Amanda has created and taught English/ESL curricula worldwide, has an M.Ed, and is the current ESOL Coordinator for the Saint Louis Public School District.
In terms of drama, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex could put today's soap operas to shame! Written around 429 B.C.E., it's the most famous tragic play in history. As you probably know, its theme is a big reveal to the character that the audience knows already. Today, we'll talk about anagnorisis, a Greek word meaning ''discovery.'' In literary terms, it is used when referencing a character's shift from ignorance into knowledge.
This usually will come about when the true identity of a character is suddenly revealed. For example, when someone previously unknown is recognized or identified. In movies or soap operas, this is usually accompanied by exaggerated dramatic music, close-ups of shocked faces, gasps of utter surprise, and if we're lucky, somebody fainting in disbelief. Anagnorisis is not always used in tragedies or as drama. Sometimes a revelation can be simply a scar or birthmark. In the case of Oedipus, however, we have a soap opera-worthy scandal on our hands.
The plot of the play uses shocking revelations as ways of leading Oedipus to the truth regarding his identity. One by one, secrets are revealed as the characters begin putting the pieces to the puzzle together. It is not until Oedipus is told that he is the son of Laius and Jocasta that our tragic hero is able to accept the truth. The discovery of his identity is nothing short of dramatic, as he decides to gauge his eyes out with his mother/wife's brooch.
This tragic series of events garnered much attention from Greek philosopher, Aristotle. In his work, Poetics, he believed Sophocles' play was the perfect example of a true tragedy because it portrays the downfall of a tragic hero through hubris (pride), fate, and the will of the gods.
Oedipus insists on avoiding his fate, so he tries to be noble by running from the prophecy. Oedipus tries to save Thebes by finding Laius' murderer and refuses to give up. A plague is placed on Thebes, which initiates Oedipus on his quest for the truth.
The tragic hero should have a flaw of some kind, or unknowingly make mistakes. Oedipus' reaction to the prophecy (running away from home) are what set the stage for the prophecy coming true. Throughout the whole play, he unknowingly makes mistakes that take him closer to the discovery of truth.
Anagnorisis and Peripeteia
Aristotle stated the best plots should have surprises by way of both peripeteia, the reversal of fortune, and anagnorisis, which Oedipus Rex certainly has. The plot, the philosopher believed, should become increasingly complex as it carries along until the moment of discovery is made and the fortune is reversed. At this point, the complexity diminishes, the loose ends are tied up, and a conclusion is found. In Oedipus Rex, as the plot progressed so did the complexity. The more that revelations and back story were introduced, the more complex the story line became.
Oedipus is told he murdered King Laius. Jocasta describes to Oedipus how Laius was killed; then Oedipus thinks he may actually have done it. Jocasta and Oedipus share their exact same prophecies with one another but pretend it is just a coincidence.
Oedipus learns his father is dead but it was not his real father. Jocasta realizes the baby she asked a shepherd to kill was not actually killed; it is Oedipus. Oedipus searches out the shepherd to hear the truth. He killed his father and married his mother.
It was not until the final discovery is made that the complexity just melts away. As soon as anagnorisis occurs, his fortune is reversed and a conclusion swiftly follows. Everything wraps up rather quickly so that the audience can have a moment of catharsis and a sigh of relief.
Oedipus goes down in history because of his role as an ultimate tragic hero. Aristotle states a tragic hero must hold a place of nobility, have a shift from happiness to misery as a result of a tragic flaw, and have an ability to arouse both fear and pity from the audience. Oedipus fits all of this criteria.
When it comes to arousing fear and pity from the audience, this certainly comes about when the time for anagnorisis arrives. The audience should fear for Oedipus because they know he has no way of changing the tragic outcome that has already come to pass. They fear for what will happen to him; but also, they pity him because he tried to spare himself and his loved ones from this tragic prophecy.
The discovery of his true identity did, in fact, bring such a dramatic reversal of fortune that it is one of the most tragic in literature. Oedipus finally (if morbidly) accepts the truth he has doggedly sought and avoided at the same time, choosing to gouge out his eye and live in exile, instead of just killing himself (as his wife/mother does).
Sophocles' Oedipus Rex is all about big discoveries and shocking revelations. The plot of the play uses anagnorisis, a Greek word for discovery, to bring Oedipus from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge. While he is adamant to reveal a truth, he is reluctant to hear the truth that is being presented to him. Once the shocking discovery is made, the complex plot unravels, and the audience fears for what should happen, as Oedipus cannot change his fate.
Peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, follows revelation and the tragic conclusion is drawn. Both character and plot elements make Oedipus Rex one of literature's greatest tragedies. In Poetics, Aristotle considers the work a great example of tragedy, as the anagnorisis in Oedipus Rex is driven by plot elements, instead of the less dramatic instances of revelation like recognizing a birthmark or scar.
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