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Aristotle’s passage Poetics (350 BC) was written the century after the composition of Sophocles Oedipus the King (428 BC). Despite their chronological separation, the two texts relate in incisive ways. In particular, Aristotle used Oedipus as the foundation for his explanation theory. For Aristotle, a tragedy must have certain characteristics that Oedipus the King contains to differ from other written genres. His definition of tragedy has influenced tragic literature since. He declares that “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude; in embellished language, each kind of which is used separately in different parts; in the mode of action, and not narrated; and effecting through pity and fear (what we call) the katharsis of such emotions…” (Aristotle 521). Oedipus exemplifies these features by encompassing a certain magnitude, illustrating a complete flow, presenting a tragic complex plot, and having a protagonist with a tragic flaw, or “hamartia,” that leads to “katharsis”.
Oedipus’ plot, for example, is the “end for which a tragedy exists” (Aristotle 522). The plot of Oedipus possess certain magnitude or “seriousness” because of the violation of two general taboos. It possesses universal significance through the application of myths, the instability of one’s identity, the recognition of human condition and the role of fate. The taboos Oedipus violates are the cardinal sins of patricide and incest, and this play is the first to incorporate both as committed by the same person. In addition, Sophocles uses myths in his play, in particular with the inclusion of the Sphinx and the Oracle’s Prophet Apollo. Oedipus also deals with the subject of contingent identity, asking the audience if a person should be guilty for reasons beyond one’s own actions. This, in turn, raises questions about the relation of human condition and fate, the idea that the actions people make, even if they are freely chosen, are just components of an end that is determined by the beginning.
According to Aristotle, furthermore, the plot of a tragedy arranges incidents or combinations of events that are narrated by the poet. The plot ought to have unity of action, or a “completeness,” in which all incidents happen similar to a chain of cause and effect. In Oedipus’ play, all incidents happen together in a single episode by internal necessity, one after the other, each action leading inevitably to the next with no outside intervention. Unsurprisingly, Aristotle disliked the scene in Medea of her escape from Corinth in her magic chariot because the use of machine. He argued, “Within the events of the plot itself…there should be nothing unreasonable, or if there is, it should be kept outside the play proper, as done in the Oedipus of Sophocles.” In Oedipus, there are various parts of the plot that might be identified as unreasonable or mechanic, but they are kept outside the play, presented as if all the irrational things have already been done and were unalterable. Sophocles does not explicitly address any questions that might lead the reader to realize that some irrational actions still occur within the plot. For example, he does not emphasize questions of why Oedipus accepted marrying a woman old enough to be his mother, how they did not see that they resembled one another, or why Oedipus kills people, despite knowing his curse. The sense of inevitability, alone, drives the plot.
The complete flow also necessitates having a beginning, middle and end of equal importance to the plot in which “…the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from from good fortune to bad” (Aristotle 523). There should be a sequence of piteous events to the end that are not episodic, but continuous. The beginning starts the chain of events that all together will lead to the climax and, therefore, to the resolution and closure of the play. A tragedy must start with the incentive moment; in Oedipus it is the plague in Thebes. As the priest pleads to Oedipus, “Thebes is dying. A blight on the fresh crops and rich pastures, cattle sicken and die, and the women die in labor, children stillborn and the plague, the fiery god of fever hurls down on the city…”( Sophocles 393). When Oedipus became aware of his city’s alarming state, he sends Creon to consult the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle replies that the murderer of Laius must be banished from Thebes: “Murder sets the plague-storm on the city” (Sophocles 395). The Oracle’s response is the second incident of the chain. Oedipus curses the murderer of Laius and commits himself to the mission of finding the assassin and banish him of the land, saying, “I’ll bring it all to light myself” (Sophocles 396). The fourth incident is the arrival of the blind prophet Tireseas to accuse Oedipus. This helps build the irony in the play, particularly because of its relation to the blindness that Oedipus both suffers now and will physically suffer later. It also leads to a quarrel between Creon and Oedipus, in which Oedipus’ flaws are revealed to the audience. When Jocasta intervenes and tells the story of Laius’ murder, she makes Oedipus suspicious by saying, “My god, my god-what have you planned to do to me?” (Sophocles, 412).
The peripeteia, another important element of the plot according to Aristotle, is the sixth incident. This is the Messenger’s reversal of intention when he says, “Wonderful news-for the house, my lady and for your husband too” (Sophocles 417). He helps reveal that Polybus and Merope were not Oedipus’ birth parents, saying “Polybus was nothing to you, that’s why, not in blood” (Sophocles 419). With this, he provides the crucial piece of information that will reveal that Oedipus is Jocasta’s son. As Aristotle suggests, “The best form of recognition is that which is accompanied by a reversal, as in example from Oedipus”(Aristotle 523). In the Oedipus plot, the Peripeteia is intrinsically connected to the Anagnorisis, for the Messenger’s reversal of intention and the Herdsman revelation build together the whole story of Oedipus, leading him to the recognition of his real identity. These two elements cause combined Oedipus’ climax, or change of fortune from good to bad: from being an honoured king, a good husband, to be an incestuous murderer of his own father. As the Chorus says, “You are my great example, you, your life, Oedipus man of misery” (Sophocles 424). These incidents, leading to the climax, are brought together to finally unveil the final catastrophe: Jocasta’s suicide, Oedipus self–blinding, and, finally the closure and resolution in which Creon pities Oedipus’ downfall. He says to him, with irony and anger: “Still the king, the master of all things? No more: here your power ends. None of your power follows you through life” (Sophocles 433).
Thus, the play does not revolve around Oedipus; instead, it pivots on the development of events that happens to him in the play. Character takes second place to plot. Nonetheless, Oedipus possesses the qualities of the perfect tragic hero, according to Aristotle’s view. He says of the protagonist, “First, and most important, it must be good” (Aristotle 523). The character must not be too wicked, but not too good, either. Thus, Oedipus, with his qualities of leadership (shown by the people turning to him in time of plague) and wisdom (his ability to solve the Sphinx’s riddle), follows Sophocles’ prescription. The audience must sympathize with him, but also notice that the he possesses a tragic flaw, “hamartia”: his ego. He thinks he is superior to others, and wants to equal the gods. He says, “I am the land’s avenger by all rights. And Apollo’s champion too” (Sophocles 396) and “You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers” (Sophocles 398). This hubris, or exaggerated pride, results in his fatal retribution. The proof that he directs his own disgrace comes from his own words, as he exclaims, “But the hand that struck my eyes was mine- no one else-I did it all myself!” (Sophocles 428).
However, what the audience feels throughout the play is that he falls from his high position not because of any fault or flaw, but because he could not escape his destiny. The inevitability of Oedipus’ fate evokes pity and fear among the audience. Although he may have flaws, the amount of suffering he faces seems undeserved. This remorse guides the audience to their “katharsis.”
Thus, Oedipus possess all the qualities of the perfect Aristotelian tragedy. It exemplifies magnitude and seriousness through the inclusion of significant affairs, illustrates a complete flow, and displays a complex plot, with all the necessary components therein. Most importantly, it touches the audience, making them feel not only misery, but the katharsis that follows.
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