Introduction | Lesson Objectives | Tools & Materials | Time Needed | Relevant National Standards | Teaching Strategy | Assessment Recommendations | Extensions, Adaptations, Further Resources

The story of King Oedipus (called Oedipus Tyrannus in Greek) was written by the playwright Sophocles and won second prize in Athens' annual drama festival, the 'City Dionysia', in about 427 BC. Set in the city of Thebes, the tragedy contains one of the most famous riddles ever devised (the 'Riddle of the Sphinx'), and is an epic story of murder, incest, and terrible unintended consequences.

Lesson Objectives
Students will:

  • Gain an insight into Greek tragedy and such concepts such as fate, hubris, and (dramatic) irony.
  • Recognize the Greeks concern with fate, self-determination and the role of gods and oracles in everyday life.
  • Learn about the origin and development of drama in Athens in the 6th and 5th centuries BC.
  • Analyze and critically assess the specific role of characters within the play and role of the chorus.
  • Gain an understanding into the different genres of drama (including comedy, tragedy and Satyr plays) and the discover some of the social concerns of the ancient Greeks by knowing the themes of some of their plays.
  • Be able to compare and contrast ancient Greek drama with modern dramatic forms such as movies and modern theatre.

    Tools & Materials
    A full version of the Oedipus text is available as a downloadable pdf. file.

    A shorter 'Reader's Theatre' version by Nick Bartel is also available as a pdf. file.

    The section in the documentary which looks at theatre starts at 1.31.15 (1 hour, 13 minutes and 15 seconds) 'Here in the shadow of the Acropolis…' and finishes at 1.34.53 '…echo around the world.'

    Time Needed
    Teacher's may opt to read either the full text, or a 'Reader's Theatre Version' which has been abridged and adapted for students (about a third of the length).

    The full version of the play may take up to two hours to read, with an hour set aside to analyze the literary techniques used (irony, plot, character development, etc.), and an additional hour to learn about how Greek drama was actually staged and performed. This best way to do this is probably to compare and contrast the drama of ancient Athens with modern theatre.

    Relevant National Standards

    This activity addresses the Standards in Historical Thinking for Grades 5-12 developed by the National Center for History in the Schools.

    Teaching Strategy
    Ask students if they have heard of ways in which one's destiny can be predicted (astrology, Tarot cards, fortune cookies, etc.). Broaden the discussion to include ways in which ancient peoples prophesied the future, such as studying animal entrails in ancient Rome and listening to oracles in ancient Greece. Do any of the class believe in prophesies? Would they believed them if they had lived over 2000 years ago?

    Now, move on to discuss a seemingly unconnected issue. Ask students if they can name any political leader who has made a mistake which cost them their career (or even lives). What motivated them to make the mistake? Can they think of any examples where pride was the major factor? (Think of Nixon proudly assuming he had the right to bug people's conversations because he was the president.) Introduce the Greek concept of 'hubris' meaning pride likely to invoke the wrath of the gods.

    Explain to the class they are now about to read a play, written 2,500 years ago, that deals with all of these themes and show the clip on Greek theatre listed in the Tools and Materials.

    Introduction to Greek Drama:
    Introduce the topic of Greek drama by telling the class that drama evolved From religious festivals in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and the cha ging seasons and explaining the significance of the 'City Dionysia' and the first actor, Thespis. Establish that tragedy was the favorite type of Greek drama and at the heart of all tragedies lay a character's hubris. For more information on tragedy and the evolution of Greek drama, see the suggested links to pages within this site below.

    You might also want to discuss how three actors would rotate to play all the speaking parts and thus the importance of masks. Mention the use of the chorus and how the actors would have had to project their voice without microphones to audiences in excess of 10,000 people.

    Introduce the play:
    Tell the students that the play they are about to read was written nearly 2,500 years ago and is considered one of the greatest Greek tragedies ever written.

    Regardless of which version of the play you decide to use, select students to read the speaking parts (including Oedipus, Queen Jocasta, Creon, Teiresias, a Priest, First Messenger, Second Messenger, and the Herdsman), while the rest of the class will play the Chorus. Originally three actors would have played all the speaking parts accompanied by the Chorus, a group of people who spoke in unison and who helped explain the story to the audience. In ancient Athens they would also have sung and danced in procession.

    While students read (what you might need to know):
    During the Prologue: this part of the play was normally read by a lone actor. Oedipus calls the citizens of Thebes 'the children of Cadmus' because he was the mythical character who founded the city, after slaying a dragon and sowing its teeth to make the first inhabitants. Apollo is invoked because he was the god of healing and a plague has blighted the city. Is Oedipus' pride evident from the very first lines? Note any references to sight; it is used throughout the play as a metaphor for insight.

    At this point the Chorus would usually make their entrance.

    First Scene (lines 245 - 526)
    This scene is filled with many instances of dramatic irony. For example, when Oedipus condemns the murder which has brought about the plague he is in fact condemning himself (the man who unknowingly killed his own father and took his mother as his wife). Note particularly the character Tiresias who clearly knows more than he's letting on. Is he trying to protect Oedipus?

    First Stasimon (527 - 572) or closing of the scene:
    The Chorus seems completely confused - are they following Tiresias or Oedipus?

    Second Scene (573 - 953)
    Is Creon being admirable here? Why should Oedipus have such a strange reaction to Jocasta's account of her lost child? What is the significance of her baby's ankles having been pinned? (Oedipus means 'swollen ankles' - a major clue, but why doesn't he make the connection?).
    The reference to the 'sacred dance' (line 895) refers to the god Bacchus (aka Dionysus), god of wine, changing seasons and frenzy.

    Third Scene (998 - 1214)
    Consider Jocasta's ongoing aspersion of oracles in the light of what is about to happen. At what point does she begin to suspect the truth? Why does Oedipus remain ignorant? Note the way the Chorus takes Oedipus' hope and runs with it, imagining him to be the foundling son of a god.

    Fourth Scene (1215 - 1310)
    Aristotle believed Oedipus Rex to be the finest of all tragedies because the protagonist's recognition of the truth coincides with the reversal of his fortunes. Where exactly does this occur?

    Fourth Stasimon (1311 - 1350)
    Oedipus has become the paradigm of misfortune.

    Fifth Scene (1351 - 1432)
    What was Oedipus trying to do when he found his mother/wife dead? Is blinding an appropriate (self) punishment?

    Sixth Scene and Exodus (1499 - end)
    Does anything surprise you about the way Oedipus views disaster in this scene? Is Creon fair to Oedipus? Why do Oedipus' daughter remain so special to him? What effect does blindness have open Oedipus' wisdom?

    After the students read:
    Return now to the theme of fate which is central to this play (and indeed, all Greek drama). Discuss the social attitudes that identify the ancient Greeks. What are the Greek concerned about in this play? How did they feel about prophesy, priests, the gods, and fate? How did pride (hubris) and arrogance affect Oedipus' fate? What in his personality brought about his fate when others tried to turn him away from it?

    Assessment Recommendations
    Students can be evaluated on their oral reading ability of a part of the play informally. Discuss with the class how Greek actors would be evaluated: loud voice, good expression, gesture and movement (remember, like so much in ancient Greek culture, plays were staged as part of a competition). Students' understanding of the play can be evaluated informally through the 'during the play' and the 'follow-up discussion'. A more formal assessment can be through a journal entry asking the students to focus upon some of the topics discussed in class.

    Students' understanding of the production can also be evaluated through follow-up questions and activities, such as having students take on the role of director and tell the three-actor cast their roles, staging, costumes, etc.

    Extensions, Adaptations, Further Resources
    Students could look for examples of dramatic irony in cartoons, advertisements, films and TV shows. In addition, they could create a modern version of Oedipus about a leader whose hubris creates his own downfall.

    Core information about Greek drama and playwrights can be found on this Web site under the following headings:

    How Salamis was remembered - Aeshylus' The Persians (Event Page: 472 BC - The earliest surviving tragedy)
    The Origins of Theatre - The First Actor (Event Page: 534 BC Thespis becomes world's first actor)
    The Origins of Theatre - The First Plays (continued)
    The Different Types of Greek Drama and their importance
    The Great Playwrights of Athens' 'Golden Age'

    Additional information (suggested books and other Web sites) can be found in the Research Links & Resources Page of this site.