading award-winning Great Books Socratic Method seminar courses in Western classics.

Participants are required to obtain the specified editions in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus, by Sophocles
(trans. Robert Fagles; Penguin Classics, 2000)
ISBN-13: 978-0-140-44425-4

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