Composing a Perfect Oedipus the King Analysis Essay
Oedipus the Kingis one of the works that are most often assigned to students to write about, so your first step is to find a topic that is not overused or trite. You can achieve it by focusing on the plot, rather than on literary devices.
Remember that a literary analysis essay should move beyond the summary of plot or characters, and beyond your personal opinion. Make an argument and defend it with evidence from the text.
Developing a Thesis Statement
Your thesis statement is the foundation to build your whole essay on. To develop a strong thesis statement, you need to read a literary work, then think of any questions you have about it. There must be at least one aspect that makes you confused or curious. Examples of such questions one may ask about Oedipus the King are:
- Why is Oedipus typically viewed as a heroic character, despite his apparently self-destructive behavior and traits such as arrogance and rashness?
- What played a greater role in Oedipus’s downfall – fate (portrayed as the will of the gods and goddesses) or his own actions?
Make a list of all questions that come to your mind after reading Oedipus the King to select the best one for your essay. Use this checklist to determine whether your question is good:
- Is it open to interpretation? (A good literary analysis question should have more than one possible answer, like both the exemplary questions above. A simple factual question such as “what was the blind prophet’s name?” does not meet this condition.)
- Do you need to look at various parts of the play to answer it?
- Is it broad enough to expand on for several pages?
After you have selected your essay question, rewrite it as an assertion. For example, “despite his apparently self-destructive behavior and traits such as arrogance and rashness, Oedipus is typically viewed as a heroic character because he rebelled against the power of fate.” This will be your thesis statement.
Writing Your Essay
- Search the book for specific examples that support your thesis, e. g. the steps Oedipus takes to avoid his destiny.
- Use the observation-quotation-explanation method; make a comment on the play, back it with a quotation from the text, then explain how this quotation supports your thesis.
- Rephrase your thesis statement in your last paragraph: “Oedipus combated his tragic destiny in a truly heroic way, but his arrogance and rashness became his downfall.” If the evidence and reasoning you presented throughout your essay are strong enough, your reader should now be convinced.
Oedipus remains in the dark. Do you agree?
This question asks you to consider the importance of dark and light, and therefore perhaps also sight, in the play. Think metaphorically (i.e. 'in the dark' - unknowing) but also literally (Oedipus' blinding at the end of the play).
Oedipus is old before his time. Do you agree?
This question asks you to consider question of youth and age in Oedipus - though the action of the play happens in a single day, how might Oedipus be considered old? You might also want to think about fathers and children and the impact generation has on age.
This play happens backward. Do you agree?
This question asks you to consider the structure of the play. Look at the section on 'Myth' and consider the way Sophocles alters the story to turn it into a drama. What does Oedipus know at the start of the play? What does he know at the end? What events actually occur during the play - or have all the events happened before it begins?
How might a consideration of the conditions of Greek theatrical performance impact upon our understanding of Oedipus Rex?
This question asks you to consider the importance of the Greek theatrical conventions (particularly masks) that would have originally been employed when Oedipus was performed. Think practically - there were no electric lights, no recorded music, and perhaps even no props. How might this change your interpretation of the play? (See 'About Greek Theater' for more information).
Is Oedipus Rex a private or a public play?
This question asks you to consider the relationship between public and private (or between oikos/polis) in the play. What is the outcome for Thebes? What is the outcome for Oedipus? Is Oedipus to be considered as a father/son/brother or simply as the king of Thebes?
Might Oedipus be more than one man?
This question asks you to consider the play's central inconsistency as potentially one of its themes. The Thebans have heard that Laius was killed by more than one man; in fact, Oedipus alone committed the murder. Think of Oedipus' various roles in the play - king/brother/father/son - and consider whether the conflict of the play might be a conflict between the one and the many.
Do you agree that Oedipus' tragedy happens because of a 'tragic flaw'?
This question asks you to consider that Oedipus' tragedy happens because of a tragic flaw - an opinion that many critics would strongly disagree with. Why do the events of the play happen? Whose fault is it - if anyone's? See Oedipus and Aristotle for more information about the idea of tragic flaws.
"The old seer had eyes" (Oedipus the King, 748). Discuss ideas of sight and blindness in the play.
As well as thinking literally about blindness in Oedipus (Teiresias, in particular) consider the relationship between knowledge and sight. Does Oedipus have any insight into things - can he, perhaps, see better without his eyes?
"I stumbled when I saw" (Gloucester, in Shakespeare's King Lear). Compare Oedipus Rex to any other play of your choice.
This question invites you to compare Oedipus to any other play. You might want to think about themes, about characters, or what you consider to be the ultimate lesson of the play - just remember to keep comparing: write about both plays at once, not one and then the other. See Useful Comparison Points for some good ideas.
How does Oedipus come to embody the riddle of the Sphinx?
This question requires you to make a connection between the Sphinx riddle's answer - 'man' - and Oedipus' fate. Oedipus, as a consequence of seeking the answer to his kingdom's plague, manages to go through the three stages of the Sphinx's riddle. He is the baby with pierced ankles, crawling on four feet to escape a messenger who would kill him. Then he is the proud adult, king of Thebes, walking on two feet. And finally he is the old, blinded man, walking with a cane, cast out of his own kingdom.