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Anagnorisis in Oedipus Rex

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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. Updated: 05/07/2021

Anagnorisis

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.

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  • 0:04 Anagnorisis
  • 1:11 Shocking Revelations
  • 2:36 Anagnorisis and Peripeteia
  • 4:09 Analysis
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Shocking Revelations

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.

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