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Sophocles, an ancient Greek tragedian, authored Oedipus around 429 BC. Although written nearly 2500 years ago, the story remains among the most riveting tragedies of all time. The mere mention of the name Oedipus evokes negative feelings and connotations today. The tragic hero Oedipus, to the distaste and dismay of many, had an unnatural sexual relationship with his own mother. However, this relationship actually emerged quite innocently. Oedipus was not some type of ancient sexual deviant. He was a man that was driven by high internal moral standards. It was, in fact, that internal moral compass that eventually involved him in a series of events and circumstances that placed him in the romantic, marital relationship with his own mother. Oedipus, in fact, truly exemplifies a tragic hero as Aristotle himself defined the term.
Sophacles’ “Oedipus” has been heralded as one of the “greatest achievements of Greek dramatic art” (Van Zyl Smit 477). Much of the recognition is due Oedipus being presented as the “tragic hero”. He was an individual who, through no fault of his own, was thrown into series of tragic events that would forever change not just his life but the lives of all who were associated or involved with him. Oedipus’ story continues to impact our psyche and emotions today, some 2500 years after it was written. Aristotle defined a tragic hero as “such a person who neither is superior in virtue and justice, nor undergoes a change to misfortune because of vice and wickedness, but because of some error, and who is one of those people with a great reputation and good fortune” (duBois 63). Under this definition, a tragic hero would have an inherent benevolence and would act in ways that were appropriate for the situation and circumstances. Oedipus met each of those criteria. Although, he wasn’t superior to all humans, he was superior to many. He was easily angered and prone to fits of anger. He was also prideful and subject to not well thought out decisions. Still, however, his intentions were typically innocent.
Oedipus was born into a wealthy family but his father had been warned by a prophet that his son would eventually kill him. His father could not allow him to peacefully live out his life in the lap of luxury due to the threat against his own life. His father bound the infant Oedipus’ feet in the hope it would keep the prophecy from being fulfilled. He then set Oedipus out to the wind, allowing him to be adopted, he thought, by lowly peasants and shepherd families. Eventually, Oedipus was adopted by Polybus and Merope, a king and queen in another kingdom. They raised him as their own son; however, when Oedipus reached manhood he discovered that he was actually adopted. During that time however, he had also been informed by the prophet that he would ultimately kill his father and marry his own mother. Determined not to allow the prophecy to be fulfilled, Oedipus left the kingdom in which he had been raised and traveled far and wide.
Oedipus left the kingdom of his adopted parents because of his superior morals. He believed that by leaving those he considered his father and mother he had insured that he would neither become a murderer nor the lover of his own mother. Although his intentions were benevolent, his actions set in motion the very series of events that would put him on his father’s path and in his mother’s bed. While traveling, Oedipus became involved in a disagreement with another traveler over a passage over a particular road. He murdered the strange man not knowing that the man was his biological father, the same man who had bound his feet leaving permanent scarring and disfiguration. He was also the same man who had sent him out of the kingdom into the wind of fate to be adopted or die. The first part of the prophecy had been fulfilled despite Oedipus’ determination that it would not.
It could possibly be opined that Oedipus’ killing of his biological father was a result of inferior morals. During ancient times, however, such a killing was viewed as reasonable and is what any reasonable human being may have done under similar circumstances. It should not be used to disqualify Oedipus under Sophlacles’ definition of tragic hero (Ades 358). This was not a murder for gain and neither was it a murder resulting from hatred. It was simply a socially acceptable means of settling a dispute.
As was the case with the fulfillment of the first part of the prophecy, the fulfillment of the second part of the prophecy didn’t occur either because of inferior morals on Oedipus’ part. Oedipus was welcomed into his birth country as a hero because he had killed the much feared Sphinx, the same Sphinx that the people of the country believed had murdered their king, Oedipus’ birth father. The Sphinx had been a much hated killer himself. His favorite tactic was to prevent travelers from the kingdom unless they could answer the riddle of what moved on four legs in the morning, walked on two legs at noon and on three legs at night. Oedipus gave the correct answer of “man”. Man, after all crawled when he was an infant, walked upright through most of his life, and then had to resort to a cane when he was old. The Sphinx was enraged that Oedipus answered correctly and Oedipus was forced to slay him.
The people offered Oedipus their queen’s hand in marriage as a reward for killing the much maligned Sphinx. Oedipus had not planned this to occur in this way. He had simply done what he needed to do. Despite this, he took the queen’s hand in marriage despite the fact that he had not set out on his travels to find new riches. By doing so he unknowingly fulfilled the second part of the prophesy that he was trying so hard to keep from falling being fulfilled.
Analyzing the story of Oedipus from the perspective of Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero it becomes exceedingly clear that he was just that. He had done nothing to deserve the punishment of having his feet tied or that of being exiled from his father’s kingdom. He acted only in ways that were reasonable given the circumstances and the time. Indeed, as Ades (358) contends, Oedipus was Sophocles’ preeminent tragic hero. His morals were beyond reasonable fault yet he unwittingly fell into his fate determined role of murderer of his father and husband of his mother. He became the perpetrator of these vile acts not because of some inherent wickedness but because of a long series of mistakes and misunderstandings. It is true that his own decisions and actions led him down the path of fate yet in many ways it was the actions of his biological father that insured his fate. Had his father raised the infant as his own it is likely that Oedipus would have never have murdered him. His mother wouldn’t have been left a widow and would not have been available to wed her own son. Neither his mother nor Oedipus knew the true relationship that existed between them. They owed that to the fact that Oedipus’ birth father had sent him away from them when he was just an infant.
In conclusion, it is true that Oedipus’ decisions played an important role in moving him along the path of fate. However when Oedipus made decisions, it was decisions that he thought would prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled. He would have likely used similar caution in reasoning had he been raised by his real parents. The difference is he would have known specifically who the prophecy was referring to specifically and who to avoid killing and marrying. Even more importantly, he would have certainly not harmed those that he loved and respected. He would more than likely have loved, or at the very least respected, his birth parents and would have made his decisions on the grounds of protecting them and proving the prophecy wrong.
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