Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is, in short, the story of a man who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. It certainly sounds like a tragedy, doesn’t it? But the classification and definition of ‘tragedy’ are one of the many things widely disputed in the realm of literary studies. So, for the purposes here we’ll use Aristotle’s five criteria of a tragedy: a tragic hero of noble birth, a tragic flaw or mistake, a fall from grace, a moment of remorse, and catharsis. By any standard, Oedipus Rex clearly meets these five criteria. In The Poetics, Aristotle uses Oedipus to illustrate the ideal tragedy.
Aristotle writes Oedipus is a model tragic hero because he is a man of high standing, but not perfect (he is guilty of excessive pride and self righteousness), and makes mistakes (‘hamartia’) that lead to his own downfall. In other words, Oedipus is a man with heroic qualities socially (King of Thebes), intellectually (he is the great solver of riddles), and morally (he is determined to find the murderer and end the plague on his people), who commits an error of judgment because of his flaws and who then must suffer the consequences of his actions in the result of a catastrophic end.
Further, he must learn a lesson from his mistakes and become an example to the audience of what happens when one falls from greatness due to a particular flaw. Oedipus is the epitome of a tragic hero because he possesses characteristics that would ultimately follow that of a hero. His nobility is the most important when determining his title of tragic hero. He was born son of Polybus, king of Corinth. But because of the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he was left for dead.
Eventually, he becomes king of Thebes because of his intellect. Either way, he could not escape being noble. The other act that set Oedipus as the tragic hero is his heroic efforts to free Thebes from the Sphinx; “You saved us from the Sphinx, that flinty singer. ” Further, he sets himself up as a hero by vowing to find the murderer of Laius (not knowing it was himself). ‘Hamartia’ is a tragic flaw, or literally in Greek a ‘mistake’, which accompanies the tragic hero but does not lead to the hero’s death.
Oedipus’ tragic flaw was his pride, self-righteousness, and perhaps even his temper. He displays his temper when he kills Laios and all the travelers with him; “Swinging my club with this right hand I knocked him out of his car, and he rolled on the ground. I killed him. I killed them all. ” His temper is also displayed when Teiresias reveals his fate and the answer to the question that he has posed to all of Thebes. “…Damnation Take you! Out of this place! Out of my sight! Both of these examples can no doubt be classified under his pride as well, and perhaps even more pointedly because it is his pride that causes his temper; and, it is specifically his pride that ironically leads to his fulfilling the prophecy. His self righteousness is displayed most clearly by his desire to be a hero by vowing to find Lauis’ murderer, as mentioned above. In another stroke of irony, it is this self-righteous desire that leads to the awful realization of the prophecy’s fulfillment.
The third criteria Aristotle uses is ‘Peripateia. ’ Peripateia is the complete reversal of plot in relation to the tragic hero; or, in other words, a fall from grace. Oedipus starts out as the king of Thebes. In relation to peripateia, the only way that Oedipus can have a complete reversal is for him to go down hill in a sense and for him to fall from his throne, which happens when Oedipus discovers the prophecies told to him at the Oracle had come true. “Ah God! It was true! All the prophecies! Now, O Light, may I look on you for the last time! I, Oedipus, Oedipus damned in his birth, in his marriage damned, Damned in the blood he shed with his own hand! ” Further, we see here his moment of remorse, which results in blinding himself. With yet another stroke of irony, he has literally become blinded, though he has in a sense been blind all along. In the end, Oedipus comes to realize all the wrong he has done. This is the lesson that the play provides the reader with, otherwise known as the catharsis. T he lesson being, never lose your temper and to always think things out before making accusations.
Another lesson that can be extracted from this play is to know one’s self. In this story, the character’s egotism and self-centrism has caused him a different fate, drawing attention of the audiences on the issues that the human behaviors directly affect the human emotions as Oedipus blinded his eyes by himself after finding out the truth. Here the hunger for the truth overshadowed by his grandiosity as explained by Miller has made Oedipus to find out what he hadn’t expected. He was just willing to help somebody but as it was overcame from his confidence and roud, the story is able to manipulate the audience’s feeling and make feel sorry for the character even though it is already known to the audiences that Oedipus was wrong, as seen from his confident and proud actions. Conclusion Author of Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller writes the modern tragedy must be indicative of real life. The tragic hero should be an everyman. For Miller, it does not matter as much that the hero is a king or of noble blood, but instead that the character is someone who is ready to give everything up for his or her dignity.
The subject of a tragedy must be someone we can all relate to in a situation that could just as easily happen to us. Ironically, Oedipus contributes to his own destruction. He does everything he can to avoid the misery of his unenviable fate of killing his father and marrying his mother. But it is precisely his evasive actions of running away, killing a stranger out of pride and temper, marrying another stranger old enough to be his mother, and vowing out of self-righteousness to find a killer that turns out to be him, that lead to his downfall and humiliation.
It is for this reason that Oedipus Rex is most certainly a tragedy. While no doubt it’s highly unlikely any of us will unknowingly (or knowingly, for that matter) kill our father and marry our mother, succumbing to pride and self-righteousness that leads to our downfall can happen to anyone. The word ‘catharsis’ means purgation, or a cleansing or purification of someone. The point of Oedipus’ story isn’t to warn its readers and viewers against killing their father and marrying their mother, but to warn them to be more self-aware and to shun their pride and self-righteousness because it can lead to their downfall.