Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher noted for his enduring influence on modern literature, built the basic foundation for the construction of a tragic hero in his most recognized work, Poetics. In Poetics, he often mentions Oedipus, the protagonist in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, as the most fitting example of a tragic hero. The plot of Oedipus the King begins with a terrible plague in the city of Thebes, where Oedipus rules as king. Oedipus sends his brother-in-law, Creon, to the Oracle of Apollo to find out how to help the suffering citizens of Thebes during the plague.
It is revealed that the plague will disappear only if the murderer of the former Theban king, Laius, who was killed many years ago, is discovered and banished. Oedipus then invokes the blind prophet, Tiresias, to help him find the answer, but Tiresias informs him that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius. According to his prophecy, Oedipus is also the murderer of his own father and the husband of his mother. Bothered by this accusation, Oedipus stubbornly continues to chase the truth of his fate. A messenger from Corinth arrives to inform Oedipus that King Polybus, whom Oedipus believes is his real father, has died of illness.
It is then discovered that Oedipus was abandoned as an infant and adopted by Polybus. Oedipus realizes the truth is that Laius is his real father and his wife, Jocasta, is his mother. As a result of this discovery, Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus blinds himself and is exiled from Thebes, thus completing the prophecy and ending the plague of the city. Through exhibiting characteristics of hamartia, peripeteia, hubris, and arousing catharsis, the main character Oedipus meets the criteria for a tragic hero as outlined by Aristotle in Poetics.
Aristotle first defined a tragic hero as a man ‘‘whose place is between these extremes… who on the one hand is not pre-eminent in virtue and justice’’ (Aristotle 673). He is someone who is not completely good or evil, and resembles one who is relatable and recognizable to the audience. The tragic hero ‘‘does not fall into misfortune through vice or depravity, but falls because of some mistake’’ (Aristotle 673). Similar to how a normal human being makes mistakes, the character must have flaws and errors in his judgment, also called hamartia, that eventually lead to his misfortunes.
Oedipus’ major flaw is anger, which is essentially related to his downfall. This is shown when he unknowingly kills his biological father, Laius, at the crossroads, ‘‘with one blow of the staff/ in this right head and knocking him out of his high seat/ rolling him out of the wagon, sprawling headlong’’ (Sophocles lines 895-8). Another detrimental flaw is his determination, which causes him to eventually find out the truth of his life. Desperate for the knowledge of his birth, Oedipus claims that he will ‘‘never fail to search and learn [his] birth’’ (Sophocles 1194) even though Jocasta warns him that searching for it would drive him insane.
Possessive of his throne of Thebes, he is also very paranoid of others, shown when he accuses his own brother, Creon, of being a‘‘marauding thief himself/ scheming to steal [his] crown and power’’ (Sophocles 597-8). One huge factor that contributes to Oedipus’s downfall is hubris, or excessive pride. He is proud of his accomplishment in solving the riddle of the Sphinx that saved the people of Thebes and his title of a hero. He does not want to believe in his fate foretold by the oracle so he attempts to defy prophecies of gods. Unfortunately, he ends up doing what he fears the most and what he was warned against.
When he hears the prophecy that he would murder his father and marry his mother, Oedipus escapes Corinth, and since then, ‘‘always running toward some place where [he] would never see the shame of all those oracles come true’’ (Sophocles 876-80). When he asks the blind prophet Tiresias to foretell the future, Tiresias prophesizes Oedipus’doom. He does not like what he heard and becomes angry, and attacks him with insults and mockery: ‘‘this scheming quack/ this fortune-teller peddling lies, eyes peeled/ for his own profit-seer blind in his craft’’ (Sophocles 440-2).
A tragic hero’s error in judgment leads to a reversal of fortune, or peripeteia, defined by Aristotle as “a change from one state of affairs to its exact opposite… in conformance with probability or necessity’’ (Aristotle 672). This sudden change of situation from good to bad is characteristic to Oedipus, for it occurs towards the end of the play when the messenger from Corinth brings him news of his birth. Throughout the whole play, Oedipus believes that King Polybus, the king of Corinth, whom he grew up with, is his biological father.
Oedipus is relieved when he finds out that Polybus died of sickness because it goes against the prophecy which states that Oedipus himself would murder his own father. However, the messenger reveals to him that ‘‘Polybus was nothing to [him], not in blood’’ (Sophocles 1113), implying that the prophecy could possibly still apply to Oedipus since Polybus is actually not his father. In the end, the hero would finally make the ultimate discovery or recognition that the change of his fortune was caused by his own actions.
This is also called Anagnorisis, described as “a change from ignorance to knowledge, leading either to friendship or to hostility on the part of those persons who are marked for good fortune or bad’’ (Aristotle 672). Oedipus’s discovery is revealed when he learns the truth of the prophecy after many years of ignorance: ‘‘I stand revealed at last/ cursed in my birth, cursed in marriage/ cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands! ’’ (Sophocles 1309-11). He painfully recognizes himself as ‘‘[his] father’s murderer- never been branded/ mother’s husband’’ (Sophocles 1492-3).
Oedipus, ashamed by his actions, falls into deep lamentation and resentment, describing himself as ‘‘loathed by the gods, son of the mother I defiled/ coupling in my father’s bed, spawning lives in the loins/ that spawned [his] wretched life’’ (Sophocles 1492-6). A hero’s downfall must be exhibited ‘‘through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions’’ (Aristotle 670). Aristotle explains that ‘‘pity [is felt] for the man suffering undeservedly, fear [is felt] for the man like ourselves’’ (Aristotle 673). The hero’s ruin is not rightfully earned and his punishment is much higher than what he deserved.
Oedipus’ humane traits of loyalty to his city and people, his pride and determination to learn the truth bring his ultimate downfall. Following his discovery of the truth, he blinds himself using Jocasta’s brooches, ‘‘the long gold pins/ holding her robes – and lifting them high/ looking straight up into the points/ he digs them down the sockets of his eyes’’ (Sophocles 1402-3). With the suicide of Jocasta and the blinding of Oedipus, the messenger describes the terrible outcome: ‘‘wailing, madness and doom, death, disgrace/ all the griefs in the world that you can name/ all are theirs forever’’ (Sophocles 1419-22).
Oedipus was known as an admired and honored king in the beginning, but the tragedy ends with him being recognized as a cursed outcast. Like the audience, Oedipus is a normal human being who makes errors in his judgment and suffers consequences because of it. The common relatable traits that Oedipus possess and the mistakes that he makes as a result are all responsible in bringing his ultimate tragic downfall in the play. He ignorantly and stubbornly seeks out the truth of his past without considering the outcome and the warnings he has been given; therefore, he was responsible for his own suffering.
His commitment of actions caused by his flaws corrupts and destroys him, and at the end of the story, he is no longer the prosperous and courageous hero, but a blind man who faces resentment and hatred. Such qualities of a tragic hero as listed by Aristotle contribute to the overall goal of catharsis in a tragedy, which Oedipus the King successfully accomplishes. By observing how such an honored hero could fall so painfully to his end, the audience is psychologically affected by the emotions of pity for the suffering protagonist, and fear that his consequence could possibly reach them, making Oedipus indeed the king of tragedies.