Destiny, Fate, or Free Will?: Unit, Part II, Oedipus

Find sections I and II, here.

III.  Reviewing homework terms, have students prepare to identify when they “see” one of the terms in action in the plot. Additionally, you’ll add, you’ll want them to tell you AFTER the reading whether or not they experienced catharsis. You can expand on some ideas of films that have led them to experience it for clarification. Using films really seems to help them “get” these concepts!

The actual reading of the play is best done in class aloud. After all, the play was meant to be “heard” and “seen”.  To meet the goals of the standards, do not use an abridged version.

Consider the 1912 translation (Gutenberg) for honors, and a more approachable translation for regulars.  CCSS recognizes the potential discrepancy between the reading level of a text and its conceptual level of difficulty.  (Either way, I'd avoid an abridged version, which might lead to a loss of some of the impact.)

Here are the differences between the two:

My children, latest born to Cadmus old,
Why sit ye here as suppliants, in your hands
Branches of olive filleted with wool?
What means this reek of incense everywhere,
And everywhere laments and litanies?
Children, it were not meet that I should learn
From others, and am hither come, myself,
I Oedipus, your world-renowned king.
More modern text:

My children, latest generation born from Cadmus, why are you sitting here with wreathed sticks in supplication to me, while the city fills with incense, chants, and cries of pain?

Children, it would not be appropriate for me to learn of this from any other source, so I have come in person—I, Oedipus, whose fame all men acknowledge.

Because Oedipus has scads of lengthy monologues, consider reading those yourself in a lower-level class OR making sure the student selected reads aloud well. You may also want to consider asking a male volunteer (an administrator? parent? pastor? community sponsor?) to read.  (It doesn’t have to be the same person every day!) 

Another idea is to ask your school’s drama department or local amateur theatre company if they have any volunteers who’d be willing to join you for this endeavor. The role of Oedipus is long and difficult, so to truly scaffold students in this reading, having them “hear” this character read by someone is best. (They will be doing some of their own close reading in analysis, so they will get the opportunity to wrangle with the text.)

As you read, stop frequently to assess comprehension. Have students tell you what’s going on in their words.

It will probably take about three class periods to make it through the entire play. What will help is that you’ve already told the story! Thus, they are approaching the play as an audience of that time period might. 

At the end of the first day, discuss this point. Does it make a difference that we know the end?
Using an example such as Titanic, did knowing the ship was going to sink make a difference in their enjoyment of it? 

Have students evaluate their experience (so far) with dramatic irony for homework. 

III.A. Special note about reading Choral Odes. These are tricky. I’ve used several different approaches, but what seems to be the most successful is to help students see them as “commercials” of a sort. Consider having two or three students read each chunk chorally. 

Establishing small groups for the chorus ahead of time (when establishing reading roles) really helps, too. 

IV. The end of the play is really something to experience with students.  To signify this event, have the entire class read the Exodos as an ensemble:

CHORUS: You residents of Thebes, our native land,
      look on this man, this Oedipus, the one
      who understood that celebrated riddle.
      He was the most powerful of men.
      All citizens who witnessed this man’s wealth
      were envious. Now what a surging tide                                    
      of terrible disaster sweeps around him.
      So while we wait to see that final day,
      we cannot call a mortal being happy
      before he’s passed beyond life free from pain.    

It was a very powerful moment. Some of our classes wept at the end. Others didn’t overtly express emotion, but the mood was solemn. Embrace this moment with them and let the pause exist. 

Then have them evaluate their catharsis with it. Did they or didn’t they experience a purging or cleansing of emotion? If not, what did they feel? If they felt nothing, ask them to reflect on why. These writings will be informal, journal-like entries, so emphasize to students that no one will read these but you, and that you are not looking for perfection, but honest reflection.   

V. Revisit the overarching question. Has reading the play supported their original thinking or changed it? Why? 

Have them consider this painting by Max Ernst: Oedipus Rex.  


In groups of no more than five, have students determine what argument Sophocles makes for pre-determinism and free will. They should analyze and evaluate how and how well this painting supports the playwright's assertion or evidence to suggest it does not support the playwright's assertion. Create a rubric for the group work and presentation of their analyses. 

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