Literary, the word tragedy means “a goat song”. This might be in reference to the act of providing a goat as a prize or sacrifice during Greek religious festivals in appreciation to the god Dionysos. Regardless of how the term might have come into existence, it came to demonstrate a dramatic presentation for noble and high seriousness character is poetry and drama. The character seeks to identify how man understands the will of the gods and the meaning of life in the presence of death. In tragedy, individuals are put to test by severe suffering and must face the consequences. Easterling & Knox (1985) explain that while some people might meet the challenges with actions of dreadful cruelty, some demonstrate the will and ability to surpass adversity and therefore winning the admiration of man and proving to be great individuals in society (Easterling & Knox,1985). The paper will begin by giving Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero and later provide explanations as to why Sophocles’ Oedipus fits this definition.
There are a number of characteristics that Aristotle uses to define a tragic hero but one common aspect among all of them is that the individual has some greatness but he is not perfect and therefore ends up causing his own downfall. Although the punishment is not wholly deserved, it is not totally a loss because there is some positive aspect that it comes with. For instance the individual gets more recognized in the society. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus who is the main character is depicted as a true hero since childhood but later leads to his own downfall making him the best example of a tragic hero.
Discussion of Oedipus’ character that makes him a tragic hero
Compassion and good intentions of his actions
The unfortunate unfolding of events in Oedipus’ life makes him a tragic hero. Looking at his character you cannot fail to realize his compassion and his understanding that he was doing the right thing. His morals and intentions are therefore good and in cases where he makes errors, they still have some dedicated loyalty. To begin with, he was given a prophecy as a young child that he was to kill his father and marry his mother. Because of his good intensions, he decided to run away so that he could not experience what he had been prophesized about. There is some compassion in the choice he made because no good man would want to kill his father let alone marrying his own mother (Hammond, 2009). Although it’s clear that he had good intension in taking fate in his hands and running away, it actions brought about opposite effects to what he had anticipated.
According to Rosenberg (2001), the hero valued skill, strength, determination and courage. These are the attributes that can enable an individual to achieve the honor and glory both in life and when he is dead. Despite his bad temper, he is also a compassionate human being as illustrated when he addresses the citizens of the city. He explains to them of how he understands the problems they were going through and it was for this reason that he pitied them. He adds that even though every citizen of the city only cared for his good heath and belonging, he cares and grieves for the entire city, its citizens and himself. Oedipus went on and said of how he understood how sick the citizens were but he was quick to add that as sick as they were, there sickness could not compare to his. (Sophocles 1226).
Great wisdom and heroic
When the play begins, Oedipus is portrayed as a great intellect by the people who consider him to be of great wisdom. He single handedly saved the Thebes society when he unraveled the Sphinx riddle and was granted Kingship. So many people adored him. The priest even talks of how he freed the Thebes from the Sphinx and goes on to say that a god was with Oedipus (Sophocles, 1999). As the king, he vowed to sentence the person who killed his dad King Laius to death (Slattery, 1989). He is seen to react violently to situations he finds himself in because he makes decisions while he is in anger. According to Kaplain & Schwartz (2008), Oedipus volunteered to search for the murderer of Laius and even cursed the killer to a life of solitude and misery. The two go on to explain that there was no stopper that could make the burden that Oedipus was going through. Instead things continue to unfold one at a time. Though he wanted to change his fate, he ended up killing his father Lauis and went ahead and married his mother. When he came to know the truth of what he had done, he had to stand by his word and face his own judgment. He was so ashamed of trying to change his fate and even left the kingdom. Since he was unable to forgive himself for what he had done, he was murdered mentally. His life is therefore destroyed when he realized the real story.
Arouses pity and fear
As defined by Aristotle, a tragic hero is one whose story arouses fear and pity from the audience. Looking at how things unfolded in Oedipus’ life, you mostly likely will feel pity for him because it is clear that he had good intensions for his actions but he ends up in tragedy making him a tragic hero. The audience feels some sense of catharsis. This is an emotional purging. For an individual to arouse some sense of fear or pity he has to be of a heroic stature as Aristotle and caring explains. As a king, Oedipus was very caring. He took care of his people with so much love. He says “Tell me, and never doubt that I will help youâ€¦” (Sphoricles, 13). Easterling & Knox indicate that Aristotle believes that fear and pity will arise from the change from good fortune to bad of an individual who is neither conspicuous for a vice nor virtue. Moreover this is a man whose downfall is not because of his wickedness but because of an error (Easterling & Knox, 1985). Oedipus brevity is seen when he frees the city from its walls of famine. When he was awarded Kingship, he attains the heroic stature. All that happened after came when Oedipus had already attained the heroic stature. It is because of his suffering that the city was saved from the plague. Even when he went for exile, it was all for the good of the people. As you would expect, seeing someone leave a city he had saved arouses some empathy in the audience. The people of the city are deeply heartbroken, sad and sympathetic to him. They are also appreciative of Oedipus willingness to save the city by going to exile. There had never been such a renowned price in Thebes. The people believed that he was the only king who had treated them with equality: the people love him as much as he loves them.
Suffer because of his errors
Miller (xxxx) believes that an individual who is admired by many in every place he goes and need this admiration to continue has extreme narcissism and that has to be grandiosity. This kind of narcissism is witnessed when an individual greatly admires himself, his beauty, quality, talent, cleverness, achievements and success. However, when one of these things fails, then the possibility of a severe depression is not too far. When the Herdsmen told Oedipus of whom his mother was, he could not believe it. In fact he laments of being born where he was not supposed to (Sophocles, 1999). He was blinded by his grandiosity to pursue the questioning of his fate not knowing that even though it is not deserved there was very little he could do to change it. Just like Aristotle says, a tragic hero must suffer from his own actions. The same applies to Oedipus because he ended up suffering for the decision he took even though he had good intension when doing what he did.
By mentioning sickness, he does not refer to the normal or biological sickness we are used to. He instead refers to metal sickness and rage he had with all the questions running in his mind. He tells the citizens that he shared their sorrow and pain and could not even afford to sleep since he was busy looking for answers to the suffering the city was going through. Just like Aristotle expects of a tragic hero, Oedipus is a compassionate man who goes out to search for the truth on behalf of his people. Because of his heroic status, he chose a series of actions which led to his downfall. For instance, he had the chance to leave the plague alone and go on with his own life but because of his heroic status he ended up taking on the responsibility of looking for the cure of the plague. His pity for the suffering citizens also compelled him to look for answers from the Oracle of Delphi.
Aristotle explains that a tragic hero has to be an important person in the society who makes an error in his judgment and ends up suffering the consequences. This characteristic is seen when Oedipus pressures Teiresias to tell him the exact truth about his father’s name and his destiny. Even though Teiresias warns him about the hideous sin he had been wrapped in together with is loved ones, Oedipus still insists on being told the truth (Sophocles, 1999). In the end when Teiresias simply tried to slowly tell him the truth, Oedipus could not take any of that because of his pride. He completely refuses to accept that he was responsible for the crime. Later own he came to realize that there was more to life than an individual’s fate (Kaplain & Scwartz, 2008).
Ego, pride and temper
As the King, the three characteristics that made Oedipus fall on his knees are ego, pride and temper. He was overwhelmed by his pride which even became his weakness. His ego is also evident when he says it was wrong for his children to get the truth from other messengers. This is an indication that he was the only one to pass the truth to his children. He even adds that the world new his fame (Sophocles 1225). It is this same pride that makes him to accuse his uncle/brother falsely. His temper is evident when he tells Creon that he wanted him dead. Creon however tells him that it was wrong to take a bad man for good and a good man for bad and that he was to witness the real meaning of this sooner than later. Oedipus temper is therefore another cause of his downfall.
Oedipus nobility deceived him because it only showed his wonderful and perfect face but not his mental status (Miller xxxx). He was emotionally blind and therefore could not understand that his good intensions would bring him misery. He later own realizes that his actions were wrong when he says “what use are my eyes to me, who could never see anything pleasant again?”(Sophocles, 1999, 1293). Although he is a good man, he makes some wrong decisions and ends up suffering because of them. If Oedipus had not been so narcissistic or judgmental, he would not have ended the life of King Laius or referred to Teiresias as a liar.
Oedipus inner strength to pursue the truth at whatever cost makes him a great person. He also has the strength to endure whatever truth was found. His inner strength is also illustrated when he asks to be driven by Creon far away from the sight of everyone to a land where he won’t be able to here any of their voices. He therefore accepts his mistake and is ready to take on whatever punishment he was handed. There is no single time when Oedipus laments why all that was happening to him. Slattery (1989) explains that when a hint is given to a hero about the implication of his fate and magnitude of his mission, he quickly rushes towards it. His poor judgment and anger is also demonstrated by his intensions to commit a homicide against Jocasta who was no longer a wife before Oedipus but rather a betraying mother who had abandoned his child. This is the reason why he was ready to kill her. Kaplan & Schwartz (2008) state that after Oedipus had known who her mother was, he rushed to the palace only to find that Jocasta had hanged herself. This is when he blinds himself because he could not face either the dead or the living. As Oedipus blinding ends the play, it also gives some enlightenment about his tragic ending or heroism. There is a possibility that if he had found her alive, he would have killed her. Such kind of judgment and high temper make him a tragic hero.
Aristotle believes that every tragic hero has some downfall. Oedipus fall from grace however begins at the climax of the play when he discovers himself. The messenger realizes that the child he saved some times back was the King. The special aspect of this discovery is not for the messenger but for the King who realizes who he was. This is the reason why he blinds himself knowing that the prophesy he had run away from has either way been fulfilled. The tragic fall makes the audience see a blind and helpless sufferer rather than the respected hero we knew in the beginning. It is therefore because of his miscalculations like Aristotle says that he becomes a tragic hero. Even though Oedipus is the King and therefore should be leading by example, his pride and rage makes him a bud example to the society. He becomes very stubborn and even forces the Herdsmen to tell him about his past (Easterling & Knox, 1985). This also contributes to his downfall.
Oedipus perfectly fits Aristotle’s description of a tragic hero because he possesses all the characteristics and rules with an anagnorisis, hamartia and peripeteia. The audience is first introduced to the tragic flow of Oedipus at the beginning of the play. He believes that he could avoid his own fate that was given through the oracle at Delphi stating that he was to marry his mother after killing his dad. By leaving the city, he thought that he could change the will of the gods. The audience however understands that you cannot run away from your fate. Once an oracle has been passed, there is very little one can change regardless of where he hides. The oracle was therefore bound to come true regardless of how long it would take. Oedipus’ hamartia is his belief that he could change the outcome of the oracle. His anagnorisis is witnessed when he gets the news that he was married to his own mother and more so he is responsible for the death of former King Lauis. Oedipus together with the people of Thebes had been searching for the person who killed the former King so that they could drive him out of the city and get rid of the plague only to find that it was their own King Oedipus whom they really loved.
Oedipus is then led to his downfall because he had to stick by his words for the error he had made. To begin with, he is put to shame before the whole city for the idea of marrying his own mother and most importantly he comes to realize that despite all his effort, he had not avoided the oracle. The aspect of tragic hero therefore is all about the fact despite being a great man with intelligence, he unknowingly makes and error and it costs him in the end. He faces both the good and the bad in life but his evil side becomes more conspicuous than the good thinks he did. Although he is definitely not perfect like any other human being, he blinded by his own ego and refuses to believe the truth. According to Smith (2009) physical sight is normally associated with truth, knowledge, and light while darkness is associated with the opposites of all these. However it is ironical that the blind Teirsisas is able to see what the fully sighted King Oedipus could not see. When he finally able to see, he terns blind. This even arouses pity in the audience and leaves them feeling catharsis.
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