Before Oedipus, “tragic hero” meant very little as a literary device. Ever since Aristotle outlined the qualities of tragic drama, scholars continue to debate whether or not there was a true tragic hero in Oedipus Rex.
Read this article to learn more about this literary dispute, and then judge for yourself!
Rapid Recap: A Quick Synopsis of Oedipus Rex
To understand Oedipus as a tragic hero (or not), let’s review the plot of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, written around the Fourth Century BCE. Like Homer’s The Odyssey, the scene occurs at the end of the story, and many of the critical details are related to events that happened some time ago.
One interesting plot clue to keep in mind is that Oedipus’ name means “swollen foot.” Apparently, he suffered an injury as an infant, and he walked with a limp all of his life.
When the play opens, King Oedipus is concerned about the plague that grips Thebes, and he tells the lamenting citizens that he has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to consult the oracle at Delphi. On cue, Creon returns with the news that to escape the plague, they must find and punish the murderer of the former King Laius.
At the time, Queen Jocasta and the other Thebans were too busy dealing with the curse of the Sphinx to investigate Laius’ murder at the crossroads. Oedipus had saved Thebes from the Sphinx and had married the widowed Jocasta, becoming king.
Oedipus vows to find and punish the murderer, but the blind prophet Tiresias reveals that Oedipus himself is the murderer. Jocasta arrives to calm her enraged husband, and she tells him that prophecies mean nothing. In fact, she and King Laius heard a prophecy that their son, Oedipus, would kill Laius. They drove a stake through the baby’s ankles and left him to die in the forest, so the prophecy did not come true. (Or did it – remember Oedipus’ swollen feet?)
Oedipus reveals that a prophet recently told him that he would kill his father and marry his mother, and that is why he fled Corinth. However, he did kill a man at the crossroads on the way to Thebes. Little by little, the plot unravels until Oedipus is finally forced to admit that the prophecy is true. Jocasta hangs herself at the news, and Oedipus takes the brooch pin from her dress and gouges out his own eyes.
The Characteristics of a Tragic Hero, According To Aristotle
As one of the earliest tragic plays, it seems natural that Oedipus Rex would exemplify tragic hero characteristics. Aristotle was the first philosopher to analyze drama, and he used Oedipus to define tragic hero characteristics.
In Chapter Eight of Aristotle’s Poetics, a true tragic hero must possess the following qualities:
- Nobility: The character must be from a high-born family or has achieved greatness somehow. With a “great” character, there is farther to “fall.”
- Morality: The character must be essentially a good person, but not perfect so that the audience can empathize. (Remember that ancient Greece was a pragmatic and often brutal society, so the idea of morality is likely different for modern audiences.)
- Hamartia: The character possesses a fatal flaw or weakness that leads to the character’s downfall. (Again, this is a moral person, so the hamartia should not be wicked or depraved.)
- Anagnorisis: The character experiences a moment of comprehension and realizes that the downfall was self-inflicted, usually unintentionally.
- Peripeteia: The character’s hamartia causes a dramatic reversal of fortune. Since the character is moral, the “punishment” is often accepted readily.
- Catharsis: The character’s outcome elicits pity from the audience.
Sources differ on the exact list of traits, but Aristotle’s list is the most complete. Often, hubris, or overbearing pride, is included as a separate item in this list, while other scholars consider hubris as the character’s fatal flaw, covered under the “hamartia” bullet.
The true meaning of “hamartia” is the most hotly debated portion of this formula when considering Oedipus Rex as a tragic hero. Hamartia is discussed in detail later in this article.
Why Is Oedipus a Tragic Hero? Five of the Traits Are Undisputed
There are numerous examples of Oedipus being a tragic hero; scholars agree that Oedipus fulfills most or all of Aristotle’s traits. First, Oedipus is nobly born, being the son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta. Further, he was adopted by the King of Corinth, technically making him the heir to two thrones. Also, Oedipus saved Thebes by defeating the Sphinx, which was a noble-hearted act.
Oedipus is also a moral person, far from perfect, but he is concerned about the right action and protecting the welfare of others. When he experiences anagnorisis, he is devastated by the atrocious act that he unwittingly committed. His devastating peripeteia, his blindness, and his exile does elicit pity from the audience.
It is the characteristic of hamartia that causes scholarly dispute. Oedipus is portrayed in a very human, approachable way, so he naturally exhibits several mild character flaws.
However, which of these flaws was responsible for his downfall? Or was it the gods themselves who manipulated events for their own reasons, and Oedipus’ character had nothing to do with his fate?
Oedipus and His Hamartia: Exploring the Heated Debate
In the countless scholarly discussions on Oedipus and his hamartia, many different character traits receive the blame for Oedipus’ downfall. Yet, these same traits appear in other stories as advantages.
Some of the two-sided character traits include:
- Hubris: Pride is a favorite subject of the Greek poets, but Oedipus seems to show no more pride than the average king. Some scholars argue that his prideful act was to think he could avoid the prophecy by running away, but meekly accepting that he will commit heinous acts doesn’t seem very moral.
- Temper: Oedipus kills several strangers at a crossroads, including King Laius. However, Laius’ party attacked him first, so technically, his actions were in self-defense.
- Determination: Oedipus insists on finding Laius’s killer. Still, he does this to save Thebes from a plague, so his motive is pure.
- Simple error: The Greek word “hamartia” could be defined as “missing the target.” A person can act honorably and with the best intentions and still fall short. Oedipus had several options on what actions he might take to avoid the prophecy, but the one he chose caused him to fulfill the prophecy in its entirety.
The Essential Difference Between Greek and Shakespearean Tragic Heroes
Some arguments over Oedipus deal with whether or not Aristotle’s characteristics of a tragic hero are accurate at all. Part of the misunderstanding is that there is a difference between the tragic heroes from Greek literature and those in more modern works, most notably the works of Shakespeare. Both types of characters have the telltale hamartia, but how this fatal flaw comes into play is decidedly different.
Greek tragic heroes, while certainly flawed, do not realize that they are causing their own demise. In the case of Oedipus, he wants to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother, so he runs away to Thebes to save them. He also kills Laius in what he sees as self-defense, again, not intending to do something unethical. Similarly, marrying Jocasta was an actual act of love and was considered morally sound until the truth of Oedipus’ parentage was revealed.
Whether they think they have a choice or not, Shakespearean tragic heroes enter willingly into their deeds, knowing it may lead to an unfortunate outcome. Hamlet decides to act on the ghost’s words and avenge his father, even though his conscience bothers him often during the play. Macbeth voluntarily chooses to kill Duncan and anyone else who stands between him and the throne. Even Romeo deliberately enters his enemy’s house and woos his daughter, knowing the strife this may cause between their families.
Ask scholars of Greek literature whether or not Oedipus is a tragic hero, and you are likely to get extensive, adamant, and often conflicting answers.
The following are key elements of the argument and some memorable facts about the play:
- Sophocles wrote the Oedipus trilogy of plays around the Fourth Century BCE.
- In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus tries to run from a prophecy and ends up fulfilling it.
- The name “Oedipus” means “swollen foot,” and indeed, a foot injury plays a crucial role in the plot.
- Aristotle was the first philosopher to analyze drama. He used Oedipus Rex to help him define the tragic hero.
- According to Aristotle, the characteristics of a tragic hero are nobility, morality, hamartia, anagnorisis, peripeteia, and catharsis.
- Oedipus does possess all of Aristotle’s characteristics, though his tragic flaw is often debated.
- Scholars dispute which of Oedipus’s character traits qualifies as his fatal flaw, suggesting hubris, determination, and a hot temper as possibilities.
- Some researchers suggest that “hamartia” is only an error in judgment or simply an action that goes astray.
- Though Oedipus is the quintessential Greek tragic hero, he is not a Shakespearean tragic hero because he doesn’t intend to do wrong.
It seems evident that Oedipus qualifies as one of the first tragic heroes in recorded fiction. However, if you disagree, feel free to share your opinion with some energetic scholars and join the debate!