Research Paper: Tragedy in Oedipus Rex

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Tragedy Explored in Oedipus Rex

One of the common threads in life is tragedy. If we live long enough, we are bound to see many tragedies, as they are some of the most tightly woven threads in the fabric of life. In Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex, we see one of the most painful human tragedies unfold and culminate to disaster. The play is tragic in many ways and it even stands up to the standards of Aristotle's definition for tragedy. According to Aristotelian theory, the hero of a drama can only be tragic if he is royalty. This aspect of his character usually makes the hero seem extraordinary in some way. We see this with Oedipus, who is beloved and respected by his people. Those in Thebes and beyond consider him extraordinary in because he solves the riddle of the Sphinx. In accordance with Aristotle, a tragic hero needs to suffer the consequences of wavering between to points-of-view, a condition that will expose a tragic flaw in his personality. For Aristotle, it is also important for the hero to elicit pity or sympathy from the audience. Oedipus' flaw is not difficult to identify. The most difficult aspect of this play is watching as the tragedy unfolds into a disaster too large to ignore. The scope of Oedipus Rex makes it a tragedy for all generations.

Oedipus's grand character and his grand actions alone make the drama tragic. This man is an "extraordinary" person (Wilson 190), as Edwin Wilson puts it. Most tragic heroes, especially in ancient literature, are kings, queens, or some other form of nobility. Wilson also notes that the "characters of tragedy stand not only as individuals but as symbols of an entire culture or society" (Wilson 190). These people are of great stature but they are still at their very core human. They possess a tragic flaw that eventually brings them down. A tragic flaw is a "factor which is a character's chief weakness and which makes him or her most vulnerable; often intensifies in time of stress" (Wilson 440). The flaw brings about suffering, which is another element we find in the drama. According to Aristotle's Poetics, a champion of "high renown" (Barranger 64) must exist between two emotional extremes to be a true tragic hero. This complication adds another layer to the character's nature and becomes essential to understanding him or her because it demonstrates how he or she is not entirely good or evil. A character is this light is nothing more than human and, above all else, real. This humanity makes his or her "misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty" (Aristotle XIII). This misfortune drives the plot of the drama, with the tragic hero generally swerving into bad luck through terrible judgment followed by action.

Oedipus certainly falls into the category of a tragic hero, making the drama, an undeniable tragedy because he was in a powerful position. He is also wise and very well respected. He solves the Sphinx's riddle and the people of Thebes cling to his "alter steps" (Prologue 18), according to the Priest. In short, Oedipus is a likable guy. He is reigning at a time of difficulty because Thebes is suffering from a plague and they have full faith that he possesses the knowledge to help them. They do not think he is a god but they do think he is "wisest in the ways of God" (Prologue. 38). They are counting on him to solve their problem and to confound matters, the Priest is begging him to save Thebes as well. Before Oedipus becomes a tragic hero, he is a revered man carrying the respect and love of his people. Here we see how he falls into Aristotle's definition of tragic hero.

The king begins making bad choices when he becomes distracted by his own needs. Oedipus begins thinking of himself and allows himself to become distracted from matters that are more serious. He allows curiosity to get the best of him and his first mistake is becoming indignant and arrogant with those around him. Oedipus turns a deaf ear to Teiresias as he tries warns him of the unintended consequences of his action. Oedipus remembers how wise he was with the Sphinx's riddle and he remembers how everyone believes in his intelligence and charges Teiresias of being a "wicked old man" (Sophocles I.i.118) with "no feeling at all" (I.i.119). If this was not bad enough, he then blames Teiresias for Laios' murder. It is important to note that Teiresias does literally nothing to offend Oedipus. He offers him sound advice but he never does anything decidedly offensive and this is the first sign that Oedipus is beginning to look at things from a slightly skewed angle. He stops listening to things with discernment and his arrogance closes his eyes and ears to the truth. When he hears the truth, he is unaffected because his mind is closed to understanding. When Teiresias says, "You yourself are the pollution of this country" (I.i.135), Oedipus hears a bunch of words that do not make sense. He does not take the time to consider what they might actually mean. When Teiresias says, "You are the murderer whom you seek" (I.i.143) and "You live in hideous shame with those/Most dear to you. You cannot see the evil" (I.i.148-9), Oedipus still cannot process what any of these sentences mean because he is so full of himself. In addition, Oedipus refuses to listen to Iocaste. He begins to see her as a nagging wife rather than a trusted confidant and her advice to avoid quarrelling with Creon sounds like junk to him, so he refuses. He nags her for more information about the three highways and curiosity gets the best of him as he decides to locate and speak with the shepherd that witnessed Laios' murder. Iocaste attempts to convince Oedipus that seeking the truth is not important but he does not believe she is on his side in this matter. He tells her, "I will not listen; the truth must be made known" (II.iii.146). He recognizes her as an enemy rather than his supporting wife from this point on. He tells her:

The Queen, like a woman, is perhaps ashamed

To think of my low origin. But I

Am a child of luck; I cannot be dishonored . . .

How could I wish that I were someone else?

How could I not be glad to know my birth? (II.iii.159-60, 164-5)

Here we see how easy it is to become distracted by something. Oedipus allows himself to be tricked by his own mind in a short amount of time because he takes his mind off the things that matter in this world. Sophocles also allows Oedipus to demonstrate how we are responsible for our own fate as we make decisions every day. Edwin Walton writes that Sophocles "refrains from suggesting that Oedipus is simply an unfortunate who has been cursed by Apollo, or by Fate, for no good reason" (Wilson). It is important for readers to realize how one thought and deed leads to another and creates a chain of events that can be good or bad. Oedipus' courage to search for the truth highlights his "heroic stature, but he is much more than a worm wriggling on the end of the god's fishing-line" (Walton). This supports the notion of Oedipus' tragic flaw, which is nothing more than "human failing" (Walton). It is failing and it is failing in the grandest of ways.

The tragedy of Oedipus Rex goes beyond the main and flaw and this is in accordance with Aristotle's ideas regarding tragedy. Aristotle believed the tragic drama must also compel the audience to feel sympathy, pity, or dread relating to its hero. Audiences undoubtedly feel pity, and even sympathy, for both Oedipus. In addition, fear builds up throughout the production of the drama as the audience begins to realize what is in store for Oedipus. Moses Hadas writes, the "requital seems monstrously unfair, for Oedipus had done his best to avoid the crimes and had committed them unwittingly. Actually, the play is rather a glorification than a condemnation of Oedipus" (Hadas xii). Hadas has a point in that Oedipus does act foolishly but no one would claim he deserves such a punishment. His actions also support the Aristotelian definition of a tragedy because the hero must, at some point, experience catharsis. This action brings the drama full circle, so to speak, in that the hero's eyes are opened to everything. We see this in Oedipus as he comes full circle with the knowledge he knew would somehow transform his life. The same nature that allowed him to solve the riddle of the Sphinx is the same one that presses his mind about his heritage. He never considered all of the alternatives and, in his defense, it is literally impossible to determine all outcomes of any given circumstance or decision. However, Oedipus… [END OF PREVIEW]

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