Oedipus Analysis Essay, Research Paper
In his Poetics, Aristotle outlined the ingredients necessary for a good tragedy, and he based his formula on what he considered to be the perfect tragedy, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. According to Aristotle, a tragedy must be an imitation of life in the form of a serious story that is complete in itself; in other words, the story must be realistic and narrow in focus. A good tragedy will evoke pity and fear in its viewers, causing the viewers to experience a feeling of catharsis. Catharsis, in Greek, means ?purgation? or ?purification;? running through the gamut of these strong emotions will leave viewers feeling elated, in the same way we often claim that ?a good cry? will make one feel better.
Aristotle also outlined the characteristics of a good tragic hero. He must be ?better than we are,? a man who is superior to the average man in some way. In Oedipus’s case, he is superior not only because of social standing, but also because he is smart ? he is the only person who could solve the Sphinx’s riddle. At the same time, a tragic hero must evoke both pity and fear, and Aristotle claims that the best way to do this is if he is imperfect. A character with a mixture of good and evil is more compelling than a character that is merely good. And Oedipus is definitely not perfect; although a clever man, he is blind to the truth and refuses to believe Tiresias’ warnings. Although he is a good father, he unwittingly fathered children in incest. A tragic hero suffers because of his hamartia, a Greek word that is often translated as ?tragic flaw? but really means ?error in judgement.? Often this flaw or error has to do with fate ? a character tempts fate, thinks he can change!
fate or doesn’t realize what fate has in store for him. In Oedipus the King, fate is an idea that surfaces again and again. Whether or not Oedipus has a ?tragic flaw? is a matter that will be discussed later. The focus on fate reveals another aspect of a tragedy as outlined by Aristotle: dramatic irony. Good tragedies are filled with irony. The audience knows the outcome of the story already, but the hero does not, making his actions seem ignorant or inappropriate in the face of what is to come. Whenever a character attempts to change fate, this is ironic to an audience who knows that the tragic outcome of the story cannot be avoided.
Dramatic irony plays an important part in Oedipus the King. Its story revolves around two different attempts to change the course of fate: Jocasta and Laius’s killing of Oedipus at birth and Oedipus’s flight from Corinth later on. In both cases, an oracle’s prophecy comes true regardless of the character?s actions. Jocasta kills her son only to find him restored to life and married to her. Oedipus leaves Corinth only to find that in so doing he has found his real parents and carried out the oracle’s words. Both Oedipus and Jocasta prematurely exult over the failure of oracles, only to find that the oracles were right after all. Each time a character tries to avert the future predicted by the oracles, the audience knows their attempt is futile, creating the sense of irony that permeates the play.
Even the manner in which Oedipus and Jocasta express their disbelief in oracles is ironic. In an attempt to comfort Oedipus, Jocasta tells him that oracles are powerless; yet at the beginning of the very next scene we see her praying to the same gods whose powers she has just mocked. Oedipus rejoices over Polybus’s death as a sign that oracles are fallible, yet he will not return to Corinth for fear that the oracle’s statements concerning Merop? could still come true. Regardless of what they say, both Jocasta and Oedipus continue to suspect that the oracles could be right, that gods can predict and affect the future ? and of course the audience knows they can.
If Oedipus discounts the power of oracles, he values the power of truth. Instead of relying on the gods, Oedipus counts on his own ability to root out the truth; after all, he is a riddle-solver. The contrast between trust in the god?s oracles and trust in intelligence plays out in this story like the contrast between religion and science in nineteenth-century novels. But the irony is, of course, that the oracles and Oedipus’s scientific method both lead to the same outcome. Oedipus’s search for truth reveals just that, and the truth revealed fulfills the oracles’ prophesies. Ironically, it is Oedipus?s rejection of the oracles that uncovers their power; he relentlessly pursues truth instead of trusting in the gods, and his detective work finally reveals the fruition of the oracles’ words. As Jocasta says, if he could just have left well enough alone, he would never have discovered the horrible workings of fate.
In his search for the truth, Oedipus shows himself to be a thinker, a man good at unraveling mysteries. This is the same characteristic that brought him to Thebes; he was the only man capable of solving the Sphinx’s riddle. His intelligence is what makes him great, yet it is also what makes him tragic; his problem-solver’s mind leads him on as he works through the mystery of his birth. In the Oedipus myth, marriage to Jocasta was the prize for ridding Thebes of the Sphinx. Thus Oedipus’s intelligence, a trait that brings Oedipus closer to the gods, is what causes him to commit the most heinous of all possible sins. In killing the Sphinx, Oedipus is the city’s savior, but in killing Laius (and marrying Jocasta), he is its scourge, the cause of the blight that has struck the city at the play’s opening.
The Sphinx’s riddle echoes throughout the play, even though Sophocles never mentions the actual question she asked. Audiences would have known the Sphinx’s words: what is it that goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at midday, and three feet in the evening? Oedipus’s answer, of course, was a man. And in the course of the play, Oedipus himself proves to be that same man, an embodiment of the Sphinx’s riddle. There is much talk of Oedipus’s birth and his exposure as an infant ? here is the baby of which the Sphinx speaks, crawling on four feet (even though two of Oedipus’s are pinioned). Oedipus throughout most of the play is the adult man, standing on his own two feet instead of relying on others, even gods. And at the end of the play, Oedipus will leave Thebes an old blind man, using a cane. In fact, Oedipus’s name means swollen foot because of the pins through his ankles as a baby; thus even as a baby and a young man he has a limp and uses a cane: a prefiguring !
of the three-legged old man he will become. Oedipus is more than merely the solver of the Sphinx’s riddle; he himself is the answer.
Perhaps the best example of dramatic irony in this play, however, is the frequent use of references to eyes, sight, light, and perception throughout. When Oedipus refuses to believe him, Tiresias cries, So, you mock my blindness??.You with your precious eyes, you?re blind to the corruption of your life,?. Mentioned twice in the same breath, the word eyes stands out in this sentence. Tiresias knows that Oedipus will blind himself