Analysis of Aristotle's "Poetics" in conjunction with Sophocle's "Oedipus Rex"

Essay by MichaelZhaoHigh School, 10th gradeA+, April 2004

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The philosopher Aristotle gave the very first definition of a tragedy. Because of Poetics, lecture notes taken by one of Aristotle's students, one knows the definition of a tragedy. From what we know to be true in history, scholars furiously debated the definition of a tragedy. These scholars discussed the best tragedies and the worst ones. The scholars debated the definition and components of a tragedy. The definition of a tragedy results in many interpretations. Therefore, thousands of years of furious debating yielded nothing and wasted precious oxygen. However, according to Aristotle the greatest tragedy is Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Aristotle must have held this tragedy in very high regard because the Poetics is based on Oedipus Rex. What makes Oedipus Rex a tragedy? To understand how this play is a tragedy, one must examine the inner machinations of the Poetics, the mindset of Aristotle, and the glorious Golden Age of Greek civilization.

Oedipus Rex is a tragedy because it contains all the components as defined by Aristotle.

A tragedy must have a catharsis to take the reader's soul through a roller coaster ride of feelings. An analogy of a dark cloud of rain cleansing a house makes a good comparison for the catharsis. This sentence symbolically represents the catharsis or cleansing of the emotions that arouses pity or fear in a tragedy (Aristotle XIV 1). The catharsis in Oedipus Rex is when Oedipus is "as piteous as he appears in the final scene with Creon" (Weigel 1601). The placement of the catharsis results in many contradicting emotions flurrying. These emotions all mix to represent the catharsis. The emotions create a whirlwind of feelings. At first, the people of Thebes think he is god, and then Jocasta commits suicide. These actions represent the spectrum of emotional discharge.

To capitalize on the reader's emotions the catharsis should be used in concordance with recognition and reversal. These effects leave the reader longing for a resolve. The inclusion of a catharsis with the recognition is directly reflected for "[O]ur knowledge allows us to fear the final revelation, but also to pity this man as his past is gradually and relentlessly uncovered to him" (Weigel 1600). This also adds a element of dramatic irony which is the affect of the reversal. Oedipus confirms the dramatic irony by saying the knowledge "...came to me on a wind that seemed favorable. Ah, I feel the stab of these sharp pains and with it the memory of my sorrow" (Sophocles 93). Oedipus's recognition occurs when the messenger inadvertently tells him his real past. In this one scene, Oedipus life turns around. Triumph collapses to despair and ultimately suffering; "The tremendous excitement of this passage is partly due to the fact that what Oedipus 'recognizes' is the reversal: 'the best form of recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation as in the Oedipus,' says Aristotle (XI 2)" (Fergusson 17). The emotions the catharsis, recognition, and the reversal have triggered is now tripled as hope turns to despair and ultimately death.

The result of Oedipus's trouble stems from several ignorant decisions. Aristotle defines hamartia as "error of judgment" (Aristotle XIII 3). The denial of Tiresias presents the root cause of all Oedipus's troubles. This fault causes Oedipus to accuse Tiresias of starting up "...such a story!" (Sophocles 23) and thinking he "...will get away with this" (Sophocles 23). Oedipus makes several key bad decisions. Oedipus also makes a fatal mistake by starting the frantic search throughout the city. Oedipus tries to find the murderer of Laius by madly questioning the dwellers of Thebes. Of course, no one comes forth of the crime because Oedipus himself is the murderer (Sophocles 14).

The relevance of fate remains a powerful element in Greek civilization and Greek drama. Symbolically, the power of fate represents the power of the gods. Fighting fate may be viewed as an aspect of hamartia, but it is not so. Hamartia is error in choice, but if we are fated to decide on a choice is that hamartia? Hence, fate is separately treated. Oedipus denies fate to justify his own intentions. Although Tiresias warns Oedipus that he is the killer he seeks, Oedipus denies his own fate to justify finding the "real" criminal (Sophocles 22-23). Even Jocasta admits he is an "Ill-fated man. May you never find out who you are" (Sophocles 78). His actions cause his misfortune and the misfortune of his family. This is an important component of a tragedy. It sets the tragic hero up for a scene of suffering. Oedipus gives himself "bodily agony, wounds, and the like" (Aristotle XI 6).

Oedipus Rex employs several mechanisms from Aristotle's Poetics. A tragedy must contain the elements mentioned in the paper. Each one of the components of a tragedy complements each other to complete the tragic effect. Without the recognition, the reversal is nonexistent. This is just one of the many examples of interdependence. Proving Oedipus Rex is a tragedy is important because of the basis it creates for other tragedies to follow. This tragedy withstands the test of time and now stands as a testament to Western literature. In these manners, Oedipus Rex is truly a great tragedy.