Oedipus the King
In the play Oedipus The King, I will apply the concept of the tragic
hero to the character Oedipus. The perception of the tragic hero evokes our
pity and terror if he is neither thoroughly good nor thoroughly evil but a
mixture of both. The tragic effect is stronger if the hero is more moral
than we are. The tragic hero suffers a change in fortune from happiness to
misery because of a mistaken act, which he performs due to his hamartia
error of judgment.
A form of hamartia is hubris ‘pride’ which leads the
tragic hero to ignore or violate a divine warning or moral law. The tragic
hero evokes our pity because he is not evil and his misfortune is greater
than he deserves. He evokes our fear because we realize we are fallible and
could make the same error. It would appear from this definition that
Oedipus could be described as a tragic hero.
Oedipus was the hero of Thebes. He was considered to be a man of noble
Oedipus was of an illustrious family, highly renowned, and prosperous. The
king Oedipus “saved us from the Sphinx,” (Prologue 38-39). The people of
Thebes respected Oedipus, because he saved the city from the Sphinx, by
answering the riddle. Oedipus was not a native Theban. He was a man
possessing tremendous self-confidence and courage. When he succeeds,
freeing the city from the Sphinx’s evil reign, he becomes instantly famous
and known for his bravery and intelligence.
Indeed Oedipus is idealized by
the Thebans, yet at times he seems to spite the gods, assuming authority
that normally belongs to them. He has no clear vision, which enables him to
examine every side of a matter with unclouded eyes, and to see all things
in due perspective. Nor has Oedipus a calm wisdom, which is always the
master of his passions. His emotions, his thoughts, even his errors, have
an ardent generosity, which stirs our deepest sympathy.
Oedipus is a model of a tragic hero, because he ultimately commits
fearful deeds. The tragic hero’s fall, results from his committing “an act
of injustice.” He kills his father and marries his mother. Oedipus is
damned for his fearful deed and, because of his deed he had almost
destroyed the city of Thebes. Oedipus’ changes to a man in denial, a man
more like a tyrant than a king, as he begins to solve the new riddle of
A growing paranoia grips Oedipus when Jocaste recounts the
story of her husband’s murder, leading the king to suspect his own past
actions. He remarks, “I think that I myself may be accurst by my own
ignorant edict” (Scene II, 216-217). Yet Oedipus is not quick to blame
himself for the plague of the city-indeed he tries to place the burden onto
others as he continues his investigation, blindly trusting his own superior
ability while ignoring the damaging evidence that surrounds him.
example, when Tiresias accuses Oedipus of being the murderer, the king
takes the counter-offensive, actually accusing Tiresias of the murder when
he asserts, “You planned it, you had I done, you all but killed him with
your own hands” (Scene I, 129-130). Similarly, he blames Creon for
conspiracy and treason. In this way, Oedipus chooses to attack the
messenger while disregarding the message.
Oedipus’ downfall is his own fault, not fate. He thought he could
change his destiny, but instead he ran right into it. Oedipus ran into the
king who was his real father, and killed him as the Oracles had said would
happen. He ran right into the city of Thebes where his mother lived.
Oedipsu solved the riddle of the Sphinx, and as a result he married his
mother. He couldn’t avoid his destiny.
Oedipus finally realizes the truth.
“Oh light, may I look on you for the last time!” (Scene IV, 70). The
tragic hero is a man who fails to attain happiness, and fails in such a way
that his career excites, not blame, but fear and pity in the highest
degree. He is not eminently good and just, not completely under the
guidance of true reason, but as falling through some great error flaw of
character, rather than through vice of depravity. His downfall was
remarkable because he was Oedipus, of an illustrious family, highly
renowned, and prosperous.
Though Oedipus’ fate is determined, we still feel sympathy for the
tragic hero, believing that somehow he doesn’t deserve what ultimately
comes to him. The hero’s misfortune is not wholly deserved; the
punishment far exceeds the crime. Oedipus the King serves to explain the
causes of human suffering. Here, Sophocles attributes, at least partially,
human suffering to the mere will of the gods. Though Tiresias is physically
blind, he sees the truth from the beginning, while Oedipus, who has
physical eyesight, is blind to his fate. By the end, Oedipus makes his
eyes blind when he learns the truth and finally sees.
Tragedy does not leave its audience in a state of depression. If we
give ourselves up to a full sympathy with the hero, there is no question
that the Oedipus fulfills the function of a tragedy, and arouses fear and
pity. We are quick to worry about Greek fatalism and the justice of the
downfall of Oedipus. Perhaps we trouble ourselves too much concerning the
Greek ideas of fate in human life.
As Oedipus grows in terrifying self-knowledge, he changes from a prideful,
heroic king at the beginning of the play, to a tyrant in denial toward the
middle, to a fearful, condemned man, humbled by his tragic fate by the
end. The hero may be defeated, he at least has dared greatly, and he gains
understanding from his defeat.
Oedipus becomes a man humbled with the pain and dejection of knowing the
truth of reality as the overwhelming evidence forces him to admit his
tragic destiny. Sophocles shows the sudden change in his protagonist’s
persona when Oedipus condemns himself, saying, “Oedipus, damned in his
birth, in his marriage damned, damned in the blood he shed with his own
hands!” (ODE IV, 73).
Yet the transformation of Oedipus’ character is most
clearly demonstrated when he chooses to gouge out his eyes. Now, finally
seeing his horrible fate, he makes himself physically blind like Tiresias,
the true seer told he was blind to the truth. Oedipus can no longer be
called a tyrant, let alone a king, after being humiliated in this way,
unable to see or even walk without assistance. His attitude toward Creon
also is dramatically altered. In this way, Oedipus, who greatly humbles
himself before Creon and the rest of Thebes, completely changes his
Sophocles, Oedipus The King. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction,
Poetry, and Drama (7th ed.). Eds. Kennedy, X.J. and Dana Giogia. New
York: Longman, 1999