Oedipus Rex as a tragic Drama
The Greek drama “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles is a tragedy of a man who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. The protagonist of this drama, Oedipus is a man of swift action and great insight. Oedipus is notable for his compassion, his sense of justice, his swiftness of thought and action, and his candor.
According to Aristotle, a tragedy must be an imitation of life in the form of a serious story that is complete in itself; in other words, the story must be realistic and narrow in focus. A good tragedy will evoke pity and fear in its viewers, causing the viewers to experience a feeling of catharsis. Catharsis, in Greek, means “purgation” or “purification”; running through the gamut of these strong emotions will leave viewers feeling elated, in the same way we often claim that crying might ultimately make you feel better. In Aristotle’s Poetics, it is stated that a tragedy must be complete – having a beginning, middle and end. Of equal importance “…the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good or from good fortune to bad.”(Aristotle, 15). Aristotles’ ideas of tragedy are tragic hero, hamartia, peripeteia, anagnorisis, and catharsis these ideas well demonstrated throughout Sophocles tragic drama of “Oedipus the King”. Oedipus Rex definitely meets the five main criteria for a tragedy: a tragic hero of noble birth, a tragic flaw, a fall from grace, a moment of remorse, and catharsis.
Oedipus Rex clearly meets the first of these five criteria. Oedipus is the son of Laius, who was king of Thebes. Even at the beginning of the story, when we are told that Oedipus is the son of Polybus, he is still of noble birth; Polybus is king of Corinth. Oedipus is a very ignorant man that tries to escape his fate– a man that had so much confidence in himself that he would put false accusations on people and defy his gods just because he thinks he is right. During the play, Oedipus realizes his own flaws while he investigates who the “true killer” of Laius is.
The first character flaw that comes out in the play Oedipus is Oedipus’ bad temper and irritability. When Oedipus first heard his prophecy from the Delphi oracle, he made an exodus out of Corinth as soon as he could. While on his journey to Thebes, a caravan cut him off. Enraged, Oedipus killed all the men except one. Only later did Oedipus know that one of the men he killed was his father Laius. If Oedipus had thought out his actions first, then maybe the first part of his fate wouldn’t have been fulfilled.
Other character flaws coming out during the investigation was that he is impulsive and he falsely accuses people. When Oedipus was talking to Teirasias, Teirasias proposed that he was the killer of Laius. But again Oedipus’ quick temper occurs and he accuses Tieresius of helping Creon overtake his throne. Another example of Oedipus being impulsive was when he demanded information from the messenger from Corinth. When the messenger told Oedipus that King Polybus was not his real father Oedipus was intrigued and wanted to know the truth. On the other hand, Iocasta wanted him to stop his search because she already knew the horrible truth. Oedipus impetuously wanted to know the truth; and Iocasta, horrified, rushed away and killed herself.
Oedipus having hubris or overconfidence is another flaw. Because of the absence of Laius, the city of Thebes was under a plague. To stop this plague Oedipus must find the killer of Laios. In this instance Oedipus was very confident that he would find the murderer. Again to the Teirasias scene: Teiresias was trying to tell Oedipus that he was the killer and as he said, “I say that you have been living in un-guessed shame with your nearest kin, and do not to see what woe you have come.”(Sophocles p.86) This means that he has been living with his true mother the whole time. But Oedipus, being so confident, doesn’t except Teiresias’ thoughts. A final example of Oedipus having hubris is when the messenger from Corinth came and told Oedipus that his father died. After hearing this Oedipus was confident that he had defied the gods and escaped his fate; later he found out that he was wrong.
Oedipus’ life was based on pride. It was what led to the murder of Laius, which in turn led to the killing of the Sphinx, which led to his becoming king. As he continues on his particular thread of life, Oedipus becomes more and more powerful, and as such, his pride also increases proportionately. He threatens both Tiresias and Creon, and single-handedly tries to unravel the mystery of Laius’ death. What must go on inside his mind when he finds out that not only did he murder his father, the king, but he also slept with his mother? Knowing full well that his kingdom would eventually find out his acts, how could he hold his head up when walking through the city streets? How could his subjects respect and revere a king who was a murderer and commiter of incest? Oedipus is thusly stripped of his pride, the driving force behind his whole personality. He has been crushed and lead to tragedy.
The fall from grace in Oedipus Rex is when Oedipus, Jocasta, and all the other characters in the story realize that Oedipus actually did murder Laius and that Jocasta is indeed his mother as well as his wife. This occurs rather quickly, very close to the end of the play. The audience sees this coming long before it actually does, however. In one of the passages of Oedipus speaking with Jocasta, just about everything is spelled out for us. Jocasta speaks of Laius leaving the castle with just a few servants and his being killed where three roads meet. Oedipus claims that he killed somebody where three roads met, who had a few servants with him. As though this isn’t enough, Jocasta describes Laius to Oedipus by saying “his figure was not much unlike your own” (p. 27). Oedipus, after hearing all this, says “O, it is plain already!” (p. 27) indicating that he was the killer of his father. He goes on to make absolutely sure, even though it is obvious that he was Lauis’s killer.
The moment of remorse comes at the end of the story, when one of the servants who had accompanied Laius on his final journey came to speak to Oedipus. He was the only one who survived the attack, and told that contrary to rumor, Laius was killed by one man, not robbers. He then pointed out this one man, Oedipus. We are told soon after that Jocasta hanged herself upon hearing this. When this news reaches Oedipus, he takes the pins from her dress and stabs his eyes out.
The catharsis, or emotional cleansing of the audience, comes at the same time as the remorse. The audience suddenly feels sorry for this poor man who has unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, for the people of this land who have been suffering from an awful curse because of it, and for the unfortunate Jocasta, who was basically an innocent bystander in the whole confusing disaster.
In conclusion, Oedipus’s demise was brought by his paranoia, short temper, and his sensitivity to other people’s pain. These are emotional flaws shared by all of us to different degrees. Oedipus was a victim of fate, incapable of free will, and as such he should have not been punished, save banishment only to cure the plague.
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