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Oedipus The King Tragedy Essay

Oedipus Rex as a Classical Tragedy

Oedipus Rex is a typical classical tragedy because it has the element of tragic setting, atmosphere and mood, tragic character with tragic hamartia, tragic plot design moving to tragic disintegration, and therefore the tragic realization by the character and audience.


The dialogue as well as the language of the chorus also emphasizes the tragic message about the tragic life of the ill-fated Oedipus.

Oedipus Rex is an ancient Greek tragedy which is so typical of the classical tragedies that Aristotle took it as an example to define and illustrate the qualities of a tragedy. Aristotle's definition is a descriptive one (and not prescriptive); the definition of tragedy has been modified because many great tragedies have been written since without being confined to the Aristotelian features. However, it is feasible to first see this tragedy in terms of Aristotle's definition.

Aristotle defined tragedy in terms of its plot, character and action. The plot of a tragedy must consist of one, great and complete action. Each part of the play must contribute to the final tragic consequences and effect. The cause and effect must be logically linked: no external force must intervene. The main tragic character must possess great status and ideal qualities; but he must also have a weakness, though not a moral flaw —this weakness is called ‘hamartia'. The consequence of the character's own error of judgment or of his wrong action must bring the fall, from which there is no escape. This should give us the sense of inevitability, making us accept and realize the reality and the weakness of the character. The reversal and discovery must reveal to the character and the audience the cause of the character's undoing and downfall. It should not be the doing of the external forces, like supernatural forces or of fate and chance.

Besides the tragic plot, we have a typically tragic character, Oedipus. Oedipus is a tragic character because he is a great man with some ideals and with a commitment to find out the truth and cure the problem besetting is country. But like a tragic character, he has a tragic weakness. His tragic weakness is that in the confidence of what he knows or can know he becomes too careless and disrespectful towards the gods, the fate that the oracles have disclosed for him: he defies to any inner voice and wisdom with regards to fate and destiny.

Another tragic element in the play Oedipus Rex is its tragic atmosphere. From beginning to end, we are exposed to very serious and frightening situations. The dramatic conflict among the characters and the dramatic tension that builds in our minds never settles down; and there is no comic element, even like in Shakespearean tragedies. Like in a typical tragedy, the dramatist has designed even the dialogue so carefully as to create and sustain a very serious tone and mood throughout. The hopes that always lead us to fear, and the anxiety that always leads us to frustration finally contributes to the catharsis. Our false hopes and wishes as prompted and guided by the chorus finally collapse into the tragic purification of emotions, which is called catharsis or purgation (in the audience), along with the tragic change in the characters. The chorus is also a corollary element that contributes considerably in the tragic characteristics of this drama.

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In the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, Oedipus is a classic tragic hero.

According to Aristotle's definition, Oedipus is a tragic hero because he is a

king whose life falls apart when he finds out his life story. There are a

number of characteristics described by Aristotle that identify a tragic hero.

For example, a tragic hero must cause his own downfall; his fate is not

deserved, and his punishment exceeds the crime; he also must be of noble

stature and have greatness. Oedipus is in love with his idealized self, but

neither the grandiose nor the depressive "Narcissus" can really love himself

(Miller 67). All of the above characteristics make Oedipus a tragic hero

according to Aristotle's ideas about tragedy, and a narcissist according to

Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self.

Using Oedipus as an ideal model, Aristotle says that a tragic hero must be an

important or influential man who makes an error in judgment, and who must

then suffer the consequences of his actions. Those actions are seen when

Oedipus forces Teiresias to reveal his destiny and his father's name. When

Teiresias tries to warn him by saying "This day will give you parents and

destroy you" (Sophocles line 428), Oedipus still does not care and proceeds

with his questioning. The tragic hero must learn a lesson from his errors in

judgment and become an example to the audience of what happens when great men

fall from their lofty social or political positions. According to Miller, a

person who is great, who is admired everywhere, and needs this admiration to

survive, has one of the extreme forms of narcissism, which is grandiosity.

Grandiosity can be seen when a person admires himself, his qualities, such as

beauty, cleverness, and talents, and his success and achievements greatly. If

one of these happens to fail, then the catastrophe of a severe depression is

near (Miller 34). Those actions happen when the Herdsman tells Oedipus who

his mother is, and Oedipus replies "Oh, oh, then everything has come out

true. Light, I shall not look on you Again. I have been born where I should

not be born, I have been married where I should not marry, I have killed whom

I should not kill; now all is clear" (Sophocles lines 1144). Oedipus's

decision to pursue his questioning is wrong; his grandiosity blinded him and,

therefore, his fate is not deserved, but it is far beyond his control. A

prophecy is foretold to Laius, the father of Oedipus, that the destiny of

Oedipus is a terrible one beyond his control. But when it is prophesized to

Oedipus, he sets forth from the city of his foster parents in order to

prevent this terrible fate from occurring. Oedipus's destiny is not deserved

because he is being punished for his parent's actions. His birth parents seek

the advice of the Delphi Oracle, who recommends that they should not have any

children. When the boy is born, Laius is overcome with terror when he

remembers the oracle. Oedipus is abandoned by his birth parents and is denied

their love, which is what results in what Miller calls "Depression as Denial

of the Self". Depression results from a denial of one's own emotional

reactions, and we cannot really love if we deny our truth, the truth about

our parents and caregivers as, well as about ourselves (Miller 43). The birth

of Oedipus presets his destiny to result in tragedy even though he is of

noble birth. In tragedies, protagonists are usually of the nobility to make

their falls seem greater. Oedipus just happens to be born a prince, and he

has saved a kingdom that is rightfully his from the Sphinx. His destiny is to

be of noble stature from birth, which is denied to him by his parents, but

given back by the Sphinx. His nobility deceived him as well as his

reflection, since it shows only his perfect, wonderful face and not his inner

world, his pain, his history (Miller 66). When he relies on his status, he is

blind, not physically, but emotionally. He is blind in his actions; therefore

he does not see that the questioning would bring him only misery. Later,

after his self-inflicted blinding, Oedipus sees his actions as wrongdoing

when he says "What use are my eyes to me, who could never - See anything

pleasant again?" (Sophocles line 1293) and that blindness does not

necessarily have to be physical as we can se when he says, "If I had sight, I

know not with what eyes I would have looked" (Sophocles line 1325). In the

play Oedipus Rex, Sophocles portrays the main character, Oedipus, as a

good-natured person who has bad judgment and is frail. Oedipus makes a few

fatal decisions and is condemned to profound suffering because of them. I

agree with Aristotle that Oedipus' misfortune happens because of his tragic

flaw. If he hadn't been so judgmental or narcissistic, as Miller would

characterize a personality like Oedipus, he would never have killed King

Laius and called Teiresias a liar. In the beginning, Teiresias is simply

trying to ease him slowly into the truth; but Oedipus is too proud to see any

truths, and he refuses to believe that he could have been responsible for

such a horrible crime. He learns a lesson about life and how there is more to

it than just one person's fate.


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