LITR 4370 Tragedy
lecture notes
Spring 2017

Begin Oedipus the King




grade + notes returned by individual email before next class

Check email before coming to class

system of grading well-practiced, but always imperfect



character easier to study, but character and plot closely related

(for Aristotle, plot counts first, then character)


Aristotle's Poetics: parts XIII, XIV; Discussion: instructor

13b [x-romance] Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited.  A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.

contrast Romance

13b brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty [Gk hamartia; the "tragic flaw"].  He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families. . . .

535 TIRESIAS: That quality of yours now ruins you.                     [tragic flaw]

13c] [T]he best tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses [i.e., families

Oedipus l. 770 Jocasta to brothers-in-law

XIV[a].  Fear and pity . . . result from the inner structure of the piece

For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place [catharsis],

[6e Plot as soul of tragedy]

the impression we should receive from hearing the story of Oedipus.

we must not demand of tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it.

[14b] Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us as terrible or pitiful. [catharsis; compare sublime]

14c when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another—if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done—these are the situations to be looked for by the poet.



more on tragic flaw

relate to detective, problem-solver; cf. Odysseus

402 You blame my temper,
but do not see the one which lives within you.     
[the one = Oedipus’s temper; tragic flaw?]


How is Oedipus like a detective story?

How is Oedipus unlike a detective story?

How is a detective story (or any other narrative) like a ritual?

What kind of "ritual" or "ceremony" is going on in Oedipus?



How is Oedipus like a detective story?

gathering of information and evidence to support or refute charges, puzzle being put together

false clues, misleading evidence

Oedipus as detective, questions witnesses

Narrative: something happened in the past, now being recreated


137-8 a person
who might provide some knowledge men could use?      [i.e., a witness? (detective theme)]

144 We might get somewhere if we had one fact—      [detective theme


How unlike a detective story?

detective convicts himself

435 you yourself
are the very man you’re looking for.          [detective theme + irony]

with Oedipus story, audience pre-knows ending


How is a detective story (or any other narrative) like a ritual?

relate detective theme to learning theme; narrative as critical thinking and problem solving

restoration of order < narrative + conflict / resolution


 249 "You pray, but if you listen to me now"

treat your own disease

281 he is our pollution

God or man? 37 Oedipus "the first of men"; 355 Tiresias our god-like prophet

56 the city celebrates you as its savior.

conspiracy theory 413 & earlier, + 455, 463, 481

conspiracy as downside of problem-solving, questions-answers [tragic flaw]

Oedipal conflict: 554-5;

952 [oracle] my fate to definle my mother's bed . . . murder the father


dramatic pause: 673 (recognition scene managed > suspense?)


Oedipus notes

opens with question; cf. Hamlet: Who's there?

12 You can be confident that I will help.     [Oedipus as problem-solver; cf. detective]]

37-8 We judge you / the first of men

50 or learning from some other human being.          [learning theme]

56 the city celebrates you as its savior.

59 Restore our city [detective theme]

80 I followed up the one thing I could find  [followed up, find = path metaphor > detective metaphor] 

102 CREON: Good news. I tell you even troubles        ["Good news." = dramatic irony]

117-18 CREON:   By banishment— 
or atone for murder by shedding blood again.      [Lines 117-18 preview conclusion]

137-8 a person
who might provide some knowledge men could use?      [i.e., a witness? (detective theme)]

144 We might get somewhere if we had one fact—      [detective theme]

160 shed light on darkness.       [light / darkness metaphor; learning theme]   

213 Our city dies—we’ve lost count of all the dead.

245 Dionysus (then Oedipus appears--god > hero)

308 fate swooped down onto his head

308-10 I / will fight on his behalf, as if this matter / concerned my father    [dramatic irony] 

343 rumors—but inconclusive ones       [ rumors = potential clues for detective]
from a long time ago.

355 our god-like prophet

363 an answer to our question: the only cure
for this infecting pestilence is to find                                                     
[detective / disease themes]

395 Do you intend
to betray me and destroy the city?              [Oedipus turns suspicious easily; flip-side of detection]

402 You blame my temper,
but do not see the one which lives within you.     
[the one = Oedipus’s temper; tragic flaw?]

421 For the accursed polluter of this land is you.                   [pollution metaphor + dramatic irony]

435 you yourself
are the very man you’re looking for.          [detective theme + irony]

439-41 with your dearest family,
unknown to you, you are living in disgrace. 
You have no idea how bad things are.

462 Creon, my old trusted family friend,
has secretly conspired to overthrow me                       [conspiracy theory]
and paid off a double-dealing quack like this,               
[quack = trickster, charlatan]
a crafty bogus priest, who can only see
his own advantage

499 Do you know the family you come from?        [ironic reversal: witness interrogates detective]

535 TIRESIAS: That quality of yours now ruins you.                     [tragic flaw]

663 OEDIPUS: And if you think you can act to injure
a man who is a relative of yours                           [dramatic irony]

673 dramatic pause: (recognition scene managed > suspense?)

703 think this through, as I do.    [learning / understanding motif]

737-8 It's not fair to judge these things by guesswork,
to assume bad men are good or good men bad. 

756 cf. Agamemnon, Pentheus--inability to change > harden to inflexibility, unreceptive

Jocasta as wife + mom

770 JOCASTA: You foolish men, why are you arguing                                       770
in such a silly way? . . . You, Oedipus, go in the house, and you,
Creon, return to yours. Why blow up
a trivial matter into something huge?
[Where the men equated their personal status with the city-state, Jocasta differs by reducing the argument to a personal or “trivial matter.”]

789 pay Creon due respect

800 Oed to extremes

815-18 when you lose your temper, you go too far. [tragic flaw / Aristotle’s hamartia (error) / hubris (excess, pride)]

841 such unremitting rage

844 It’s Creon’s fault. He conspired against me.

874 OEDIPUS: Lady, as I listen to these words of yours,
my soul is shaken, my mind confused . . . [recognition scene]

894 In shape he was not all that unlike you. [cf. Homecoming / Mourning Becomes Electra]

952 [oracle] my fate to defile my mother's bed . . . murder the father




Bacchae Presentation Four (lines 540-814):

preview BT on Euripides, Aristotle on Euripides


Part 1: Dionysus on stage, from Asia, just starting to move through Greece

Cadmus is judged honorable, Semele's shrine is maintained, but other family troubles: sisters' disrespect for Semele and Dionysus

drives aunts from homes

part 1 ends on transformation theme


Part 2. Other women (chorus): followers, devotees from Asia (Nietzsche concentrates on male followers as satyrs > chorus)

women insist on holiness, not debauchery (cf. Nietzsche on satyr)

l. 147 confusion of Dionysus's identity

215 Tiresias as comic figure (incongruity)

240 young and try the dancing [cf. chorus of old men in Lysistrata]

253 respect traditions of ancestors

Pentheus enters, disrespects Bacchic women and older men incl. grandfather

l. 297 Pentheus threatens to capture Dionysus


Bacchae Part 3.

378 Tiresias:

This god's a prophet, too, for in his rites—
the Bacchic celebrations and the madness—
a huge prophetic power is unleashed.
When the god fully enters human bodies,                                                 380
he makes those possessed by frenzy prophets.

402 any woman
whose character is chaste won't be defiled
by Bacchic revelry.

421 You should live among us,
not outside traditions.

424 if, as you claim, this man is not a god,
why not call him one? Why not tell a lie,
a really good one?

436 PENTHEUS: Keep your hands off me! Be off with you—

441 go quickly to where this man,
Tiresias, has that seat of his, the place
where he inspects his birds. Take some levers,
knock it down. Demolish it completely

450 a new disease

468 I'm not saying this as a prophecy,
but on the basis of what's going on.

500 Our life is brief—that's why    
the man who chases greatness
fails to grasp what's near at hand.   [tragic flaw?]

528 The god gives his wine equally,
sharing with rich and poor alike.
It takes away all sorrow.

537 So I take this as my rule—
follow what common people think—
do what most men do.


earthiness of Euripides

what Nietzsche calls "naturalism" (& scorns Euripides for--that is, Euripides fails to transcend the everyday logic of mortal human life)




Part 4.

Euripides "most modern" of Greek tragedians, confusion of plots and characterization anticipates confusions of modern existence

Bacchae teems with confusions over identities, values, appropriate behaviors

Are the Bacchantes / Maenads (devotees) religious and holy or drunken and debauched?

Are Tiresias and Cadmus foolish old men or wise prophets and mentors? (they're dressed funny but warn Pentheus to be careful with Dionysus)

[concluding action stems from confusion over Pentheus's identity]


ambiguity of Dionysus's identity--god or mortal?

on stage or on Olympus?

offstage, Pentheus reportedly mistakes a bull for Dionysus

phantom image of Bacchus attacked by Pentheus

called by many names: Dionysus, Bacchus, Bromius, Silenus, Dithyrambus

cf. Nietzsche, ch. 8: Satyr as highest devotion (not sentimental or debauched)


Bacchus / Dionysus often represented as sexually ambiguous

Pentheus also sexually ambiguous


Question(s) for discussion at end:

What positive or negative dramatic effect do all these ambiguities have on an audience today? (or whenever)

What kind of climax may these ambiguities build toward?



542 The beast you see here                  [beast = Dionysus]
was tame with us. He didn't try to run.
No, he surrendered willingly enough,
without turning pale or changing colour
on those wine dark cheeks. He even laughed at us,
inviting us to tie him up and lead him off.
He stood still, making it easier for me
to take him in.

552 something else—
those Bacchic women you locked up, the ones
you took in chains into the public prison—
they've all escaped.

560 amazing tricks.

563 Well, stranger, I see this body of yours
is not unsuitable for women's pleasure—                             

567 your hair . . . flows across your cheeks  That's most seductive.

576 PENTHEUS: Why do you bring these rituals to Greece?

DIONYSUS: Dionysus sent me—the son of Zeus.  [play cultivates confusion over whether D is mortal present on stage or a faraway god]

584 PENTHEUS: Tell me what they're like,
those rituals of yours.

DIONYSUS: That information
cannot be passed on to men like you,
those uninitiated in the rites of Bacchus.

601 barbarians

609 PENTHEUS: You must be punished for these evil games.

DIONYSUS: You, too—for foolishness, impiety                                      610
towards the god.

625 DIONYSUS: He sees my suffering now—and from nearby. [compare Nietzsche on "suffering of the god" in Birth of Tragedy]

628 He's insulting Thebes and me.       [tragic error in which tragic hero projects own flaw on others]

636 Lock him up—in the adjoining stables. . . . As for all those women, 
those partners in crime you brought along with you,
we'll sell them off or keep them here as slaves,

647 He's the one
you put in chains when you treat me unjustly.

716 DIONYSUS: [shouting from within the palace]
Io! Hear me, hear me as I call you.
Io! Bacchae! Io Bacchae!

741 [Enter Dionysus, bursting through the palace front doors, free of all chains, smiling and supremely confident.]

767 After a while, Bacchus came and shook the place,    [again a confusion of identity b/w speaker & god]