Oedipus Rex as a Classical TragedyOedipus Rex is a typical classical tragedy because it has the element of tragic setting, atmosphere and mood, tragic character with tragic hamartia, tragic plot design moving to tragic disintegration, and therefore the tragic realization by the character and audience.
The dialogue as well as the language of the chorus also emphasizes the tragic message about the tragic life of the ill-fated Oedipus.
Oedipus Rex is an ancient Greek tragedy which is so typical of the classical tragedies that Aristotle took it as an example to define and illustrate the qualities of a tragedy. Aristotle's definition is a descriptive one (and not prescriptive); the definition of tragedy has been modified because many great tragedies have been written since without being confined to the Aristotelian features. However, it is feasible to first see this tragedy in terms of Aristotle's definition.
Aristotle defined tragedy in terms of its plot, character and action. The plot of a tragedy must consist of one, great and complete action. Each part of the play must contribute to the final tragic consequences and effect. The cause and effect must be logically linked: no external force must intervene. The main tragic character must possess great status and ideal qualities; but he must also have a weakness, though not a moral flaw —this weakness is called ‘hamartia'. The consequence of the character's own error of judgment or of his wrong action must bring the fall, from which there is no escape. This should give us the sense of inevitability, making us accept and realize the reality and the weakness of the character. The reversal and discovery must reveal to the character and the audience the cause of the character's undoing and downfall. It should not be the doing of the external forces, like supernatural forces or of fate and chance.
Besides the tragic plot, we have a typically tragic character, Oedipus. Oedipus is a tragic character because he is a great man with some ideals and with a commitment to find out the truth and cure the problem besetting is country. But like a tragic character, he has a tragic weakness. His tragic weakness is that in the confidence of what he knows or can know he becomes too careless and disrespectful towards the gods, the fate that the oracles have disclosed for him: he defies to any inner voice and wisdom with regards to fate and destiny.
Another tragic element in the play Oedipus Rex is its tragic atmosphere. From beginning to end, we are exposed to very serious and frightening situations. The dramatic conflict among the characters and the dramatic tension that builds in our minds never settles down; and there is no comic element, even like in Shakespearean tragedies. Like in a typical tragedy, the dramatist has designed even the dialogue so carefully as to create and sustain a very serious tone and mood throughout. The hopes that always lead us to fear, and the anxiety that always leads us to frustration finally contributes to the catharsis. Our false hopes and wishes as prompted and guided by the chorus finally collapse into the tragic purification of emotions, which is called catharsis or purgation (in the audience), along with the tragic change in the characters. The chorus is also a corollary element that contributes considerably in the tragic characteristics of this drama.
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Oedipus Rex: Tragedy of Fate
Oedipus the King is widely regarded as a tragedy of fate. Briefly
stated, it begins with a terrible plague that destroys the city. King Oedipus
sends a messenger to the oracle at Delphi to find a cure. The answer that is
received suggests to find out who the killer of King Laios was. Oedipus sends
for the prophet Teiresias, who after much arguing, finally reveals that Oedipus
himself is the murderer. Slowly but surely the history of Oedipus' situation
begins to unravel, and it is discovered that there was a prophecy made that he
would unwittingly kill his father and marry his mother; Oedipus fulfilled his
The conflict here lies with the struggle between the all powerful gods
and the mere will of the humans. The prophecy had been made about Oedipus as
soon as he was born. Once the destiny was foretold by the gods, no amount of
hope, faith, or vain effort by human beings could have prevented it.
As soon as there was interference with fate, it was counteracted by the
divinities. Jocasta wanted to kill the baby, so she skewed his legs together,
had a servant bring him to the forest and leave him for dead. The servant does
not want to carry out this deed and therefore "saves his life" by handing the
baby to someone else, so that he can be raised in another city. Further, a
drunken man in a tavern tells Oedipus about the prophecy, so he runs home to
question his parents about his fate. Instead of telling him the truth, they
give him the impression that they are in fact his biological parents.
The idea that must be pointed out here, is that once an oracle or a
prophet makes a prediction, it is destined to be and there is absolutely nothing
that can be done about it. Oedipus was highly regarded as a noble and honorable
king. However, if we explore beneath the exterior, we will discover that in
actuality, the King has many faults and is not so honorable and noble.
Oedipus seems to be driven by an unconscious rage. Being very short
tempered, he is quick to lash out at those whose opinions are different from his.
The first episode appears within the first few minutes of the play. When
Teiresias refuses to tell him who murdered King Laios, Oedipus becomes unjustly
enraged, which in a way suggests that he himself could have committed the murder.
He then proceeds to insult Teiresias violently. Teiresias is finally provoked
into telling Oedipus the truth; that he is responsible for the death of King
Laios. Oedipus then accuses him of lying and conspiring with Creon against him.
As the story continues, we see how Oedipus is easily irritated by a few
words from a drunken man in a tavern. This once again shows his short temper.
Ironically, it was those words that sent him off to fulfill the prophecy in the
first place. On his way out of Corinth, we catch a glimpse of another volatile
explosion. He becomes involved in a scuffle with a band of men at a crossroad.
In his fit of unleashed anger, he attacks and kills the men, not knowing that
one of the men is King Laios.
The problem with Oedipus seems to lie within his internal character
structures. He is full of anger and rage that is expressed as quickly as it is
forgotten. Oedipus is stubbornly resistant to the full details of the story,
always attributing these events to mere coincidence. His ignorance comes from
his fear of the appalling horror of the possible truth and it's devastating
The question of morality surfacing leads one to sympathize with Oedipus.
How could the gods be so cruel? How could this be justified by simply saying
that it was "the work of fate"? Was it in fact fate to begin with? These
questions and many more like it have been raised countless times. Few concrete
answers have been found, and there is much debate over even the slightest points.
A conclusion that can be drawn, is that the plot of Oedipus the King was
entirely predestined. The characters and circumstances surrounding the events
were all simply instruments of fate which nobody could prevent or alter.
Ultimately, Oedipus cannot be held responsible for his actions, because fate was
immutable from the outset. It may not have been fair, kind, or just, but the
future was preordained and irrevocable.
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