The story of Oedipus Tyrannus, otherwise known as Oedipus the King or Oedipus Rex, is an Athenian tragedy written by Sophocles; it tells the story of Oedipus, the king of Thebes who is plagued by a self-fulfilled prophecy in which he kills his father Laius and marries his own mother, Jocasta. Not only is it widely recognized as Sophocles’ greatest work, the story of Oedipus has lent its name to what is recognized in the psychological realm today as the Oedipus complex, in which a young child feels “complex emotions” relative to that of unconscious sexual desire toward the parent of the opposite sex. The story of Oedipus is laden with misfortune, curse and unintentional and unwanted sexual deviancy. The tone of the works, specifically Oedipus’ fervent attempts to not fulfill the prophecy and his eventual falling victim to a self-imposed curse, poses the question: is Oedipus a tragic hero?
Philosopher Aristotle defines a tragic hero as “a virtuous man whose misfortune is brought about not by depravity, but by some error or frailty.” In this case, it is Oedipus’ hubris (or hamartia, meaning “fatal flaw”) that entices him into challenging the prophecy of the gods, which is to no avail as he ends up fulfilling the very curse he so adamantly set out to avoid. The course of Oedipus’ life events are a product of his immense pride, his hamartia that leads to his downfall. To further explain, the tragic hero is neither the protagonist or the antagonist of a story, so to speak. He simply is good and decent—average, even. His pride will not allow him to accept the prophet Tiresias’ revelation that he is the murderer of his own father, Laius. This refusal comes on the heels of a plague that has ravaged Thebes where Oedipus is king, caused by “religious pollution.” What Oedipus struggles with is not being able to see past his own success, the same success that seemingly keeps him aloof from tragedy and misfortune.
The story pans out as Oedipus searches for Laius’ killer, who had never been caught, even after Tiresias’ prophecy that he is the murderer. In examining the tragic hero, there are specific elements. First, the hero has a character of great noble status—Oedipus does, of course, as King of Thebes. Second, he must exhibit many excellent qualities as he does throughout the play: he is a trusted authority figure appreciated by his people— “you are held with God’s assistance to have saved our lives;” he is a man of great morals, vowing to find the murderer (even though it’s him) and end the plague affecting his people. Next, although revered, Oedipus is a member of his community, put in the place of like-minded individuals whom he also rules. However, as anyone, Oedipus is mortal and flawed, best exhibited by his adamant refusal of Tiresias’ prophecy. As previously stated, his hubris is his fatal flaw.
Going off of this criteria, Oedipus fits the description of a tragic hero. At the outset of the play, Oedipus’ intentions were honorable; he was determined to find Laius’ murderer and went to such lengths to end the plague on his people. His intentions were there and good. As a man of such noble status, he was dedicated to his people. Despite his dedication and apparent likability, it is his immense pride that disallows him from seeing his true nature: a hot-tempered, proud and cocky individual who ends up, in a paradox, blind as he “sees” the truth that he murdered his own father and has married and procreated with his mother, however unaware of that fact he was. Even in seeing his own truth, no pun intended, Oedipus begs for exile as a way to escape his cursed family; he asks his brother-in-law Creon to protect his daughters/half-sisters Antigone and Ismene in a move of selflessness counteracting his normally proud behavior.
- Sophocles, Stephen Berg, and Diskin Clay. Oedipus the King. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. Print.