A Tragic Hero of Oedipus

April 13, 2021 by Essay Writer

Sometimes no matter how hard you try, things do not work out in your favor. This statement is the unfortunate truth for several characters in the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Oedipus lives most of his life oblivious to the horrible things he’s done, and the shocking truth thrusts Oedipus into reality. However, the way in which Oedipus acts in the face of suffering is what reveals his true character. E.R. Dodd’s quotation “Oedipus is a play about human greatness,” is true because despite the fact that Oedipus is aware that he could lose everything in his pursuit of the truth, he still pushes on to solve the murder of Laïos. When Oedipus realizes that he has unknowingly been living his worst nightmare, he responds to his horrific fate with humility and exhibits deep regret for his actions. But his response to severe hardship is ultimately what reveals his greatness and the reason why his story is so lamentable.

What truly makes Oedipus a tragic hero is that he always seems to have pure intentions. When Oedipus learned of the prophecy in Delphi, which said that he was destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother, he fled from Corinth and decided never to return even though he yearned for his adoptive parents. This sacrifice is shown when he says, “For all these years/I have kept clear of Corinth, and no harm has/come- though it would have been sweet to see my parents/again” (52). Unfortunately for Oedipus, fleeing from Corinth led him to cross paths with his birth father, King Laïos, and he ended up murdering the king after engaging in an altercation. The awful irony in this situation is that Oedipus genuinely believed that he was avoiding parricide by fleeing from Corinth, but he ended up fulfilling the prophecy and unknowingly killing his father while trying to protect his adoptive father. He never meant to cause any harm to his family and was only doing what he felt was necessary to protect the ones whom he loved. It was due to this innocent goal that makes Oedipus’s fate so tragic to the reader. How can someone with such honest intentions end up in such a horrible predicament? Oedipus himself wonders this when he enquires, “Who could deny the savagery of God?” (44). Oedipus realizes that the Gods were not fair in fating him to commit such terrible deeds. Clearly, even the chorus considers this question and they pity Oedipus when they say, “Child by Laïos doomed to die, /Then doomed to lose that fortunate little death, /Would God you never took that breath in this air” (66). The chorus seems to be admitting that the Gods were ruthless towards Oedipus and they are claiming that Oedipus’ fate was not a result of his own actions. It is very difficult to argue that Oedipus deserved his downfall because both Oedipus and the chorus realize that his fate was delivered by divine intervention and Oedipus’s good intentions were doomed to result in failure.

His situation becomes even more tragic when you consider the way in which he learned that he had fulfilled the disturbing prophecy. Oedipus’s determination to solve King Laïos’ murder in order to save his people and lift the plague from his city is another example of good intentions that ended in utter chaos. No one could question Oedipus’s willpower when he says, “And as for me, this curse applies no less/If it should turn out that the culprit is my guest/here, Sharing my hearth. You have heard the penalty” (14). It is clear that nothing will stop Oedipus in his attempt to find the murderer, and even when he realizes that there are dire consequences facing him in the search for truth, Oedipus pushes on. He starts to realize that he might have committed the murder and is aware that he could possibly be exiled or executed. There is no doubt that Oedipus could have lived in ignorant bliss, but he is ready to bear the weight of his heavy burden and says, “Of all men, I alone can bear this guilt” (75). Oedipus shows his courage by paying for crimes, which he did not commit on purpose. In fact, any of Oedipus’ sinful actions in this play were not committed out of malice or spite, but with genuine hopes. Oedipus takes responsibility for all of his crimes, and ultimately accepts his fate, even though he is uncertain as to why he deserved such a horrible destiny.

Oddly enough, Oedipus’ greatness is what contributed to his downfall. His story is best defined by the Greek word hamartia, which is defined as “a lack of some important insight, or some blindness that results from one’s own strength and abilities” (Wheeler). Oedipus gained fame and glory by solving the riddle of the sphinx and saving Thebes. When Apollo sent the plague, Oedipus hoped to once again save his people by solving the mystery surrounding the death of King Laïos. Oedipus and his subjects believed that he had the ability to solve this murder without a single clue, since he had shown in the past that he was capable by unraveling the riddle of the sphinx. He takes on this task knowing that he has the qualifications to solve this crime, and although he does acquire the truth, it results in his downfall. Even after Oedipus is condemned for his crime, Creon still remembers Oedipus’ accomplishment when he says, “This is the king who solved the famous riddle/And towered up, most powerful of men” (80-81). It is obvious that Oedipus is a great man, who was unfortunately doomed to fall according to the prophecy. Creon himself talks about how difficult it is to be king when he says, “Would any sane man prefer/Power, with all a king’s anxieties, /To the same power and the grace of sleep?” (31). This confession on behalf of Creon is crucial to understanding the role that Oedipus played in society. The truth is that Oedipus is not a perfect guy. He has a temper, and he has committed murder but those flaws don’t take away from his status as a great ruler and a respectable man. When the people were unaware of his past, they honored him as a king. And whenever they needed him, he stepped up. The worst part is that the horrible things that destroyed Oedipus were not done consciously on his behalf. But the factor that makes Oedipus truly admirable is that he is ready to take responsibilities for the things that he has done and thus reveals his humility.

When he finally achieves anagnorisis, defined as tragic recognition by Wheeler, Oedipus would rather stay alive and suffer than relieve his pain by killing himself. Instead of taking the coward’s way out Oedipus chooses a far worse punishment for himself by choosing to live in agony and pay for the sins that he has committed. He says, “For I have sinned against them both/So vilely that I could not make my peace by strangling my own life” (73). In contrast, Iocaste does not have the same mindset as Oedipus. She is not strong enough to bear the burden of the shame and guilt that now lies on her shoulders, and takes her own life. Therefore proving that Oedipus’s decision to live with his humiliation was not an easy choice and that it will haunt him for the rest of his life. His choice also proves that throughout the course of the play he has matured into a man who is trying to deal with his mistakes and ignominy. Oedipus does not try to run from it, as opposed to when he tried to run from the prophecy. This is a drastic change from the beginning of the play, when Oedipus very quick to toss the blame of murder onto two innocent men, Creon and Teiresias. He was tenacious in his beliefs and ignorant to the facts that had been placed before him. But at the end of the play it is evident that Oedipus has changed his arrogant ways when he says, “What right have I/To beg his courtesy who I have deeply wronged?” (75). This was his attempt to apologize for his actions towards Creon and was a display of his humility. Those were the words of a man who has just lost everything. The ability of a man to apologize and suffer for crimes that he did not commit on purpose is very courageous and shows his maturity. He finally accepted his fate and all the consequences that came with it, and Oedipus endured the horrible quest for truth and managed to walk out of the land of Thebes. Some people may not have seen him as a hero since he committed such serious crimes; nevertheless, his actions can only be described as tragically heroic.

Oedipus never had a choice in his faith and was destined to tragedy from birth. This may have seemed like a catastrophic outcome, but E.R. Dodd was right when he said that Oedipus Rex is a play about human greatness. Oedipus had the power to bear his burden in spite of his innocent intentions. He tried to scrape up whatever pieces of dignity he had left, and thought about the consequences of his actions on the people that he loved. Oedipus will forever live with the shame and regret of his actions, but the manner in which he chose to accept his dreadful prophecy will always be commendable to anyone who understands that sometimes the truth is the most painful thing of all. Sophocles teaches us that it’s not about what you walk away from that matters, it all depends on what you walk away with.

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