The Tragic Hero: Oedipus Rex Essay, Research Paper
December 2, 2000
According to the ancient Greeks and Aristotle the hero is a person who possesses superior qualities of mind and body, and who proves his superiority by doing great deeds of valor, strength, or intellect. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex the main character Oedipus possesses these characteristics of a true hero, which in turn lead to his self-destruction.
In the beginning of the play Oedipus’s great intellect is made known by the chorus who see him as someone who has proven his wisdom, someone who has single-handedly saved Thebes in years present from the Sphinx, and someone who is adored by his people. He displays his great intellect when the priest declares:
You freed us from the Sphinx; you came to Thebes and cut us loose from the bloody tribute we had paid that harsh, brutal singer. We taught you nothing, no skill, no extra knowledge, still you triumphed. A god was with you, so they say, and we believe it-you lifted up our lives (Sophocles 1226).
Another sign of Oedipus’s intellectual achievement is his self-blinding. Though he may not see the world with his eyes, he can now see his true self, and what he was. To me personally Oedipus is a kind of symbol of the human intelligence which cannot rest until it has solved all the riddles, even the last riddle, the riddle of his own life.
The hero, being blessed with superior qualities of mind and body, loved to engage in battle, preferably with another hero, since combat gave him the best chance to demonstrate his
physical strength. D. Brendan Nagle, author of The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History, contends that the hero was always belligerent because he regarded combat as, “the ultimate test of human valor, strength, and ability”(91). Oedipus’s physical strength opens the door of opportunity to be king. This physical strength which Oedipus possesses and misuses however will mark the beginning of his downfall. However, Oedipus would be a hero for his defeat of the Sphinx, and his inward strength, not for his skills in combat. But surely, Oedipus is a great man, not in virtue of great worldly position, but as an illusion, which will vanish like a dream. Oedipus is great because of the virtue of his inner strength, strength to pursue the truth at whatever personal cost, and strength to accept and endure it when found. “This horror is mine,” he cries, “and none but I is strong enough to bear it”(Sophocles 1414). Oedipus had a very strong inward strength, Richard Jebb talks of this inward strength when he comments on Oedipus, “The Theban king … has an inward sense of an strength which can no more be broken; of a vision clearer than that of the bodily eye”(325). Oedipus inner strength is also shown when he asks Creon to drive him out of the land at once, far from everyone’s sight, where he will never hear a human voice ever again. Oedipus accepts his mistakes and will take whatever punishment is handed to him; not once does he cry and ask, “ why is this happening to me?” Instead Oedipus punishes himself by gouging out his own eyes. Why though does he decide to blind himself? He tells us why; he has blinded himself in order to cut himself off from all human contact, if he could take away his other senses he would. Oedipus has mutilated himself because he can face neither the living nor the dead.
Donna Rosenberg, editor of World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics, states in her introduction to Greek Mythology that the hero, “valued strength and skill,
courage and determination, for these attributes enabled the person to achieve glory and honor both in his lifetime and after he died”(38). When it comes to honor and glory, Oedipus will not even consider the needs and love of his family. But it would be a mistake to view Oedipus as someone who has no compassion. Oedipus displays his uncompromising attitude in pursuit of the truth when he argues with Jocasta about the herdsman. Oedipus asks Jocasta if the man that is standing before him is the man that she sent for, and the man whom the shepherd is speaking of. Jocasta begging Oedipus asks him why do you want to know the truth? Forget him, forget everything, it’s all just a waste of time. Oedipus asks Jocasta, “What –give up now, with a clue like this? Fail to solve the mystery of my birth? Not for all the world”(Sophocles 1155). Jocasta seemingly upset tells Oedipus, in the name of god, if you love yourself and your life, call off the search for the truth! My suffering is enough! Oedipus then tells her to have courage, even if his mother turns out to be a slave it would not effect her. Again she begs him to stop, but to no avail, Oedipus is focused on discovering the truth of his identity, even if it means the fall of his family and house, he is ready for the truth.
Oedipus is a good man, a man of honor and compassion and this is proven by what the characters in the play say about Oedipus. Only when Oedipus falsely accuses the characters of Tiresias and Creon, do the characters speak badly of the king. In his book Interpretations: Sophocles Oedipus Rex, Harold Bloom tells us:
In the eyes of the priest in the opening scene he is the greatest and noblest of men, the savior of Thebes who with divine aid rescued the city from the Sphinx”(37). “The chorus has the same view of him: he has proved his wisdom, he is darling of the city, and never will they believe ill of him (ln.504)”(37).
Even though Oedipus has a very bad temper, which he shows very often to those close to him, Oedipus also has a compassionate side. Oedipus’s compassionate side is shown when he speaks to the citizens of Thebes; Oedipus tells the citizens that he understands their problems, and that he pities them. Oedipus says that even though each citizen cares only for themselves and for their good health, he grieves and cares for the whole city, for himself and all of the citizens. In their darkest hour he has not forgotten them, but instead he has not been able to sleep because he has “wept” for the misfortune of the citizens. Oedipus later says to his people, “I know you are sick to death, all of you, but sick as you are, not one is sick as I”(Sophocles 1226). When Oedipus mentions sick he is not referring to being sick physically, but rather being sick mentally with his rage and with his questions. Oedipus tells his people that he shares their pains and sorrow and that he is not able to sleep, because he has been crying and searching for the answers that will bring an end to the plague which is ravaging the city of Thebes. E.R Dodds, author of the essay On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex, confirms Oedipus was a compassionate man whom seeks the truth for his people. He shows that because of the heroic status of Oedipus he was a man freely choosing from the highest emotions, a series of actions, which would lead to his downfall. Oedipus could have very easily left the plague untouched to take its course. But his feelings for the suffering citizens compelled him to consult the Oracle of Delphi. When Creon arrived with the word of Apollo he could he left the murder of Lauis uninvestigated; but his heroic qualities required him to act.
King Oedipus possessed all the characteristics of a hero, but the three that brought him stumbling to his knees were his pride, ego, and his temper. Oedipus’s pride overwhelmed him, it became a major weakness in his life, Oedipus’s huge ego is evident when we read, “I thought it wrong, my children to hear the truth from others, messengers. Here I am myself- you all know me, the world knows my fame: I am Oedipus”(Sophocles 1225). The pride that consumes Oedipus causes him to falsely accuse his brother/uncle Creon, and the prophet Tiresias. When Tiresias comes to talk to Oedipus, and does not tell Oedipus who Lauis’ murderer is; Oedipus gets angry and accuses Tiresias of taking part in the murder. In turn this enrages Tiresias who declares that Oedipus is himself the murderer that he seeks. Outraged Oedipus believes that Tiresias and Creon are the killers of the previous king. Upon his arrival from Delphi Creon hears rumors that Oedipus has accused him of being involved in the murder of Lauis. When Creon returns he says, “I hear that King Oedipus brings terrible charges against me”(Sophocles 1238). When Creon confronts Oedipus about these false accusations, Oedipus tells Creon that when his enemy moves against him, and plots in secret, he in turn moves quickly and plots to pay him back. If he relaxes his guard for a moment, his enemy wins and he looses. Creon then asks, “What do you want? You want me banished?”(Sophocles 1241). Oedipus responds, “No, I want you dead”(Sophocles 1241). After Oedipus has accused Creon of plotting to kill the king, Creon tells Oedipus that he does wrong when he takes good men for bad, bad men for good, and in time Oedipus will know this well.
Every tragic hero has a downfall Oedipus’ fall from grace begins with his self discovery. Oedipus’ discovery of himself is the climax in the play. The messenger recognizes the king as the child whose life he saved years before on Cithaeron. But this is not special because the messenger recognizes Oedipus, but because Oedipus discovers himself. After Oedipus realizes the crimes he has committed and that the prophecy has been fulfilled, he blinds himself and so begins his tragic fall. Instead of seeing a proud king who was present in the beginning of the story, we see a helpless, blinded sufferer.
Ultimately Oedipus possessed all the proper traits and characteristics of the hero, but these characteristics were also what led to his downfall. Even the strongest of men have their weaknesses, and everyone eventually comes face to face with their downfall. But we have the choice to pursue it or to let it find us, and Oedipus chose to seek his out even when others told him not to; and this is what makes Oedipus a true tragic hero.
Dodds, E.R. “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Michael J. O’Brien. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1968. 17-29.
Nagle, Brendan D. The Ancient World: A Cultural and Social History. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1979.
Rosenberg, Donna. World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics. Illinois: Passport Books, 1988.
Sophocles. “Oedipus the King.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Fifth edition. Boston: Bedford, 1999. 1224-1265.
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.