Oedipus is a Tragic Hero in the Play Oedipus, the King by Sophocles

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Oedipus is a tragic hero in the play Oedipus, the King by Sophocles. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is a literary character who makes a judgment error that inevitably leads to his/her destruction. Aristotle first defines what a tragedy is and what it represents; secondly, how a tragedy communicates to the audience; thirdly, the methods used to convey the tragedy; and lastly the means of fulfilling its purpose. He continues to imply that a tragedy is an imitation of an action, which means it is serious and complete, with incidents arousing pity and fear with which it affects a release of emotions. Through analyzing Aristotle definition of a tragic hero, this paper will show that Oedipus Rex is a tragic hero; and how the decisions he made led to his downfall.

Sophocles’ Oedipus shows a different definition of a tragic hero from Aristotle’s definition. Sophocles shows how Oedipus exemplifies a tragic hero in his play, Oedipus shows all of the characteristics of an anagnorisis, with hamartia (flaw or error in judgment). The play introduces the audience to the hamartia “a criminal act committed in ignorance of some material fact or even for the sake of a greater good” (Johnson, Greg, and Thomas, 2018 p. 1251) of Oedipus, the king in the first scene. Sophocles tells the story of a perfect tragedy through employing a complex plot that imitates actions, which promotes fear and pity from the audience. Sophocles did not dwell on the doctrine of Oedipus’s fate and destiny; instead, he aimed to present a mans life and his decisions that led him to become a tragic hero.

Oedipus was born into a royal family, Oedipus was also the bearer of an unfortunate generational destiny. “In spite of the Delphic Oracle of Apollo, Laius and Jocasta bigoted him. After the birth of Oedipus, Laius ordered his servant, a shepherd to abandon Oedipus in a wooded hollow of the mount Cithaeron” (Akhter, Muhammad, & Naz, 2015). Oedipus had no idea what his future held, or what he would become. Although Oedipus is said to have been a victim of fate, the decisions he made contributed to his fate of destruction. Oedipus was born into the world with a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother and would bare children with her, but that was just a prophecy, not his destiny. Oedipus could have determined a new destiny for himself, but instead, he did everything to make the prophecy come true unknowingly. The life and story of King Oedipus was a tragedy, not only for him but for his family as well. Although the gods may have set a prophecy for Oedipus’s future, Oedipus contributed mostly to his destruction.

The play’s protagonist Oedipus is perceived as a good man, brave, and an intelligent ruler who acts quickly to defend and support the people of Thebes - a city which is haunted by a terrible plague. In the background notes of the play describes Oedipus saving the city of Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx, his reward for solving the riddle was to become king and marry the queen. Oedipus’s encounter with the Sphinx and solving the riddle is mentioned multiple times throughout the play as a reminder of his bravery and his ability to solve problems. The priest in lines 36-39 suggests the people of Thebes admiration for King Oedipus “Yet we have come to you to make our prayer as to the man surest in mortal ways and wisest in the ways of God. You saved us From the Sphinx, that flinty singer, and the tribute” (Sophocles, 2016 p. 1260). To the people of Thebes Oedipus was a hero and knew he could help defeat this plague just like he did with the Sphinx.

Although, Oedipus was a hero to the city of Thebes and happy he eventually had four children with his new wife, Jocasta/mother. Unknowing about the troubles that will soon follow. “Old men, young men, children have come as suppliants to the King, seeking deliverance from this great evil” (Barstow, 1912 p. 3). After learning about his city cursed with another plague and other misfortunes, he decides to send Kreon his brother in law to Apollos oracle to find out how he can help his people. Kreon returns with the information that Oedipus needs to rid Thebes of its curse; he must find and hold the people accountable for the murder of King Laius. Oedipus becomes determined to find out who the murderer is and restore peace to the city when he sends for Tiresias, the blind seer, who then names Oedipus, the murderer of King Laius. In a fit of rage, Oedipus disregards Tiresias statement but eventually realizes that he is the man behind the murder of King Laius.

Oedipus is disappointed that the prophecy that he had been running from all this time had come true, he incidentally killed his father and more than one can bear he married his mother. Additionally, Jocasta hangs herself soon after the truth has come out and Oedipus is demoralized and cannot take the fact that he had been the killer of King Laius and then married his mother. He then gouges out his eyes and asks to be killed for his crimes; instead, Oedipus decided to leave Thebes, and his daughter led him. “The perfect plot, accordingly, must have a single, and not a double issue; the change in the hero’s fortunes must be not from misery to happiness, but on the contrary from happiness to misery; and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part” (Reeves, 1952 p. 173). Through the decisions, Oedipus made from when he decided to leave home and run from the prophecy bestowed upon him, Oedipus realizes these choices are what caused his fall from fortune.

Oedipus is a tragic hero who falls from a high position as the King of Thebes to a blind outsider, after realizing his destiny through his actions and descends from a high position this prompts the reader's pity and fear. “Oedipus' pity reflects a largely empathetic understanding of pity displayed through gestures of identification in which he envisions himself to be a father and the people understand him as a savior” (Danze, 2016). The Oedipus Rex play is a tragedy that fits all the descriptions of the tragic hero. “Empathy denotes the viewer's ability to step into a character's life, to infer beliefs, motivations, and intentions from the character's actions, and to experience similar feelings and bodily sensations” (MacDorman, 2019). Because of hamartia a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero, Oedipus suffers peripeteia, which is the core of a tragedy.

The destiny/fate of Oedipus provoked the horror and sorrow in the audience through witnessing the tragic events unfolding. Oedipus has the fundamental nature of a good person, but he gets bound by his foolishness while failing to look forward and realize that the repercussions of his actions. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must be a lawful person but is flawed, and his fall results in him committing an act of injustice. At the beginning of the play, Oedipus has put forth punishment for the murders of Laius unknowing he is, in fact, the killer. Blinded by his past to the degree that he demands a harsher punishment for the murderers of King Laius, and what rests in him is the crudeness of other people. Oedipus is mindless and misguided and meets his tragic fate due to the fearfulness of something that may happen and his way of thinking because he cannot see the validity of the situation, but can only see a portion of it.

The destiny of Oedipus changes from favorable to disastrous because of the rage that caused the accidental murder of his biological father and the incest between him and his mother. “This act is, nevertheless, a criminal one, and the good hero is still responsible for it, even if he is totally unaware of its criminality and is acting out of the best intentions” (Johnson, Greg, and Thomas, 2018 p. 1252). Oedipus participated in abnormal sexual behavior with his biological mother, but their sexual encounter was not planned through feelings for one another, but they were both innocent to that fact they did not know they were mother and son. Oedipus was a man who was driven through his high moral standards and his moral core values that got him caught up in a series of unfortunate events. Given the circumstances highlighted by Sophocles that eventually prompted the tragedy that came to pass on Oedipus defines him to be a tragic hero.

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Oedipus Is a Tragic Hero in the Play Oedipus, the King by Sophocles. (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved May 19, 2024 , from

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