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Oedipus as a Tragic Figure

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Oedipus as a Tragic Figure

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  • December 2007
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Oedipus

Throughout the course of time, the definition of the word "tragedy" has changed significantly from what the word originally meant when the Greeks were writing their famous plays. The word has gone from meaning "A drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances," to the modern meaning of the word, "a lamentable, dreadful, or fatal event or affair" (Random House Unabridged Dictionary). As a result, readers of the Greek plays have different thoughts about the "tragic hero" of the story. Often, they assume that because something bad or dreadful happened to the character, he must be a tragic character, thus missing a key part of the Greek's definition of the word: that a tragic hero must have made a decision, placing him in his fate to suffer a downfall.

In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, modern readers quickly assume that Oedipus is a tragic hero. They see that he is guilty of both patricide and incest, which they apply to fit their definition of a tragedy. When closely examined, it can be seen that the majority of the play is governed by two prophecies from the gods via oracles. The question can thus be raised as to whether or not Oedipus had the ability to make a fatal decision deciding his fate, or if he had no choice, and was destined to fall into what the oracles had told him.

The most significant choice that Oedipus made was the original decision, when living with Polybus and Merope was that of going to the oracle to question his ancestry, on only the word of a drunken man who called him a bastard. Thus Oedipus received that prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, and decided to run from his assumed parents, and head for Thebes.

The other decision Oedipus made affecting his destiny was when he sent Creon to the oracle of Delphi about the plague. After receiving...

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