Sophocles was a fifth century Greek writer whose play Oedipus Rex was exalted by Aristotle in Poetics as the perfect tragedy as it invokes both fear and pity in the audience. Aristotle explains that a tragic hero is one who is befallen by tragedy brought about primarily by factors usually outside the control of the aforementioned hero thus possessing a noble sense and attaining stature in the society. The hero he however argues is not an embodiment of righteousness but rather an ordinary man prone to the common failings of man but who stands up for his values. His fall is also not occasioned by the undertaking or practice of evil but rather the conglomeration of various factors. Fate or the will of the gods and inherent inescapable flaws or restrictions are mentioned as the causes of the fall of the protagonist. The protagonist through his own actions inadvertently brings his own downfall. His noble pursuit and heroic tendencies provide the noose through which he hangs himself. It is through this that the audience is able to experience both fear and pity that Aristotle argues should be achieved by a tragic story. Hamartia – the tragic flaw that does contribute to the fall of the hero is one that everyone is susceptible to. The audience admires the protagonist for his unbending self-blinding pursuit of justice. It identifies with him and roots for him and hopes he succeeds. After all, good should always triumph of evil. But the audience soon realizes that the protagonist though full of intentions that ring pure, spins the web in which he is inescapably caught. Though the protagonist meets an untimely fate, the audience realizes that is this end that alleviates the suffering of the people. Pity is the end result. As much as the audience sympathizes with the protagonist, they realize he was just but a cog in the greater machinery whose actions though self mutilating provide relief.
Fear is invoked as well. The audience realizes that despite one’s best intentions, tragedy may still befall you. Which begs the question if our actions are truly our own or predetermined in the larger scheme of things- fate, destiny, hereditary predispositioning flaws or the will of the gods depending on how you choose to look at it. Is free will a mirage?
Aristotle in his definition of tragedy points out that tragedy in a written word must copy the actions of real scenario whilst portraying the far reaching implications of every action in the ensuing progression of life. This portrayal of reality he contends serves to invoke introspection thus granting meaning to reality itself and mirroring the universal common to the audience regardless of their differences in class, social standing, education or race. “Poetry is a more serious business than history; for poetry speaks more of universals, history of particulars.” – Aristotle. The tragedy must also be complete and possess magnitude. The telling of the story must flow from one plot point to the next without any plot holes. Each action is pertinent to another thus leading to the eventuality and conclusion of the tragedy. The language employed should serve to enhance the telling of the tragedy. Bravery, folly and eventual downfall of the protagonist should be well captured and communicated.
Aristotle explains in poetics that tragedy unlike an epic is not a narration by the author but rather a performance of the protagonist’s fall thus efficiently illustrating to the audience and succeeding in invoking fear and pity. He concludes that the tragedy ends in catharsis of these feelings of pity and fear. The audience realizes that it was only through the fall from grace of the protagonist that the situational misery could be overcome. The protagonist’s suffering is essential to the survival of the greater good and thus becomes justified ‘purging’ the audience.
It is further argued that the best tragic plot is single and complex rather than with the possibility of a good, happy ending or a bad, painful one. The end should be inevitable – a fall from grace of the protagonist. The complexity of the plot involves reversal and recognition. Seemingly positive occurrences that favour the protagonist and his cause end up bringing his downfall. Aristotle argues that recognition should also be incorporated. Recognition in the sense that the audience is educated about events not enacted in the tragedy but that are still essential to the unveiling of the plot. The events are integral for the understanding of the story. The plot finally should incorporate suffering of the hero thus culminating in the tragedy. It has been argued that the hero’s change of fortune and suffering is an exaggerated level of penance for his crimes.
As I have painstakingly tried to go through Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy and what it should incorporate, I shall now draw comparisons with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex illustrating that it does fulfill the threshold of a tragic hero or drama.
The tragic hero in Sophocles’ iconic tale is Oedipus. Oedipus is the protagonist in the story. The tale begins when Oedipus hears laments from the people of Thebes outside his place. His noble nature is shown when he steps out to answer these laments from his people. The character portrayed is one of a king concerned about the welfare of his people rather than a haughty bureaucrat who looks down at the lowly. The Thebans led by their priest of Zeus say that Thebes has been befallen by a host of calamities- famine, fires and plagues that have brought untold suffering and death of the people, their animals and their crops. The priest points out that they are there to seek the counsel of Oedipus, their king who solved the riddle of the sphinx. It is pointed out that it is this solving of the riddle that led to Oedipus marrying Jocasta, the widow of the former king, Laius.This in turn made him king. Oedipus is thus portrayed as an ordinary man whose wit and wise decisions led to him becoming royalty thus granting him the stature that Aristotle points out should be granted to the hero. In a further show of his wisdom, Oedipus points out that he has already sent Creon, Jocasta’s brother, to Delphi to seek the counsel of the priest of Apollo on remedies for the situation.
Oedipus’ hamatria or fatal flow is demonstrated by his pride and singularity in pursuit of the truth despite the best efforts of other characters to dissuade him. This is demonstrated when Creon comes back with his report. Creon suggests that it may be better if he made the report privately to the king but Oedipus insists on it being made public. Creon points out that the gods are angry because King Laius was murdered and that the murderer must be sought and punished. Oedipus declares publicly that this will be done and the murderer exiled thus in effect sentencing himself. Oedipus calls for Teiresias, a blind prophet to shed light on the issue. Again we see that Teiresias is unwilling to appear before Oedipus and divulge what he knows. The prophet points out that Oedipus killed king Laius, his father then married and fathered with his own mother. Oedipus in his fury calls Teiresias a sightless old man in league with Creon to usurp the throne.
In a perfect demonstration of recognition as postulated by Aristotle, Teiresias responds, “But I say that you with both your eyes are blind. You cannot see the wretchedness of your life, not in whose house you live nor with whom.” This turn of events forces Oedipus to be hell bent on finding out his parentage. It is the singularity of this pursuit that brings his down fall. Recognition is further enhanced when Jocasta finds Creon and Oedipus arguing and she narrates how Laius was murdered on the highway when he and a charioteer attacked a man who then killed them. She explains that the murderer was a highway robber and that King Laius’ child had been left on a mountainside to die to counter a prophecy made by the oracle of Delphi to Laius that his own son would kill him. Oedipus recognizes that he had killed a man by the highway but summons the servant who recounted the events to Jocasta to dispel the notion.
In a perfect twist of reversal a messenger arrives with the news that King Polybos, Oedipus’ adopted father, has passed away of natural causes and the people of Isthmus want Oedipus as their king. Oedipus is overjoyed by the news as it discounts Teiresias’ prophecy that he would kill his own father alleviating his plight. In a cruel twist, the messenger point out that Oedipus was not King Polybos’ son and that he had been handed to him by a shepherd who worked for King Laius. Jocasta immediately senses the implications of the confession and tries to intervene but Oedipus would not let her. Again, this demonstrates the danger of Oedipus’ singularity and hubris in pursuing the truth. The messenger says that a shepherd can corroborate the story which he does reluctantly saying he handed Louis’s son to the messenger.
The last act of the play ends with the news that Jacosta has committed suicide on realization that she has married and fathered with her own son. Oedipus in turn blinds himself with her brooches on hearing the news alluding to Teirasias’ prophecy that he was blind. Oedipus claims that the blindness allows him not to see those he was destined to wrong and he wishes he was dead. He tells his daughters that they will suffer because of their parents’ transgressions. Oedipus prays that the people of Thebes will pity them. He asks Creon, his successor, to parade him in front of the people of Thebes before exiling him. All these underline suffering as Aristotle points out.
The plot is single and complex as all plot points lead to the exile of Oedipus as Laius’ murderer. Furthermore, the audience is purged as this exile brings an end to the calamities befalling Thebes. In conclusion, Oedipus Rex is the epitome of a tragic drama as pointed out by Aristotle.
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