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Aristotle’s favorite tragedy was Oedipus the King by Sophocles. The play begins with the Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes. Upon the birth of their son, Oedipus, an oracle proclaims that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Petrified the king and queen abandon their son to die in the wilderness, but he is picked up and cared for by a shepherd. The shepherd takes Oedipus to the town of Corinth where he is adopted by the king and queen. One day when Oedipus is grown he learns that he has been adopted and goes to an oracle in search of answers. Instead the oracle tells him the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Not believing that he was truly adopted Oedipus leaves Corinth so as to avoid killing who he thinks is his father and marrying who he thinks is his mother. At an intersection in the road he gets into a scuffle with a group from Thebes and ends up killing King Laius who was traveling in disguise. Not knowing what he has done he continues on to Thebes and eventually ends up marrying Queen Jocasta and becoming the king. He rules well and he and Jocasta end up having four children together. Then one day a soothsayer reveals to them the truth of their situation and Jocasta commits suicide. Meanwhile Oedipus gouges out his eyes and banishes himself from Thebes, destined to become a wandering beggar.
For Aristotle, Oedipus the King is the perfect tragedy. It has a worthy main character and a complicated plot. Through a sequence of coincidences and unforeseeable events Oedipus is reduced to a pitiful end because he committed a horrible deed without knowing it. The ability for such an unavoidable mistake to cause such catastrophe is meant to illustrate the frailty of the human life. Since the drama “shows how a good person confronts adversity, it elicits a cleansing … through emotions of fear and pity” (Freeland, p 32). Eventually, after many years of wandering the land as a blind beggar, Oedipus attains sort of a saintly stature in the eyes of his fellow Greeks. On Aristotle’s more general conception of art Oedipus has worth as an imitation of what could conceivably happen to anyone in the Greek society.
The third tragedy in the Sophocles” Oedipus trilogy is called Antigone. The setting is a few decades after the tragic downfall of Oedipus in the midst of the civil war. The two sons of Oedipus, Polyneices and Eteocles, have been killed in battle and Creon assumes the thrown of Thebes. In order to insult his opponents Creon orders that Eteocles be buried honorably but that Polyneices be left on the battlefield to rot. Oedipus” two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, plot to disobey Creon and bury their brother Polyneices. Under the threat of death Ismene decides not to aid her sister in the task. After burying her brother Antigone is captured and brought before Creon to face judgment. Though Antigone proclaims her sister innocent Creon imprisons the pair of them. Haemon, Antigone’s fiancé and Creon’s son comes to show his support to his father while at the same time beg him to spare his bride. Creon refuses and Haemon vows never to see him again. Though he does decide to spare Ismene, Creon orders that Antigone be locked up in a cave forever. Along comes the blind soothsayer Teiresias who warns Creon that the gods wish him to release Antigone and bury Polyneices body or else they will take away one of his children and all of Greece will turn against him and Thebes. Frightened Creon agrees to release her, but alas it is too late. A messenger arrives and tells him that Haemon and Antigone have both committed suicide and soon after Creon’s wife also takes her own life. Broken by self-blame the drama ends with Creon slinking back into his home and the chorus offering an exclamation that the gods punish the proud but the lessons learned will make the punished wise.
The aim of tragedy, Aristotle writes, is to bring about a “catharsis” of the spectators — to arouse in them sensations of pity and fear, and to purge them of these emotions so that they leave the theater feeling cleansed and uplifted, with a heightened understanding of the ways of gods and men. This catharsis is brought about by witnessing some disastrous and moving change in the fortunes of the drama’s protagonist (Aristotle recognized that the change might not be disastrous, but felt this was the kind shown in the best tragedies — Oedipus at Colonus, for example, was considered a tragedy by the Greeks but does not have an unhappy ending).
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