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Oedipus Rex

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Aristotle’s Tragic Hero: Oedipus Rex The Athenian tragedy Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, yields a rare quality of emotional and character depth that is unparalleled and has withstood the arduous test of time. Much of the stimulation derived from Oedipus Rex is in the unraveling of the protagonist’s fate. By the hands of the gods, almighty King Oedipus is prophesized to take his own father’s life and marry his mother. Never has a man stood so tall and fallen so hard. In Poetics, Aristotle describes the tragic hero as “not eminently good and just, not completely under the guidance of true reason, but as falling through some great errors or flaw of character, rather than through vice or depravity.” Oedipus largely embodies the archetype of Aristotle’s tragic hero in the sense that he is an imperfect man with virtuosity, becomes victim to his own tragic flaw, and arouses a sense of pity and fear onto spectators of his fate. Aware of Oedipus’ predetermined fate, any audience must be wary to trust a man who is destined to kill his father and bed his mother. It is through the natural goodness of his soul and through ardent generosity that one begins to sympathize with Oedipus. Upon his arrival to Thebes, he confronts the Sphinx that has been creating uninhibited havoc. By the flash of quick wit, Oedipus guesses the riddle and assumes the throne as the city’s savior. Then follows a time of prosperity and high spirits for Oedipus, where he must feel a champion of his own destiny; he has defied his fate. A feeling short-lived, crisis again befalls the city of Thebes this time in the form of plague and hunger. High-minded Oedipus, naturally, responds instinctively to the pleas of his people. When Creon brings the message of Apollo, that to remedy the crisis the slayer of Laius must be exiled, Oedipus spells out a curse on the murderer. This epitomizes the nature of Oedipus and the nature of a tragic hero; in an effort of virtue inspired by the loyalty to his people, he has vowed unknowingly to persecute himself. Oedipus, an imperfect being, is victim to his own tragic flaw. Where Thebes is plagued by disease and famine, Oedipus is plagued by hamartia, his tragic flaw, that prevents him from examining every side of a matter with unclouded eyes and instead to rely on impulse. Before the drama of Oedipus Rex opens, Oedipus is hinted at by a drunkard that he is not truly the son of Polybus. This consumes the naïve Oedipus until he forces himself to go see the Oracle about his fate. The only response given is the prophecy that he should kill his father and marry his mother. Unable to think reasonably and put things into perspective, he decides he will best the gods by leaving Corinth where his supposed father and mother reside. Completely disregarding his original suspicion and inquiry, he heads towards Thebes to prevent his fate. This impulse-driven decision starts off the unthinkable succession of events that Oedipus feared might occur. Inevitably so, he coincides with King Laius at a crossroad on his way to Thebes. With the same irrational judgment from before, Oedipus acts on impulse and kills his father, whom he perceives to be a stranger. Half the prophecy has been realized. Arriving at Thebes, he encounters the Sphinx, takes the throne, and weds his mother Jacosta. His prophecy is then fulfilled, yet he remains innocent by his own conscience. Unfortunately, his tragic flaw remanifests itself when the search for the truth regarding Laius’ murder begins. In a conversation with Jocasta, his tendency to jump at conclusions leads Oedipus for a moment to show him half the truth. As Barstow points out, “Possessed with the fear that it was he who killed Laius, he forgets Jacosta’s mention of a child of Laius, forgets the old story concerning his birth, and misses the truth (Barstow, 3)”. The harder Oedipus tries to act justly, the more destructive he becomes to himself and there lies his tragic flaw. Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero demands also that the hero instill a sense of pity and fear upon his audience. While Oedipus is of noble birth and rightful heir, he is in essence a self-made man. This allows the audience to identify with Oedipus. Consequently, any time he endures an injustice we pity him. The fear part of Aristotle’s definition isn’t fear of Oedipus, but rather fear that we are susceptible to his fate. After all, Oedipus acted consciously in the best way he could and still was but a mere pawn to his own fate. Because he consciously acted morally right, it’s fair to say this his punishment far outweighed his crime. That poses the question: how do we know that what we think is doing the right thing really is? Sometimes we don’t. Most of the time, this error in misperception will not lead to murdering our fathers or marrying our mothers but the idea that we don’t have control over our own destiny arouses fear in itself. It is also because Oedipus plays victim to the most extreme stroke of fate that manifests his accordance with Aristotle’s tragic hero. Oedipus, the great King of Thebes, is well intentioned but for his inability to see and think thoroughly he falls victim to the most miserable of fates; a fate unanimously pitied and feared by all. He is by Aristotle’s definition a tragic hero. In Poetics, Aristotle asserts that a tragic hero can never truly achieve happiness. While one can argue that Oedipus had the worst odds of all to achieve happiness, the reality of happiness and true bliss still seems to most unattainable. Dodds put it most elegantly, "To me personally Oedipus is a kind of symbol of the human intelligence which cannot rest until it has solved all the riddles-even the last riddle, to which the answer is that human happiness is built on an illusion" (Dodds, 187).

Works Cited
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Gerald F. Else. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1967. Dorsch, T. R., trans. and ed.
Dodds, E.R. (1983) . On Misunderstanding The Oedipus Rex. Segal, Erich(Ed.), Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy. Oxford University Press
Barstow, Marjorie. Oedipus Rex as the Ideal Tragic Hero of Aristotle. The Classical Weekly , Vol. 6, No. 1 (Oct. 5, 1912), pp. 2-4, Classical Association of the Atlantic States. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4386601
Yuehua, Guo. "Oedipus Rex: Fate, Truth and Self-will/OEDIPUS REX : DESTIN, VERITE, ENTETEMENT." Canadian Social Science 2.4 (2006): 45-9. ABI/INFORM Global; ABI/INFORM Global; ProQuest Research Library. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

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