tragoed Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex) as Greek Tragedy

tragoed Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex) as Greek Tragedy

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Oedipus The King as Greek Tragedy


The genre of drama is wide and contains works of varied forms and subjects.

The first drama, on which all later works are based, developed in Greece and

dealt with religious and social issues. According to AristotleÕs The Poetics, a

Greek Tragedy must deal with a serious purpose, arousing a sense of pity or

fear in the audience. The emphasis must be on plot over character

development and the playwright must utilize suspense and unity of time, place

and action. Aristotle writes that a tragic hero is a character who is renowned

and prosperous, not necessarily perfect, but not an evil person either. The

tragic hero must meet with a reversal of fortune brought about by either folly

or fate. Based on these criteria, Oedipus the King by Sophocles is considered

the prototypical Greek Tragedy. Oedipus, the playÕs main character, is also

considered the model of a Greek tragic hero. Oedipus the King deals with

several serious purposes, the greatest of which being the agnosticism

Sophocles perceived in his community. Through Iokaste who ÒÉwould not

waste a second thoughtÉÓ on oracles, Sophocles shows his audience the

perils of disbelief in the gods, since each prophecy made by oracles in the

play ended up coming true (l. 813). Sophocles uses his play to perform

serious religious functions as well as to entertain theatre-goers. The fulfillment

of the predictions made by the oracles led to the downfall of Oedipus, which

created a catharsis in the audience, brought by arousing feelings of pity and

fear for the fallen king. The Choragos gives the lesson, ÒÉlet none presume

on his good fortune until he find life, at his death, a memory without painÓ (l.

1473-5). This scene allows the audience to leave the theater feeling purged of

their pity and fear. The plot is the most important component of Oedipus the

King, as it is of every Greek Tragedy. Development of characters is

secondary, and the audience rarely Ôgets insideÕ any of the characters. Only

characters crucial to the plot are introduced; there is no extraneous action on

stage. This development of plot is a challenge. A tragedian must present a

story with which the audience is already familiar and still make it interesting

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and exciting. Sophocles accomplishes this goal by using dramatic irony.

Several times in the play the audience knows something the characters on

stage do not. During the conversation between Oedipus and Iokaste in which

Oedipus is trying to determine if he is King LaiosÕs murderer, Iokaste tells him

that he canÕt possibly be the killer, since ÒMy child was doomed to kill him; and

my childÉdied firstÓ (l. 810-1). The audience, familiar with the story, knew that

her child in fact had not died, and that Oedipus was actually both her child

and the killer. This creates suspense that came to be called Sophoclean irony.


By using this dramatic irony, Sophocles ensures that his plays will be

interesting to an audience that already knows the story. The story in Oedipus

the King, characteristic of all Greek Tragedy, has unity of time, place and

action, since it takes place all in one day, happens in a single scene, and

develops only one plot. These qualities combine to make Oedipus the King

the primary example of a Greek tragedy. The main character in a Greek

tragedy cannot be just anyone. A Greek tragic hero like Oedipus has

distinctive qualities, which set him apart from the characters we see in modern

drama. Oedipus holds a high position at the beginning of the play; he is the

King of Thebes, famous for solving the riddle of the Sphinx. Oedipus is a good

man, but he is not perfect. He has a temper that leads Kreon to describe him

as ÒUgly in yielding, as you were ugly in rageÓ (l. 635)! Though he has a

tendency to get very angry, Oedipus is not at any extreme of evil. He is not a

depraved ruler; he shows genuine concern for his people when they come to

him in droves asking him to find an end to their famine. He recognized that he

would ÒÉbe heartless were [he] not moved to find you suppliant hereÓ (ll.

14-5). Oedipus is not a bad man, but he does suffer a reversal of fortune that

is requisite upon a tragic hero. He falls from his high position not because of

any fault or flaw, but because he couldnÕt escape his fate. Though he did

make some decisions that led to his demise, ultimately, despite his best effort,

his fate led him to murder his father and marry his mother. When he learned

of his destiny from the oracle at Delphi, he tried as hard as he could to leave

the country where he thought he was born. It was not through folly, or careless

decisions that Oedipus met his demise. Like Tess, Oedipus could do nothing

to escape the pain he was destined to suffer. Greek tragedy is exemplified in

Oedipus the King because of the subject matter and the action onstage.

Oedipus falls from his high position due to fate that he cannot escape, which

is typical of a tragic hero.
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