Oedipus Rex as the Ideal Tragic Hero

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Oedipus Rex is a famous tragic hero known for his tragic downfall caused by his flaws (Barstow 2). Oedipus Rex, a play written by Sophocles, portrays a hero born of noble birth whose choices lead him to his downfall. Oedipus, King of Thebes, discovers his true identity and realizes that he has fulfilled the prophecy of marrying his mother and killing his father (Knox 6). He gouges his eyes out after realizing that his flaws have caused him to fulfill the prophecy because he does not want to “see either the evils he had suffered or the evils he had done” (Sophocles 1282 – 1285). A tragic hero is a well-liked, noble character that fails to achieve happiness and has a tragic downfall caused by his flaws that create a sense of fear and pity from the audience. In the play Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles, Oedipus is the ideal tragic hero because of his character flaws that lead him to his tragic downfall, making it impossible for him to end up in a perfect virtue of happiness, evoking fear and pity from the audience.

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In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’s character flaws of pride and hubris lead him to actions and life events that guide him to his inevitable downfall. A tragic hero, like Oedipus, uses their actions to show that even the “best and most intelligent action” can lead to their downfall through their flaws, not because of chance or fate “but because of some error or misdirection in the action itself, a deflection that brings a reversal of the very intentions that propelled it” (Rorty 8). At the beginning of the play, Oedipus says “who am called Oedipus and known to all” showing his flaws of pride and his huge ego; these flaws are important in guiding the plot to his downfall (Sophocles 8). Oedipus’s immense ego and prideful characteristics cause him to murder his father on the triple road and bring him to Thebes to defeat the Sphinx and become king; in doing so he marries his mother, Queen Jocasta, fulfilling the prophecy. This illustrates how one’s character flaws can cause a protagonist to make choices that will inevitably lead to the tragic hero’s downfall. Oedipus Rex is led by the tragic flaws that arise from his own excellence and “makes him susceptible to a kind of waywardness that arises from his character” leading him towards a downward spiral of ill-fated actions (Rorty 11).

A tragic hero like Oedipus is flawed from being ignorant and not able to see the truth clearly. The tragic hero has a “great error or flaw” and is typically not aware of what is going on because of that flaw or error (Barstow 1). In one instance when Tiresias, the blind prophet, and Oedipus are talking, Oedipus dismisses everything Tiresias says, and accuses him of conspiracies; Tiresias tells Oedipus “You, even though you see clearly, do not see the scope of your evil” (Sophocles 427-428). Although Oedipus can see clearly with his eyes, he cannot see the bigger picture, because his ignorance and pride are in the way, so he cannot fully see nor understand what Tiresias is trying to explain, and accuses Tiresias of being “blind in your ears and mind and eyes” (Sophocles 384, 385). Oedipus uses verbal irony in this accusation because Oedipus is actually referring to himself, in which he does not listen nor see the truth. Oedipus does not recognize that he is the one who has killed his father, King Laius, and that Queen Jocasta, his wife, is his mother. When Oedipus realizes that he has fulfilled the prophecy, he feels remorseful and gouges his eyes out as a form of self-demise because he does not want to see the actions that he has committed. His ignorance is seen throughout the play and connects with all of the other flaws that lead him to his unavoidable tragic downfall (Barstow 1).

An ideal character will end up viewing life as a series of goals to end up in a perfect virtue of happiness, while the tragic hero in Oedipus Rex is led by his flaws and ignorance to his downfall failing to achieve happiness. A tragic hero will have a tragic downfall caused by his or her own flaws (Barstow 2). Oedipus realizes his tragic flaw and becomes aware of his pride and ignorance and admits that his own flaw of anger drove him to strike the driver on the road, which he finds out is his father, King Laius (Sophocles 788 – 790). The action of the tragic downfall is not when Oedipus fulfills the prophecy of marrying his mother and killing his father, the downfall of Oedipus is when he discovers his identity; this discovery made by free choice is what makes this play a tragedy (Knox 6). Oedipus’s self-realization of his tragic flaws that caused his adverse actions is his true downfall, leading him to gouge out his eyes. Oedipus experiences his tragic downfall, and all the people of Thebes turn on him saying “if only we had never set eyes on you” and blaming him because he was never able to see the truth (Sophocles 1233, 1234). When Oedipus gouges his eyes out, he illustrates his failure to achieve happiness, showing the inevitable downfall of a tragic hero like himself. A tragic hero does not end up in a perfect virtue of happiness; like Oedipus, tragic heroes end up having a tragic downfall through the choices and flaws (Barstow 2).

Fear and pity are created in the audience by the character’s downfall because the tragic hero is usually virtuous and meant to end up with happiness but instead, the tragic character ends up in a tragic downfall, which creates emotions of fear and pity for the character. Like Oedipus, a tragic hero is usually born into a noble family, wealthy, well known, and well liked, this makes his downfall seem unlikely and causes more fear and pity in the audience (Barstow 2). Oedipus is not only the “greatest in the eyes of all” and born of noble birth, but he has saved the city and becomes a king that the people of Thebes admire to the extent of comparing him to the gods and praising him; and, in the play the citizens are asking Oedipus to save the city again from the plague (Sophocles 44). The audience experiences sympathy towards the tragic hero because of their knowledge, and from knowing what the characters can not know through dramatic irony. The actions that result from the character and their tragic flaws create a sense of acceptance from the audience because his flaws justify his behavior, but when the character falls the audience feels pity and fear (Rorty 10). Oedipus is not evil, he is a good person with good intentions which is what causes the audience watching to feel sympathy for him (Barstow 2). Oedipus wants the best for his city and his people and he wants to save them from the plague, but his tragic flaws corrupt his good intentions. The tragic hero is usually a likable, well known, noble character that the audience sympathizes with because of his unlikelihood to have a downfall (Barstow 2).

Most tragic heroes like Oedipus, are well known and provoke emotions of fear and pity from the audience because of dramatic irony. The audience develops an attachment to the character through their good-natured personality and noble birth or family, and then the audience will feel fear and pity from knowing what the characters do not know(Struck 1). Oedipus is born from nobility, is well liked, and has good intentions; this helps the audience to build a connection and feel sympathy for him, creating a sense of fear and pity because the audience knows what his outcome will be. Dramatic irony plays a role in Oedipus’s tragic hero complex because of his flaws of ignorance and impulsiveness. Dramatic irony is prevalent throughout the play causing more fear and pity for the character because the audience knows what is going to happen to Oedipus (Barstow 4). In Oedipus Rex, while hunting for King Laius’s murderer, Oedipus declares “And so I myself am become an ally both to the god and the man who died” (Sophocles 244, 245). This is a crucial moment in the play because the audience knows that Oedipus is the murderer of the King Laius, but Oedipus declares that he will “become an ally both to the god and the man who died”, but in reality he is actually going to have a downfall and be the enemy; this creates dramatic irony and sparks fear and pity from the audience. Dramatic irony plays a large role in Oedipus Rex, evoking fear and pity from the audience and revealing how Oedipus is the ideal tragic hero (Barstow 4).

Oedipus’s “dynamic and multifaceted character” is a perfect example of a tragic hero, he is born of noble birth, has character flaws that lead to his downfall, and realizes his flaws and punishes himself while evoking fear and pity from the audience (Struck 5). Oedipus’s hamartia causes him to freely choose his actions, which is the impetus for his inevitable tragic downward spiral (Struck 3). A tragic hero is not meant to obtain happiness; they do not view life as a sequence of goals to help them to obtain happiness and are obstructed by the view of their flaws and ignorance causing their tragic downfall (Barstow 2). Tragedies like Oedipus Rex include elements and connections with the tragic hero and his or her downfall to evoke emotions of fear and pity from the audience (Rorty 5). Faced with his tragic flaws and ignorance, Oedipus is led to his downfall, prompting sympathy from the audience. Oedipus Rex continues to portray the ideal tragic hero even in today’s standards, showing that even the best action can go wrong when there is a misguided force.

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Oedipus Rex as the Ideal Tragic Hero. (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved January 31, 2023 , from

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