In Oedipus Rex, why is Oedipus the classic tragic hero?
Aristotle's tragic heroes must bear certain qualities.
- A tragic hero must be a generally good person, worthy of esteem and possessing a measure of virtue. (If a person is bad, weak, or marked by vice the audience will not empathize with him/her. The ability to empathize with the hero is essential for effective tragedy.)
- A tragic hero makes a significant mistake that is not entirely due to his own faults. The mistake may even be made as a result of the character's virtues. The fact that the major mistake is not within the bounds of the hero's control is important.
- The character's mistake or the character trait that leads to it (hamartia) is often the key to understanding the message of the work in which the tragic hero appears.
With these criteria in mind, we can argue that Oedipus is a tragic figure.
Oedipus is a strong, bold and honest man. He possesses many virtues, though he is also quick to anger and passion.
The major mistake made in the story is made in an effort to be noble - Oedipus flees the possibility of fulfilling the prophecy. All of his efforts are directed toward doing the right thing, maintaining his pride, and avoiding the terrible predictions of the oracle.
It is this noble effort that leads Oedipus to marry his mother and kill his father. His bravery and nobility cannot overcome his larger ignorance of the gods' plans. For this reason, Oedipus cannot be directly blamed for what he has done. Clearly, he was trying not to fulfill the prophecy.
We can empathize with Oedipus rather fully because he is a good person and because his mistakes were not entirely his fault. Because he acts boldly and bravely, he fulfills the prophecy. There is no shame in his behavior - only in its outcome.