The great Greek myth of Oedipus continues to be integral to the Western literary canon even today. Starting from 5th century B.C., various ancient writers of the Hellenistic era made references to Oedipus in their works. The best known version of the Oedipus myth comes from Sophocles’ trilogy of Theban plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. Reading the biography of Oedipus through Aristotle’s conception of tragedy makes for an interesting scholarly exercise. One of Aristotle’s most influential works concerning literary theory is his Poetics. In it he articulates with eloquence and clarity various facets of good theatre. Tragedy is acknowledged as a powerful genre of drama. Aristotle goes on to set out various rules of thumb for making aesthetically and emotionally satisfying tragedies. His concise definition of tragedy is that it is “an imitation of an action that is serious … with incidents arousing pity and fear, in order to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions.” (Botton 20) He was in opposition to Plato’s critical and disparaging view of theater. Plato had earlier set the debate rolling in The Republic, stating that poets and other artists should be banned from civil society because they induced excessive emotional responses in audiences which countered calm reasoning. Aristotle rebutted this assertion in Poetics, stating that “although watching tragedies raised emotions, it also purged them. An audience would come away from Oedipus humbled, keen to be better and wiser.” (Botton 20)
In many ways, Oedipus satisfies the Aristotelian conception of the tragic hero. For example, the tragic hero is someone who feels responsible for his actions and is conscious of ethical merits and demerits associated with them. In Sophocles’ Oedipus, we see that the author does not contemplate either the acknowledgement of guilt or the blinding. Instead,
“awareness and blinding will be present in Aeschylus because his Oedipus must not see both ‘what he suffered and the bad he did’. According to the author, the individual responsibility celebrated by tragedy is the expression of a people who do not tell history any more, but are aware of making it: a process that Plato could not-or did not want to-recognize, claiming to read tragedy like the continuation of old myths and of old stories, rather than like a new way to tell them again, to involve oneself and to involve us with them in a different way.” (Goretti 1305)
What we also witness in Oedipus is a dimension of the tragic hero engaged in praxis. In Aristotle’s conception of tragedy there is an underlying conflict between ‘absolute necessity’ and ‘freedom’. This is amply evident in crucial life events of Oedipus, who, as the story progresses, is compelled to implement his own demise. For Aristotle, tragedy allows Greeks “to bear the unbearable contradiction that for thought would remain incomprehensible: ‘the attestation, even in the loss of freedom, of this same freedom’”. (Goretti 1306)Though we do not find direct mention of concepts such as ‘will’ and ‘responsibility’ in the Poetics, “when Aristotle must indicate the ones who act the tragic action, for him ‘hoi prattonese’ is not sufficient, but he adds ‘kai drontes’. The problem of freedom involves the problem of evil: the evil one does, the evil one suffers or the evil that is anyway committed.” (Goretti 1306) In the case of Oedipus, he is clearly aware of how evil forces are acting upon his life – some of which is caused by his own agency. To the coryphaeus who questions him on what a horrible action he has committed and on which god has induced him, Oedipus answers, “’It was Apollo’, and then, a little afterwards, ‘It was me, miserable, who did it’.” (Jones 45)
According to Aristotle, a sense of foreboding and inevitability makes for effective tragedy. Throughout the story, there are numerous crucial decisions taken by Oedipus, which led up to his inevitable demise. Oedipus is not himself aware of the implications of his decisions, but the audience is better informed. The audience experiences ‘pathos’ as Oedipus unwittingly scripts his own fatality. As the Chorus reminds him on occasion, he alone can help. In other words, “the cause of the trouble is he himself; the chances he has had in his life are precisely the source of the plague. He righteously refuses to avoid discovering his guilt, and when Tiresias finally reveals the truth, Oedipus removes himself, banished, blinded and bereaved, and the curse on Thebes is lifted.” (Diski 49) Seen in this light, Oedipus is not only the most tragic of ancient tragedies, but also a model of Aristotelian tragedy. Oedipus’ ignorance and good intentions are no justification for escaping punishment for his wrongdoings, however inadvertent they may have been.
Aristotle thought that tragedy should base itself on matters of import in order to be effective. In other words, dramatists should avoid melodrama and trivialization of tragedy for the play to be of substance. Though the drama tries to show the human condition in a realistic fashion, the operative moral plain should carry a timeless quality that equates it to the highest social plain. In Oedipus we find events such as the dire plague in Thebes, the suicide of Jacosta and the self-mutilation of the protagonist. All these events are consistent with Aristotle’s prescriptions for tragedy in its highest form. (Segal 39)
Aristotle was the earliest philosopher to describe the aesthetics of tragedy in great detail. In his Poetics, he first makes a distinction between tragedy and other genres such as comedy and epic poetry. A meritorious tragedy is one that “constitutes an object lesson in the interplay of fate and character.” (Hoffman 17) This usually means the protagonist with a heroic stature (almost always men during Aristotle’s time) “is led to catastrophe through a tragic flaw in his otherwise admirable behaviour. The psychological interest of the audience in watching the playing out of these sad tales (eg Oedipus Rex, Antigone) is the “purging” of their emotions through the pity and terror they feel in experiencing the denouement of the tragedy.” (Hoffman 17) In this sense, Oedipus satisfies many of Aristotelian conditions for tragedy. It can be placed in the class of great tragedies that includes Shakespeare’s Othello, Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis and Schiller’s Two Queens in the Hive.