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Tragic Flaws of Oedipus Rex Essay

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Introduction

The identification of Oedipus’ hamartia differs from reader to reader and from critic to critic. Some critics are of the view that excessive arrogance and self-confidence of Oedipus is the main cause of his tragedy. He harbors unjustified suspicions against Tiresias and Creon; in one place he goes so far as to express some uncertainty about the prophetic natures of oracles and truth of their prophecies. It is hardly likely that even a combination of all these would be equal to what Aristotle considered to be a serious hamartia, and it would not be very relevant to the point at issue even if he did, for Oedipus has committed incest and parricide years before the action of the play began, and before he exhibited any of the failing mentioned above.

It would hardly be logical to say that the gods punished Oedipus for a crime which he was to commit many days later. Another view is that the present failings of Oedipus may be taken to means that he was he was always like that, and his tragedy comes due some inherent or innate unsoundness in his character.

However we get no indication of this in the play. One critic go to the extent that Oedipus has no tragic flaw.[1] Whereas Know (1984) is of the view thar Oedious’ tragedy takes place due to tragic flaw[s] and fate has no part to play in Oedious Rex.

Tragic Flaw and its Different Manifestations:

The conception of the tragic hero that we gather from Aristotle’s Poetics is that he is a highly esteemed and prosperous man who falls into misfortune because of some serious hamartia i.e. tragic flaw. Aristotle gives the example of Oedipus and Thyestes, which means that according to him, it was Oedipus’ hamartia that was directly responsible for his fall. Although the meaning of hamartia is far from certain, its most frequent applications is in the sense of false moral judgment, or even purely intellectual errors. Among Greeks no sharp distinction between the two existed. It is generally believed that according to Aristotle the hamartia off Oedipus consists in some moral faults and it has been tried to identify various moral faults in Oedipus.

            Distinguished Professor Butcher has identified four possible range of meaning of Aristotle‘s Hamartia i.e. tragic flaw. The foremost of these connotations is an error due to unavoidable ignorance of circumstances whereas an error caused by unawareness of conditions that might have been identified and for that reason to some extent morally blameworthy is another manifestation of the sense in which the term hamartia was used by Aristotle.

The third sense is “A fault or error where the act is conscious and intentional, but not deliberate. Such acts are committed in anger or passion.” Where as fourth one is “A fault of character distinct, on the one hand, from an isolated error, and, on the other, from the vice which has its seat in the depraved will…a flaw of character that is not tainted with a vicious purpose.”[2]This essay will try to analyze all these manifestation of tragic flaws present in the character of Oedipus in Oedipus Rex.

            The crucial point is that whether Sophocles wants us to think that Oedipus has basically unsound character. One way of deciding this question is to examine what other characters in the play say about Oedipus. The only result that we can arrive at in this way is that Sophocles intends us to consider Oedipus an essentially noble person. In the opening scene of the play, the priest of Zeus refers to him as the greatest and noblest of men and the divinely inspired savior who saved Thebes from being destroyed by the Sphinx. The Chorus also considers him to be noble and virtuous. They refuse to believe in Tireseas accusations of him. When catastrophe befalls Oedipus, not a single character in the play justifies it as a doom which has deservedly overtaken Oedipus. (Dodds, p.39) So there were certain other tragic flaws that were acting behind the curtain to bring about Oedipus tragedy.

Oedipus’ excessive Pride and Obsession with Intelligence;

            Oedipus seems to be obsessed with his own intelligence and this leads him to very unfortunate and uncomfortable situations. This tragic flaw of Oedipus laps over with his pride as he is extremely proud of the fact that he was able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx which had proved too much for any other person. He thinks that Gods has capacitated him with intelligence and wisdom to solve riddle that the Thebes is afflicted with. Oedipus even taunts Tireseas on his inability in solving the Sphinx’s riddle. He says;

            And where were you, when the Dog-faced Witch was here?

            Have you any word of deliverance then for our people?

There was a riddle too deep for common wits;

A seer should have answered it, but answer there came none

From you…..  (12-16)

After calling the soothsayer false prophet, Oedipus boasts of his own skill in having solved the puzzled which proved too much for the blind seer;

            Until I came—I, ignorant Oedipus, came—

            And stopped the riddler’s mouth, guessing he truth

            By mother-wit, not bird-lore. (17-19)

So he describes Tireseas predictive cautions as the whims of a fanatic and opposes the seer’s prophecy with arguments of his own. Self-confidence and pride in his own wisdom is an outstanding feature of his character that also brings his tragedy. Here Oedipus fulfills the traits of Aristotelian tragic hero as he possesses a noble tragic flaw. The man who sets out on his new task by sending first for the venerable seer is not lacking in pious reverence; but we also observe that Oedipus manifests unrestrained arrogance in his own intellectual achievement.

No seer found the solution, this is Oedipus boast; no bird, no god revealed it to him, he “the utterly ignorant” had to come on his own and hit the mark by his own wit. This is a justified pride but it amounts too much. This pride and self-confidence induce Oedipus to despise prophecy and feel almost superior to the gods. He tell the people who pray for deliverance from pathos and miseries they are afflicted with if they listen to and follow his advice in order to get a remedy.

Obsession with truth:

Lastly his unrelenting pursuit of the truth is demonstrated when he believes he is the murderer and that Polybus was not his father, yet he continues with his search with the statement, “I must pursue this trail to the end,”(p.55).  These characteristics were only fuel to the fire and added to the pride created a blaze that consumed him. Bernard Knox eulogizes Oedipus’ “dedication to truth, whatever the cost” (p.117)

Oedipus Thoroughness;

Another characteristics of his character that contributes toward his tragedy is Oedipus’ longing for thoroughness. His inquisitive nature is not content with anything which is either half-hearted or incomplete. Nor can he brook any delay. He damns that the direction of the oracle should be given effect at once. As before, Oedipus speaks on the basis of the workings of his own mental faculties that has been tested time and again and have proved their intelligence.

Oedipus’ Goodness;

It can be said that the tragedy of Oedipus is the result more of his good qualities than his bad ones. It is his love for Thebes which makes him send Creon to Delphi to consult the Oracles. It is the same care for his subjects which makes him proclaim a ban and a curse on the murderer of Laius. It is his absolute honesty which makes him include even himself within the curse and the punishment.

He is angry with Tireseas because he is unable to tolerate the fact that  although the prophet says that he know who the murderer of Laius is , he refuses top give the information to the king. His rage and rashness is due to the fact that the masses are suffering and Tireseas does not provide the murderer’s name. Oedipus cannot but regard this as a clear manifestation of the seer’s disloyalty to his city.

            To Oedipus the discovery of truth is more important than his own good and safety. Even when it seems that the investigation that he is carrying on will not produce any result which will be him, he decides to carry on with it. He is so honest with himself that he inflicts the punishment of self-blinding and banishment from the city of Thebes. So his moral goodness also seems as a tragic flaw that brings his ruin.

He replies by saying “Sick as you are, not one is sick as I, each of you suffers in himself…but my spirit Groans for the city, for myself, for you”. (62-62)

Intellectual Blindness:

            Some critics are of the view that major tragic flaw of Oedipus is his intellectual myopia. He has a limited vision and is unable to assess the situations in a right perspective. Robert L. Kane (1975) puts this preposition in this way; “He[Oedipus] was the victim of an optical illusion”. (p. 196) The juxtaposition between “outward magnificence and inward blindness of Oedipus and the outward blindness and inward sight of the prophet” (Kirkwood, p. 130) depicts two types of blindness i.e. physical and intellectual. One is related to physical sight whereas the other, the most pernicious type of blindness, pertains to insight. Tiresias is physically blind but whereas Oedipus is blind intellectually. This intelectual blinness of Oedipus also contribute greatly to lead him to his tragic destination.

Oedipus possesses faultless physical vision throughout play except in the end but he remains blind to the reality regarding himself. At one point in the play, he has the ability to see but he is not willing to do so. He intellectual vision comes with his physical loss of sight but he is unable to cast away the psychological “slings and arrows” and mental sufferings that intellectual blindness has afflicted on him. So his blindness, both intellectual at the start of the play and physical at the end of the day, is the worst.

Blindness interweaves with the main plot from the very start of the play when Oedipus says, “I would be blind to misery not to pity my people kneeling at my feet. (14)” It manifest that he refers to blindness that if h will not recognize the distress of his people.

This shows his physical sight but intellectual blindness as he himself was the cause of those afflictions.  Later he acknowledges that although Tiresias is physically blind but has prophetic power when he says, “Blind as you are, you can feel all the more what sickness haunts our city. (344)”. Tiresias response refers to the gravity of Oedipus’ inability to see his future. He says, “How terrible – to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees! (359)”

Later on Oedipus denounces his own acknowledgement of Tiresias as a seer and abuses him by saying, “You’ve lost your power, stone-blind, stone-deaf – senses, eyes blind as stone!(423)” and “Blind, lost in the night, endless night that nursed you! You can’t hurt me or anyone else who sees the light – you can never touch me. (425)”. It is illustrated that it is Oedipus who is blind intellectually as he is not willing to comprehend the situation and to understand the truth. In retort to his slur, Tiresias refers to worst form of blindness that Oedipus is suffering. He says, “You with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life, to the house you live in, those who live with – who are your parents? (470)” and foretell, “Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich, he will grope his way toward a foreign soil, a stick tapping before him step by step. (517)”.

            These supportive texts clearly manifest that Oedipus was afflicted with severe intellectual myopia as he was unable t see the truth that was pervasive all around him. Actually he was unwilling to see truth around him, prior to his physical blindness and afterwards as he blinds himself not to observe the things around him. His is the most insidious form of blindness. Kirkwood says in this regard;

            The contrast

Oedipus Sluggishness;

            Oedipus can be held guilty due to another tragic flaw—his inability to take appropriate preventive measures. It is said that he fails to take logical steps and precaution s which would have saved him from committing the crimes.

 “Could not Oedipus…have escaped his doom if he had been more careful? Knowing that he was in danger of committing parricide and incest, would not really a prudent man have avoided quarrelling, even in self-defense and also love-relations with women older than himself?… real life I suppose he might. But we not entitled to blame Oedipus either for carelessness failing to compile a hand list or lack of self-control in failing to obey its injunctions.”   (Dodds, p.40)

Anger and Rashness:

Oedipus has necessary human failings. One of them is that he rashly jumps into conclusions. Choragos points this out in scene II after a long speech by Creon who tries o remove the ill-fed and hastily formed suspicions of Oedipus about Creon. They say, “Judgments too quickly formed are dangerous” (II, 101)

But Oedipus justifies this, arguing that ruler have to take quick decision. He says later on, “But is he not quick in his duplicity? / And shall I not be quick to parry him?” (II, 102-103) Later at the conclusion of scene II, Creon indicates the same tragic flaw in his character by saying, “Ugly in yielding, as you were ugly in rage! / Nature like yours chiefly torments themselves.” (II, 151-152)

It is this rashness that makes to not merely suspect Creon but accuse him and even declares that he deserves the sentence of death. The rashness can be observed in his treatment of Tireseas. Oedipus does not lack analytical thinking but his rashness does permit him to weigh up the situation rightly and he makes hasty decision. In retrospect we see that rashness of Oedipus has something to do with the murder Laius at the hands of Oedipus. The self-blinding also is an act of rashness although Oedipus tries t give several arguments in favor of it. Some critics regard this rashness of Oedipus to be his tragic flaw.

His bad temperament is demonstrated in the squabble between Teiresias and himself, where Teiresias utter the prophetic truth and Oedipus retorts, “Do you think you can say such things with impunity?” and afterward attributes him as a , “Shameless and brainless, sightless, senseless sot!”(p.36). His character is further marked with suspicion about Creon to whom he considers as a conspirator. Kirkwood is of the view that “The Creon he [Oedipus] is battling is a figment of his imagination” (Kirkwood, 1958. p. 132) and nothing else. He says with reference his tête-à-tête with Tiresaeas, “Creon! Was this trick his, then, if not yours?” So here his imagination works together with anger and rashness.

Conclusion:

            All the above-mentioned manifestation of tragic flaw, their supported arguments and views of the critics clearly proves the thesis that Oedipus unavoidable ignorance was the major factor of his tragedy because he was unable to locate that the man whom he assaulted on the crossroads to Thebes was his father. Secondly, if he would not have been occupied by his aspirations, he would have possibly explored the horror of his deed and could have avoided the additional tricky situations by not marrying his mother. Thirdly, his “conscious and intentional” act includes his decision to “bring what is dark to light” (133).

Furthermore, as result to revelation of Tireseas, he charges Creon with conspiracy and murder and denounces Tireases as an accessory. Although these actions were intentional and bring Oedipus to tragic end but have a clear background that illustrate that these actions were not “deliberate”. Fourthly, all these errors originate from a hasty and obstinate temperament, unjustified anger and excessive pride that compels him to an energized inquisitiveness. With the development of the plot, all these ascriptions of his character jumps back with amplified force on his head that finally culminates at his tragedy. Knox (1957) sums up in this way;

“the actions of Oedipus that produce the catastrophe stem from all sides of his character; no one particular action is more essential than any other; they are all essential and they involve not any one trait of character which might be designated a hamartia but the character of Oedipus as a whole” (31).

 

References

Bloom, Harold. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. : New York : Chelsea House Publishers. 1988.

Butcher, S.H. Aritotle’s theory of Poetry and Fine Arts. Hell and Wang: New York. 1961.

Dodds, E. R. On Misunderstanding the Oedipus. Greece & Rome. Vo. 13. No. 1. (Apr.

 1966). Pp. 37-49.

Cook, Albert Spaulding. Oedipus Rex, a mirror for Greek drama. Prospect Heights, Ill. :

Waveland Press.1982.

Gould, Thomas. Greek tragedy. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press.

1977.

Gould, Thomas. Oedipus the King: A Translation with Commentary. Englewood Cliffs.

1970.

Kane, Robert L. Prophecy and Perception in the Oedipus Rex. Transaction of the

            American Philological Association. Vol. 105 (1975). pp. 189-208.

Kirkwood, G.M. A study of Sophoclean drama. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press.

 1958.

Knox, Bernard. Oedipus at Thebes. New Haven, Yale University Press. 1957.

Knox, Bernard. Introduction to The Three Theban Plays. New York & London: Penguin Books.

1984.

O’ Brien, John M. Twentieth century interpretations of Oedipus Rex; a collection of

critical essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall. 1968

Segal, Erich.Greek tragedy: modern essays in criticism. New York : Harper & Row.

1983.

[1] Segal writes in his distinguished work Greek tragedy: modern essays in criticism:

“Oedipus does not have a tragic flaw. This view rests on a misreading of Aristotle and is a moralising way out of the disturbing questions that the play means to ask. Sophocles refuses to give an easy answer to the problem of suffering” (p. 76)

[2] For detailed discussion on these manifestations of the term Hamartia, please see Aritotle’s theory of Poetry and Fine Arts by S.H. Butcher (pp.310-315.)

You may also be interested in the following: hamartia in oedipus, oedipus hamartia, hamartia in oedipus rex

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