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Oedipus the King

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
Laius’ death.

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

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