Aristotle considers Sophocles' Oedipus Rex as the perfect example of tragedy.  Explain why.With examples from the play please.

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mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Aristotle's Poetics, he outlines the major principles of tragedy, citing Sophocles' Oedipus as the paragon of the form.

Aristotle's reasons are clear: to be the perfect tragedy the play must have a perfect plot. Oedipus follows the classic Aristotelian triangle of rising action, climax, and falling action.  The play is full of dramatic irony (the audience knows more than the tragic hero) and verbal irony (the use of sarcasm, understatement, and overstatement).  It has the classic "reversal of fortune" in which Oedipus thinks he is innocent, but then soon realizes he is guilty.

The play must also have the perfect tragic hero.  He cannot be perfect; otherwise, his fall is not warranted.  Conversely, he cannot be a criminal who rises to power--that too is unrealistic.  So, Oedipus avoids these two extremes: Oedipus is a great man, but he also suffers from two great vices (anger and pride), so he is ripe for both greatness and a great fall.

Lastly, the play has the three unities, which leads to the greatest level of catharsis (purgation of pity and fear):

The unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots.

The unity of place: a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place.

The unity of time: the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours.

davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Another aspect of Aristotle's theory relevant here is the threefold response that an audience must have to an effective, well-written tragedy. First, the audience must develop an emotional attachment to the tragic hero—in this case, Oedipus; second, the audience must fear what will happen to the hero; and third, after misfortune has struck, the audience must feel pity for the hero. Taken together, these three elements can then be applied to Oedipus Rex.

We have an emotional attachment to Oedipus because we recognize him as a noble character, a bigger and better version of ourselves. Because we have an emotional attachment to him we fear for what may befall him. Oedipus's hamartia or fatal flaw is one that is embedded deep within the human soul—a lack of knowledge; in his particular case a lack of knowledge concerning his true identity. Watching the action unfold, we can somewhat imagine ourselves in the same position of Oedipus.

Finally, we feel pity for Oedipus when, tortured by the terrible truth and the realization it brings, he blinds himself. Oedipus now has the worst of both worlds. He isn't dead, but he might as well be; he experiences the darkness of death but not its substance. And worst of all, his suffering is set to continue, as the Chorus helpfully reminds us. This merely serves to heighten the sense of pity we feel towards him.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Aristotelian definition of tragedy involves a sense of transformation within the understanding of the character's perception of themselves and their world.  Oedipus' depiction meets this standard, as the character seen at the start of the dramatic action has been completely changed by the events at the end of the narrative.  The element of action in the play is also something that Aristotle would appreciate.  Narration is not how the reader understands the fate and condition of Oedipus, but rather through action that helps to deliver the "catharsis" of the character.  The reader/ audience ends up pitying Oedipus and fearing any potential of the same predicament falling upon their own states of being in the world.