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Literary Devices in Oedipus the King

The Chorus: In Greek tragedies, the chorus is a group of bystanders who comment on and react to the events of the play, often providing crucial information when needed. Aristotle found Sophocles’s use of the chorus to be ideal, writing in Poetics that “The chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action, not in the manner of Euripides but of Sophocles.” The chorus often plays an interpretive role, providing keen insights into the emotional and thematic developments of the play.

Hamartia: First coined by Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics, the “hamartia” refers to a character’s fatal flaw. Over the course of a narrative, the hamartia unconsciously causes a series of increasingly unfortunate events to unfold. Thus, the interior flaw, the blind spot in the character’s psyche, is projected onto the outer world. One important aspect of the hamartia is that it is particular to the character, rather than a generalized human flaw.

Aristotelian Tragic Plot: In Poetics, Aristotle defined and laid out the archetypal plot of the tragedy. A great or important person experiences a reversal of fortune. Following a triggering event at the start, the plot develops until it reaches a turning point at the middle. This turning poin

Literary Devices Examples in Oedipus the King:

Oedipus the King

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" the burden that I bear Is more for these my subjects than myself. ..."   (Oedipus the King)

Oedipus’s devotion to his people suggests that he is a morally righteous king. He has his people’s best interests at heart at the beginning of the play. However, the audience knows that the plague is a result of Oedipus’s actions and that the only way to lift it is for Oedipus to offer retribution for his crimes. Sophocles uses this devoted characteristic to both create audience sympathy for this character and establish characteristics that the events of the play will challenge.

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"by a god inspired ..."   (Oedipus the King)

Divine inspiration or aid was a literary trope in Greek stories. This is called deus ex machina. In this trope, a god would appear suddenly and save a seemingly impossible situation from its tragic end. Heroes in Greek epics, such as Odysseus, Telemachus, and Heracles, were often both aided and thwarted by gods. For example, in Homer’s The Odyssey, the god Poseidon prevents Odysseus from returning home and the goddess Athena aids him in overcoming Poseidon’s obstructions. Here, the priest assumes that Oedipus was able to defeat the Sphinx because a god intervened; in other words, he was victorious because the gods were one his side. This sets up Oedipus’s character as a trustworthy man and hero.

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"Armed with his blazing torch the God of Plague Hath swooped upon our city emptying The house of Cadmus,..."   (Oedipus the King)

Here, the Priest personifies the plague as a God holding a blazing torch. “Swooped” and “emptying” connote violence and wrath and suggest that this God is merciless and chaotic. The “house of Cadmus” references the Greek hero Cadmus who founded Thebes. Emptying this “house” means that the city is rapidly losing its population to the plague. The Priest’s speech emphasizes the severity of the plague and instils the situation with urgency.

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"Pallas..."   (Oedipus the King)

Pallas is an epithet, or glorified nickname, for Athena, who is the goddess of wisdom, craft, and war. She was a champion of heroes. Because of the plague, many people are crowding around shrines of Athena praying for wisdom and relief from it. The Priest mentions this fervent prayer to demonstrate how desperate and helpless this plague has made the Thebans; they can do nothing but pray to alleviate their condition.

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"CHORUS (Str. 1) Who is he by voice immortal named from Pythia's rocky cell, Doer of foul deeds of bloodshed, horrors that no tongue can tell?..."   (Oedipus the King)

This is the second choral ode in the play and functions differently than the first ode. The first strophe-antistrophe pair recounts everything that has happened in the plot since the last ode. The second strophe-antistrophe pair does the same, but it is from the first-person perspective of the lead chorus member. This recapping of events is helpful for audiences since it signals act or scene breaks.

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"(Str. 1)..."   (Oedipus the King)

This refers to the first strophe of this choral ode. A strophe is the first part of an choral ode, and it is followed by the metrically identical antistrophe (“Ant”) and epode. These various parts of the ode are similar to poetic stanzas, characterized by alternating long and short syllables. The purpose of choral odes was varied, but they often revealed public opinion, as this one does. Each shift from strophe to antistrophe signals a shift in perspective, from one praying Theban to another. Each perspective is very similar, suggesting unity between the townspeople.

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"A fell pollution that infests the land,..."   (Oedipus the King)

This “pollution” is what was known to the Greeks as miasma, a contagious power caused by crimes such as murder. It could only be purged through proper rituals that would lead to catharsis, the Greek concept of cleansing one’s emotions to experience renewal. The expanse of the pollution indicates the theme of the separation of private life versus public life, as a single person’s crime creates consequences for the community.

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