Oedipus as an Aristotelian Tragic Hero
In 335 BCE, Aristotle published Poetics, a tract in which he describes the ideal form and function of a Greek tragedy. In Aristotle’s eyes, a good tragic hero must begin the story at a high point and end it at a low one. The hero must be brought low by their own hamartia, or tragic flaw, rather than through the machinations of a villain. Finally, they must confront their tragic flaw in order for the audience to experience catharsis, a spiritual and emotional relief. Aristotle references Oedipus Rex throughout his treatise as a paragon of tragedy. Specifically, Sophocles’s depiction of Oedipus as a character fits nearly perfectly with Aristotle’s definition of the ideal tragic hero.
Oedipus begins the play at a high point: he is a highly respected king who is beloved by his people; he is happily married with several adoring children; and he is confident in himself and in his own abilities. However, he is brought low by his own tragic flaw. By the end of the play, he has lost his crown, his family, and his belief in himself. In Oedipus’s case, his tragic flaw proves to be hubris, or the belief in the ability of mortals to defy the will of the gods. Laius, Jocasta, and Oedipus all suffer from this flaw by attempting to circumvent the prophecy that foretells Oedipus’s patricide and incest. The catharsis, or emotional cleansing for the audience, comes as Oedipus learns the truth about his parentage and accepts his fate.
Dramatic irony is pervasive in Oedipus Rex. Dramatic irony is a device whereby the audience understands the significance of a character’s words or actions but the character does not. The entire premise of the play is based on Oedipus’s ignorance of his parentage and, by extension, the fact that he has killed his father and married his mother. Audiences begin to suspect the tragic truth of Oedipus’s life far earlier than he does. For the original Greek audiences, Oedipus’s story would have already been well known. This foreknowledge enhances the dramatic irony, since the audience does not need to wait for the clues that Oedipus receives.
Throughout the play, Oedipus makes accusations and promises that end up being tragically ironic. When told that the only way to end the plague is to exile or execute Laius’s murderer, Oedipus worries that the murderer may come after him next. He vows to find and punish the murderer and declares that if he were to ever welcome the murderer into his home, then he too should be punished. The ultimate bout of irony arrives when Oedipus accuses Teiresias of the murder. All of these instances reinforce Oedipus’s ignorance, deepening the tragedy of the eventual revelation surrounding his true parentage. Denied the information that might have saved him from his tragic fate, Oedipus unknowingly committed several horrific acts. The audience can only pityingly watch as Oedipus determinedly pursues the information that will bring about his ruin and reveal the tragedy to which he is already fated.
The Chorus as a Dramatic Device
Choruses are an important fixture in Greek tragedies. They are comprised of actors who both participate in and comment on the action of a play through song and dance. Depending on the play, the Chorus can occupy various roles. The Chorus in Oedipus Rex is comprised of Theban Elders, respected members of society who frequently offer advice to Oedipus. They help provide contextual information about the setting, and their reactions to the events of the play help guide the response of the audience. Choruses...
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also often clarify the thematic messages of tragedies, as the Chorus of Theban Elders does at the end ofOedipus Rex. In their final lines, they lament the tragedy of Oedipus’s fall. Most importantly, they remind the audience that fate is inescapable and that fortune’s blessings are fickle.
The Chorus of Theban Elders revere Oedipus. In their words, he is a “great” man and the “mightiest” Theban. This is an important aspect of Oedipus’s characterization. Otherwise, the audience only witnesses Oedipus at his lowest point. The Chorus in Oedipus Rex plays an active role, relative to the choruses in other Greek tragedies, who primarily comment on the action without interfering. The Chorus in Oedipus Rex often speak directly to Oedipus and urge him not to kill Creon. Oedipus’s willingness to listen to their advice makes him seem more reasonable and less tyrannical. The Chorus’s general sympathy for Oedipus ultimately gives the audience license to pity him as well.
Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus Rex debuted in 429 BCE at the Athenian City Dionysia, a festival dedicated to Dionysus, the God of theatre and revelry. The play took second place at the festival and was received positively by audiences. Oedipus Rex is often considered the first entry in a series of plays by Sophocles that detail the fate of Thebes in the wake of Oedipus’s tragic fall. The other two plays are Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. Together, the three tragedies are often referred to as “Sophocles’s Theban Plays.” However, this is something of a misnomer, because Sophocles is known to have written several other plays set in Thebes that have since been lost. Additionally, the three plays were written years apart and all debuted at different festivals. Oedipus Rex, the first play in the series chronologically,was written at least 12 years after Antigone, the final play in the series chronologically.
Oedipus Rex takes inspiration from the ancient myth of Oedipus, which was briefly mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. During his travels in the underworld, Odysseus meets Jocasta, here referred to as Epicaste, who tells him about how she married her son after he killed her husband. She later committed suicide out of grief. The House of Laius was also the focus of a trio of plays by famous tragedian Aeschylus. Aeschylus’s trilogy won first place at the City Dionysia in 467 BCE, 38 years prior to the debut of Oedipus Rex. Only one play out of Aeschylus’s trilogy is currently extant: the third in the series, Seven Against Thebes.