Oedipus the King and Aristotle's Poetics

Oedipus the King and Aristotle's Poetics

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According to Aristotle, a tragedy must be an imitation of life in the form of a serious story that is complete in itself among many other things. Oedipus is often portrayed as the perfect example of what a tragedy should be in terms of Aristotle’s Poetics. Reason being that Oedipus seems to include correctly all of the concepts that Aristotle describes as inherent to dramatic tragedy. These elements include: the importance of plot, reversal and recognition, unity of time, the cathartic purging and evocation of pity and fear, the presence of a fatal flaw in the “hero”, and the use of law of probability.
Aristotle says the plot must be composed of “clearly defined problems for characters to solve.” The main set of clearly defined problems laid out for the character Oedipus, is that he must find a way to avoid the prophecy. His actions afterwards then spur the plot which leads to other problems down the road. The plot is to be in chronological order and have actions that happen both on and off stage. Events that happen off stage are to be passed on by using narrative. In Oedipus, a messenger is used to recount the events that have happened off stage.
Another of Aristotle’s elements of drama were the three Units: The unity of time, which puts a limit on the action in the story; unity of place, which limits the taking place of events to around one general; and the unity of action which limits events to being related as cause and effect. The setting for Oedipus Rex takes place in the city and palace and does not leave that location, however if anything happens elsewhere the messenger relays the information. The time frame for this story also only appears to be about roughly a day or so, which was as prescribed in the unity of time. As for unity of action, the whole tragedy of Oedipus sprouts from the news that his supposed father, Polybus, has just died; the rest is all cause and effect action.
In Aristotle’s Poetics it is said that everything violent should happens off stage; that the drama is not from the spectacle or gore, but should result from what the characters have done. Oedipus Rex is a good example of this technique because much of the story is relayed through the messenger. An example is when Oedipus stabs himself and when the queen commits suicide.

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Both of these events happened off stage and were reported afterwards. This way the effect of what has happened is not a result in seeing the suicide or stabbing but in the emotional effect it has on the characters and in the result of the actions, not the spectacle of the events.
The reversal and recognition is an extremely important part of Aristotle’s key notes of what a good tragedy should include. The reversal part of the drama creates a rising action sort of feeling, like how Oedipus is the goodly king who managed to escape his not so nice fate, only to discover that ehh maybe he hasn’t. Reversal is defined as when a situation seems to be going one way, only to then “reverse” into another direction. The event of recognition sort of serves as the climax to the situation; like how Oedipus suddenly realizes that the man he had killed on the road was actually his father, and then how he begins to put the prophecy together from that. Recognition scenes are usually of some sort of horrible event or secret. In Oedipus Rex, the recognition scene is Oedipus finding out that he never really escaped his fate but instead ran right into it. It was Aristotle’s thought that, the recognition, combined with reversal, would evoke pity and or fear from the audience.
A tragic flaw present in the “hero” is essential for a good tragedy. Such a flaw usually causes the downfall of said hero, (hence “fatal”). The flaw is a necessity because this is one of the many aspects of the drama that affects the audience and makes them feel pity and sadness for what has befallen the main character because they believe him undeserving of the tragedy. Oedipus’ fatal flaw was that he tried to avoid his fate and in doing so ran right into it. Many would agree with his actions, with his attempts to avoid such a fate; however it is a generally understood concept that you cannot runaway from your fate, and so this evokes pity from the audience.
That what is going on in the story must evoke the emotions of the audience. That the audience must suffer from a purging of their emotions- must experience the play vicariously. The tragedy of Oedipus, how he tried to escape his fate and the stabbing and what not evokes pity and suffering because Oedipus did not seem to openly deserve such a tragic thing to happen to him. The story is such that the audience can feel empathy, can suffer, and feel vicariously through the tragedy that Oedipus is living though. This was considered an essential part of a good tragedy- to make the audience feel the tragedy along with the character.
The law of probability in terms of tragedy simply means the probability that a given character will react to a given situation similarly with human nature - either through what most people would do, or through what we are forced to do. Oedipus did what anyone would have done, he attempted to avoid the prophecy by leaving his home and thought he would be safe from killing his father and marrying his mother. At the end of the story, Oedipus stabbed out his eyes because of the horror he had committed- feeling that he had to, because he could not bear to see what he had done.
Sophocles’ Oedipus is often said to be the perfect example of Aristotelian tragedies, because is pretty much hits every base Aristotle said to cover. Aristotle stated in his Poetics that the essentials to any good drama/ tragedy should include: the importance of plot, reversal and recognition, unity of time, the cathartic purging and evocation of pity and fear, the presence of a fatal flaw in the “hero”, and the use of law of probability. That being said, Sophocles managed to put all of that together in Oedipus Rex to create the model of tragedies that it is today.

Works Cited

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. (translated by David Grene) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Werner, Jaeger. Aristotle, 2nd ed.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948.

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