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The Greek tragedy, Oedipus the King, written by Sophocles (496-406 B.C.), adheres to Aristotles (384-322 B.C.) definition of a tragedy.
The first criterion of a Greek tragedy is that the protagonist be a good person; doubly blessed with a good heart and noble intention. Sophocles reveals immediately at the start of the play that Oedipus is such a man. As is common in the Greek tragedy Oedipus is also an aristocrat. Born of the King and Queen of Thebes he is of true nobility. Oedipus on the other-hand believes his parents are the King and Queen of Corinth. Oedipus was abandoned as a baby and adopted by them. Because that information is known to the audience, and not to Oedipus prior to the start of the play, it is a perfect example of tragic irony because when he declares that he will find the murderer he is the man that he pursues. Here he is told by Tiresias,” I say you are the murderer you hunt” (1235). The theme of Oedipus the King is not clear-cut. The theme in this tragic play seems to be you can‘t escape your fate. Contentment leads to ignorance as Oedipus lends fate a hand in his bitter end. This trait is touched-on in these lines spoken by Creon. “Look at you, sullen in yielding, brutal in your rage- you’ll go too far. It’s perfect justice: natures like yours are hardest on themselves”(Sophocles 1242-1243). Oedipus is a true hero in the Greek tragedy. He has the fate of the community in his hands along with the noble character to take care of it himself. He announces his convictions to take this problem into his own hands and do whatever is necessary to lift the curse. Oedipus addresses the priests assembled before him, “ You can trust me; I am ready to help, I’ll do anything (Sophocles 1225). The city has this faith in him and the priest come to tell him so he will help them lift the curse. “Now we pray to you. You cannot equal the gods, your children know that...But we do rate you first of men,”(1226). He also appears to have Apollo’s ear, which makes him seem all-powerful to the audience; this is another standard of the classic Greek tragedy. Oedipus told his people, ”After painful search I found one cure: I acted at once.
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Following Aristotle’s qualifications of the tragic hero Oedipus does have a tragic flaw as is standard in the Greek tragedy. Oedipus has a character flaw that brings his end. Although it cannot be summed-up in one word there is evidence that his flaw may be ignorance or blindness to his own fate. This ignorance unearths a pride that is revealed though out the play. As when Oedipus tells the chorus/city’ “You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers” (1231). Oedipus is too content with himself and his life to see his end coming. He throws caution to the wind when he kills a man who is old enough to be his father. This was done shortly after he had gone to see Apollo.”-and the god Apollo spurned me, sent me away denied the facts I came for, but first he flashed before my eyes a future great with pain, terror, disaster-I can hear him cry,’ You are fated to couple with your mother...you will kill your father, the one who gave you life” (1246)! Oedipus goes to great lengths to keep his fate from being played-out. He thinks running away will stop his role in things to come. And in his marriage to an older woman, he seems to tempt fate by not questioning his choice, when he knows there were doubts about his being a true blood relation to his parents. This is revealed to the audience when Oedipus says, ”Some man at a banquet who had drunk too much shouted out-he was far gone mind you-that I am not my father’s son” (1245). There are many choices he makes that can only be accredited to his blind faith in himself. Which is displayed in a blindness that is transmitted throughout. Oedipus refuses to believe Tiresias because he is a blind man and he tells him, ”You’ve lost your power, stone-blind, stone-deaf--senses, eyes blind as stone!’-’this fortune-teller peddling lies, eyes peeled for his own profit-seer blind in his craft!”(1235). But Tiresias not only foretells Oedipus’ fate but also predicts his physical blindness when he tells him, ”I pity you, flinging at me the very insults each man here will fling at you so soon’ ... ‘This day will bring your birth and your destruction”(1235-1236). Even though Oedipus is told time and again. His unremitting blindness keeps him from seeing the whole truth and allows him to live a contented life as king. The revelation in this play comes shortly after Oedipus’ wife tells him, "The heralds no sooner reported Laius dead than you appeared and they hailed you king of Thebes“ (1244). His response to this news tells volumes, “I think I’ve just called down a dreadful curse upon myself--I simply didn’t know” (1244). He then refers to Tiresias’ vision dualistically, “ I have a terrible fear the blind seer can see” (1244). After Jocasta’s late-breaking news, Oedipus recounts the essentials of when he killed a man at a triple crossroad because the story correlates to the murder of Laius. He then begins to feel Apollo’s hand in this. “Wasn’t I born for torment? Look me in the eyes’ ... ‘Wouldn’t a man of judgment say ... some savage power has brought this down upon my head” (1246). The reversal in this play comes after Oedipus puts all the pieces together. The messenger who comes to tell of Polybus’ death is surprised to find that this news brings Oedipus relief. He then proceeds to recount the actual facts, ”Well then seeing I came with such good will, my king, why don’t I rid you of that old worry now...Polybus was nothing to you, that’s why, not in blood“ (1251). Unknown to the messenger this news only adds to Oedipus’ worry’s. The truth is coming too close when the messenger says, “The one who gave you to me, he’d know more...He called himself a servant of... Laius (1252). Jocasta now knows the truth and begs Oedipus not to question him further. “Stop-in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search! My suffering is enough ... may you never fathom who you are” (1253). But his commitment to discern his true origin will not stop the tale from unfolding. He tells a servant to fetch the man that the messenger spoke of. The shepard comes and after much pressing reveals Oedipus’ birth parents and of his fate known at birth:”...the child came from the house ... of Laius...If you are the man he says you are...you were born for pain” (1256). Upon hearing this Oedipus can no longer think of himself as good or hide from his fate,” O god- all come true, all burst to light! O light- now let me look my last on you! I stand revealed at last-cursed in my birth, cursed in my marriage, cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands” (1256)! Here is where the roles are reversed and he becomes the blind man who has seen more than he cares to. After Oedipus has blinded himself Creon comes to console but also to do his duty to the gods. Oedipus is to be pitied when he says, "You'd ask the oracle about a man like me?’...‘By all means,“ Creon replies, “And this time, I assume, even you will obey the god’s decrees“ (1263). Which is Sophocles’ intent that Oedipus take responsibility for his misgivings and transcend human limitations. The audience could not possibly watch this misery unfold without feeling pity, for Oedipus, or being frightened by the extent that he is willing to go to redeem his ignorance to the gods. After the audience has been told all, the chorus reminds everyone of his great measures, “You outranged all men! Bending your bow to the breaking-point you captured priceless glory’...‘you rose and saved our land” (1257). He might have been able to hide the facts of his birth from the people but then he wouldn’t be the man of great integrity and unwavering character that the audience admires. Here Oedipus tells the chorus, “Now I’ve exposed my guilt, horrendous guilt, could I train a level glance on you, my country men‘...’Impossible” (1261).
If Oedipus had acknowledged Apollo’s power when he first learned of his fate would he then have been able to change it? He seems to be an unwitting pawn in an elaborate game of Apollo‘s, as Greek gods were fabled to do, and here he asks it out loud. “My god, my god- what have you planned to do to me?”(1244). Was Oedipus right to refuge himself from the visions and facts to then be crowned king and idolized before he banished himself? Oedipus did defeat Apollo in some ways. Because he was able to out run his fate until after he had lived a full and successful life. And only then when the city was being destroyed did he resign himself knowing that he could not allow the people to suffer for his deeds.
Sophocles. “Oedipus the King.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 5th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 1999.