Oedipus The King As Greek Tragedy Essay

, Research Paper

The genre of drama is wide and contains works of varied forms and subjects. The first drama, on which all later works are based, developed in Greece and dealt with religious and social issues. According to Aristotle?s The Poetics, a Greek Tragedy must deal with a serious purpose, arousing a sense of pity or fear in the audience. The emphasis must be on plot over character development and the playwright must utilize suspense and unity of time, place and action. Aristotle writes that a tragic hero is a character who is renowned and prosperous, not necessarily perfect, but not an evil person either. The tragic hero must meet with a reversal of fortune brought about by either folly or fate. Based on these criteria, Oedipus the King by Sophocles is considered the prototypical Greek Tragedy. Oedipus, the play?s main character, is also considered the model of a Greek tragic hero.

Oedipus the King deals with several serious purposes, the greatest of which being the agnosticism Sophocles perceived in his community. Through Iokaste who ??would not waste a second thought?? on oracles, Sophocles shows his audience the perils of disbelief in the gods, since each prophecy made by oracles in the play ended up coming true (l. 813). Sophocles uses his play to perform serious religious functions as well as to entertain theatre-goers. The fulfillment of the predictions made by the oracles led to the downfall of Oedipus, which created a catharsis in the audience, brought by arousing feelings of pity and fear for the fallen king. The Choragos gives the lesson, ??let none presume on his good fortune until he find life, at his death, a memory without pain? (l. 1473-5). This scene allows the audience to leave the theater feeling purged of their pity and fear. The plot is the most important component of Oedipus the King, as it is of every Greek Tragedy. Development of characters is secondary, and the audience rarely ?gets inside? any of the characters. Only characters crucial to the plot are introduced; there is no extraneous action on stage. This development of plot is a challenge. A tragedian must present a story with which the audience is already familiar and still make it interesting and exciting. Sophocles accomplishes this goal by using dramatic irony. Several times in the play the audience knows something the characters on stage do not. During the conversation between Oedipus and Iokaste in which Oedipus is trying to determine if he is King Laios?s murderer, Iokaste tells him that he can?t possibly be the killer, since ?My child was doomed to kill him; and my child?died first? (l. 810-1). The audience, familiar with the story, knew that her child in fact had not died, and that Oedipus was actually both her child and the killer. This creates suspense that came to be called Sophoclean irony. By using this dramatic irony, Sophocles ensures that his plays will be interesting to an audience that already knows the story. The story in Oedipus the King, characteristic of all Greek Tragedy, has unity of time, place and action, since it takes place all in one day, happens in a single scene, and develops only one plot. These qualities combine to make Oedipus the King the primary example of a Greek tragedy.

The main character in a Greek tragedy cannot be just anyone. A Greek tragic hero like Oedipus has distinctive qualities, which set him apart from the characters we see in modern drama. Oedipus holds a high position at the beginning of the play; he is the King of Thebes, famous for solving the riddle of the Sphinx. Oedipus is a good man, but he is not perfect. He has a temper that leads Kreon to describe him as ?Ugly in yielding, as you were ugly in rage? (l. 635)! Though he has a tendency to get very angry, Oedipus is not at any extreme of evil. He is not a depraved ruler; he shows genuine concern for his people when they come to him in droves asking him to find an end to their famine. He recognized that he would ??be heartless were [he] not moved to find you suppliant here? (ll. 14-5). Oedipus is not a bad man, but he does suffer a reversal of fortune that is requisite upon a tragic hero. He falls from his high position not because of any fault or flaw, but because he couldn?t escape his fate. Though he did make some decisions that led to his demise, ultimately, despite his best effort, his fate led him to murder his father and marry his mother. When he learned of his destiny from the oracle at Delphi, he tried as hard as he could to leave the country where he thought he was born. It was not through folly, or careless decisions that Oedipus met his demise. Like Tess, Oedipus could do nothing to escape the pain he was destined to suffer.

Greek tragedy is exemplified in Oedipus the King because of the subject matter and the action onstage. Oedipus falls from his high position due to fate that he cannot escape, which is typical of a tragic hero.


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