Hamartia in Oedipus the King
According to the Aristotelian characteristics of good tragedy, the tragic character should not fall due to either excessive virtue or excessive wickedness, but due to what Aristotle called hamartia. Hamartia may be interpreted as either a flaw in character or an error in judgement. Oedipus
, the tragic character in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, certainly makes several such mistakes; however, the pervasive pattern of his judgemental errors seems to indicate a basic character flaw
that precipitates them.
Oedipus’ character flaw is ego. This is made evident in the opening lines of the prologue when he states "Here I am myself--you all know me, the world knows my fame: I am Oedipus." (ll. 7-9) His conceit is the root cause of a number of related problems. Among these are recklessness, disrespect, and stubbornness.
Oedipus displays an attitude of recklessness and disrespect throughout the play. When he makes his proclamation and no one confesses to the murder of Laius, Oedipus loses patience immediately and rushes into his curse. Later, he displays a short temper to Tiresias: "You, you scum of the earth . . . out with it, once and for all!," (ll. 381, 383) and "Enough! Such filth from him? Insufferable--what, still alive? Get out--faster, back where you came from--vanish!" (ll. 490-492)
If an unwillingness to listen may be considered stubbornness, certainly Oedipus would take advice from no one who would tell him to drop the matter of his identity, among them Tiresias, the shepherd, and even Jocasta. Even after Oedipus thinks he has received a reprieve from the fate he fears when he hears that Polybus is dead, he does not have the sense to keep still. "So! Jocasta, why, why look to the Prophet’s hearth . . . all those prophesies I feared . . . they’re nothing, worthless," he says. (ll.1053-1054, 1062, 1064) To the shepherd, Oedipus certainly has no respect for the man’s age when he tortures him. Oedipus’ cruelty indeed literally squeezes his own demise out of the shepherd: "You’re a dead man if I have to ask again . . . I’m at the edge of hearing horrors, yes, but I must hear!" (ll. 1281, 1285)
After his recognition and reversal, Oedipus exclaims "The hand that struck my eyes was mine, . . . I did it all myself!" (ll. 1469, 1471) He is not only referring to his self-inflicted mayhem, but also the chain of events that led to his demise. Creon later comments that "it’s better to ask precisely what to do." (l. 1578) In contrast to this observation, apparently this is precisely what Oedipus should have done.
Each of these events, when isolated, may be excused as a simple mistake. However, when viewed as a whole, a pattern emerges among these mistakes. The cumulative effect is indicative of an underlying character flaw. Oedipus’ hamartia
may most directly be his mistakes, but ultimately these mistakes flow from his ego. For Oedipus, hamartia certainly refers to a flaw.