Oedipus the King is a tragic story. A tragedy is defined as a dramatic orliterary work in which the principal character engages in a morally significant struggleending in ruin or profound disappointment (Poetics). Sophocles uses many techniques to create thisfrightening feeling of fear and pity in his readers. This in turn creates an excellenttragedy. The play, Oedipus the King, by Sophocles, displays many qualities that make itan immense Greek tragedy. According to Aristotle there are only fivethings that can describe a tragedy. The play has to have a tragic hero, preferably of noblestature. Second, the tragic hero must have a tragic flaw. Because of that flaw, the herofalls from either power or death because he or she realized that there was a certain fraud or sin thatwas discovered in him. Due to the fall, the tragic hero discovers something. Finally, there must be acatharsis, or a feeling of aw in the minds of the audience.
Oedipus the King fits allthe characteristics as defined by Aristotle; thus the story is a tragedy.
The tragic hero of a play is a man of some social standing and personal reputation who has aflaw in his actions. Throughout the play Oedipus reaches the Peripeteia of the story when he realizesin a conversation with a shepherd that he was not the real son of Polybus, but rather an adopted sonfrom king Laius. In his conversation with the shepherd, Oedipus soon remembered the oracle'sprophecy of killing his father Laius, and marring his wife would be fulfilled (232). Throughout all ofthese events, the irony could be seen because of Oedipus' blindness of his past history.
One of Oedipus flaws was his quickness to take a position andstubborn loyalty in spite of personal hazard. Oedipus makes decisions publicly for all to hear,making reconsideration difficult for a proud person such as himself. When Creon,Oedipus's kinsman returns with information from the oracle concerning the Ills ofThebes, he wishes to tell Oedipus privately. But foolishly Oedipus tells Creon to speakup, not knowing that it was bad news concerning his future. For what Oedipus said was,"Let them all hear it. It is for them I suffer, more than for myself (163)." This was the firsttime that Oedipus is confronted with the idea that he might have fulfilled the prophecy because hefeels that his kingdom is falling apart in the plague that they are stuck in. Oedipus' quickness to takeposition in fact leads to a greater consequence that will harm both him and his family in the future.
Oedipus, hoping to find any information regarding the elimination of the pastking, decrees an order for all of his citizens so that he might find the assassinator(s). Thisorder consisted of submitting any unknown facts of Laius' murder so that he/she may come forwardwithout any fear of reprisal, concurrently forbidding the withholding of information.
Oedipus reaffirms his stand to avenge the murdered king, promising the consequences tonot diminish because of one's position (172). Oedipus has said all of this before knowing anytrue evidence himself. If he just had only one clue that he could have been the unwitting culprit, hewould have most likely acted differently. As a strongly principled man, Oedipus, likeSocrates when faced with compromising his principles chooses death over compromise.
When Oedipus realizes he may in fact be the culprit, he says, "I must be exiled, and evenin exile" (206). This act compromises his security from harm as king. Due to his sins, Oedipus iscompletely blinded of his faults. When the Oracle Teiresias came to tell Oedipus why the gods sentplagues on there city, the blind oracle told Oedipus that he should open his eyes and see what wasreally happening. Since the prophet did not have any eyes, he told Oedipus that he was more blindedthen him himself, Teiresias. These words left Oedipus searching for the murdering because he didnot want any of his curses that he unleash to come down on him.
When Oedipus sent for a Herdsman to describe the history of Oedipus, Oedipus began torealize all of his past sins and the oracles that were predicted about him which came true. At the end of the play we can see how the climax of the story ended with the exile ofOedipus'sand his quickness to take up clothes and justify his sins by gouge his own eyes whichsymbolizes his end of power. It also costs Oedipus his wife and mother, along with his kids. Oedipusrealized that he brought torment to all of his family members. The consequence of this was the selfsuicide of his wife and the miserable lives his children will live. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes inorder to not be able to see what the world has done too him (237).
From the audience's standpoint, they can take away many meanings from thisplay. In the times when this play was written, the audience believed that the godscontrolled what was going to happen to them. It was their ultimate destiny. "Oedipus the King"proves to strengthen their belief in the gods. This is done by Oedipus fulfilling everythingthat was prophesized for him to do. Laius and Jocasta sent Oedipus to his death, but theShepherd could not do it. Oedipus then hears the prophecy in Corinth, and flees. On hissubsequent journey, he kills his father, comes to Thebes, and marries his mother. Thetragedy of Oedipus the King is not so much that Oedipus commits two horrible crimes;after all, he was fated to do so, and committed them unknowingly. It is, rather, that he,like his doomed parents before him, ran headlong into the destiny he was trying to flee,and then compounded his evils by his imperious refusal to believe the prophet'sdeclaration of his guilt. Pride was his downfall.
Although Oedipus cannot be called a true "hero", he fits the description of a"tragic hero". Oedipus' key characteristics were his self-confident attitude, intelligence,and strong-will. Another ability of a hero is the ability to overcome danger, which is seenthroughout the play. The first instance is seen when Oedipus meets with his father andslays him along with the people that were with him. Despite Oedipus' lack of self-control,he was still able to overcome his "enemy". While Oedipus' actions on the road were notparticularly wise or heroic in a traditional sense, they still showed "godlike strength andcourage" which is an element of heroic behavior by definition. Another danger was theSphinx. Had he not had the intelligence to answer the riddle he would have been killedinstantly. Any other human would have never attempted to enter Thebes, much less try toanswer the riddle. Nevertheless, above all odds, Oedipus succeeds and becomes the kingof Thebes.
Oedipus the King is a tragedy. The Greeks defined a good tragedy as a play thatwill evoke pity and fear in the reader. The important point is that these strong feelings ofpity and fear will cause a feeling of catharsis. The reader experiences this feeling ofcatharsis because they realize that Oedipus makes mistakes just as the average personwould. Pity for Oedipus is felt because of the fact that he was a good man who did nothave bad intentions; he just had an ego a little too large for his head. The feeling of fearforms because you read about all the bad things that happen to Oedipus. According toAristotle, Oedipus the King fits all the characteristics for it to be a tragedy. The play has atragic hero, the tragic hero has a tragic flaw and there is catharsis in the minds of theaudience.
SourcesAristotle, "Poetics." Reading in Western Humanities. Ed. Roy T MathewsF Dewitt Platt. New York: Mcbraw hill, 2001. 89-94Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Trans. Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics, 1984.