How Sophocles’ Oedipus exemplifies or refutes Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero

Subject: Literature
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Summary

Sophocles’ Oedipus is an example of Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. This is because Oedipus, the main character, is shown to be an individual whose life is dictated by the fates. Prophesies made following his birth state that he will kill his father and marry his mother; a situation that his parents seek to avoid by ordering his execution. However, despite this order, the fates have something else in store for him because he not only survives, but he ends up leaving his adopted parents, despite being told of the fate that awaits him in another prophesy that is reminiscent of the one that was foretold following his birth. The character flaws of Oedipus are highly significant because they lead to his eventual downfall. These flaws play an important role in showing that despite his seemingly humble origins, he has risen above himself to such an extent that he considers himself infallible. Even though he is a man of action and cares for the welfare of his people, Oedipus is also shown to suffer from hubris, which makes him not realise the truth concerning himself. Therefore, Oedipus is a tragic hero, in line with Aristotle’s definition, because he is able to inspire pity and fear from the audience. The latter are also able to achieve cleansing from these feelings through catharsis as they witness the events they unfold in the play.

Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero states that it involves an individual that inspires fear and pity among audiences. This is an extremely important definition because it shows that the tragic hero has to have a role that is not only heroic, but also coupled with tragic events that the character does not know about but the audience anticipates (Cohn, 2016). A consequence is that the role of the tragic hero is one where the individual, seemingly unassailable in character, ends up having his life suddenly turned upside down in such an unexpected way that it shocks the audience. In this paper, there will be an analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus in order to show that it exemplifies Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero.

One of the most significant characteristics of a tragic hero is that he has to be an individual that occupies a high position in society through nobility or greatness. This is the definition of Oedipus because he is a character that, while being great, is also an individual that is imperfect. The audience comes to identify with him because he is portrayed as being like one of them, only elevated to a higher position in society. A result of this situation is that when Oedipus’ downfall comes about through his own fault, it is not because of an accident, because he is the one who makes the choice. The tragedy on the part of Oedipus is that it is brought about by his own error in judgement, which is a contributing factor to the hero’s lack of clear judgment (Barstow, 1912). Oedipus is therefore a tragic hero because despite the misfortune happening to him at the end of the story, he does not really deserves it, and the audience ends up feeling that his punishment does not fit the crime that he commits.

While Oedipus’ fall inspires fear and pity among the audience, it cannot be considered to be a pure loss. This is especially true when it comes to his attainment of self knowledge because without it, he would continue on his wrong path. However, while his role in the play is to ensure that he evokes pity and fear from the audience, Oedipus is also allowed to ensure that he is able to establish a way through which he is able to redeem himself, even though the means to do so is seemingly extremely undeserved and unfair. One of the most important qualities that ender him to the audience is that he is a caring and compassionate leader, and this is exemplified by the way that he calls the people of Thebes “Oh my children”. In addition, Oedipus is portrayed as being confident and strong, because he pronounces his fame  by stating “You all know me……I am Oedipus” (Mapindani, 2016). This declaration shows that he is not only confident in himself, but he is also an individual that cares for his people; endearing him to the audience.

The characteristics of Oedipus stated above, among others, are aimed at not only endearing him to the audience, but also setting him up for his downfall, which is the tragedy of the play. One of the most significant of his characteristics is that he is trustworthy, to such an extent that he seeks to ensure that the crisis plaguing his people ois resolves as swiftly as possible. This characteristic is added to his being a man of action, so that when the plague adversely affects the people of Thebes, he dispatches Creon, his brother in-law to the Oracle of Delphi to find out what is happening. His determination to find the murderer of the former king of Thebes and bring an end to the plague affecting his people shows his noble character, but while this may be the case, it also leads to a situation where the audience is in fear because they realise what is going to occur to Oedipus, despite his good intentions.

One of the most important characteristics of Oedipus is that despite his good character, he is also an imperfect individual. This is seen through the way that he is so overconfident that he ends up displaying hubris (Wurmser, 2015). He fails to assess matters carefully and makes rash decisions, as seen in the way that he gets short-tempered and jumps to conclusions when Tiresias fails to share the truth with him. Oedipus is also portrayed as an irrational individual because he not only accuses Tiresias of being disloyal for not sharing the truth with him, he also irrationally accuses Creon of plotting against him. The tragic flaw of his character is therefore his error in judgement which eventually leads to a situation where he is unable to extricate himself from the consequences. In this way, his pride and arrogance lead Oedipus towards a path that inspires pity from the audience because they recognise what the result is going to be. The fear that the audience feels for Oedipus becomes a pity when the truth concerning him is uncovered.

Oedipus becomes a tragic hero because of his pride and hubris, which lead to his downfall. This is especially the case considering that his pride as a king makes him feel that he is above anyone else, as seen in the scene where he refuses to let Tiresias leave unless he tells him the truth (Kane, 1975). In addition, prior to becoming the king of Thebes, he hears a prophesy concerning himself that foreshadows what is going to happen later. The prophesy states that he will end up murdering his own father and marrying his mother, which under normal circumstances would be considered a dire warning for the person involved. Despite hearing it, Oedipus makes the decision to leave his adoptive parents, despite not knowing who his real parents are. He ends up impulsively killing an older man and marrying an older woman, not knowing that what he has done is likely to negatively affect him in future, and contribute to his downfall.

Oedipus inspires fear and pity because the actions that he undertakes and lead to his downfall were done unknowingly. This is especially considering that the action of killing King Laius and marrying his mother was not done out of any sort of wickedness, but rather came about because of his lack of knowledge concerning his self-identity. He does not know that Laius is his father and that Jocasta is his mother, and when he is told of his family history by Tiresias, he at first does not believe it. Immediately following his being told the truth, Oedipus he comes to the realisation of the evil that he has unknowingly done, and he pokes out his eyes in grief and shame (Goldhill, 2015). The consequence is now that he is blind, he is actually able to see what he has been warned about all along, with the prophesy that he was told coming to reality. Under such circumstances, the audience’s fears are fulfilled and Oedipus becomes an object of pity because despite his evil actions, he is actually not an evil person, and his life is dictated by fate.

At the end of the play, after discovering his identity, Oedipus is considerably humbled. A result is that when he declares “I am Oedipus” he does so with a sense of shame unlike on previous occasions when he declared his name in pride and confidence. Therefore, as the plot unravels Oedipus causes feelings of fear and pity in the audience to such an extent that he becomes the definition of Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. He is essentially a virtuous man whose misfortune comes about because or an error rather than depravity on his part. His life can be considered a misfortune because despite all attempts having been made to ensure that the prophesy concerning his birth did not come true; Oedipus is pushed by fate towards fulfilling his destiny (Goodhead, 2015). Despite his being an innocent victim of the fates, Oedipus’s excessive pride and confidence in his own power, essentially his hubris, leads him to discover the truth concerning the events that are taking place around him and his central role in them. Consequently, he ceases to be the figure of great confidence and pride, and instead becomes one that inspires pity from the audience; essentially fulfilling the role of the tragic hero.

In conclusion, Oedipus is the fulfilment of what Aristotle defines as hamartia, which is essentially a tragic flaw that ends up leading to tragic events. These events have the ability to arouse the fear and pity of the audience because through catharsis, they are able to watch events leading to the terrible fate that awaits the hero. As the audience watches the events unfold, they achieve a cleansing of the emotions of fear and pity plaguing them. This is especially the case where they have to commiserate with Oedipus because he is so blind to the truth that is right in front of him. In addition, Oedipus is seen as an individual that inspires not only pity, but also horror as he stabs out his eyes after discovering the truth concerning not only his lineage, but also the disastrous actions that he has unknowingly taken towards his parents.

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  1. Barstow, M. (1912). Oedipus Rex as the Ideal Tragic Hero of Aristotle. The Classical Weekly, 6(1), 2-4.
  2. Cohn, M. (2016). Comedy, Catharsis, and the Emotions: From Aristotle to Proclus. Skenè. Journal of Theatre and Drama Studies, 2(1).
  3. Goldhill, S. (2015). The Ends of Tragedy: Schelling, Hegel, and Oedipus. Tragedy and the Idea of Modernity, 129, 231.
  4. Goodhead, D. M. (2015). The prophetic statement in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: a textual comparison. Contemporary Journal of African Studies, 3(2), 95-111.
  5. Kane, R. L. (1975). Prophecy and perception in the Oedipus Rex. Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), 105, 189-208.
  6. Mapindani, A. (2016). Fated existence? calculating the tragic culminations of Othello and Oedipus the king. Imbizo: International Journal of African Literary and Comparative Studies, 6(2), 43-48.
  7. Wurmser, L. (2015). Prologue: Psychoanalysis and Tragedy: Awe, Hubris, and Shame, and Their Clinical Significance. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 35(1), 1-12.
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