Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was a great Greek philosopher and scientist who defined the scientific system that became the framework for scholasticism and philosophy (Amadio). Aristotle was a great critic of poetry. Aristotle’s means of analyzing tragedies and comedies are still the methods used by critics of literature today. In his rules of criticism of tragedy plays, Aristotle had six criteria for determining a tragic hero (Johnson). One of the great Athenian tragic poets was Sophocles (who lived circa 497 BC – 406 BC) who authored Oedipus Rex (Taplin).
Sophocles character Oedipus overwhelmingly exemplifies all of Aristotle’s criteria of a tragic hero: he is of noble stature, he commits an act of injustice, his downfall was his own fault, his misfortune was not entirely deserved, his downfall was not a total loss, and he does not leave the audience depressed.
Not enough can be said of Sophocles. He was one of the world’s greatest poets (Sophocles, “Antigone”). Oedipus, like most of Sophocles’ protagonists, was based upon a character from mythology or legend.
Each of Sophocles’ heroes, including Oedipus, evidence ultrahuman strength, courage, and intelligence, and outstanding pride and self-assurance.
According to Sophocles, Oedipus was born to Laiós and Iokastê, King and Queen of Thebes. At his birth it was prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid such a tragedy, the King and Queen gave their infant to a shepherd. The shepherd was given strict instructions to abandon the infant on a mountainside.
Instead, the shepherd gave the child to a Corinthian shepherd. The second shepherd presented the baby to Polybus and Meropê, King and Queen of Corinth, who raised the boy as their own son. After he had grown to manhood, an oracle in Delphi prophesied to him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. To avert this tragedy, he decided never to return to Corinth. At a highway intersection, he met a charioteer who ordered him out of the way of he and his four attendants. An altercation ensued, during which Oedipus killed the charioteer and his attendants. He continued his journey to Thebes, where a sphinx was terrorizing the city. The sphinx would only discontinue its destruction if someone could answer its riddle. (‘What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?’). After Oedipus correctly answered the sphinx’s riddle, the sphinx killed herself. (The answer to the riddle was a human being, because a human being walks on all fours in early life, on two legs as an adult and with a walking stick in old age). In gratitude, the Thebans made Oedipus their king. Prior to Oedipus arriving in Thebes, the king had been killed along the road to Delphi by an unknown individual. So, Oedipus was given the widow of the king as his wife. Together they had four children and ruled Thebes for some years.
During Sophocles’ play, events take place between Kreon, the brother of Iokastê, Oedipus, and the priests of Thebes, during which they discover the truth of Oedipus’ birth from the shepherds at Oedipus’ infancy. They also discover that Oedipus killed King Laiós from a bystander who was on the road to Delphi on that tragic day. Oedipus is outraged at the acts that he has committed. He is disgusted that he killed his own father on the road to Delphi and married his mother. He plucks out his own eyes so that he can no longer look upon his beloved wife and children. Kreon then becomes King of Thebes.
Aristotle’s first criteria of a tragic hero is that a tragic hero is of noble statute (Johnson). Aristotle defined “noble stature” as being great and not ordinary. He believed that someone of noble stature was usually a prince or king. Oedipus meets this criterion. He was the biological son of the King and Queen of Thebes, the adopted son of the King and Queen of Corinth, and the husband of the Queen of Thebes. (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex).
According to Johnson and Arp, Aristotle’s second criteria of a tragic hero is that he or she must be good, although not perfect, and that the hero’s downfall must come from committing “an act of injustice”. The criminal act must have occurred either through the hero’s ignorance or the hero’s belief that by this act a greater good will be achieved (Johnson). The unjust act committed by Oedipus, that of slaying his father and marrying his mother, was committed out of total ignorance. He did not know that the man he killed was his biological father, and he did not know that the woman he married was his mother. He married the widow of the man he killed to serve a greater good, to become king of the good people of Thebes and to personally care for the widow of the king.
The third of Aristotle’s criteria of a tragic hero is that the hero’s downfall must be his own fault, or in other words, the result of his own choice (Johnson). Oedipus’ downfall was his own choice. He wished to know the truth of who killed the king of Thebes and who was the man that he killed on the road to Thebes. Finding out the truth brought on his downfall.
None of the six criteria of a tragic hero better fit Oedipus than the fourth. The fourth criterion is that the hero’s misfortune must not be wholly deserved (Johnson). Oedipus’ life was spent trying to derail the prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He purposely left his home, Corinth, trying to protect the parents who raised him from the prophesy. He was a good king. He killed the sphinx that was terrorizing Thebes. He was a loving husband and father. He was ashamed that he killed his father and married his mother. He plucked out his own eyes so that he would not be able to look upon the children he had with his mother. Oedipus did not deserve his downfall.
The fifth Aristotelian criteria of a tragic hero is that the hero’s downfall could not have been pure loss, because the downfall caused a change from the hero’s ignorance to greater self -awareness and self-knowledge (Johnson). Oedipus clearly met this criterion. In his quest for knowledge of the truth of who slayed the king, his ignorance was changed. He was no longer ignorant to the fact that he was married to and had children with his mother.
Aristotle’s last criterion of a tragic hero is that the tragedy must evoke solemn emotions, but not leave audience in depression (Johnson). This criterion is the most difficult to achieve. The audience does feel the solemn emotions of fear and pity during Oedipus Rex. It fears that the prophesy will come true. It pities poor Oedipus when he learns that he killed his father and married and had children with his mother. The audience is not left in depression, because Oedipus dared greatly in his life and gained an understanding of who he was by birth and of who he became.
Sophocles play Oedipus Rex maintains a character, in Oedipus, that meets Aristotle’s criteria of a tragic hero: 1) he held noble statute; 2) he was a good king; 3) he caused his own downfall; 4) his downfall was not entirely deserved; 5) he gained self-knowledge; and 6) he evoked solemn emotions throughout the play. Oedipus spent his life trying to avoid the tragedy that would become his downfall. Then, he caused his own downfall by seeking to know the truth about himself. He ultimately lost his kingdom.
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