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Oedipus at Thebes

Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles' Tragic Hero and His Time

Bernard Knox
Copyright Date: 1985
Published by: Yale University Press
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  • Book Info
    Oedipus at Thebes
    Book Description:

    In Oedipus, Sophocles created a character who was the essence of his age, a figure of such symbolic potency that he appears to later centuries not only as a historical but as a contemporary phenomenon. This book is a study of the play,Oedipus Tyrannos, in terms of both the age which produced it and the double existence of the hero in his time and out of it. It attempts to answer the question of whatOedipus Tyrannosmeant to the Greeks, and it examines its meaning for the reader of today. The author bases his study on a careful analysis of the play's vocabulary and imagery, and seeks to make clear for the reader who does not know Greek may minute and technical point of interpretation. His book is a key to the understanding of Oedipus, the man and the play. Bernard M. W. Knox is associate professor of classics at Yale.

    "A superb critical and textual investigation."-New York Times.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14710-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
    (pp. 1-2)

    It sometimes happens that a great poet creates a character in whom the essence of an age is distilled, a representative figure who in his action and suffering presents to his own time the image of its victory and defeat. For later centuries this character becomes the central reference point for an understanding of his creator’s time; but he is a figure of such symbolic potency that he appears to them not only as a historical but also as a contemporary phenomenon. The poet who created him has penetrated so deeply into the permanent elements of the human situation that...

    (pp. 3-52)

    An initial obstacle lies square athwart the critical approach to theOedipus Tyrannus: the widely accepted and often repeated judgment that the play is a “tragedy of fate.” This judgment is based on a blurred vision of the relation between the hero’s predicted destiny and his action in the play, but, although its basis is a misapprehension, its influence has none the less served to pigeonhole theOedipus Tyrannusas the classical example of the “tragedy of fate,” the example which is supposed to illustrate the essential distinction between ancient and modern tragedy. The purport of this distinction, expressed or...

    (pp. 53-106)

    Sophocles’ Oedipus is more than an individual tragic hero. It is characteristic of the Greek attitude towards man to see him not only as an individual but also as an individual in society, a political being as well as a private person. When Aristotle began hisPoliticswith the famous sentence “Man is by nature a political animal,” he was saying nothing new; the formula expresses an assumption so basic to Greek feeling of the fifth and earlier centuries that only the analytical spirit of a later time saw the need to state it explicitly. The action and reversal of...

    (pp. 107-158)

    Oedipus, in his character and his mode of action, is a symbolic representation of Periclean Athens. But that Athens was not only the magnificentpolis tyrannosand the source of law, it was also the center of the intellectual revolution of the fifth century. “Athens,” says the sophist Hippias in Plato’sProtagoras(337d), “is theprytaneion, the council chamber, of the wisdom of Greece.” This is a compliment paid to his hosts by a visiting rhetorician (and put into his mouth by a subtle master of irony), but it is none the less the truth. The rich metropolis attracted to...

    (pp. 159-184)

    When the priest, in the opening scene, tells Oedipus that he regards him not as “equated to the gods” but as “first of men,” he is attempting, by means of this careful distinction, to clarify and correct an ambiguity inherent in his own speech and action. The beginning of the play suggests in both verbal and visual terms that Oedipus is in fact regarded as “equated to the gods.” The priest of Zeus and selected young priests have come as suppliants to the palace of Oedipus; their action is parallel to that of other groups who, the priest tells us...

    (pp. 185-196)

    But the play does not end with the proof of divine omniscience and human ignorance. It ends, as it begins, with Oedipus. “Equal to zero”—the chorus’ estimate, proposed at the moment when Oedipus learns who he is, seems right and indeed inevitable. But it is hard to accept. It means that the heroic action of Oedipus, with all that his action is made to represent, is a hollow mockery, a snare and a delusion. It suggests that man should not seek, for fear of what he will find. It renounces the qualities and actions which distinguish man from the...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 197-266)
    (pp. 267-268)
    (pp. 269-272)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 273-281)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 282-282)