In his Poetics, Aristotle explains that the ideal tragedy requires a conclusion that evokes a cathartic response. Aristotle argues that in the face of a successful tragedy, an audience
“who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus”
For this to be true, Sophocles would require an audience to feel extreme pity at the tragic downfall of the titular character. Oedipus’ character exemplifies a heroic king during the opening scenes, a necessity if an audience is to find him worthy of pity after his tragic downfall. He seems to be imbued with intelligence beyond that of regular Thebans, and is respected universally amongst his subjects. In the opening stage directions, part of this is made clear,
“A delegation of Thebans… carry suppliant boughs… From inside the palace, limping, OEDIPUS comes through the palace doors and stands at the top of the steps…He is dressed in gold and wears a golden crown.”
The use of costuming and proxemics puts Oedipus not only at the center of the stage, but also immediately reveals him to be of supreme importance and authority. Not only does he have power, but Oedipus reveals in his opening dialogue with the Priest that he empathetic and caring for his people, asking the man at his feet,
“Why are you kneeling? Are you afraid, old man? What can I give you? How can I Help? Ask. Ask me anything. Anything at all. My Heart would be a stone if I felt no pity or these poor shattered people of mine.”
Oedipus is built up in his regal authority and intuitive reasoning, developing him- Aristotle would claim- as the ideal tragic hero.
The argument that Oedipus exemplifies tragic heroism does not reflect the true nature of Oedipus’ character. Oedipus is less a ‘tragic hero’, and more a deeply flawed individual, overpowered by hubris and anger, undeserving of pity or respect. To prove this, it must be made clear that Oedipus’ character is dominated by vice.
Oedipus Tyrannous does not have enough redeeming character traits to be pitied. This is revealed through his hubris (excessive pride), unchecked anger, and irrationality. During his opening monologue, he exclaims “everybody everywhere knows who I am: Oedipus, King.” This is necessarily a problematic claim. Either it is factually accurate, and is thus superfluous (footnote 1), or is untrue, and thus Oedipus is overstating his worth- but in either sense it is egotistical and arrogant. This hubristic statement foreshadows Oedipus’ hamartia, and his continued self-aggrandisement becomes quickly tiresome. An audience can’t feel pity for a character with such grandiose opinions of his own abilities. Oedipus also repeatedly succumbs to a hot temper. In his analeptic description of killing Laius, he concedes that he failed to manage his fury;
“the old man himself wanted to thrust me out of the road by force. I became angry and struck the coachman who was pushing me…as I passed he [the old man] struck me from his carriage, full on the head with his two pointed goad…And then I killed them all.”
To have such limited respect for human life is an indictment on Oedipus’ character. To have murdered over such a small offence is entirely unreasonable, and reveals how ill-tempered he truly is. Oedipus continues to reveal his vices in his consistent unfounded blaming of various innocent characters. Having been told that he murdered Laius by Tiresias, he accuses Creon of an attempted coup;
“Creon, the soul of trust, my loyal friend from the start steals against me… so hungry to overthrow me he sets this wizard on me, this scheming quack, this fortune-teller peddling lies, eyes peeled for his own profit–seer blind in his craft!”(footnote 2)
This furious response is not only illogical, as argued by Creon (footnote 3), but also impious. Tiresias is a respected seer; never condemned by the chorus (footnote 4), and is purported to channel the words of the Gods through bird-lore. For Oedipus to claim that he is ‘blind in his craft’ is cruel, but more importantly for a 5th Century Greek audience, irreverent. Given his myriad character flaws and offensive behaviours, Oedipus is not a tragic hero and does not evoke any pity.
(1) Superfluous because, if it is true, then to exclaim it is not necessary
(2) This quote isn’t from our text, just a version I found online… I will buy the actual translation and substitute in the relevant quote
(3) Creon’s logic is as follows (written from his perspective); I am the brother of the queen, and thus have power, wealth, and authority. I don’t have to make hard decisions like Oedipus, as king, and thus I have all the benefits of being king without the stress and worry. To excite a coup against the King would be illogical.
(4) The moral guide in Greek theatre