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Aristotle's Poetics defines the making of a tragedy and presents the common ideas of the structure of this genre. Aristotle bases this definition on the story of King Oedipus In the compelling drama Oedipus the King, by Sophocles, Oedipus is a tragic hero because his fate and his attempted aversion to it cause him to move from prosperity to adversity.
In order to describe Oedipus as a tragic hero, one must begin by defining a tragedy. A tragedy consists of an array of elements in order to truly fulfill its purpose. According to Aristotle, the most important of all is the structure of the incidents. (13) Without the events that join all parts, the story could not be hold together. It is what a tragic hero does that lead to his downfall, and that what represents their characteristics and initiates all other aspects of the work. In Oedipus the King, it is Oedipus' attempt to avoid his destiny, an overt act of hubris, that leads to his rise in power and ultimate fall. In this aspect, he completely fulfills the job of a tragic hero.
Another aspect of a tragedy is character. Character has the second place in importance. (Outline of Aristotle s Theory of Tragedy, pg. 3) These are the qualities that are imbued in each character in the story. There has to be admirable traits in the characters, or the readers would not care what happened to them. Some of these characteristics can include honor, bravery, and intelligence, as with Oedipus. If readers did not care, there would be no catharsis, another important element of a tragedy. Readers have to feel for the characters in order for the writer to extract the desired emotions.
Diction is quite simply, The expression of the meaning in words. ( Outline of Aristotle s Theory of Tragedy, pg. 3). In order to produce desired effects, the author of a work must choose his or her words carefully. Once the writer has incorporated these elements into his or her work, something must be included to hold the reader's attention. This is where a spectacle will come in. An author will often include a fight or some other lively event to attract the reader and entice them to continue reading (or watching, if they are seeing the play performed). One such spectacle in Oedipus the King is the description of Oedipus' fight with King La us (lines 960-978). It is an action-packed scene that is meant to draw the reader's attention.
Once it is established that Oedipus the King is a tragedy, one must look to discover who the tragic hero is. It is implied that this would be Oedipus, as he is the main character and the subject of the story, but there are legitimate reasons for this selection, also. Instilled in Oedipus are qualities such as intelligence, honor, and strength. His intelligence is demonstrated by his solving of the Sphinx's riddle (lines 469-477). His honor can be implied by the way his people regard him so highly (lines 1438-1441), his strength his also demonstrated by this, as well as his ability to lead Thebes unexpectedly. He did not expect to come to Thebes and become king; the duty was thrust upon him. Immediately, one likes Oedipus, allowing us to feel emotions, like pity and fear, for him later.
Aristotle says in his Poetics that, "Tragedy is an imitation... of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise" (19). In Oedipus the King, the identity of Oedipus' parents and the revelation of a fulfilled destiny are surprising to the reader. The fact that the guilty party in King La us murder is Oedipus comes as a shock to the reader, thus further applying the definition of tragedy to Oedipus the King.
This shock prompts the reader to ask what Oedipus did to deserve his fate. It seems unwarranted by his previously heroic actions. This brings up another of Aristotle's points; "Pity is aroused by... a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by some vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty...like Oedipus" (23). He goes on later to say, "the deed of horror may be done, but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or friendship be discovered afterwards" (26). These descriptions perfectly describe Oedipus and his problem. He starts off the play in good position; a well-liked king who plans to seek retribution for an act that has adversely affected his people. The love for his people is further demonstrated when he carries out the ascribed punishment, even after it is revealed that he is the guilty party.
According to Aristotle, a good tragedy must be narrow in focus and must be realistic. These qualities allow the story to evoke feeling a Katharsis another Aristotelian term The word means purging (Outline of Aristotle s Theory of Tragedy, pg.4), or sudden release of emotion. Sophocles was able to create a katharsis, even when the audience knew what was to happen. The naivet of the main character, Oedipus, allows the audience to foresee what is to happen to him, even when he does not. Dramatic irony is first introduced when Oedipus attempts to change fate, by leaving town (lines 1182-1186). It again comes up when readers hear about Oedipus' father attempt to change fate by throwing his son into the mountains (line 1123). Any attempt to change fate, the ultimate act of hubris, which will result in the hero's downfall. Thus, readers are privy to Oedipus' fate long before he fully learns and comes to grips with it.
Oedipus embodies all of the traits that pertain to the ideal tragic hero. He begins the play in a good position in life and falls, the essential fall of a tragic hero. He personifies all of the important qualities in a Greek society. He is strong, honorable, intelligent, and benevolent. His one tragic flaw is hubris; and, unfortunately for him, that is the worst flaw to have. Oedipus is the truest tragic hero that can be distinguished, he was genuinely ignorant of wrong-doing when he married his mother and he was unaware that it was his father whom he killed. He was also acting out of love for his parents when he tried to avoid his fate by leaving town. Due to these circumstances, it can be seen that Oedipus's punishment far exceeded the crime; but this is just one more reason why he is a tragic hero.