According to Aristotle, the driving force behind tragic works lies not in the development of characters but in the formulation of a specific plot structure. Aristotle believed that the purpose of all art is to imitate life and that human beings live their lives through events and actions. He argues that characters serve to advance the events of the plotline and that the characters themselves are not central. Aristotle's opinions on tragedy were largely constructed around Sophocles' Oedipus the King, which Aristotle called "the perfect tragedy." Considered by many to be one of the greatest plays of all time, Oedipus the King tells how Oedipus, the king of Thebes, comes to realize that he unknowingly killed his father and married his mother and shows the tragic aftermath of this realization.
The play opens with Oedipus addressing the citizens of Thebes who have gathered outside the palace. The audience learns that a plague has stricken Thebes and that Oedipus has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the Oracle of Delphi to learn how he might save the city. Creon returns and tells Oedipus that the Oracle has said that the plague will end when the murderer of Laius, the former king, is caught and banished from the city. Oedipus vows to cast out the murderer and save the city.
Following Creon's recommendation, Oedipus sends for Tiresias, a blind prophet, and asks for information regarding the murder. Tiresias reluctantly declares that Oedipus himself is the murderer. Oedipus sends Tiresias away in rage, but before he leaves Tiresias says that the murderer of Laius is both the father and brother to his own children and the son of his own wife.
Oedipus summons Creon and accuses him of conspiring with Tiresias against him and threatens him with death or exile. Jocasta, Oedipus's wife, enters and asks why the men are fighting. Jocasta reassures Oedipus saying that prophecies cannot be trusted. She sites as proof a prophecy given by the oracle of Delphi who said that Laius would be murdered by his own son. However, their only son was killed as a baby and Laius was murdered by a band of thieves at a place where three roads meet. The description of the murder troubles Oedipus rather than soothing him. Oedipus tells his wife that he fears that he may, in fact, be the murderer in question. He recounts that when he was young someone called him his "father's...
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...ins from her clothes. This event is the inevitable consequence of the events leading up to it in the play. Tension has been rising throughout the play and the tragic events at the end provide a release for this tension.
All of the characteristics of this play that make it a tragic work-- irony, unity, recognition, reversal, a hero, a catharsis, suicide and mutilation-- are elements of plot rather than characterization. There is nothing inherently tragic in the characters themselves, but rather in the events in which they participate. We take much of the characterization for granted. Oedipus is characterized as being strong-willed because this drives him to seek out the truth. He is characterized as being quick to act because this is what causes him to kill Laius at the crossroads and to gouge out his eyes at the conclusion. The characterization of Oedipus is not meant to stand on its own or to be the focus of the story but merely acts to hold up the plot and to give motivation for Oedipus's actions. It is not Oedipus's fortitude of character that interests audiences, but rather how Sophocles constructs the events of the play and how he tells the story that holds their attention.