Oedipus Rex, one of Sophocles’ seven remaining plays, is a perfect example of a tragedy. Tragedy, defined by Aristotle in his work the Poetics, “is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude”(Aristotle, sec. 1, part VI).
What Aristotle meant in saying this is, tragedy is a representation of a significant, real and plausible situation that has been dramatized and made into a tragic imitation of it. This imitation is usually accompanied by the emotions of fear and pity. A tragic imitation is the absolute, unimaginable situation coming to fruition. There are six parts to a tragedy, “parts which determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song(Aristotle, sec. 1, part VI).
Oedipus Rex is an imitation of life in which the protagonist experiences the reversal of a situation known as peripeteia. In the introduction, the protagonist Oedipus, “is the ill-fated king of Thebes whose mysterious past catches up with him”(Introduction 200) causing misfortune to fall upon him, his family and the Thebes.
Through the element of character, Aristotle’s perfect tragedy is realized in Oedipus Rex because a character’s hamartia(mistake or flaw) inevitably brings about the peripeteia that is necessary for the plot, anagnorisis, which follows peripeteia, and diction and plot support Aristotle’s character qualities.
In McManus’ words, the Greek meaning of hamartia “is closer to “mistake” than to “flaw”(Outline). In the case of Oedipus, this holds to be very true as his only true mistake is being blind to knowledge. Teiresias the blind prophet is brought to the place where he is forced by Oedipus to reveal the murderer: “you yourself are the pollution of this country”(Oedipus Cycle Scene I. Teiresias, 19).
In response to his answer, Oedipus denies it and tells Teiresias “you have spat out infamy” (Oedipus Cycle Scene I. Oedipus, 19). His succeeding actions are “self-destructive actions taken in blindness”(McManus Outline), leading to the reversal of a situation known as peripeteia. According to Aristotle peripeteia “is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity”(Aristotle, sec. 1, part XI).
The plot of a tragedy can either be simple or complex; change followed the reversal of the situation is a complex action(Aristotle, sec. 1, part X). In Oedipus Rex, the messenger arrives with news that King Polybus is dead and Oedipus is to be made the king of Corinth. Rationally, Oedipus is still fearful of the second section of the prophecy, in which he is told he will sleep with his mother.
Seeking to set his mind at ease, the messenger reveals how Oedipus came to be in the house of Polybus. However, he has the opposite effect when it is realized that Oedipus is the abandoned child of Laius and Jocasta.
This is the ideal reversal Aristotle mentions a tragedy with a complex plot needs; the reversal occurred “when a character the messenger produces an opposite effect to that which he intended”(McManus Outline), such as causing Oedipus panic rather than setting his mind at ease.
As a tragic hero, one could say Oedipus’ hamartia of being blind to knowledge is what ultimately lead to his fall from grace because it was his “actions taken in blindness”(McManus Outline) which brought about peripeteia of the plot and led to his tragic fall.
While peripeteia is a prominent and important aspect of the plot of a tragedy for Aristotle, it is closely followed by anagnorisis which is the character’s “change from ignorance to knowledge”(Aristotle, sec. 1, part XI). This change also referred to as recognition, is in its “best form”, in the manner similar to Oedipus Rex, “coincident with a reversal of the situation”(Aristotle, sec. 1, part XI).
The anagnorisis occurs for Oedipus when he recognizes himself as the one brought misfortune to Thebes. Subsequent to the realization of who he is, it is said: “Oedipus, damned in his birth, in his marriage damned, damned in the blood he shed with his own hand”(Oedipus Cycle Scene IV. Oedipus, 64).
It is with this that the protagonist entirely accepts the knowledge of his sins. With this “change from ignorance to knowledge” and the reversal of the situation, “either pity or fear is produced; and actions producing these effects are those which, by our definition, tragedy represents”(Aristotle, sec. 1, part XI).
It is through anagnorisis “love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune”(Aristotle, sec. 1, part XI) is engendered; for Oedipus it is hate that is produced from the recognition “that there is no man more wretched than him” (Oedipus Cycle Scene IV. Shepherd, 64).
Therefore, it becomes impossible for the truth to be denied any longer. This awareness of reality brings about Aristotle’s third part of plot, “the scene of suffering” (Aristotle, sec. 1, part XI). The scene of suffering, like in Oedipus Rex when “the King ripped from her gown the golden brooches” and uses them to blind himself by “by plunging them down straight into his own eyeballs”Oedipus Cycle Exodus.
Second Messenger, 69), is a pernicious or agonizing action(Aristotle, sec. 1, part XI). According to Aristotle’s own definition of tragedy and thoughts on anagnorisis, Oedipus Rex is a tragedy.
It is not only through a character effect on plot that Aristotle classifies and accesses the quality of a tragedy. There are six qualities he believe a character should possess(McManus Outline). The first of which being that they good; “any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good”(Aristotle, sec. 2, part XV). In Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus tells Teiresais “if “it” is bound to come, you are bound to tell me”(Oedipus Cycle Scene I. Oedipus, 18), demonstrating that he is morally good.