Oedipus Rex Revisited
By: PATRICK LEE MILLER In his Poetics, Aristotle outlined the ingredients necessary for a good tragedy, and he based his formula on what he considered to be the perfect tragedy, Sophocles's Oedipus the King. 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 these strong emotions will leave viewers feeling elated, in the same way we often claim that "a good cry" will make one feel better. Aristotle laid the foundations for literary criticism of Greek tragedy. His famous connection between "pity and fear" and "catharsis" developed into one of Western philosophy's greatest questions: why is it that people are drawn to watching tragic heroes suffer horrible fates? Aristotle's ideas revolve around three crucial effects: First, the audience develops an emotional attachment to the tragic hero; second, the audience fears what may befall the hero; and finally (after misfortune strikes) the audience pities the suffering hero. Through these attachments the individual members of the audience go through a catharsis, a term which Aristotle borrowed from the medical writers of his day, which means a "refining" -- the viewer of a tragedy refines his or her sense of difficult ethical issues through thorny problems. Clearly, for Aristotle's theory to work, the tragic hero must be a complex and well-constructed character, as in Sophocles' Oedipus the King. As a tragic hero, Oedipus elicits the three needed responses from the audience far better than most; indeed, Aristotle and subsequent critics have labeled Oedipus the ideal tragic hero. A careful examination of Oedipus and how he meets and exceeds the parameters of the tragic hero reveals that he legitimately deserves this title. Aristotle also outlined that a good tragic hero must be "better than we are," a man who is superior to the average man in some way. In Oedipus's case, he is superior not only because of social standing, but also because he is smart. He is the only person who could solve the Sphinx's riddle. At the same time, a tragic hero must evoke both pity and fear, and Aristotle claims that the best way to do this is if he is imperfect. A character with a mixture of good and evil is more compelling that a character who is merely good, butn the character must inherentluy be a noble beinf. Oedipus' nobility and virtue provide his first key to success as a tragic hero. Following Aristotle, the audience must respect the tragic hero as a "larger and better" version of themselves. The dynamic nature of Oedipus' nobility earns him this respect. First, as any Greek audience member would know, Oedipus is actually the son of Laius and Jocasta, the King and Queen of Thebes. Thus, he is a noble in the simplest sense; that is, his parents were themselves royalty. Second, Oedipus himself believes he is the son of Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth. Again, Oedipus attains a second kind of nobility, albeit a false one. Finally, Oedipus earns royal respect at Thebes when he solves the riddle of the Sphinx. As a gift for freeing the city, Creon gives Oedipus dominion over the city. Thus, Oedipus' nobility derives from many and diverse sources, and the audience develops a great respect and emotional attachment to him. And Oedipus definitely not perfect; although a clever man, he is blind to the truth and refuses to believe Teiresias's warnings. Although he is a good father, he unwittingly fathered children in incest. A tragic hero suffers because of his hamartia, a Greek word that is often translated as "tragic flaw" but really means "error in judgement." Often this flaw or error has to...
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drafts and notes: 1887–1902
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