How is Oedipus a tragic hero in "Oedipus Rex"?

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Oedipus is a man of high social standing and is a "hero" since he embodies the qualities of the people of his land (though his true royal identity is hidden from him since he was adopted), he attempts to do the right things at great cost to himself, and he does put...

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too much emphasis on his own abilities, ie, he is arrogant.

He leaves his home to avoid the prophecy, only to fulfill it by killing his father and marrying his mother.

He vows to find the killer of his father at all costs, even though he doesn't realize the murderer is himself.

He is too arrogant to admit his errors and attempts to take it out on the blind soothsayer.

The result, then, is the prophecy fulfilled and Oedipus blinding himself before wandering aimlessly through the land.

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And to add to that, you might see Oedipus' pursuit of the "murderer" in the oracle as an interesting reflection of the status of a tragic hero. Oedipus is arrogant enough to think that he can solve the riddle and find the murderer by himself: but of course, he is the murderer. He wants to untie the puzzle, but he actually ends up pulling apart his own life and security. Again, perhaps a tragic hero is a combination of good intentions, fervent pursuit of a noble ideal, at huge personal cost.

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That totally depends on your definition of "tragic hero". The definition of tragic heroes and of tragedy itself is a hugely contentious issue about which very few scholars agree - and so, of course, you have to define your terms before you can even begin to answer this question.

If you go by Aristotle's "Poetics" (the most famous text written about Greek tragedy), Oedipus (in Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex") is given as an exemplar of the tragic hero. He is a man of high standing socially (King of Thebes), intellectually (he is the great solver of riddles) and morally (he is determined to find the murderer and end the plague on his people).

Throughout the play his quest to find the murderer described by the Oracle is made with the best possible intentions: only Oedipus is a man who has made a mistake ("mistake" is the best translation of "hamartia" which is often misunderstood as meaning a personal "tragic flaw" - not what Aristotle wrote or intended). Is Oedipus' mistake to be too fervent in the pursuit of truth, thereby revealing what (as Teiresias says) would be best left covered? Or is it to act too rashly towards an old man at a crossroads?

One interesting way to think about tragic heroes in Sophocles is by using an adjective Sophocles applies to all of them: "deinos" meaning both wonderful and terrible. For Oedipus, it might just be his virtue that brings him crashing down.

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What makes Oedipus the King of Tragedy?

It is a fairly lofty claim to argue that Oedipus is a "King" of tragedy.  He has to be up there by any standard of what defines tragedy.  I am not sure he is the only "king" of tragedy, but he is a king of a tragic predicament on many levels.

In my mind, the most fundamental level on which Oedipus is a "king" of tragedy is that his tragic collision is caused by a genuine sense of goodness.  While he might display some bad habits in the treatment of those who disagree with him, he operates as a fundamentally "decent" human being. He seeks to find out why his subjects suffer.  That is the reason for all that plagues him.  In order to alleviate the burden that is placed upon their shoulders, Oedipus demands to find out the truth, as horrific and awful as that is.  If Oedipus did not care about his subjects, he would have simply concealed his own past or simply discarded it in the face of their suffering.  He suffers because he feels that their suffering must end.  He becomes a high figure in tragic proportions because of his having to "take the hit" in order for his people to live lives of happiness.

Additionally, Oedipus has to be seen as fundamentally human.  His beliefs in his own sense of superiority and hubris are uniquely human.  He fails to see himself as inferior to fate and the gods.  Literature has proven that this is not something that only he experiences.  He is not the first nor certainly the last to believe that he can outrun his fate.  For being human he suffers tragic dimensions and would represent a high level of tragic collision.

Finally, I would propose that the horrible condition of Oedipus' sin is something that would make him a valued member of the Tragic Hall of Fame.  Whether it was self made or something that is simply outside the realm of his control, it's a fairly awful fate to have killed one's father, marry one's mother, and have children through her.  Merely writing it is pretty horrific.  The fact that his mother/ wife kills herself, and he blinds himself, dedicating himself to the betterment of his children all help to contribute to Oedipus as a definite king of tragedy.  I am not sure there is much else.  Even if one concedes everything was his fault, something that I am not ready to fully do, it is a high point of tragedy to see Oedipus at his lowest point at the end of the drama.

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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. 

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Can Oedipus be seen as a tragic hero in Oedipus Rex?

Oedipus is a tragic hero. He is, perhaps, the quintessential tragic hero, fulfilling Aristotle's definition exactly. 

For Aristotle, a tragic hero possesses certain qualities. The hero is a person of value, demonstrating true quality and virtue. Though the hero can be flawed, he or she cannot be fundamentally weak or be a person characterized by vice. 

Also, to be tragic, the hero must experience a fall, or tragedy, which comes about through no fault of his own. Often, the character's downfall will be the result of one of the character's strengths that is turned against him. This is commonly called the character's tragic or fatal flaw (hamartia).

Oedipus clearly meets these criteria. A strong and noble leader and a man of integrity, Oedipus demonstrates many fine qualities. Though he is quick to anger, he is not cruel at heart. He is open and bold and willing to sacrifice himself. 

He is a tragic hero because he has virtue and meets a tragic fate through no fault of his own. He brings on his tragedy through his own sense of honesty and strength as he insists that he be told the truth about his past. 

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What makes us consider Oedipus a tragic hero in Oedipus Rex?

Oedipus was a tragic figure in a very counter-intuitive way. In the Greek mind only those with extraordinary characteristics can actually be tragic. Common people, in other words, cannot be tragic figures. The reason for this is because only people who transgress important boundaries through pride or what the Greeks call "hubris" can actually be tragic. The dynamic behind this is the story of the fall of a great person.

This was an important concept to the Greek. Let me unpack this a bit by looking at the oracle of Delphi.

The Greeks believed that the oracle of Delphi was the center of the world, a place of wisdom. At Delphi, there was two important slogans. The first one was, "nothing in excess." The second one was, "know yourself." Both of these slogans speak of boundaries. If you don't do anything in excess, then you are keeping within boundaries. And if you know yourself, then you will know that you are a mortal and not a god!

In the light of this, we can say that Oedipus broke boundaries. He thought he could solve any problem, such as the plague. He thought that he could outwit the gods, just like he did the sphynx. If you read the play, he drives the action completely. He leads to the investigation. He leads to his demise. Yet, on the other hand, this is tragic, because he is also so able. This is the Greek tension.

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