“Oedipus the King” Perfect Classical Tragedy

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According to Aristotle, “Oedipus the King” was the perfect example of the perfect classical tragedy. Oedipus is of noble status, he is in every respect a king; noble in blood and in stature. Oedipus the King starts with Oedipus assuming his Kingship of the land of Thebes, thus confirming his noble stature even before the discovery of his origin. Not only is this kingship a title, but also a status he attained among his people. His people reconize him as “The first of men” and the “great and glorious.” Later on, the audience learn that Oedipus has been left in the care of a royal Corinthian couple, King Polybus and Queen Merope’ making him the supposed prince of Corinth. Afterwards it is revealed that his real parents are the King and Queen of Thebes. Oedipus, then, is noble to the last inch; “renounced and prosperous” as Aristotle specifies.

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The nobility of Oedipus’ upbringing and origin and his respected status among his people raises him above the common man in terms of rank, making him a human more “great and glorious” than the audience that watch his story. the greatness of his stature and rank strikes his downfall more terrible and his reversal of fortune more piteous and fearful. as will be discussed later. Aristotle states that the tragic hero must not be vile or bad in nature. Goodness and nobility of morale is as important as goodness of origin and birth in the characterization of an Aristotelian tragic hero. Oedipus, indeed, is overall a good character despite having his imperfections. The opening scene of the play reflects Oedipus’ devotion and care for his people and his city. He states frankly that he “would willingly do anything to help {his people}” (Sophocles, p.38, 1988). He expresses his grief for his citizens; says that “their plight concerns {him} now more than {his} life” (Sophocles, P.40, 1988). Oedipus is not merely sweet-talking his people out of their misery.

Oedipus is shown to have taken practical steps for saving his people. Thus he does “the only thing that promised hope” and sends his brother -in-law to get the prophet Tiresias to tell them the cause of their city’s plague (Sophocles, P.39-40, 1988). He also vows to “start afresh and bring everything to light” and unravel Laius’ murderer upon discovering it is the murder that brought the plague upon the city. In fact, Oedipus’ nobility of character is the primary reason for his reign on Thebes. During his argument with Tiresias, Oedipus is shown to take pride in the fact that, when Tiresias’ “bird-lore and god craft all were silent” during Sphinx’s attack on the city, it was he who came and solved sphinx’s riddle “guessing the truth by mother -wit not bird-lore”. Indeed, Tiresias’ prophecies and predictions did not save the city in the past; it was Oedipus’ nobility and initiative nature. Oedipus’ nobility of nature leads him to stand up for a city he did not then belong to, and for people he did not then know, to save them from a plague.

Thus it can be said that Oedipus’ nobility of character is one of the primary reasons behind his acclamation of his noble title. Oedipus is also a character who values the truth. He chooses to unravel a truth that could shame him for a lifetime rather than living in a lie. After realizing that he could be the culprit for Laius’ murder, Jocasta tries to warn him against going any further into the investigation. Yet Oedipus insists that he “must pursue this trail to the end till {he has} unraveled the mystery of {his} birth” (Sophocles, P67,1988). One must not also forget that in his investigation in Laius’ murder, he still had hispeople and his city in mind. When Jocasta warns him not to delve anymore into the investigation for his own “good” he simply tells her that his “good” had been his “bugbear long enough”. By unraveling the mystery of his origin and his own sins, he has not only his “good” in mind, but also his people. This noble, selfless attitude is later emphasized in the end of the play when Oedipus finally unfolds his dreadful fate, and punishes himself for his moral blindness with literally blinding himself.

Oedipus pleads Creon to cast him away from his “fatherland” so as to no longer “let {his} living presence curse this fatherland of {his}” (Sophocles, P77-78, 1988). All these qualities of noble morality, justice and earnest make Oedipus an overall good character and accordingly an eligible tragic hero, for Aristotle makes it clear that the character of tragedy must be a morally good character. Aristotle states that the tragic hero must be “a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just”. Indeed, Oedipus is far from an ideal or a “pre-eminently virtuous” character. Oedipus has many flaws. One crucial flaw is mirrored in some of his first words: “I, Oedipus, whose name is known afar”, is pride. Oedipus’ pride is a key trigger to his tragic downfall (though not the main one). Oedipus’ pride is wounded by a drunken stranger who tells him that he is not Polypus’ son. It is this pride that drives him off to find Apollo’s oracle to ask for the truth. This oracle’s prophecy, which says that Oedipus will kill his father and wed his mother, sends Oedipus off from Corinth to Thebes. Had it not been for his pride, Oedipus could have chosen to ignore the words of a drunken stranger and live peacefully with his adopted mother and father, and perhaps might have avoided his dreadful prophecy. Throughout the play Oedipus’ pride continues to show.

Oedipus is too proud to take Tiresias’ words. He takes pride in his own intelligence and chooses to follow his own methods to unravel the mystery of Laius’ murder rather than depend on the old, blind oracle (Magrath, 2015). Oedipus’ pride is clearest in his talk with Tiresias. When Tiresias accuses Oedipus of Laius’ murder, Oedipus taunts him for his boldness, his psychic methods, and yet above all, his sight. Oedipus also taunts Tiresias and his likes for failing to save the city when it was threatened by sphinx and raises himself above them for solving the “riddle too deep for common wits” by his “mother -wit not bird-lore”. Not only does Oedipus raise himself above the oracles and prophets’ soothsaying, but actually takes pride in an intelligence he raises to be above “common wits”, and of accordingly, above Tiresias’ “brainless”, “senseless” self. Metaphors of sight and blindness are often mentioned in the play, and the play’s major dramatic irony is Oedipus blinding himself with his own hands.

These references of blindness echoes Oedipus’ flaw of blindness. Oedipus’ reactions are in a lot of times prompt, thoughtless and blinded by emotions (Barstow, 1912). For example, Oedipus blindly accuses Tiresias of murdering Laius due to Tiresias’ reluctance to speak of Oedipus’ crime and promptly accuses Creon, his kinsman, his “most trusted friend”, of conspiring against him to steal his throne. Upon confronting Creon, Oedipus finds no other reason to base his accusations of Creon except that he brought “that canting prophet” (Sophocles, P.48 and 53). Oedipus’ tendency to be blinded by his emotions is most evident is with his encounter with King Laius. The rider orders him to step aside “and his venerable master joined in with a surly command” as Oedipus states it. Oedipus admits to being “angry”. Oedipus, with his “misguided promptness” kills the old man, who would be the same age his father should be, disregarding the prophecy over his head, and weds Jocasta, Laius’ wife, who is probably the age of his mother (Magrath, 2015).

Thus in complete blindness, mainly blindness by emotions, Oedipus fulfills the prophecy with his own hands, and in blindness did the prophecy end. Coming to Oedipus’ Hamartia, the question is, is it one of his flaws that brings about his downfall or merely an error on his part? Is his Hamartia to be translated to a “Tragic flaw” or a “Tragic error”? As previously mentioned, Oedipus is not devoid of flaws. Oedipus’s pride, as clarified above, is the reason behind his disregard of Tiresias’ prophetic words and his orders not to delve into his origins. Had Oedipus’ pride not blinded him and had he taken heed of Tiresias words, Oedipus would not have uncovered the secret of his origin or his murder and would have lived in the bliss of his ignorance (Magrath, 2015). On the other hand, had he continued to live in his ignorant bliss, he still would have been married to his mother, father and brother to his children and living in a plagued city, which still marks him as a tainted being “hated by God and man”. Moreover, according to Asuamah Adade-Yeboah, Kwaku Ahenkora & Adwoah S.

Amankwah’s paper “The Tragic Hero of the Classical Period”, one of Oedipus’ most crucial tragic deed, which is killing his father, might have been a combination of both ignorance and temper. Yet, indeed, incest is a result of no moral weakness or flaw, but purely ignorance (Yeboah et al, 2012). The only thing that Oedipus can be held at fault for in the incest is not judging by the ages of Jocasta and Laius (Magrath, 2015). This means that Oedipus’ tragic deeds, which brings any tragic hero to his downfall, is not a result of his flaws but majorly of ignorance and wrong judgment. Therefore, regarding Oedipus’ Hamartia, Oedipus has no tragic “flaw”, but a “tragic error”; that is the Aristotelian translation for “error of judgment”. One must also not forget that Aristotle’s idea of a tragedy is to be a representation of action; of the more universal theme of “happiness and unhappiness” not of character. Thus the role of the fate in Oedipus’ downfall cannot be ignored. Yeboah says that “prophecies in Greek tragedies are bound to be fulfilled in their true interpretation”.

Oedipus and Jocasta try their hardest to escape the prophecy. For example, Jocasta tries getting rid of Oedipus as a baby, only for him to come back as an adult. Oedipus flees Corinth so as not to kill his adopted father, only to kill his real father on the road. Even when he tries to learn the truth, Oedipus has been already living in his tragic deed; incest. Oedipus, indeed, is partially responsible for his own downfall with his error of judgment, fate, or as Oedipus calls it “Apollo” is definitely to be held responsible for Oedipus’ downfall. Therefore, Oedipus’s role in the tragedy is not as much of an individual character as he is the dramatist’s tool to highlight “the central theme of the play” which is “divine credibility or the credibility of oracular pronouncements” (Yeboah et al. 2012).

This emphasizes the previously mentioned theory posed by some literary scholars that Greek dramatists never focus on the character of tragedy as much as the overall philosophy of the tragedy and the process of catharsis intended by the tragedy as a whole. As an ideal and typical Aristotelian tragic hero in characterization and significance in the tragedy, Oedipus is in every way eligible for evoking the feelings of pity and fear. His stature and character, as explored earlier, make him an embodiment for the features Aristotle specified for a tragic hero who can evoke catharsis. Oedipus has also undergone all the 3 stages of tragedy in a typical Aristotelian manner. Almost every event Oedipus goes through undergoes a stage of reversal. For example, Oedipus mocks Tiresias for his blindness and calls him “sightless” and “senseless”. Oedipus is later bound to the same fate when he gouges his own eyes with his own handsupon discovering his own blindness to the truth and to all the signs that could have led him to an earlier discovery. The messenger who is supposed to cheer Oedipus with the news that his “father” died of natural causes does the exact opposite by revealing he was never Polybus’ son to begin with. Everything Oedipus does, and every attempt to escape or to reverse his curse turns against him, thus trapping him in a chain of tragic inevitability.

The audience pity Oedipus in this stage of reversal of fortunes; especially with the fact that the audience most probably already know what will happen to Oedipus based on the Greek myth (Farahbakhsh, 2013). The fear in this stage stems from the inevitability of fate and the terror of reversal of fortune. The next stage is discovery; where Oedipus’ fears are finally confirmed. Oedipus learns the truth of his origin and accordingly that the one he killed was no other than his father, and that he is the father and brother to his children. According to Krishma Chaudhary’s paper “The Development of Plot in the Famous Greek Tragedy “Oedipus Rex” Or “Oedipus the King” By Sophocles”; “The tragedy lies in the discovery of the guilt and not in the guilt himself, and so the feeling of pity and fear reach their height with the discovery by Oedipus”. The audience pities the once proud king who now becomes “sinful in {his} begetting, sinful in marriage, sinful in shedding of blood” (Sophocles. P70. 1988). The last stage Oedipus undergoes is the calamity or downfall. Aristotle states that in order for this stage to evoke pity and fear, the tragic hero’s misfortune must be “undeserved”, meaning that the punishment must be more than the crime or the tragic deed. Indeed, Oedipus’ crimes are, by moral standards, terrible.

However, considering that all his crimes were a result of lack of knowledge and, one cannot ignore, a game of fate, one cannot help but believe that Oedipus’ downfall is far worse than what he deserves. In the end of the play, an attendant enters and narrates a full account of Oedipus’ downfall. Oedipus finds his mother/wife had taken her own life in her room. He holds her dead body in his arms; he gets to feel it cold and dead, and bear the pain of such a calamity. He then takes his mother’s pins and repeatedly stabs his own eyes; “eyes that should see no longer his shame, his guilt” (Sophocles, P. 73, 1988). “ Bloody tears ran down his beard-not drops but in full spate a whole cascade defending in drenching cataracts of scarlet rain” (Sophocles, P. 73, 1988). The audience’s horror and pity at these dreadful images are echoed in the chorus’ cries upon seeing blind Oedipus: “Horror beyond allbearing…Insensate agony” (Sophocles, p73& 74, 1988). The play ends with Oedipus banishing himself out of his homeland, leaving his children behind after a last goodbye. In the end, Oedipus does not deserve such a downfall, for after all, most of his deeds is a result of sheer ignorance and blindness. Chorus: “He was our bastion against disaster, our honoured king; All Thebes was proud of his name. And now where is a more heart-rending story of affliction?” (Sophocles, P.71, 1988) This song summarizes Oedipus’ journey as a tragic hero and a catharsis releaser.

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“Oedipus the King” Perfect Classical Tragedy. (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved September 25, 2022 , from
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