Oedipus Rex: Literary Criticism

Instructor: Rachel Noorda
This lesson looks at the literary criticism of the Greek play 'Oedipus Rex' by Sophocles. You will learn about what literary critics Aristotle, Freud, Fergusson, and Dodds have said about the play as a whole.

Literary Criticism of Oedipus Rex

Have you ever finished a famous literary work and wondered what others make of it as a whole? You can analyze it yourself or come away with certain impressions, but sometimes looking at what other people have concluded over time can broaden your appreciation or understanding of what you've read.

Literary criticism is interpreting literature. Lets discuss the thoughts of some important literary critics of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. From these critics we learn that Oedipus Rex uses literary devices and structure to enhance its effect, could be a story representing hidden wishes, uses ritual as a form of drama, and represents human curiosity.

Oedipus title page.

Aristotle's Poetics

Greek philosopher and critic Aristotle was born about 50 years after Oedipus Rex was written. In his work Poetics, Aristotle discusses dramatic theory, using Oedipus Rex as an example of a great tragic play.

He talks about how well the play goes from one thing to the next. First, there is peripeteia, or the reversal of the situation: 'in Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect.' Then comes anagnorisis, when the hero realizes the truth, as Oedipus finally realizes he has indeed killed his father and married his mother. Finally, we are left with catastrophe, as his mother kills herself and Oedipus stabs out his own eyes and flees. Aristotle feels these elements are perfectly linked with logic.

Aristotle also discusses a type of character in a play 'who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous - a personage like Oedipus'. Here Aristotle defines the tragic hero - a character that has a fatal flaw that brings about their doom; a character the audience sympathizes with.

Aristotle says that the best tragedies are those that focus on one family, such as the focus in Oedipus Rex on Oedipus and his family. Artistotle also talks about catharsis, or the release of feelings of pity and fear through the play and says, 'This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus.'

Freud and Oedipus Complex

Sigmund Freud was a researcher of the human mind, and he developed a method of analysis called 'psychoanalysis'. Freud believed that there were human wishes that remained hidden in most people, but that sometimes came out in literature.

Freud was a psychoanalytic literary critic. He thought that Oedipus Rex represented a certain hidden wish in all human beings: to kill our fathers and marry our mothers (or vice versa). He called this hidden desire the Oedipus Complex and introduced the theory in 1899. He determined that this phase should occur when a person is 3-5 years of age, and that they would move past it naturally as long as no trauma befell the child.

It should be noted that this view has wide criticism as it applies to life.

Ritual - Francis Fergusson

Francis Fergusson was an American theorist of drama and mythology and held lectures in prestigious universities in the 1900s. In his literary criticism of Oedipus Rex, he argued that Oedipus Rex is not only a play, but a ritual.

Many Greek tragedies follow the form of an ancient ritual related to the seasons of the year. The crisis at the beginning of the Oedipus Rex, i.e., the plague spreading through the city of Thebes, sets the play up as the season of winter, a time that calls for death and then renewal. The audience expects certain things based on this, and so the play satisfies the ritual.

Oedipus as a Tragic Hero - E. R. Dodds

E. R. Dodds was a researcher of Greek and Roman literature, also in the 1900s. He discussed Oedipus in Oedipus Rex as a tragic hero. Hamartia is the Greek word for meaning 'to miss the mark'. It is a term used to describe the tragic flaw of a tragic hero, the too-human limitations possessed by the tragic hero that lead to a tragic end.

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