Oedipus the King Essay

Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King is the perfect example of a tragedy. It contains acomplete combination of all the features of a tragedy. Aristotle inhis Poetics[1] defines Oedipus as being ‘a definite example of theform and purpose of tragedy’. In tragedies the Greeks dramatizedclimactic events in the lives of heroes, and Oedipus’ story is noexception. By using many different literary devices it brings moraldilemmas of action and motive to the public stage. The action is setout over the timeframe of one day, which will according to the prophetTiresias will bring Oedipus’ ‘birth’ and ‘destruction’.

King Oedipus is the central protagonist and within his character liesa tragic flaw. He is unintentionally the architect of his owndownfall. The strengths that once lead him to solve the riddle behindthe sphinx later lead him to his own downfall. In the words of thepriest; ‘you helped us stand, only to fall once more’. Oedipus’hamartia is his anger. It lies at the root of the plot. It was furythat lead him to kill Laius. He was about to thrust Oedipus off theroad one night, so Oedipus ‘paid him back with interest’ by murderinghim. Another flaw is a persistent desire to discover the truth. His’mindless stubbornness’ motivates him to seek the truth about Laius’killer and who his father is. This search leads to the turn of eventsthat take place throughout the play.

Despite constant denial of his fate he cannot deny the work of thegods. Tiresias delivers him a prophecy of this fate. Oedipus’circumstances are far beyond his own control. No matter what heattempts to do or alter every path leads the same way. He findshimself ‘always terrified Apollo’s’ oracle might come true’. Howeverhe is determined to seek out the Kings murderer to punish him. Thissearch interlinks with the search for his father. Jocasta also triesto deny destiny believing that ‘nothing human can penetrate thefuture’. She claims to believe that ‘It’s all chance, chance rules ourlives’. However fate inevitably takes over. Through the process ofanagorsis Oedipus discovers he is in fact the very criminal he seeks.Along with this he realises further truth in the prophecy, that he ismarried to his mother. Jocasta also comes to realise the same truth.By the end of the play his final downfall along with hers isinevitable.

Tragic iro…

…loins that spawned my wretchedlife. What grief can crown this grief? It’s mine alone, my destiny – Iam Oedipus!’

These two statements show the peripeteia of Oedipus’ life. Once a herobasked in glory, he has now succumbed to his destiny. In turn he islowered to a truly pathetic state.

His altered state serves to highlight the reversal of fortune heundergoes. His tragic flaw leads him to acknowledging his fate.Oedipus’ downfall comes as he tries to escape fate but cannot. Theaudience knows this as does the chorus and we can only watch.

Oedipus the King contains nothing outside of the definition; it’s justpure Tragedy at the very core. It also confirms to Aristotle’s theoryof Tragedy. It obeys all the rules

and the elements of Tragedy mentioned throughout. These featuresentwine together to create the ultimate work of Tragedy. From all ofthis it is unquestionable that the word ‘tragedy’ is a usefullyaccurate description of Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King.


[1] W.B. Worthen, The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama, 3rd Edition(USA, Harcourt College Publishers, 2000), p 72.

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