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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

oedipus the king.

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The play Oedipus the King by Sophocles is a good example of a classic tragedy as defined by Aristotle. He defined a tragic hero as a man not preeminently virous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity, but by some error in judgment…the change in the heroes misfortune must not be from misery to happiness, but on the contrary, from happiness to misery”. He further expanded this definition by giving an outline of the classic tragic hero basing this on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Aristotle felt that a good tragedy should have a hero who is superior to the average man in some way, yet tragically flawed in another, and whose destiny turns out not to be ultimately his to control. Sophocles’ characterization of Oedipus suggests that he is a tragic hero according to Aristotle’s notion as stated in his book the poetics.


Oedipus was superior not only because of his standing in life i.e. as a king, but he was also of superior intellect. He possesses the superiority of mind and body that characterize the heroes of ancient Grecian society for example Odysseus. He continued to show this characteristics during the play, and it can be seen clearly right from the beginning when the priest says “…Thebes long since to thee her safety owed, when from the sphinx delivered thy grateful people saw thee, not by man, but by the gods instructed, save the land…”(4). Here, he is praised by the priest for delivering his people out of the hands of the sphinx. Oedipus had outwitted the sphinx that had plundered Thebes for many years, by solving the riddle that no other man could unravel. This shows that his intellectual prowess was unmatched by anyone else in the society. Thus, the people of Thebes venerated him, and believed him to be their deliverer sent by the gods’ themselves.


Aside from being of high intellect, Oedipus also showed strength of character and excellent leadership. He is compassionate to the plight of his people as can be seen in the first scene of the play when he says “…as Oedipus; for oh! On me, my children, your sorrows press. Alas! I feel for you my people, for myself, for Thebes.” This excerpt shows Oedipus’ dedication to his people. He also shows his excellent leadership qualities in that he took action (by sending Creon to the oracle) before the priest came to complain. He was also constantly searching for the truth in order to end the suffering of his people. Thus, Sophocles establishes the character of Oedipus, as a person whom the more modest citizens idolize and look up to.


In order to be the perfect tragic hero however, Oedipus must posses some other qualities as laid down by Aristotle. According to him, a tragic hero must “imitate actions which evoke pity and fear.” He must not be a perfect man; as such, a man would not serve the purpose of invoking these emotions but would invoke shock instead.4 He must also not be a vile man, as this would also not inspire pity or fear. ( Sophocles, 5). This hero is a man who is no eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about by some error or flaw on his part. This flaw is referred to hamartia or error in judgement. Oedipus represents Aristotle’s archetype of a tragic hero completely.6


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There are several dimensions to the particular hamartia of Oedipus. The flaws that ultimately led Oedipus to his destruction include pride, impulsiveness, and ignorance. Pride as a characteristic of Oedipus is evident through out the play. In the tragedy, Oedipus can be seen several times exalting himself even at times to the level of the gods.





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