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Oedipus Rex as the Quintessential Greek Tragedy

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Oedipus Rex is considered the quintessential Greek tragedy due to its exploration of fate, hubris, and the human condition. It follows the tragic hero Oedipus, who unknowingly fulfills a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. The play's intricate plot, dramatic irony, and themes of unavoidable destiny and tragic flaws exemplify classic elements of Greek tragedy.

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How is Oedipus Rex an example of a Greek tragedy?

Oedipus Rex is not only an example of Greek tragedy. It is the quintessential example from which Aristotle drew his definition of tragedy in the Poetics.

A Greek tragedy, according to Aristotle, should concern the fall of a great man from a high position. This fall should involve a tragic flaw (hamartia) in his character, though it is also caused by the operation of fate. Oedipus is a king, whose character is essentially noble. One might, however, argue that fate is more than usually responsible for his downfall, and his obsessive determination to discover the truth is less of a flaw than many others that appear in Greek tragedy.

Oedipus Rex also contains the Aristotelian element of recognition at the end of the play, when both the protagonist and the audience are brought face to face with the awful reality (anagnorisis). This awakens pity and terror in the audience and purges them of negative emotion, a process Aristotle calls catharsis.

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How is Oedipus Rex a good example of Aristotelian tragedy?

For Aristotle, Sophocles' writing of Oedipus' narrative fulfills much in way of the notions of tragedy that he outlines in Poetics.  For Aristotle, great tragedy resides in the fulfillment of some essential characteristics.  One of these is the idea of reversal, a dramatic situation in which character realizations revolve around understanding the truth from what was previously believed to be so.  In the case of Oedipus' narrative, his reversal is seen when he realizes that who he thought he was is not who he really is.  In this, Aristotle feels that Sophocles' work accomplishes a major tenet of tragedy.  At the same time, Aristotelian notions of tragedy revolve around the embrace of a character who is not morally perfect, but not immoral by any means.  They must achieve the right balance of "virtue" and "evil," something that Oedipus displays in his treatment of Tiresias and Creon, but also something shown in his own pathetic state.  For Aristotle, the fulfillment of a solid and effective plot structure is one in which the audience "hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place."  This is accomplished in the ending where the structure of the plot has revealed at the perfect moment, a climax, the truth about the nature of Oedipus' reality.  In these areas, a strong case can be made that Sophocles' work represents a good example of Aristotle's notion of tragedy.

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How does Oedipus Rex by Sophocles embody a classical tragedy?

Aristotle argued that a tragedy had to have a tragic hero whose downfall was based on a "hamartia," or tragic flaw. This would be the seed of their destruction, and would bring them down from their high position. In many cases, this tragic flaw was pride or hubris, and in Oedipus this is no different. Note how he describes himself when he realises what the problem is with Thebes and what he needs to do as a result to help his people:

I'll start again--I'll bring it all to light myself! ...

Now you have me to fight for you, you'll see:

I am the land's avenger by all rights,

and Apollo's champion too.

Oedipus is shown he to be incredibly arrogant in the way that he describes himself and how he views himself as the single saviour his people will ever need. Spot how he refers to himself, using "I" repeatedly to emphasise his own belief in his talents and ability to uncover the past. Of course, this arrogance and self-belief is tragically what causes his own downfall and brings him to ruin, for it is his determination to "bring it all to light" himself that leads to his own discovery of his true identity. If he had not been so arrogant and sure of himself, perhaps he would still remain ignorant and happy. This play therefore is an example of a classical tragedy through the depiction of Oedipus as a tragic hero with his tragic flaw.

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What makes Oedipus Rex a perfect tragedy?

As the audience reading/viewing this play, we are put in a position to fully empathize with Oedipus and his plight. This is one way to argue that Oedipus Rex is a perfect tragedy, which has adhered to Aristotle's definition of the tragic hero in its depiction of the story's protagonist. 

One important factor in the success of the play as a tragedy is our sense that Oedipus is not at fault. He is acting reasonably, for the most part, and even courageously in his pursuit of the truth. Though he may pursue the truth with too much haste at times and too much passion, this endeavor is not marked by vice or by predictable folly. 

Oedipus is acting on what he knows and his knowledge is limited.

The limits of human knowledge is, of course, central to the meaning of the play. This notion unites the audience with the protagonist in the same general plight. Connecting or relating to a universal theme is part of the power of tragedy. Sophocles' play explores a universal theme through its protagonist and so becomes something of a perfect tragedy. 

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Why has Oedipus Rex been called one of the most perfect dramatic plots ever devised?

The plot of Oedipus perfectly executes APT: action, place, and time.

The play's action centers entirely on one central issue: Oedipus's life. As the play unfolds, we learn the full story of Oedipus—from his birth to the deeds he's done to his fate as foretold by the gods. Every action that occurs in the play directly relates to Oedipus's story, creating unwavering unity in focus.

The unity of place is created by setting the scenes geographically close to each other so that the audience can realistically believe that all of these events unfold as quickly as they do (tying into the unity of time I'll discuss next). The play is set in front of and within the palace; with the exception of Iocaste's suicide and Oedipus's gouging out his eyes, we see everything that occurs.

The unity of time is perfectly executed—as the entire play occurs within the timeframe of a single day. In order for us to learn Oedipus's entire life story within this compressed time span, Sophocles places us as witnesses to the most important day in Oedipus's life: the day when the truth comes out. With rapidity, we catch up on everything that has brought Oedipus to this moment, and we watch his tragic downfall.

The play is so perfectly done that Aristotle uses it as the paragon with which to define the six discrete parts of a tragedy: Plot (mythos); Character (ethos); Thought (dianoia); Diction (lexis); Melody (melos); and Spectacle (opsis). Aristotle also then defines the tragic hero as a man who can see the root of his own downfall. Oedipus does exactly this and acknowledges that "this punishment [of gouging out my eyes and exiling myself from the city] that I have laid upon myself is just."

At the end of the play, every plot thread has been tied—nothing is left unresolved and the audience has felt a cathartic release of emotion. The play accomplishes all we ask for in drama and does so with tightly constructed authorial control.

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Why has Oedipus Rex been called one of the most perfect dramatic plots ever devised?

Oedipus is the quintessential tragic hero in the quintessential tragic arc. He is, essentially, a good man who suffers from a major flaw (pride, or hubris); this flaw leads to an error in judgment, and this mistake leads to a reversal in his fortune and his ultimate downfall. Oedipus wants to be a good king—he seems to legitimately care about his subjects and wants to help and protect them. However, when he learned from the oracle (prior to the play's beginning) that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother, he decided not to return to Corinth, where the people he thought were his birth parents lived. He proudly thought that he could avoid the prophecy—the will of the gods—but no mortal can thwart the gods. Oedipus learns the hard way that his pride heralds his downfall, when he discovers that the prophecy has come true.

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Why has Oedipus Rex been called one of the most perfect dramatic plots ever devised?

Oedipus Rex is admired for its plot because of two closely related qualities: the peripeteia and the irony. "Peripeteia" means reversal, and it is hard to image a more complete reversal than occurs in this play. Oedipus is a king, and wants to do what is right by his people, and, specifically, to cure the plague ravaging them. What does he learn when he investigates? That the cause of the plague is…himself! That he killed his father and married his mother, precisely because of an attempt to dodge a prophecy that he would do that very thing! That, combined with his wails of agony when he realizes that his whole life is the reverse of what he planned, are exquisite.

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Why does Aristotle consider Sophocles' Oedipus Rex the perfect example of tragedy?

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.

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Why does Aristotle consider Sophocles' Oedipus Rex the perfect example of tragedy?

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.

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Why does Aristotle consider Sophocles' Oedipus Rex the perfect example of tragedy?

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.

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Why does Aristotle consider Sophocles' Oedipus Rex the perfect example of tragedy?

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles can certainly serve as an archetype of Aristotelian tragedy. As defined by Aristotle in his Poetics, tragedy is

...an imitation in dramatic form of an action that is serious and complete, with the incidents arousing pity and fear wherewith it effects a catharsis of such emotions....The chief characters are noble personages ....The plot involves a change in the protagonist's fortune.

1. The plot is serious and complete - In Oedipus Rex, the city of Thebes suffers from a plague and is ravaged by fire; therefore, the citizens seek the aid of King Oedipus, who has previously saved the citizens from death by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, who subsequently destroys itself. When he returns from Delphi, Creon tells the king,

I shall say all I heard from the god.(105)
Phoebus clearly ordered us, my lord,
to drive out the pollution being fostered
in this very land, not to nurture it unhealed

In his efforts to save Thebes, Oedipus, then, interviews the blind seer Teiresias in order to learn the cause of the plague.  In so doing and by calling upon others such as the shepherd, Oedipus eventually learns the terrible truth that he himself is the cause of the city's misery. With this knowledge, Oedipus blinds himself and leaves Thebes.

2. The tragic fall of the protagonist, a noble character, is his/her own fault brought upon by his/her hamartia, a criminal act committed in ignorance of some fact, or for the greater good.  In Oedipus Rex, for example, Oedipus, who has been told that he will kill his father has moved away and gone to another place to live, however, he ironically comes to his birthplace, unknowingly marries his mother Jocasta, and effects the tragic consequences for Thebes, "the pollution."

However, because he is of noble character, Oedipus seeks to aid Thebes as its king. In this effort, Oedipus experiences a discovery and a reversal of fortune, two other components of the Aristotelian tragic hero. As Oedipus, in his pride, argues with Teiresias, he is told that he will soon be cursed himself, as he "weaves" his own doom:


Do you know your true descent? And secretly
you are an enemy to your own kin,
both under the earth and on it. Striking you
from both sides the terrible hounds of your mother’s
and father’s curse will drive you from this land;(440)
though you see well enough now, then you will be blind

The seer's words do come true and Oedipus blinds himself in his angst at this discovery that he is the murderer of the former king, Laios, that the city seeks. Oedipus falls from great heights to a tragic end as he learns that he has killed his father, married his mother, and in this incestuous relationship, he has fathered children.

3. There is a catharsis. Certainly, the audience of Oedipus Rex feels pity and fear for Oedipus when he attains the knowledge that he is the perpetrator of the misery of Thebes, and when he blinds himself. Nevertheless, there is also Oedipus's new knowledge of himself and wisdom which affords the audience the uplifting recognition of human greatness.

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How is Oedipus Rex a Greek tragedy?

First, Oedipus Rex has a tragic hero: an essentially good person who possesses a tragic flaw (a flaw that will contribute to the hero's ultimate downfall) and makes an error in judgment (or a series of errors) that leads to his destruction. This error produces suffering for the protagonist and arouses sympathy from the audience. Oedipus is the tragic hero of this play, and his tragic flaw is, arguably, his hubris (or immense pride). As a result of his error in judgment, also called hamartia, the tragic hero experiences a reversal of fortune. Oedipus, for example, begins the play as a powerful and self-assured king, but after the revelation of his origin, he loses everything: his wife/mother, his children, his kingdom, his eyesight. Further, the play makes use of dramatic irony to build tension, leading to a catharsis, a purging of the audience's emotion when the truth finally comes out.

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How is Oedipus Rex a Greek tragedy?

This question has already been asked and answerd on eNotes.  Here is a link for you:  http://www.enotes.com/oedipus-rex/q-and-a/what-greec-tragedy-133793

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What is Greek tragedy in regards to Oedipus Rex?

Greek tragedy's central characteristic is following a noble character who experiences a change in fortunes due to a fatal flaw. This character is essentially good at heart, but their fatal flaw is what causes their misfortune. This misfortune and the character's reaction to it is what creates the tragedy.

In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is the tragic hero. He is shown to be a good man and a good king. He cares enough about his parents (or who he thinks are his parents) that he leaves home when hears the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. He loves his wife and children, and he is concerned about the welfare of his people.

His reversal in fortune occurs when he learns the truth about his parentage and his marriage. His fatal flaw is his own anger, which is pointed out by Tiresias. Had he not let anger get the better of him, he would not have unwittingly killed his own father, who offended him while Oedipus was traveling all those years ago.

(Some have offered different interpretations of what Oedipus's fatal flaw might be. Some claim that it is his pride in fighting against his fate that brings him down. Others claim that it is his arrogance—in assuming he can handle the truth behind what is causing the plague in his kingdom and his insistence in pursuing this truth—that brings him low.)

Greek tragedy also seeks to arouse pity and terror in the audience. This certainly happens in Oedipus Rex. The accidental incest between mother and son is horrific enough, but Jocasta and Oedipus's violent reactions to this terrible truth arouse even more horror. The audience feels pity for the both of them, since Oedipus and Jocasta are not bad people—both are noble rulers and affectionate people: to see them suffer as they do creates great sympathy in the audience.

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What is Greek tragedy in regards to Oedipus Rex?

Another aspect of Greek Tragedy, as described by Aristotle, is the idea of hamartia, or tragic flaw.  It is this basic character flaw that brings about the downfall of the central character.  For example, in Oedipus Rex, the tragic flaw of Oedipus is his hubris, his excessive pride.  He thought he could outsmart the prophecy, but his actions with that cause him to fulfill it.

The structure of a Greek Tragedy is very predictable.  It begins with the prologos, the prologue.  In it, the audience is given the context for the play, usually presented by a God. The parados follows; this is the entrance of the Chorus.  Then there are alternations of Episodes and Choral Odes.  Finally, the exodos, the exits.  At this point, the God will often return to wrap up the play.

The role of the Chorus was very important.  They would advise, narrate, and foretell through their various chants and dances.  Their Choral Odes also provided time for the principal actors to change their mask and robe.  A maximum of three actors were allowed in a tragedy, although these three actors would often play several roles in the different episodes.

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