Oedipus fulfills the three parameters that define the tragic hero. His dynamic and multifaceted character emotionally bonds the audience; his tragic flaw forces the audience to fear for him, without losing any respect; and his horrific punishment elicits a great sense of pity from the audience.
Oedipus as a Tragic Hero in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
Oedipus as a Tragic Hero
A tragic hero is the principal character of a tragedy that enjoys all the trappings of power, fame and wit but through a major flaw of character fatally errs. The realization and will to concede also known as catharsis is what marks their position as a tragic hero. Oedipus is wise, of blue blood, is lovable but arrogant and he fatally errors in order to complete his picture as a tragic hero.
This study of Oedipus King explores the qualities of the drama that bring out the development of character, fate, timing, tragedy and how this all spirals to make a tragic hero. Sophocles work reflects major influences like fate, time or coincidence and character flaws to bring out what exactly a tragic hero is and he uses a variety of other literary devices among which are dramatic irony, using the chorus, suspense, fate, timing and others. Sophocles is one of the dramatists that has been greatly celebrated. His claim to fame was with his drama Oedipus King.
Aristotle established his view of what makes a tragic hero as one that must evoke a sense of pity or fear in the audience. Aristotle contests that “The tragic hero has to be a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” Furthermore, another interesting way to think about a tragic hero in Sophocles is by using an adjective Sophocles applies to all of them: “deinos” meaning both wonderful and terrible.
A tragic hero is a great or virtuous character, of high social standing who eventually meets his downfall with suffering or defeat and he realizes his error only too late.
According to Aristotle’s Poetics, the ideal tragic hero is a man whose good and bad character are mixed, but with the good predominating. Oedipus is certainly that! He is a concerned, caring king whose people love and trust him, but he has a quick, impulsive temper and fails to think in some critical situations. As a result, he commits unforgivable errors that bring him down and drags some innocent people down with him.
Oedipus is largely a victim of fate and timing for he is born in Thebes and Oedipus’ gruesome prophecy is told upon Laius’ house. Laius and Jocasta attempt to thwart the prophecy by killing Oedipus but Oedipus is born at a time when the King and Queen Polybus of Corinth are childless so they adopt Oedipus. All attempts to kill the prophecy actually bring it to completion. It is also ironic that The King and Queen Polybus think Oedipus is royal because of them but he is truly royal.
Oedipus does so many right things and few wrong things that are gruesome. A sense of hubris is seen when Oedipus is vain enough to run away from the gods who hold power about what one can be. He tries to unwind the will of the gods for dares the gods. But again we appreciate Oedipus’ caring nature that makes him meet whatever extent to do right. Oedipus didn’t want to hurt his parents so he actually ran away from them. Little did he know that he was actually fulfilling his fate in the course of leaving Corinth for Thebes.
Oedipus is rush and arrogant in such a way that he kills Laius along the way because the old man and his entourage effuse to give him way. In spite of the fact that he is warned, he breaks Laius’ neck. Fate is also a major aspect to consider for it happens to be Laius that he kills Laius as was prophesied. This action is against any form of counsel for a man only recently cautioned him about killing his father.
Fate and timing are interconnected in such a way that Oedipus arrives in Thebes when his wisdom is required. He meets the people of Thebes in a time of great despair as they are killed for not knowing the riddle of the Sphinx. What were the odds that Oedipus was wise enough to know the riddle of the Sphinx? How come he was just in time to save the people of Thebes? On being a savior, he is accelerated to the position of kingship and he is gifted with a queen or widow, Jocasta. The speed with which Oedipus becomes a King is wild and his wisdom is admired by many.
Oedipus is obstinate when he suspects connivance between Creon and Tiresias when he is trying to find out the source of the plague. Oedipus is determined to seek the truth even of it means neglecting the elders like Tiresias who can see the past, present like the chorus and future. It is ironic that Tiresias sees but the King who sees cannot. Tiresias goes on to say, “Pride breeds the tyrant.” The playwright uses the irony of the blind that seem to achieve the grave portrayal of the tragic hero.
Oedipus, as hasty as he is, loves pleasing the public and is beyond excitement which makes him pass a judgment on the murderer of Laius, that is, to be banished from Thebes. He is an outright dictator for he doesn’t ask the functions of the state to counsel him. Satire is employed for he passes a judgment on himself in the end and runs into problems. Oedipus sees Thebes as his responsibility in all ways so can one blame him for feeling the remorse he felt? Oedipus says, “My spirit grieves for the city, for myself and all of you.” On the other hand, he is strong-willed for he sets his verdict and actually meets it.
Oedipus is vain and shallow minded and he portrays hamartia in that he doesn’t caution if Jocasta could be his mother. A man recently warned about marrying his mother would think twice about marrying an older woman, yet the allure of a Queen. Power and beauty bring Oedipus bring Oedipus straight to the fangs of fate. To make the situation of poorer quality than it already is, Oedipus tells Jocasta his upbringing after he is married for 4 years and having 4 children using the style of flashback.
No sooner does Oedipus tell Jocasta his background than he realizes the ugly truth of his existence. This is peripetia. If banishment was Oedipus’ only punishment, the play might have been a bit simpler but Oedipus in a fit of rage, stabs out his own eyes. This was Oedipus’ way of punishing himself as well as an escape from the gazes by his subjects, his brother or uncle and his children. Oedipus is plunged into darkness as a means of punishment for the physical pain seems to prove that. He pays for being blinded by his foolish pride and power. This is catharsis, an emotional cleansing, a point of realization after all wrong is done and a call for pity. The chorus feels sorry for this man who has unknowingly killed his father and married his mother for the people of this land that he saves from a curse and brings them a curse. The chorus also pities Jocasta who is an innocent bystander in the whole confusing disaster.
Therefore judging from Oedipus’ self-assessment which ends in a lifetime of misery, shame and exile for the major character is clearly a tragedy. Where fate had left a fracture on the fabrics of life, character has completed its decimation. Tragedy is what Jean Racine says in one of her quotes;
“A tragedy need not have blood and death; it’s enough that it all be filled with that majestic sadness that is the pleasure of tragedy.”
Oedipus is a Tragic Hero
For hundreds of years Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King has been popular and dissected by many. Oedipus journey through the story to his dark fate has made this play one of the more popular plays among Greek mythologies. Many themes are brought up in the play, we see tragic flaws, the concept of inescapable fate and free will throughout the story. Due to the journey we see Oedipus take, he fits the mold of a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle. Aristotle as well as numerous philosophers have studied Oedipus and come to the same conclusion. Oedipus is a story which has maintained relevance over many years and finds a way to resonate and impact readers and audiences through generations.
Most famously Oedipus is a tragic hero known for killing his father and marrying his mother. Commonly described as a victim of fate, after finding out about his incest, he performed self-mutilation as punishment and tore his own eyes out. Oedipus both lacks discretion and acts decisively throughout the story which in part helps him in solving the riddle of the Sphinx, and ridding corruption, but also leads him down the road to his tragic occurrences. This coupled with his inability to heed advice is a pivotal reason as to what ultimately leads Oedipus to his well-known tragedies.
Sophocles presents Oedipus as an ideal tragic hero as defined by Aristotle. Peter Struck tells us for Aristotle’s theory on tragic heroes to work the hero “”must be a complex and well-constructed character (2009). In addition, according to Aristotle, there are three critical elements that go into determining if a character is indeed a tragic hero. First, the audience must develop an emotional attachment to the hero. Secondly, the audience must be wary of what could possibly happen to the hero. Finally, after the character faces adversity and misfortune takes place, the audience recognizes the suffering of the character and pities them. “”As a tragic hero, Oedipus elicits the three needed responses from the audience far better than most; indeed, Aristotle and subsequent critics have labeled Oedipus the ideal tragic hero (Struck, 2009).
The first key to Oedipus being a tragic hero is the fact that he is noble and virtuous. As the audience must respect the character, his nobility provides that first aspect in being someone the audience would look up to with reverence and respect, someone who is a “”larger and better version of themselves. (Struck, 2009). Oedipus fits into this aspect of being a tragic hero well, being the son of the king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta as someone in the Greek audience would have known. Oedipus claims go even further as being a noble, as he believes he is the actual son of Polybus and Merope, the Queen and King of Corinth (Struck, 2009). His nobility as well as his fortitude in solving the riddle of the Sphinx works to bring the audience in and derive both respect and emotional attachment to him. At its base Oedipus’ tragic flaw revolves around his idea of his own identity, in that it is incorrect. There is nothing Oedipus could do to change this as it is completely out of his control or ability to understand, essentially this flaw is not something you can blame on Oedipus. Due to this flaw being out of the characters control, the audience inherently fears for Oedipus’ fate because there is little to nothing that can be done on the characters part to change the outcome.
According to Aristotle, after the character has elicited an emotional response and attachment from the audience, coupled with respect, the audience must fear for the characters downfall. Oedipus fits this mold well. Aristotle defines a tragic flaw as something that “”indicates that a truly tragic character must have a failing that is neither idiosyncratic nor arbitrary but is somehow more deeply imbedded — a kind of human failing and human weakness (Struck, 2009). While his pride had helped lead to his eventual downfall, fate played the most crucial role in the events unfolding as they did. This sense of unavoidable fate works to simultaneously make the audience fear for the character while not making the audience lose any of the respect they have gained for the character.
Charles Reeves tells us as it relates to the Aristotelian role of a tragic hero is one “”whose misfortune, however, brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity; e.g. Oedipus (1952). This concept of a tragic hero is met with Oedipus’ strength of being a decisive leader, while in contrast he is unable to listen to advice and act with discretion and is ignorant, through no fault of his own to his true identity. Marjorie Barstow goes deeper into what kind of a man Oedipus is and tells us “”when we analyze the character of Oedipus, we discover that, in spite of much natural greatness of soul, he is, in one vital respect, the exact antithesis of Aristotle’s ideal man. He has no clear vision which enables him to examine every side of a matter with unclouded eyes and see all things in due perspective (1912, p.3). One thing that helped lead us to the notion that Oedipus is a tragic hero is that his downfall is preceded with him becoming the king after saving the population of Thebes. Following this he finds that he has really married his mother and killed his own father. This drastic change or switch in fortune coupled with our respect for the Oedipus and fear of his downfall leads us the last aspect of being a tragic hero according to Aristotle.
The respect as well as the fear of disaster the audience feels for Oedipus leads to a true and great sense of pity for the character following his downfall. Oedipus actions following his tragedy help cement this sense of pity. “”First, by blinding himself, as opposed to committing suicide, Oedipus achieves a kind of surrogate death that intensifies his suffering (Struck, 2009). After doing this he basically receives none of the benefits of those who are alive, while not technically being dead. In a sense this is a fate worse than death which resonates with the audience and furthers their pity of him. Sophocles goes one step further in that he ends Oedipus the King with Oedipus suffering, while this suffering lets the audience know that the suffering will have no end, there is a simultaneous feeling of closure. “”This odd amalgam of continued suffering and closure make the audience feel as if Oedipus’ suffering is his proper and natural state. Clearly, Oedipus’ unique downfall demands greater pity form the audience (Strock, 2009).
Aristotle’s own words seem to further this notion when said “”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 (Barstow, 1912). While Oedipus was a work of fiction it draws certain parallels to the story of Joseph in the Bible. They are similar in that Joseph also received prophecies. In an attempt to prevent the prophecy, his brothers left Joseph for death in a pit. Josephs brothers doing this actually end up leading to the fulfillment of the prophesy, that Joseph would rule over his brothers and become king of Egypt. “”Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God? Then pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. (Genisis 41: 38-40, ESV). While there are clearly great differences in the story of Joseph and the fiction of Oedipus, there are certain parallels that are worth looking into.
Oedipus meets or exceeds all of the parameters of what it means to be a tragic hero within Aristotle’s definition. He is character with a lot of depth who and is successful in bonding with the audience. This bonding with the audience as well as the respect the audience has for his position helps lead to a genuine fear of what could become of him and importantly this fear does not come at the cost of any respect for Oedipus. The final aspect of being a true Aristotelian tragic hero, is a profound sense of pity for the character. This is where Oedipus is almost in a characterization of his own. The pity elicited from the audience comes in waves, first as he realizes he killed his father and married his mother, then as what was just gained is now lost. This is followed by the cutting out of his own eyes, and the state of perpetual misery that takes place and does not finalize as it continues through the plays end and leaves the audience feeling that the end of the story is the never-ending suffering of Oedipus. Using Aristotle’s own words, he not just a tragic hero because of this but was given the title as “”the ideal tragic hero.
Johnson, Greg, & Thomas R. Arp, editors. Perrine’s Literature: Liberty University English 102 Custom E-book, edited by G. Johnson and Thomas R. Arp, Cengage, 2018.
Zachrisson, A. (2013). Oedipus the king: Quest for self knowledge denial of reality. Sophocles’ vision of man and psychoanalytic concept formation. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1745-8315.2012.00655.x?journalCode=ripa20
Reeves, C. (1952). The Aristotelian Concept of the Tragic Hero. The John Hopkins University Press. DOI: 10.2307/291812. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/291812?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Knox, B. (1985). Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Tragic Hero and His Time. Yale University Press. Retrieved from https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/stable/j.ctt5hk119.10?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=oedipus&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3Ffilter%3D%26amp%3BQuery%3Doedipus&refreqid=search%3Ac826d899ec85fcef99de98732627908c&seq=1#meadata_info_tab_contents
Barstow, M. (1912). Oedipus rex as the ideal tragic hero of Aristotle.The Classical Weekly, Vol.6, 2-4. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/1296269109?accountid=12085
Struck, P. (2009). Oedipus as the Ideal Tragic Hero. Retrieved from http://www.classics.upenn.edu/myth/php/tragedy/index.php?page=oedhero
The Holy Bible. 2011. English Standard Version.
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