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May-June 2010

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic. Inspired by the Ten Essential Penguin Classics video, Christopher Syrnyk sought out Robert Fagles' translation of Oedipus the King in the Penguin Classics edition of Sophocles' Three Theban Plays as the second text in his Introduction to Literature course.

We bridged genres, from epic poetry to dramatic tragedy, by noting that if The Odyssey represents a lengthy fatalistic voyage that would comprise the very definition of improbability, then Oedipus the King surely stands, in its perfect brevity, as the preeminent, fatalistic ménage a trois we hope would never become a possibility.

The class and I marveled at how well Fagles' translation of Sophocles' play preserved the symbols and themes of eyes, of sight and insight, ideas of vision-earthly and prophetic-and the attendant themes of darkness and light. All the while, Fagles' rendition pulls his readers in the undertow of the stirring plot line that draws us away from the safer shores of the characters' perceived knowledge, to the unfamiliar, open waters of a wholly terrible and (un)desired knowledge. As we reflected on the lessons of Oedipus, we focused on the human capacity to take control of our destinies. Thanks to the informative and thoughtful Introduction by Bernard Knox, we were able to address Protagoras' lesson that humans stand as "the measure of all things." I reminded students, however, that we humans, taking a cue from John Berryman, also possess an unlimited capacity to become "a huddle of need." Oedipus the King remains relevant because it embraces the many guises of human need, and the human penchant to live life on a profoundly, and at times damnable, need-to-know basis, sometimes, at any costs.

Regarding this second "required" text from the Ten Essential Penguin Classics, the students unanimously agreed that Oedipus the King remains a timeless and timely play. We reached this unanimous point through a lively set of group discussions of whether Oedipus was truly a good king, and whether he deserved our sympathy. Many empathized with Oedipus, seeing his life for its fated tragic proportions, ultimately regarding him, in the words of Billy Joel, as antiquity's prime "victim of circumstance." Others felt he willed along his own destruction, in a very un-kingly manner. Regardless, we arrived at an appreciation for Sophocles' problematic depiction of whether one can ever hope to successfully navigate between free will and fate.

For "inspired" texts, we viewed Scene 16, Act 2, "Trivium, Trivium," from the Stravinsky opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex(1993), based on the poem after Sophocles by Jean Cocteau (conducted by Seiji Ozawa). I wanted the class to view a production that was larger-than-life, and in a modern idiom, arguing that this rendition would approximate how the 5th-century Greeks might have experienced the magnitude of the chorus, and the presumably sizable Greek costumes. We also briefly discussed the idea of the oracle in antiquity, especially in light of William J. Broad's recent work, The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind Its Lost Secrets. Lastly, we also listened to American humorist Tom Lehrer's song "Oedipus Rex" (1959), and it was rewarding to see the smiles blooming on the students' faces I felt we bonded as a class over Oedipus the King, so to speak.

Christopher Syrnyk
Instructor of English, Liberal Arts Transfer Program
Madison Area Technical College
Course: Introduction to Literature