Study Guide

Oedipus Rex

by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex Essay - Critical Overview

Critical Overview

The history of the critical reception to Oedipus Rex begins with Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who in his Poetics inaugurated the history of formalist and structural analysis of literature, two important cornerstones for the enterprise of the critical interpretation of literature. In some ways, Poetics can be regarded as the first book of literary criticism.

The influence of Sophocles in general and Oedipus Rex in particular is enormous, due to the exemplary status Aristotle granted the play as the greatest tragedy ever written. He gave it high praise for its outstanding fulfillment of the requirements he set out for tragedy, including reversal of situation, characterization, well-constructed plot, and rationality of action.

Oedipus Rex contains an excellent moment of "reversal" in the scene in which the messenger comes to tell Oedipus of the death of Polybos, whom he believes to be Oedipus's father. According to Aristotle, because Oedipus learns from him inadvertently that Polybos is not his father, "by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect." Aristotle also praised the play for its characterization of the hero, who causes the audience to feel the right mixture of "pity and fear" while observing his actions. The hero should not be too virtuous, nor should he be evil: "there remains, then, the character between these two extremes—that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families."

The plot receives commendation by Aristotle for its ability to stir the emotions of not only its audience members but, even more significantly, those who merely hear the story:"he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place." In addition, Oedipus Rex succeeds in shaping the action in such a way that its ramifications are unknown until after the event itself occurs: "the deed of horror may be done, but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or friendship be discovered afterwards here, indeed, the incident is outside the drama proper." Lastly, Aristotle remarks that he prefers the role of the chorus in Sophocles to that of Euripides, and that the Oedipus Rex excludes from the play proper any irrational elements, such as Oedipus's ignorance of the mode of Laius's death. This last point is...

(The entire section is 1050 words.)