Last Updated on April 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958
Extended Character Analysis
Oedipus is often considered the quintessential Aristotelian tragic hero. In Oedipus Rex, he begins the play at a high point as the benevolent and beloved King of Thebes. However, at the end of the play, he blinds himself and prepares to enter into a self-imposed exile. Oedipus is destroyed by the knowledge that he has killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus remains a compelling and tragic figure because he does not realize his mistakes until it is too late. The true tragedy of his fall is that he bears minimal fault but must carry all the blame.
Oedipus is born the son of the Theban King Laius and Queen Jocasta. An oracle predicts that he will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Hoping to avoid this fate, Laius sends the infant Oedipus to the mountains to be killed. However, a shepherd takes pity and instead delivers Oedipus to Corinth, where he is raised by Polybos and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth. In a bout of irony, Oedipus learns of the prophecy and, believing that he is truly the son of the Corinthian King and Queen, flees to the city of Thebes. On his way to Thebes, he quarrels with and kills his real father, King Laius. After the death of the former king, Oedipus attempts to answer the riddle posed by the Sphinx who has taken up residence in Thebes. When Oedipus correctly solves the riddle, the Sphinx takes its own life. After he saved Thebes, the grateful Thebans name Oedipus their new king, and he weds Laius’s widow, Jocasta, who is Oedipus’s real mother.
Under Oedipus’s rule, Thebes prospers—until a deadly plague sweeps through the population. Oedipus, a wise and good king, sends his brother-in-law Creon to consult the Oracle of Delphi. The oracle reveals that in order for the plague to come to an end, Laius’s murderer must be found and exiled. Oedipus vows to avenge Laius’s murder “as though [Laius] were [Oedipus’s] sire,” not realizing that he is both Laius’s son and murderer. As Oedipus approaches the truth, those around him attempt to shield him, but his honor does not allow him to cease his pursuit of the murderer. Upon learning of his mistakes at the end of the play, Oedipus is overcome with grief, blinded by his own hand and committed to living in exile.
As an Aristotelian tragic hero, Oedipus’s fall is caused by his hamartia, or tragic flaw. Modern scholars have long debated the nature of Oedipus’s hamartia. Some believe that Oedipus’s own deficient character resulted in his downfall while others believe that ignorance led Oedipus to sin.
By reading Oedipus’s downfall as resulting from his own deficiencies, his most apparent tragic flaw is hubris. Hubris is often interpreted as referring to excessive pride. However, it more accurately describes someone who attempts to defy the will of the gods, specifically by circumventing fate. Oedipus’s hubris is seen when he flees from Corinth after hearing the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. By attempting to circumvent fate, he sets himself in opposition to the gods. His ill treatment of the blind prophet Teiresias further insults the god Apollo, who holds dominion over prophecy.
Oedipus’s personal failings also include excessive pride and a violent temper. These traits are exhibited most clearly in his treatment of Teiresias and Creon. Though neither man harms him, Oedipus lashes out verbally and physically, going so far as to threaten to kill Creon. Similarly, when Laius provoked Oedipus, Oedipus rashly killed him and all of his men. This showcases Oedipus’s violent temper and lack of humility, both of which ultimately contribute to his tragic fall.
These traits also extend to his treatment of his wife and mother, Jocasta. Oedipus and Jocasta both believe that they have free will over their lives throughout most of the play. However, Oedipus becomes increasingly obsessed with solving the crisis alone, and he fails to recognize Jocasta's concerns.
Hamartia does not necessarily refer to a specific character flaw. On a literal level, it means “to miss the mark” or “to err.” By this interpretation, Oedipus’s downfall is the result of a series of mistakes made in ignorance. Though his actions lead to his downfall, Oedipus is largely a victim of fate and circumstance. He strives to do the right thing by the Corinthian King and Queen who raised him by fleeing to Thebes. He also strives to do the right thing by the Theban people by marrying Jocasta and becoming king. Oedipus’s downfall is made all the more tragic by the fact that he sins blindly.
Oedipus’s decision to blind himself at the end of the play speaks to his regret over his actions and to the maturation of his character. Aristotle wrote in Poetics that in order for a character to be a tragic hero, they must confront and acknowledge their hamartia. By blinding himself, Oedipus acknowledges his transition from ignorance to knowledge and accepts the pain that accompanies it. Though on a straightforward level Oedipus’s blinding himself is a form of atonement, it also takes on a symbolic meaning. Earlier in the play, Oedipus mocks Teiresias for his blindness. He accuses the prophet of being “blind” both literally and metaphorically. In response, Teiresias tells Oedipus that though Oedipus “hast eyes,” he is the blind one. Upon learning of his own ignorance, Oedipus symbolically exchanges his ability to physically see for the ability to see the truth. He enters his exile an enlightened but tormented man. He returns in Sophocles's second story in the Oedipus Trilogy, Oedipus at Colonus.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support