Oedipus as a Tragic Hero

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Abstract

The paper analyzes the personality of the protagonist of the ancient Greek tragedy play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. It aims at investigating whether king Oedipus meets the classical characteristics of the tragic hero. The paper discusses the concept of a tragic hero in ancient literature, using the texts of Aristotle. It identifies the basic concepts and features, associated with the tragic hero and identifies motives and themes, which contribute to the tragedy of the drama. In addition, the paper applies the concepts of a tragic hero to the interpretation and analysis of the personality of king Oedipus from Sophocles’ play. The paper concludes that king Oedipus has many features and characteristics, which allow readers identifying him as a tragic hero.

Oedipus as a Tragic Hero

The concept of a tragic hero has changed its characteristics thought the history of arts and culture under various social movements and tendencies. Therefore, it is not surprising to observe significant differences in the interpretation of a tragic hero in the ancient and modern literature. However, the initial essence and peculiarities of a tragic hero as the protagonist of a tragic drama should refer to its preliminary interpretation, found in ancient Greek texts. Aristotle provided a detailed outline of the tragic hero and explained his/her basic features and characteristics. In fact, Aristotle’s perception and treatment of a tragic hero is regarded as canonic and prominent for ancient pieces of dramatic arts. Therefore, it is important to apply Aristotle’s interpretation of a tragic hero in order to comprehend and analyze the personality of protagonist in Oedipus by Sophocles. According to the classical Aristotle’s definition, Oedipus is a tragic hero, since his personality is not entirely perfect and accomplished, but also characterized by some weak judgments and negative constraints.

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Aristotle’s Definition of Tragic Hero

According to Aristotle, a tragic hero possesses a couple of prominent characteristics, which define him as such. Interestingly, the philosopher highlights the exclusive responsibility of the tragic hero in his/her misfortune and ill luck, rather than impacts of the environment and external factors . Particularly, Aristotle states that a tragic hero is the one, who accepts wrong decisions and false judgements, which inevitably lead to his/her personal and social decline and destruction . A great role in the development of a personality of a tragic hero belongs to the concepts of justice, morality, and ethics, since the violation of any of these concepts indicates the beginning of the personal tragedy. In total, Aristotle identifies several prominent features of the classic notion of a tragic hero.

Firstly, the hero becomes tragic, when he/she makes mistakes in the actions and judgements, which then negatively affect him/her and the surroundings. In Greek, there is a term of hamartia, which literally means the flow of mistakes or false decisions . Notably, hamartia can be regarded as a state of mind and soul, which makes characters accept new decisions and make new judgements under the sudden and intensive influence of emotions and impressions. This particularly explains why the tragic heroes accept harmful solutions and destroy the spiritual balance. In other words, a tragic hero feels internal disharmony with oneself and the world, which makes him/her experience hamartia and encounter failures and ill luck.

Secondly, the internal misbalance and judgement errors lead to the negative changes in heroes’ fortune and success. Aristotle views the reversal of fortune as a direct consequence of personal mistakes and errors in judgements and actions. This concept is known as peripeteia, and it defines the irrevocable and unexpected changes in one’s good luck and prosperity. In a classical definition, a character is tragic in case his/her experiences decline his/her fortune and cannot reach success anymore. This can refer to both personal and social well-being and development. Thus, the sudden absence of good luck is another prominent characteristic of a tragic hero.

Furthermore, tragic heroes also inevitably realize the matter of their ill fortune and link it to their previous actions and decisions. The self-awareness of consequences of individual thoughts and judgements is called anagnorisis, and it denotes the individual acceptance and recognition of faults and mistakes. Largely this notion identifies the emotional strength and power of a tragic hero, it attempts to identify the cause of misfortune and rethink personal behavior. That is the reason why Aristotle regards such characters as heroes, as they are able to recognize their misbehavior and errors.

Finally, another important feature of Aristotle’s tragic hero is excessive pride and arrogance. Notably, the concept of pride does not bear any positive connotation in regards to tragic heroes, but rather reflects on their inner excessive self-confidence and self-esteem. Aristotle explains that this phenomenon (hubris) appears as a psychological protection against personal helplessness and despair. When tragic heroes realize their faults and mistakes, they cannot merely bear with them and seek alternative ways to prove their importance. The excessive pride is the feature of dangerous arrogance and fear at the same time. In such a way, a tragic hero loses his/her possessions, reputation, and even freedom or life.

It is possible to find numerous examples of a tragic hero in the world literature. For example, the protagonist of the classic Greek tragedy Medea meets the definition of a tragic hero. According to the plot, Medea possesses many virtues and positive sides, which make her an adorable and wise woman. However, the fear of death and mistreatment of other’s intentions, Medea makes serious mistakes, which lead her to the despair and depression. Therefore, the readers can observe a personal tragedy of a person and trace the causes and effects to her decisions. The other examples of tragic heroes include Hamlet (Hamlet by Shakespeare), and Romeo (Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare), where protagonists experience misfortune due to their personal errors and faults. Besides, one of the brilliant examples of a tragic hero in ancient drama is the personality of king Oedipus, as described by Sophocles.

Overall, the concept of a tragic hero possesses strict definition and features, as depicted by Aristotle. In Greek dramatic arts, this concept plays a crucial role and identifies a specific type of a character. Aristotle thoroughly identifies personal and social motives in the development of personality of a tragic hero, pointing to his/her distinct characteristics and qualities. One of the most prominent examples of a tragic hero can be found in Oedipus by Sophocles.

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Oedipus as a Tragic Hero

At the beginning of the play, readers get a positive impression of King Oedipus and praise his strong sides and virtues. The author describes Oedipus as a caring and attentive governor, who attempts to provide comfortable conditions for his people and increase their welfare. Thus, when Oedipus learns about the plague, he immediately orders prophets to learn about its causes and the ways of solution. Oedipus claims, “A blight is on our harvest in the ear, / A blight upon the gazing flocks and herds, / A blight on wives in travail and withal Armed with his blazing torch the God of Plague”. This statement clearly shows that the king is concerned about the issue of plague, estimates its danger and threats, and aims at the solution for the sake of all citizens. Thus, the readers can evidently characterize Oedipus as a hero.

Additionally, Oedipus frequently speaks about the importance of love as a driving force of wisdom, harmony and peace. He says “One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: / That word is love” (Sophocles, 2012, p. 43). Throughout the story, Oedipus demonstrates favorable attitudes to his wife, shows respect and affiliation to his surroundings, and cares about others. As a result, it is possible to define Oedipus as a hero, due to his numerous positive sides and strengths. However, at the same time, this character also possesses many characteristics, typical for a tragic hero.

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When speaking about Oedipus in terms of a tragic hero, it is essential to emphasize his excessive self-confidence and pride. He states:

Fear? What should a man fear? It’s all chance, chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark. Better to live at random, best we can. And as for this marriage with your mother—have no fear.

Though Oedipus was a kind king, he could not bear any impatience or disobedience from his people. Any orders or statements, which doubted his governing or behavior, caused a wave of anger and arrogance. Particularly, Oedipus rudely behaved with the blind prophet, who dared to accuse him of the murder of the previous king. Oedipus could not stand such expressions and insults the old man without any justification, and reasons for that: “I say thou art the murderer of the man whose murderer thou pursuest”. These words caused the sequence of events, which led to the tragic ending of Oedipus’ kingdom and life, and marked the personal tragedy and decline.

Additionally, the readers can observe the moment, when Oedipus accepted the wrong decision and made the false judgements. Trying to escape the predicted destiny, Oedipus committed many crimes. In particular, he killed a group of strangers for his own safety, one of who appeared to be his father. After that, Oedipus married a woman, without knowing that she was his mother, and continued reigning in the city. Apparently, such actions cannot be considered as misbehavior, considering the fact that Oedipus was not aware of all truth and facts. However, it is also true that he could choose another path and carefully assess all the situations before making the final decisions. The sequence of such events has caused the personal and social tragedy of king Oedipus and turned him into a tragic hero of the play.

Furthermore, as a tragic hero, Oedipus realizes his faults and regrets about his mistakes. According to Aristotle, this is also one of the key characteristics of the tragic hero. Oedipus claims “Stop, my children, weep no more. Here where the dark forces store up kindness both for living and the dead, there is no room for grieving here—it might bring down the anger of the gods”. In these words, Oedipus expresses the helplessness of the situation and his inability to influence it. In other words, Oedipus as a tragic hero experiences inner imbalance and disharmony with himself, regarding the past actions wrong judgements.

Finally, Oedipus can be viewed as a tragic hero, taking into account the ending of the play and mysterious death of the protagonist. When describing the death of Oedipus, the author says “the lightless depths of Earth bursting open in kindness to receive him”, emphasizing his noble origins and all good things he has done throughout his life (Sophocles, 2012, p. 85). At the same time, Oedipus himself does not reconcile with himself and cannot justify his past actions. His death is another indicator of the tragedy of his life. Overall, Oedipus meets all the characteristics of the classical interpretation of a tragic hero.

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Conclusions

To sum up, Oedipus can be regarded as a tragic hero, considering the classical interpretation of this concept in dramatic art. It is true that the personality of Oedipus bears all features and qualities of a strong leader and beloved hero. The author skillfully describes virtues and strengths of Oedipus, highlighting his high spiritual and leading potential. However, at the same time, Oedipus is not a perfect character, which possesses exclusively positive characteristics and ideas. Thus, he is arrogant, proud, and extremely self-confident, what makes him lose his primary aim and goals. The existence of such features, according to Aristotle, makes Oedipus a tragic hero with all its negative consequences and outcomes. In general, Sophocles’ Oedipus is a brilliant example of the ancient Greek dramatic art, which fully renders the atmosphere of the time and its ideas.

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