Aristotle’s Oedipus Rex



Oedipus Rex is one of the groups of three plays by Sophocles known as Theban plays, since they relate to the destinies of the Theban family of Oedipus and his children. The other two plays of this group are Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. However although the three plays are connected by theme and subject, they do not form a trilogy in the usual sense of the term. In English translation the play is generally known as Oedipus the King or King Oedipus, but Oedipus Rex, the Latin title, is the most popular. In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles leaves a major part of story outside the plot. He deals directly with only the last day of Oedipus rule over Thebes. We are to believe that Oedipus has been ruling happily over Thebes for about fifteen years. His personal life also has been a very happy one. He has four children by his wife, Jocasta. Infact, it appears that even a further happiness is in store for him, for after the death of Polybus he is to succeed him to the throne of Corinth also. However, all this happiness is illusory. It is revealed is a moment that, far from being the happiest of men, Oedipus is the most miserable of them. Instead of being the intelligent solver of riddles, which he himself and as well as his subjects believe him to be, he is ignorant even of his identity and parentage. In ignorance he has killed his father and married his mother. Believing himself the Corinthian prince, and trying to evade the fate which the Oracle has predicted for him, he actually runs into its clutches. He becomes a dire example of the ignorance and helplessness of man in the face of destiny, although in one sense Oedipus in Sophocles play, is ironically the master of the fate at every stage, and whatever happens the play does so at his own initiative. Oedipus Rex is a marvel; it is rich in beauty and complexity of theme and symbolism. It is the most fascinating Greek tragedy which elaborates,’ Man is a mere puppet in the hands of fate’. There are various standpoints for looking at the theme of the play. It may be considered as a play enacting the theme of blindness to fate, insecurity of revealing realities, Being ignorant the rashness, knowing the truth as tragic and illusoriness of human happiness. The inadequacy of human intelligence in resolving the riddles of destiny may also be considered one of the major voice of the play. The play also brings out the tragedy as well as the dignity of human determination and will power. Critics have found all sorts of symbols in the play, the most famous such interpretation being that of Freud, who has named a complex after Oedipus viz. the Oedipus-complex. This play may also be looked upon as an allegory—that if one tries to avoid one’s fate, one would only aiding and hastening it. Thus, Oedipus Rex is a perfect tragedy because of its harmonious blending of Character and Fate.

Aristotle’s definition of tragedy and the play King Oedipus

Aristotle first defines tragedy in his poetics around 330 BC, and all subsequent forms of tragic events have been influenced by his concepts. According to Aristotle, “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of a noble and complete action, having the proper magnitude; it employs language that has been artistically enhanced . . . ; it is presented in dramatic, not narrative form, and achieves, through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such incidents” (chapter 6; Golden 11). Sophocles wrote “Oedipus the King” for the annual festival where playwrights competed for prizes. It was a major civic occasion, with attendance expected. Sophocles the writer is phenomenally good, especially considering his era. His writing is impressive with each phrase contributing to the whole. He is full of succinct observations on life. And despite the limits of the form, he often manages to make his characters seem like real individuals. The title of our play is often given in its Latin translation “Oedipus Rex”, rather than in its original Greek (“Oedipus Tyranneus”), since the Greek term for king is the English “tyrant” which means a monarch who rules without the consent of the people. There is a deep philosophic content at the back of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. It seems through this play he advises that man must concern himself with his own actions and remains within his appointed sphere in life. He must not presume to equal the gods in any respect (as Greek Myth revolves around gods, and Oedipus is also a mythical play as well). He seems to hold out moderation as a great virtue. Excessive desire even for such a good things as knowledge angers the gods, who then bring about the man’s ruin through his own overweening pride and conceit. To Sophocles every deed has its ultimate consequences, which no one can escape. The ways of gods are mysterious and no humans being must seek to prey into them. Along with leading a morally unblamable life, one must show the proper reverence for the gods as well as for the various institutions and practices of religion.

Oedipus as Tragic Hero

Oedipus fulfills the function of a tragedy, and arouses fear and pity in the highest degree. But unfortunately a modern reader, coming to the classic drama not entirely for the purpose of enjoyment, will not always surrender himself to the emotional effect. He is correct to worry about Greek fatalism and the justice of the downfall of Oedipus, and, finding no satisfactory solution for these difficulties, loses half the pleasure that the drama was intended to produce. Oedipus is superhuman, yet the play possesses universality. Parricide and incest are not common actions, yet the delusion of happiness, and committing of unwitting crimes is a universal tragic theme. Oedipus is a symbol of a man, who is elated by good fortune, only to be disappointed all the more when that good fortune gives place to disaster as stated in play by chorus:

‘’All the generations of mortal man add up to nothing!

Show me the man whose happiness was anything more than illusion

Followed by disillusion.

Here is the instance, here is Oedipus, here is the reason

Why I will call no mortal creature happy.”

According to Aristotle the tragic hero must be a person of noble birth and prosperity whose misfortune results, not from depravity or vice but from hamartia. The last word has translated as error of judgment by most critics but strongly interpreted as tragic flaw. Oedipus is clearly intermediate kind of person stipulated by Aristotle, and he is in enjoyment of great happiness and prosperity at the commencement of the story. However, it is difficult to say that his misfortune befalls him because of some flaw in his character, or some error of judgment committed by him. There is no doubt that his character has several flaws and that he does commit some error of judgment, but the question is whether these errors are the cause of his tragedy? Oedipus is no doubt rash, impatient, irritable and passionate. He is also very proud of his intelligence, and believes that he can find the answer to every problem. At more than one place he is also guilty of impious words. His treatment to Creon is far from fair, and he is unnecessarily harsh to Teiresias. Yet, if we take his tragedy to be the basic actions of incest and parricide, then these flaws and errors of Oedipus are quite irrelevant. On the other hand, it is Oedipus who proclaims a severe punishment for the murderer of Laius and also says that he will award the punishment even to himself, if he is the guilty person. It is by his words that Teiresias is angered and prophesies a severe punishment for the murderer of his father and the husband of his mother. Moreover, Oedipus provokes him further by making fun of his blindness and this lead Teiresias to predict that Oedipus also will become blind and will leave Thebes like a helpless beggar. Although the predictions do not bring about the actions mentioned in them,, yet they add to Oedipus suffering and humiliations. Or one may say that Oedipus commits the fundamental mistake of thinking himself equal to the gods and of being able to solve every problem. In that case the tragic flaw in Oedipus would become that of arrogance or hubris. His career changes from prosperity to terrible adversity, and he makes the terrible discovery that human knowledge is extremely limited and misleading.

Hubris or Destiny

‘’You cannot alter this. The gods themselves

Cannot undo it. It follows of necessity………..’’

In Sophocles tragedies human suffering visits the innocent as much as does the guilty, and he who suffers is, therefore, not automatically guilty. The poet has a tendency to sharpen the edge of suffering; he does note—especially not in his later works—accept it as a punishment or retribution; rather he emphasizes the innocence of the victim…. And despite this treatment, the poet still demands an acceptance of the hero suffering. And so we find in his works no testing theodicy, no investigation into the cause of suffering, but the conviction that suffering is inherent in human nature. Sophocles leaves little doubt that whatever there is a conflict between the human law and the divine; it is divine law which deserves to be observed.

‘’Of happiness the crown

And chiefest part

Is wisdom, and to hold

The gods in awe.

This is the law

That seeing the stricken heart

Of pride brought down,

We learn when we are old.’’

Chance is the major tooling in the plot of Greek Mythological plays. Fate is itself the major control of characters in any case. Greeks believes that Destiny is preplanned and the writing by the deities and the divine law so powerful that bestow, enhance and control all the metaphysical and cosmological functions. As William Shakespeare portrays in such words, the same religious and mythical divine theory:

‘As flies to the wonton boys,

Are we to the gods?

They kill us for their sport.’’

This is the most debatable point and in few words of expression it could not be easy to capture the whole theory and the concepts. A lot of literature has been vindicated and generated on this topic, yet there is so many space to be filled. Consequently, Oedipus Rex represents FATE as a controlling power as a strong theme, divinity and divine power in highest stature and ruling over the free will. One of the main theme of this play is FATE or FREE WILL. So far in Greek mythical play Fate wins over the free will. Fate cannot be over write by gods and not even can erase, which gives birth to the tragedy and this what happens to the ideal tragic hero Oedipus. Therefore Oedipus Rex is also recognized as tragedy of fate.

Paradox in the play

Oedipus Rex is undoubtedly, a play which defines contradictions. The speech clashes, thought and verdict clashes. Conflicts regarding appearance and truth is firmly and strongly culcated as a theme in the play. The contradiction arises when Teiresias confronts Oedipus and the dialogue in exchange reveals the truth from one side and ignorance from another. The reality beyond curtains bring forth by the persistent nature of Oedipus. Sophocles is genius enough to make contrast of fate and free will by clothing them as characters and the main theme of the play. Compare and contrast, contradiction and conflict and this has been pictured through the characters and their speech. Oedipus and Jocasta represent the image of hidden contradiction, where as their relation based on sympathy. Oedipus and Laius indirectly, So far the paradox is the one of the major themes of the play which strengthen it as a tragedy and make it unforgettable over the centuries.

Relevance of Teiresias

Although Teiresias is a character in two of the three Theban plays of Sophocles, he is in reality a figure in Greek mythology. Teiresias was a Theban who was once changed into a woman for a time for the crime of killing the female of a pair of snakes. There two traditions about how he became blind. According to one of them Zeus and Hera asked him whether a man or a woman enjoyed sexual union more. Zeus had been insisting that women enjoyed it more, while Hera of the view that men received greater enjoyment. Teiresias supported the view of Zeus, as a result of which the jealous Hera struck him blind. Zeus compensated him for this misfortune by blessing him with a long life and conferring on him the gift of prophecy. According to another story he was stuck blind because he happened to watch Athena while she was bathing. In Oedipus Rex his role is more extensive, he is the one who is blind seer, though apparently blind but blessed with extraordinary sense of knowledge about future and its predictions:

‘’Student of mysteries,

Of all that’s taught and all that no man tells,

Secrets of Heaven and secrets of the earth’’

It is Creon who advises Oedipus to send for Teiresias and ask him to find some solution for the troubles of Thebes. Later the Chorus also give him the same advice and Oedipus replies that he has already done so. It appears, however that Teiresias is not very eager to appear before the king. Teiresias is a symbolic and contrasted figure in the play. The contrast between the outward magnificence and inward blindness of Oedipus and the outward blindness and inward sight of the prophet is one of the given attributes of the scene and Sophocles does not waste this natural opportunity. Oedipus taunts Teiresias with his blindness, saying that he has ‘eyes for profit only, blindness in his craft.’ Teiresias’ answer is a magnificent consummation of this play on sight and blindness. Teiresias retorts, ‘’you have your sight, but you do not see in what evil you are.’’ His speeches, thoroughly in the play are significant and revealing. He is the representative of deep conscience spokesman in front of Oedipus for his Fate and Character’s hamartia. Teiresias is representative of truth and reality and the one who removes the cover of illusionary curtain of happiness and glory of Oedipus. So far Teiresias is the one who pinpoints the error of judgment and his character is the vital, powerful and central one in the climax and the plotting of the play.

Significance of Jocasta character

The characteristics of Jocasta that comes into play are mostly those of a wife and a queen but we are still able to forum some impression of her qualities as a woman. She seems to be quite in contrast with the fiery impetuosity of Oedipus for she is mild, moderate and cool –headed. This we see best of all when she rebukes Oedipus and Creon for indulging in personal quarrels at a time when the city is afflicted with a calamity. She deals with the two disputants as though they were small children and is able to restore calm and peace. She always keeps her personal emotions in check, expect at the end when she cries hysterically, calling upon the dead Lauis We come accorss to have the significance information about Jocasta also by the retrospect of the events that took place in the time of Laius. It seems probable that Jocasta played the same role of comforter with Laius which she plays now in the case of Oedipus. It was she who gave the child Oedipus to the shepherd so that he should leave it on the mountain to die of exposure. This seems the heartlessness of a mother but then what was at stake was the life of her husband and king, and for that all other considerations had to take second place. She was easy to access and considerate to her servants, for she at once agreed to the plea of the shepherd that he should be sent away from Thebes into the countryside. However, she seems to be capable of self-effacement. When a hard fate compels her to take another husband soon after the news of the death of Laius, she seems to have submitted tamely. Not once, it appears, has she talked to Oedipus about her first husband. We do not know to what extent Jocasta’s lack of reverence towards the gods reflects her real nature and to what extent it is a pose assumed in order to calm down her husband’s fears. Perhaps there is a little of both these considerations involved in her attitude. In her words it is chance and not the will of gods, which rules human life and she seeks to convert her husband also to this view which is a direct contradiction of Greek religion and morality:‘’Fear? What has a man to do with fear?

Chance rules our lives, and the future is all unknown.

Best live as best we may, from day to day.

Nor need this mother-marrying frighten you;

Many a man has dreamt as much. Such things

Must be forgotten, if life is to endured.’’

Jocasta is the central and important character, whose significance is obvious because of all the character revolves around her directly or indirectly. She is pathetic as well after revealing the reality and the shame of that reality endowed nothing but his guilt to death in shape of suicide.

Modern day relevance of this play

Many aspects of the modern conception of the tragedy owe their origin to Sophocles. It was he who made one important character the central figure (protagonist) and the focus of attention in ever tragedy. As Aristotle points out, it was Sophocles who constructed his plots in such a way as to make reversal and recognition their integral part. The characteristics feeling inspired by the tragedies of Sophocles is that of respect for human life and values and pity for those who fall a victim to their errors or the machinations of fate. The balance between character and fate is very well maintained by Sophocles. The dialogues in Sophocles are also more life time than is the case in the play of Aeschylus. Sophocles philosophy seems to have pondered deeply over the questions which concern man’s place in the universe, as well as the role and destiny of the individual in society by every Era of man. His plays best embody the essence of Greek life and culture at one of the highest points in its history. After Sophocles all other famous dramatists used the same tolls such as Marlowe’s’ Dr.Faustas’ and number tragic writing of Shakespeare, King Liar, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and winter’s Tale. In modern Era many playwrights believes in the same structure and they follow the pattern to be successful on the ground of tragedy.


Undoubtedly Oedipus Rex is the great tragedy of Appearance and reality, of unconscious to conscience crime, Pride of a king to pathos of a mere man, of character and fate, of truth of ignorance and reality of knowing.  Oedipus Rex in not only the greatest play of Sophocles but also the greatest Greek play. Accordingly to many critics it is the greatest play ever written. Aristotle in the Poetics gives very high praise to this play. It is also credited with possessing one of the three best executed plots in all drama. In this play Sophocles performs the miracle of creating terrible suspense through events the outcome of which is known to the readers beforehand. The reversal and the recognition in this play arise out of the play itself. It is very well integrated play, no part of which can either be transposed or left out. It can also be regarded as first detective story in literature. Its poetry, especially in the lyrical odes, possesses a great beauty and haunting power. There would be no exaggeration in saying that Oedipus Rex in one of the glories of Western Literature. To sum up the play it is an ideal tragedy which underlines the frailty of human happiness and prosperity by exposing that reality and truth are bitterest in mode of destiny if it holds harshness for the character.

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