Aristotle referred to “Oedipus Rex” in his book Poetics. In his eyes, this play is the greatest tragedy ever written by anyone in the history of drama. Oedipus Rex, said Aristotle, is an ideal tragic hero. Though the play seems a clash between fate and free will yet Aristotle ignored the concept of fate while saying that Oedipus suffers due to hubris. He is of the view that hamartia in this character leads him towards his downfall. Hence, Aristotle undoubtedly considers Oedipus Rex a well-sketched tragic hero but students of literature and critics doubt his opinion. As we know that Sophocles demonstrated a war between free will and the wills of gods, therefore, it is much more difficult to agree on a specific point without knowing the comments of critics.
While watching a play, the audience sees Oedipus Rex mere victim of circumstances. Oedipus Rex can only be called a perfect tragic hero if his actions are responsible for his sufferings and not his fate. However, apart from hamartia, some other elements of tragedy are also required to be fulfilled in order to prove him a perfect tragic hero.
Requirements of a tragic hero as mentioned in Poetics
No one can provide a better definition of a tragic hero than Aristotle. He, in chapter XIII of “Poetics”, mentions the following requirements of a tragic hero:-
- Fall of character (hero) from prosperity to adversity.
- The character should be a good person (but neither pious nor villain).
- He should be a man of noble nature.
- He should suffer because of human “err”, frailty, or “hamartia”.
Does Oedipus Rex fulfil the first requirement of a tragic hero?
Indeed, Oedipus Rex fulfils the first requirement of tragedy. The play starts when Oedipus Rex is the king of Thebes. People worship him. They consider him a god. The audience watches him living a prosperous life but in the end, the audience finds him in a miserable condition. Undoubtedly, he falls from a position of lofty eminence; therefore, in view of the first requirement of tragedy, we can consider him a tragic hero.
As a Tragic Hero, Oedipus Rex is good but not perfect:
Oedipus Rex fulfils the second requirement of tragedy too. He is good but not perfect. “A kind king” is his title of respect. He is good to his wife. The welfare of the people of Thebes is his first priority. When he knew that an unknown disease wrapped around his people, he sent his men to find out the reason behind it. He is also not a villain. He is neither flawless nor a scoundrel. There may be flaws in his character yet he is not entirely a bad person. He is kind and takes every step for the welfare of his people. Hence to the extent of this requirement, Oedipus Rex can be called a good tragic hero.
He belongs to a noble class
The class of Kings is the class of Oedipus Rex. He is the son of a king and he becomes king after solving the riddle of the Sphinx. Aristotle narrows down the scope of tragedy while saying that there is more pleasure in watching the downfall of a king than in a common man. When a king suffers due to “hamartia”, it shocks the audience and causes the catharsis of pity and fear. Thus, so far as the requirement of the noble class is concerned Oedipus fulfils this requirement of tragedy.
Human “err”, frailty and “hamartia”:
First Group of Critics and his views:
Well and good; until now it seems that Oedipus Rex is a perfect tragic hero but whether he is responsible for his ruin or not, is the point of determination. Aristotle says that the character himself should be responsible for his wreck. When the hero suffers due to “hamartia”, it shocks the audience and ultimately causes the catharsis of pity and fear. In “Oedipus Rex”, the hero undergoes unfavourable circumstances. On many occasions, the audience feels that Oedipus Rex is not responsible for his downfall. He may have a hot temperament and a habit of taking quick decisions but it is not enough to blame Oedipus Rex. In killing his father King Laius, he may be responsible to some extent yet we all know that King Laius and Queen Jocaste were cursed by gods, therefore, they are to be blamed.
At the end of the play, the audience witnesses the fall of Oedipus Rex not due to “hamartia” but due to fate. It seems that it was the will of the gods to entrap Oedipus Rex. It is also clear to us that King Laius and Queen Jocaste tried to kill Oedipus Rex but by the will of the gods he survived and ultimately destructed the respect of his family. Hence, keeping in view these arguments of critics we find no difficulty in saying that Oedipus Rex is not a tragic hero because he does not fulfil the requirement of “hamartia”.
Second Group of Critics and their views:
The second group of critics supports Aristotle and believes that Oedipus Rex is a perfect tragic hero. It is because he is responsible for his sufferings. His excessive pride is the reason behind his fall from prosperity to adversity. He accuses Creon while saying that Creon along with Teiresias is plotting against him and both of them are trying to dethrone him. Furthermore, he takes decisions too quickly. He does not listen to anyone. The reason behind the assassination of King Liaus is unknown yet it is clear that Oedipus is responsible for his murder. Moreover, his fall from lofty eminence causes the catharsis of pity and fear in the audience, which is the primary requirement of a tragedy. He also fulfils every other requirement of tragedy. He definitely suffers because of hubris. Oedipus was wise enough to solve the riddle of the sphinx but not enough that he could realize his intellectual blindness.
The equation of free will and gods-will has not been solved even by modern critics. Some say that Oedipus Rex is a tragic hero, whereas others consider him a mere puppet in the hands of gods. They say that gods were pulling his strings and they planned his fate even before his birth. Aristotle belongs to the first group. He does not only consider Oedipus a tragic hero but also calls him perfect for tragedy. If Aristotle exemplifies Oedipus Rex as an ideal tragic hero then the role of fate is ignored. On the other hand, if the role of fate and gods will is kept in mind, then Oedipus Rex can never be exemplified as an ideal tragic hero.