Anagnorisis in Oedipus Rex

Instructor: Amanda Wiesner-Groff

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 this lesson we will explore anagnorisis in Sophocles', Oedipus Rex. We will focus on moments of big discoveries, as well as Oedipus' reactions leading up to, and immediately following, the shocking revelation of his identity.

Anagnorisis in Oedipus Rex

In terms of drama, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex could put today's soap operas to shame! Written around 429 B.C., 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 are lucky, somebody fainting in disbelief. While anagnorisis is not always used in tragedies or as dramatic, 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.

Shocking Revelations: A True Tragedy

The plot of the play uses shocking revelations as way 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, and certainly puts soap operas to shame, 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 Socrates' 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 the fate, so he tries to be noble by running from the prophecy (fate).
  • Oedipus tries to save Thebes by finding Laius' murderer, and refuses to give up (pride).
  • A plague is placed on Thebes, which initiates Oedipus on his quest for the truth (the will of the gods).

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 the audience can have a moment of catharsis and a sigh of relief.

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