As far as the question of Greek tragedy is concerned, it is essential to grasp the reason why audiences find tragic heroes’ horrible fates extremely appealing. Aristotle names three core effects that a tragedy has on viewers. In the first place, the audience feels an emotional appeal to the tragic hero; secondly, viewers fear what may happen to the hero; finally, (after the hero suffers a misfortune) the audience condoles with him. These three stages lead every viewer to a catharsis, i.e. a “refining” – audiences experience fear and pity together with the tragic hero, which helps them to get rid of these emotions. However, this principle works only if the tragic hero is a well-constructed and complex character, as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (Struck). For Aristotle, Oedipus is the ideal tragic hero, since he evokes the three above mentioned audiences’ responses.
According to Aristotle, “tragedy is a process of imitating an action which has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude,” which should be presented not through “telling” (narrative) but “showing” (drama). Tragedy deals with universal and is, therefore, higher than history that is concerned with the particular. Reflecting the fundamental cause-and-effect order of the universe, tragedy evokes viewers’ pity as well as fear. Aristotle defines six constituent elements of tragedy: “plot, characters, diction, thought, spectacle, melody” (McManus).
The perfect tragic plot is complex and single but never double (with both bad and good endings). Pathos (suffering) is inherent to all the plots, but complex plots also include recognition and reversal. Recognition, i.e. anagnorisis or “knowing throughout” or “knowing back” is “a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate.” Peripetia or reversal occurs when a situation rapidly changes in the opposite direction. The tragic hero is a great man (neither perfect nor a villain) who experiences misfortune mainly because of some error or moral blindness. He is not necessarily supposed to die at the end of the play but experiences a change in fortune often caused by the gods’ will (Aristotle and the Elements of Tragedy).
Oedipus as a Tragic Hero
The first crucial factor proving that Oedipus is a tragic hero is his virtue and the other one is nobility. According to Aristotle, the audiences’ respect for the tragic hero is based on the fact that the latter is a “better and larger” reflection of themselves. Oedipus’ nobility has the dynamic nature that makes viewers respect him. Firstly, Oedipus is the son of Jocasta and Laius, the Queen and King of Thebes. Therefore, his nobility stems merely from the fact of his parents’ royal origin. Furthermore, Oedipus himself is convinced that his parents are Merope and Polybus, the Queen and King of Corinth. From this standpoint, Oedipus attaches to himself a false but already second type of nobility. Ultimately, the riddle of the Sphinx is solved, and Oedipus is granted dominion over the freed city (the third type of royal respect). Therefore, Oedipus’ nobility emanates from diverse sources, so that the audience can reasonably respect and sympathize with him.
Another factor that significantly contributes to Oedipus’ as the tragic hero is the complex nature of his “hamartia,” i.e. tragic flaw. As a matter of fact, this Greek term implies a failure or an error rather than an innate foible. As Aristotle puts it, a “hamartia” is typical of all tragic heroes, but it is not innate since audiences would not respect them and be unable and unwilling to condole with them; likewise, if the hero’s downfall is involuntary and accidental, viewers are not supposed to fear for him. Consequently, the character’s foible must emanate from the core element of his virtue, which goes awry, predominantly, because he lacks knowledge. Aristotle’s definition infers that a real tragic hero’s failing must be neither arbitrary nor idiosyncratic, but have deeper roots, such as human weakness and failing. The given prerequisite fits Oedipus precisely since his fundamental flaw is unawareness of his own identity. What makes the matters worse is that he is not responsible for his flaw. That is why viewers fear for Oedipus: regardless of any Oedipus’ actions, the tragedy’s outcome cannot change (Struck). This is what Teiresias says about Oedipus’ lack of knowledge and its consequences:
You have your eyesight, and you do not see
how miserable you are
Without your knowledge you’ve become
the enemy of your own kindred,
those in the world below and those up here,
and the dreadful feet of that two-edged curse
from father and mother both will drive you
from this land in exile. Those eyes of yours,
which now can see so clearly, will be dark.
Oedipus’ Three Types of the Darkness
Lastly, Oedipus’ downfall cannot but evoke the audience’s great pity. To begin with, Oedipus does not commit a suicide but blinds himself, which is equal to surrogate death that undeniably aggravates his suffering. He mentions three types of the darkness, such as intellectual, religious, and literal (inability to see), which are looming upon him after he has blinded himself (Struck):
You will no longer see
all those atrocious things I suffered,
the dreadful things I did! No. You have seen
those you never should have looked upon,
and those I wished to know you did not see.
So now and for all future time be dark!
On one hand, Oedipus dies as he cannot enjoy life anymore; on the other hand, he is not dead and his suffering endures. The point is that Oedipus places himself in the middle between the realms of death and life, which enhances the audience’s feeling of great pity:
What is there for me to see, my friends?
What can I love? Whose greeting can I hear
and feel delight? Hurry now, my friends,
lead me away from Thebes—take me somewhere,
a man completely lost, utterly accursed,
the mortal man the gods despise the most.
Secondly, the Chorus, as well as Oedipus himself, affirm that the tragedy’s conclusion does not imply the Oedipus’ end because his torments do not end with the tragedy. Therefore, since Oedipus’ suffering is enduring, viewers may feel that it is exclusively his natural state.
The Dramatic Art of Sophocles
In his The Dramatic Art of Sophocles, Dr. Chandler Rathfon Post claims:
Sophocles lays emphasis upon the strength of the human will. From the very beginning the principal character is marked by an iron will centered upon a definite object; and the drama, according to Sophocles, consists to a certain extent of a series of tests, arranged in climactic order, to which the will is subjected, and over all of which it rises triumphant. (qtd. in Barstow 2)
According to Post, Sophocles illustrated the dictum mentioned above “by a brief discussion of the Oedipus Rex.” Therefore, it can be reasonably claimed that the tragic hero is also a strong personality with an “iron will.” Throughout the whole play, Oedipus keeps acting according to his beliefs and insists upon actions he has initiated, neglecting other people’s alternative solutions or objections. His perseverance predetermines his freedom, and it is exactly the latter that triggers a series of events for which he assumes full responsibility. Oedipus does not change his direction under any circumstances, and even a disaster cannot make him give up and start blaming others for his mistakes.
Another conspicuous fact underpinning Oedipus’ strength is that he holds himself responsible even for his own punishment. Having stabbed out his eyes, he demands to be banished. Nothing can make him compromise, as well as his decisiveness cannot be broken even by the disastrous truth. As a true tragic hero, Oedipus defies fate rather than aligns himself with it or accepts its mystery. His decisions are based exclusively on his desires, and he is ready to accept and answer for any consequences that his will may bring:
But I will never feel myself dishonoured.
I see myself as a child of fortune—
and she is generous, that mother of mine
from whom I spring, and the months, my siblings,
have seen me by turns both small and great.
The master of his fate, Oedipus seems to have an enormous ego since his life is dedicated to asserting the enormously strong sense of himself. His self-confidence is evident from his answer to Teiresias: “Mock my excellence, / but you will find out I am truly great.” Although this fact causes the narrowness of his vision, i.e. ignoring views that differ from his own, it also endows Oedipus with the power of bearing responsibility for any consequences of his actions:
What man could be more hateful to the gods?
Am I not depraved?
Am I not utterly abhorrent?
Now I must fly into exile and there,
a fugitive, never see my people,
never set foot in my native land again.
All things considered, Oedipus brightly exemplifies Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. His multifaceted and dynamic character is highly appealing to the audience; his tragic flaw makes viewers respect and fear for him; ultimately, his enduring suffering that do not end even after the punishment wins the audience’s sympathy.