Enjoying "Oedipus the King", by Sophocles
Ed Friedlander MD
erf@kcumb.edu

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If you are a student assigned to read "Oedipus the King", and perhaps also to comment on Aristotle's ideas about tragedy and "tragic flaws", this site will help you get started.

Warning: This is NOT a "family" site, and Sophocles is NOT "family entertainment".

"Oedipus the King" is a monument to Sophocles's dramatic genius, and to the freedom of Athenian thought.

Sophocles himself served as an army general. Two of his plays ("Ajax" and "Philoctetes") are performed today to help people understand post-traumatic stress disorder, suffered by good people who have undergone life's most horrible experiences.

"Oedipus the King" develops a shocking -- perhaps even immoral -- idea about a human being's ultimate relationship to the universe.

Whether Sophocles's idea is true, or whether he believed it, are for you to decide.

Commentators on Sophocles, beginning with Aristotle, have tried to cover over the obvious. This explains the nonsense about "tragic flaws" and "hybris".

If you want something nice, please leave now.

What's here?

1. The Folk Tale

We don't know whether there was a historical Oedipus. "Oedipus" means "swollen feet". The Greeks pronounced it "oy-DEEP-us". Oed- is the same root as "oedema / edema" (tissue swelling; the British preserve the initial "o"), while "-pus" is feet (hence "octopus", the eight-footed animal.)

Laius and Jocasta were king and queen of Thebes, a town in Greece. One day, they had a baby boy. An oracle prophesied that the boy would grow up and kill his father and marry his mother. To thwart the prophecy, Laius and Jocasta decided to kill their baby. In those days, it was usual to leave an unwanted or defective baby in the wilderness. Laius and Jocasta did this. To be extra-sure, they pierced his little feet and tied them together. (Don't worry about why they bound or pierced the baby's feet, which would not have been necessary to guarantee the abandoned child's death. It may have been introduced to explain the hero's name. It also helps later to confirm Oedipus's true identity.)

A kindly shepherd found the baby. He gave the baby to a friend, who took it to Corinth, another town. (Corinth reappears in the New Testament.) The king and queen of Corinth couldn't have a baby of their own. So they adopted the foundling.

Nobody ever told little Oedipus that his mother was never pregnant. One day, after he had grown up, a drunk mentioned his being adopted. Oedipus questioned his parents, but they denied it. Oedipus visited various oracles to find out whether he was really adopted. All the oracles told him instead that he would kill his father and marry his mother. (None of this makes much sense. Again, don't worry about it. This is a folk tale.)

To thwart the oracles, Oedipus left Corinth permanently. (Again, don't worry. Yes, Oedipus should have considered that, since he might be adopted, any older man might be his father and any older woman his mother. But this is a folk tale.)

Travelling the roads, Oedipus got into a traffic squabble and killed a stranger who (unknown to him) was King Laius. In one version, there was a dispute over right-of-way on a bridge. In those days, high rank got to go first, Oedipus identified himself as heir to the throne of Corinth, and for some reason (again, don't worry about it) Laius's people simply attacked instead of explaining that he was king of Thebes. Some versions say that the rude Laius drove over Oedipus's sore foot, making him lose his temper.

Soon Oedipus's smarts saved the town of Thebes, and he was made king. (In a folk-tale within a folk-tale, Oedipus solved the Riddle of the Sphinx. "What animal has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?" Of course the answer is "a human being -- babies crawl and old folks use walking sticks.") Oedipus married Laius's widow, Queen Jocasta. He ruled well, and they had four children.

Eventually, Oedipus and Jocasta found out what had really happened. (You must assume that accidentally killing your father and marrying your mother is a disaster.) Jocasta committed suicide, and Oedipus blinded himself and became a wandering beggar.

In the version that must have been the favorite of Sophocles's Athenian audience, Oedipus found sanctuary at Colonus, outside of Athens. The kindness he was shown at the end made the city itself blessed.

The moral of the folk tale? Even if you try to thwart your destiny, you won't succeed!

In Iliad XXIII, we read about one Mecisteus, who "went once to Thebes after the fall of Oedipus, to attend his funeral, and he beat all the people of Cadmus", evidently at boxing (funeral games) which is the subject of the passage. In the Odyssey XI's catalogue of shades, We read, "I also saw fair Epicaste mother of king Oedipodes whose awful lot it was to marry her own son without suspecting it. He married her after having killed his father, but the gods proclaimed the whole story to the world; whereon he remained king of Thebes, in great grief for the spite the gods had borne him; but Epicaste went to the house of the mighty jailor Hades, having hanged herself for grief, and the avenging spirits haunted him as for an outraged mother -- to his ruing bitterly thereafter." That's what Homer has to say about Oedipus. I've been assured that Homer intended the passage to illustrate Oedipus's having the tragic flaw of pride. I can't see what kind of sense this makes.

A NYU student found a personal meaning:

What is the moral of this story? Don't go to a fortune teller! Let life take its course. Your fate is already written and sealed. If you know all there is to know about your life, then why bother living? You'll spend the rest of your life worrying about what's to come. Embrace life and its surprises.

Oedipus Wrecked -- humor. Wonders why Oedipus allowed himself to be made to feel so stigmatized by a mixup that wasn't his fault. "Moral of the story: Being a victim of gurus, society, and circumstances does not relieve one of the responsibility of thinking for themselves. It does make for a tragic hero, however."

Sphinxes -- and a lot on the background of the story. The author is with me on the "hamartia" business, below. Thanks for the sphinx.

2. Predestination

Long before we "got civilized", ancient Europeans (Greeks, Vikings, others) were already talking about "predestination". If something was going to happen, it would happen and there was nothing you could do about it.

Why would anybody talk like this?

1. Ancient people may have been impressed (or wanted to be impressed) by the fulfillment of prophecies. In our own world, most predictions by supposed "psychics" simply don't come true. But people want to believe in the supernatural, and people like to tell each other about the rare occasions when something happens that a psychic said would happen. So money-making "psychics" make lots of predictions and keep them vague.

People have such a strong desire to believe in the power of supernatural prediction that they even invent stories of psychic predictions being fulfilled. The most famous example (Nostradamus and the gray monk in Varennes woods) continues to be told, even though the tale of Louis XVI being disguised as a monk when he was captured there is just a lie.

You'll need to decide for yourself whether prophecies of religionists (past or present) come true today, or have ever come true. Some Christians have taught that the Greek oracles were successful because they were diabolic, and that they went silent on the first Christmas (for example, Milton's "Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity"). People want to believe in oracles.

2. Believing in predestination frees people from worry. Talking about unalterable destiny is extremely popular among soldiers going into battle -- a powerful antidote to obessive fear that would slow or distract a warrior. Soldiers tell each other, "If the bullet has your name on it, you will die." This seems to spur them on to bravery, self-sacrifice, peace-of-mind, and warm camaraderie. Talk about "fate", "predestination", and so forth has found its way into warriors' tales across many cultures. In the Iliad, even Zeus (? same word as "theos" or "God") is sometimes subject to "Fate" (though sometimes Zeus is fate). We also see this in peacetime, whenever people face frightful conflict.

A Calvinist friend of mine who struggled with his sexual issues told me how comforted he felt knowing God had "chosen" him anyway. For some reason that I do not understand, he could believe in this. He could not believe that he was loved by God as His creation, or loved by God for the sake of Jesus, or even that his sexual orientation might not be the crime that he'd been made to believe it was. Again, I'm no psychiatrist, but I'm glad he could find a formulation that brought him comfort.

Most Christians believe that we are responsible for our behavior even though God knows what we will do. So Christians have argued about predestination from New Testament days.

Luke says that the people who chose Christ were predestined to do so. Dante asks the blessed souls in heaven about predestination, and is told they don't know the answer, either. Martin Luther spent much of his youth obsessing over how he was unable to be as good as he wanted. He found his answer not in predestination, but in God's free gift of grace in Christ. For him, this was a comfort and assurance. "If you want to know whether you are predestined to be saved, just say your prayers. Then you will know you are predestined for salvation." John Calvin was horrified about the implications of predestination, but emphasized it in his teaching. Other preachers like Jonathan "Spiders" Edwards and the Wesleys taught that Christ had died for everybody and that everybody had a free choice. Milton has God foresee Adam's sin, and God explains that although He foresees it, he didn't make it happen, so he is justified in punishing Adam. Racine's "Phaedra" marked a return to themes of Greek tragedy and people being the victims of cruel destiny. Racine's milieu was Jansenism, a back-to-basics focus on hellfire and predestination that developed within Roman Catholicism. Boswell, who wrote the biography of Samuel Johnson, obsessed about predestination and became profoundly depressed thinking he could end up damned eternally. He's not the only person who's had this experience. In the US, the "Free Will Baptist" denomination emphasized evangelization and need to work hard to bring others to Christ, against those who thought that God's predestination made this unnecessary.

Some Hindus and Buddhists have taught that a person's behavior in a past life predestines happiness or misery in the current one, by the laws of karma. Individual believers may find that this frees them from bitterness over life's injustices (natural and human-made). You'll need to decide for yourself whether this is good or bad. Belief in karma has awakened social conscience and kindness to strangers in those who believe that "what goes around comes around."

The theme of predestination continues in secular literature. Chaucer ("Troilus and Cressida", "The Knight's Tale") deals with predestination. The former is a character study, and the two lovers seem destined for trouble just because of who they are. Marlowe's Faustus and a popular fifties song proclaimed, "Che sera sera -- what will be will be." Ambiguous -- do we make our own decisions or not? Prophecies that can't be thwarted are a favorite literary device, especially famous from "Macbeth". Ideas about predestination are parodied in "Tristram Shandy" -- the baby is predestined to have a small nose and an ugly name despite the conscious efforts of the parents to avoid these supposed disasters. Today, fulfilled prophecies are a staple of fiction. Although the vast majority of psychic predictions in the real world are failures, they come true as plot devices on the Silver Screen.

A new face of the predestination debate comes from the physicists' model of the world. At least in Newtonian physics, if you know everything about a closed system at one moment of time, you can predict everything that will happen in the future. If our world is really like this, then physical laws predetermine what will happen in our brains, and what we will think and do. The laws of physics (ultimately) even determine our decisions about which side to take in a college bull session about "predestination versus free will."

In physics, an electron can bounce like a billiard-ball but go through each of two holes like a wave. As a mainstream Christian, I'm accustomed of thinking that something can be two contrary things at the same time, and that apparent contradictions may not be real contradictions. The Good Lord feeds the birds, but I know how birds really get their food. I give thanks to the Good Lord for the birth of a child, but nobody requests equal time for "stork science". I know how I get sick and how I recover, and thank the Good Lord for my recovery. The bread and wine are Christ's body and blood -- I don't know how. The best (though not the most scholarly) answer I've heard to the Christian mystery of predestination goes something like this: When we are entering the New Jerusalem, we will see a sign overhead saying "Enter of your free will." When we are inside, and look back, the reverse of the sign will say "God chose us from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)".

The folk tale of Oedipus has a popular theme -- predestination.

Sigmund Freud and the "Oedipus complex" aren't the subject of this site. Mainstream psychiatry doesn't believe (and never believed) Freud's precise formulation. Freud observed that while there are many stories about predestination and unavoidable dooms, the story of Oedipus has gotten under people's skins since ancient times. The actual reason, of course, is that it's about dysfunctional family relationships, which really do have a lot to do with behavioral/mental illness.

Oedipus -- the legend, from Wikipedia. Tells about modern versions, including some modern ribaldry.

3. Sophocles

Sophocles wrote "Oedipus the King" for the annual festival where playwrights competed for prizes. It was a major civic occasion, with attendance expected.

Sophocles the writer is phenomenally good, especially considering his era. His writing is tight, with each phrase contributing to the whole. He is full of succinct observations on life. And despite the limits of the form, he often manages to make his characters seem like real individuals.

The title of our play is often given in its Latin translation "Oedipus Rex", rather than in its original Greek ("Oedipus Tyranneus"), since the Greek term for king is the English "tyrant" which means a monarch who rules without the consent of the people.

As the play opens, the priest of Zeus and a bunch of non-speaking characters (old people, children) appear before King Oedipus with tree-branches wrapped with wool. It was evidently the custom to do this in front of a god's altar when you wanted something urgently.

Oedipus greets them as a caring, compassionate leader. The priest explains (really for the audience's benefit) that Thebes is suffering from a plague. Plants, animals, and people are all dying. The people know Oedipus is not a god, but they believe that some god inspired him to solve the riddle of the sphinx and save the town. And since Oedipus has been king, he has done a splendid job. So now people look to him to find a cure for the plague.

Oedipus explains (really for the audience's benefit) that he has sent Creon (Jocasta's brother) to the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi to get an answer. He's late returning, but as soon as he gets back, Oedipus promises to do whatever the oracle says.

Just then, Creon arrives. Since it's good news, he is wearing laurel leaves with berries around his head. Creon says, "All's well that ends well." (I'm told that the Greeks loved irony.) Apollo said that the killer of Laius must be found and banished, and the plague will end. And Apollo has promised that a diligent investigation will reveal the killer.

Oedipus asks to review the facts. All that is known is that Laius left for Delphi and never returned. (Don't ask what Oedipus did with the bodies of Laius and his crew.) There was no immediate investigation, because of the sphinx problem. One of Laius's men escaped, and walked back to Thebes. (Don't ask what Oedipus did with Laius's horses and chariot.) By the time he got back, Oedipus was being hailed as king. The witness said Laius was killed by a gang of robbers. (We can already figure out why the witness lied. And we'll learn later that he asked immediately to be transferred away from Thebes, and has been gone ever since.)

Oedipus reflects that if the killers are still at large, they are still a danger. He decides to issue a policy statement to help find the killer.

The chorus, in a song, calls on the various gods (including Triple Artemis, in her aspects as huntress, moon-goddess, and goddess of dark sorcery), to save them from the plague and from the evil god Ares, who is ordinarily the god of war but is here the god of general mass death.

Oedipus issues a policy statement, that whoever comes forward with information about the murder of Laius will be rewarded, and that if the killer himself confesses, he will not be punished beyond having to leave the city permanently. On the other hand, if anyone conceals the killer, Oedipus says he will be cursed. Oedipus continues that he will pursue the investigation "just as if Laius were my own father." (Irony.)

The Chorus says that Apollo ought to come right out and say who the murderer is. (The Chorus's job is to say what ordinary people think.) Oedipus says, "Nobody can make the gods do what they don't want to." The chorus suggests bringing in the blind psychic, Teiresias. Especially, they hope he can find the missing witness to the killing. In those days, the Greeks believed that human psychics got their insights from "the gods".

There are other stories about Teiresias. As a young man, he ran into some magic snakes and got his gender changed for seven years. This enabled him to tell whether the male or the female enjoys sex more. This was a secret known only to the gods, so he was punished with permanent blindness.

Teiresias comes in. Oedipus asks his help finding the killers, ending up by saying, "The greatest thing you can do with your life is to use all your special talents to help others unselfishly."

Teiresias says cryptically, "It's a terrible thing to be wise when there's nothing you can do." (As A.A. Milne would say later, and perhaps Oedipus too, "When ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise.")

Teiresias says, "I want to go home." Oedipus calls him unpatriotic. Teiresias says, "Your words are wide of the mark (hamartia)". Our expression in English is "You're missing the point". (Originally an archery target was a point.) We'll hear about hamartia again.

Teiresias continues to stonewall, and Oedipus gets very angry. Finally Teiresias gives in, says Oedipus is the killer, and adds that he is "living in shame with his closest relative."

Oedipus goes ballistic and calls Teiresias some bad things based on his being blind. (Irony.) Teiresias says, "You'll see soon." Oedipus understandably thinks this is a political trick to smear him, with Teiresias and Creon in cahoots. Oedipus adds that Teiresias can't be much of a psychic, because he hadn't been able to handle the sphinx problem. The Chorus tells both men to cool down. Teiresias leaves, predicting disaster. Soon Oedipus will learn the truth and be a blind exile, leaning on his staff.

The Chorus sings about the oracle at Delphi, which was supposedly the center of the world. "Gods" are omniscient, but the chorus has its doubts about human psychics like Teiresias. Especially, they cannot believe Oedipus is a killer.

Creon comes in, incensed that Oedipus would accuse him of trying to smear him. The Chorus says Oedipus is simply angry. Creon says he must be nuts. The Chorus says that to the king's faults and misbehavior, they are blind. ("See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" -- the norm in a non-democracy.) Oedipus comes in and accuses Creon directly of planning a coup, using a smear by a crooked psychic as an excuse. They exchange angry words. Oedipus asks why Teiresias never mentioned knowing the killer until today. Creon can't explain this. He defends himself from the accusation of planning a coup. (1) Being king is too much trouble. (2) Creon has other worthwhile things to do. (3) Creon has everything he needs. (4) Creon has political influence anyway. (5) Creon is well-liked and isn't going to do an obvious wrong. "You build a good reputation over a lifetime. A single bad action ruins it." Irony.

Oedipus isn't satisfied. He says he wants Creon executed for treason. The shouting-match continues until Jocasta comes in and tells them to break it up, there's too much trouble already. The Chorus says it agrees, and tells Jocasta that both men are at fault.

Creon leaves, and Jocasta asks what's happened. The Chorus talks about what a fine king Oedipus has been, and says, "Let's forget the whole business with Teiresias's prophecy." The Chorus uses a variant of the proverb, "Let sleeping dogs lie." It's better not to ask about things that can make trouble. Irony.

Oedipus talks about it anyway. Jocasta says, "Well, I don't believe in psychics. I'll prove it. Laius and I were told that our baby would kill him and marry me. But this never happened, because we left the baby to die in the woods. And the witness said that Laius was killed at that place where three roads meet by robbers."

"Uh-oh", says Oedipus. "Which three roads?" Irony.

Jocasta says, "It's where the roads from Thebes, Delphi, and Daulis meet. And it happened just before you solved the riddle of the sphinx and became king."

Oedipus is upset. He asks Zeus (chief god), "What are you doing to me?" He asks Jocasta for a description. Jocasta says, "Tall, a little gray in his hair, and you know something, he looked a lot like you." Irony.

Oedipus continues his questioning. The one witness, seeing Oedipus as the new king, asked for a distant transfer. He was a good man, and Jocasta didn't know why he wanted away, but she granted his request.

Oedipus tells his story. He was going to the oracles to find out whether he was adopted. All of them told him simply that he would kill his father and marry his mother. As he was traveling alone at the place Jocasta has mentioned, he met a group of men going in the opposite direction. The men, including the leader, started insulting him. Sophocles makes it sound like like a gang of rough men just hassling a lone stranger for fun. One of the men shoved Oedipus. Oedipus punched him back. The leader struck Oedipus treacherously on the back of the head with the horse staff, Oedipus turned and hit the leader in the chest with his own staff, knocking him out of the chariot. Then Oedipus managed to kill them all except for the one who ran away.

It was justifiable, self-defense. But Oedipus is devastated. He says he must be the killer of Laius, and he is ashamed that he has been having sex with his victim's wife. Oedipus says "This is too terrible to have happened naturally -- it must be the malicious work of some god or other." He says he will simply leave the city, now, and let the plague end. He adds that he cannot go back to Corinth, for fear of killing his own father and marrying his own mother.

The Chorus is deeply sympathetic to Oedipus, and appreciative of his willingness to go voluntarily into exile to save the city. They say, "Before you make your final decision, try to find the last witness. Maybe he will exonerate you." And Oedipus notes, "The witness did say it was robbers, plural."

Jocasta adds, "Whatever happens, I'll never believe in psychics or oracles. Laius was prophesied to die by the hand of his own child."

The Chorus sings a puzzling song about how (1) we have to obey the gods; (2) the gods's best gift is good government; (3) if the government is bad, there is no reason to be good; (4) nobody believes in oracles any more.

Jocasta comes in, having visited the local shrines and left little offerings, and asks people to join her in praying for the distraught Oedipus. He's our leader, and we need him now. She prays to Apollo to make this disastrous situation better. Irony.

Just then, a messenger comes in from Corinth. He says "Lucky Jocasta, you lucky wife!" (Actually, "Blessed is your marriage bed!" Irony.) The king of Corinth has died, and the Corinthians have chosen Oedipus to be their new king. (Greek city-states were often elective monarchies.) Jocasta says, "Great news. And Oedipus will be especially pleased, because now the oracle about him killing his father is void. You see, I was right not to believe in oracles." Irony.

Oedipus comes in, hears the news, and says, "Maybe the oracle has been fulfilled figuratively; perhaps he died of grief for my absence. But I'm still worried about marrying my mother." Jocasta says, "Forget it. Life is governed by chance, not destiny. Maybe you'll dream about marrying your mother. You should ignore dreams." Oedipus is still worried. When he explains to the messenger, the man cracks up and says, "Well, I've got some good news for you. You don't have to worry about marrying the lady you've called mother... because you're adopted!"

All hell breaks loose. Oedipus questions the messenger, and learns the messenger had been herding sheep, had met a shepherd who had found Oedipus, had taken the baby, had taken the pin out of his ankles, and had given him to the king and queen of Corinth to raise as their own. Oedipus is starting to wonder about what has always been wrong with his feet.

Oedipus says, "It's time to clear this up. Send for the other shepherd." Jocasta realizes exactly what has happened. Jocasta begs Oedipus NOT to pursue the matter. Oedipus says he has to know. (If Oedipus wasn't so intent on getting to the truth, there'd be no play.) Jocasta runs out horribly upset. Oedipus is a little slower, and thinks, "Perhaps she's upset to find out I'm not really of royal blood. But what the heck -- I'm 'Destiny's child' -- and that's something to be proud of! I'm me." Irony.

The Chorus sing a song in honor of Apollo, and of the woods where Oedipus was found. The say the spot will become famous. Perhaps Oedipus is the child of nymphs and satyrs. Irony.

The other shepherd is brought in. He already has figured things out, and pretends he doesn't remember. Then he begs the other messenger to be quiet. But Oedipus insists on the truth. It comes out. Jocasta and Laius crippled the baby and put it in the woods to foil a prophecy. Oedipus had, indeed, always wondered what was wrong with his feet. Now everybody knows the truth. Oedipus rushes out.

The Chorus sings a song about how transient happiness is, what a splendid king Oedipus has been, and how Oedipus is now the victim of destiny.

The next scene is an extremely graphic account, by an eyewitness. Jocasta ran into the bedroom, screaming. She locked the door from inside. A few minutes later, Oedipus came in, and broke down the door with what seemed to be supernatural strength. He found Jocasta dead, hanging. Oedipus took the body down, then removed the pin that held up her dress. He stabbed it again and again into his eyes, saying he has looked at his mother's naked body when he shouldn't, and he has learned what he now wishes he hadn't. The blood didn't merely dribble, as after a single needlestick. It gushed on both sides. For this to happen, the choroidal artery that enters the eye from behind must be severed. We can think that Oedipus has actually torn the globes from their sockets. Oedipus now begs to be taken out of the city (so that the plague will end), but he has no strength and no guide.

Oedipus comes in. Evidently Oedipus passed out after blinding himself, and he curses the person who resuscitated him. The Chorus asks, "How were you able to rip out your eyeballs?" Oedipus replies, "Apollo gave me the strength to do it."

Creon is the new king. He is not angry, merely kind. He helps Oedipus up and out of the city, guided by his two daughters. Staff in hand, Oedipus himself is the answer to the riddle of the sphinx. Oedipus says that some incredible destiny must surely await him. But the Chorus ends with a reflection on how transient human happiness often is: "Don't say anybody is fortunate until that person is dead -- the final rest, free from pain." (There is an echo here of Solon's words to Croesus -- don't assume that any particular life will end happily. Is the sense the same here, or different?)

What is Sophocles saying?

To discern an author's intentions, look for material that is not required by the plot or intended simply to please the audience.

In retelling the story of Oedipus, Sophocles goes beyond mere irony.

The Golden Age of Athens was a time for thinkers, scientists, inventors, and for people to share ideas freely. Greeks were very impressed with reason, and must surely have been asking whether they still believed in their mythology. "Social conservatives" prosecuted Socrates for expressing doubts about "the gods", but only because they thought this would corrupt the minds of young people. (Does this sound familiar?)

People have often noted that comedy and melodrama have arisen independently in many cultures, but that tragedy has its unique beginnings in Athens's golden age -- the first time that we hear people asking the tough questions about what they really believed.

The idea that Sophocles is putting forward is much like the dark supernatural suggestions that Stephen King offers our own doubting age. Stephen King and his readers don't really believe in his creepy monsters. And I don't know whether Sophocles really believed the message of "Oedipus the King".

Sophocles is saying, "Maybe the gods do exist... and are consciously and elaborately MALICIOUS. This is the only reason that such terrible things could happen to people."

Oedipus the King, with lines numbered
Oedipus the Wreck -- modern site for students
Ablemedia -- study questions
Temple U Notes. Notably, nothing on "tragic flaws."

4. Aristotle

Aristotle's Poetics are lecture notes on poetry, with a focus on tragedy. Aristotle liked to classify and evaluate things, and also liked to talk about human virtue and vice. Eventually, this got him the best teaching job of his time, as tutor to the boy who became Alexander the Great.

Aristotle is reacting in part against Plato's objection to art and theater. Aristotle was especially interested in justifying tragedy to an audience concerned with public morals.

I am quoting below from the translation of the Poetics by S.H. Barber.

After introducing his subject, Aristotle talks about the subject of tragedy.

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. It is the same in painting. Polygnotus depicted men as nobler than they are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysius drew them true to life. -- II

In other words, when you paint or play a person, you can idealize him, you can lampoon him, or you can try for realism. Aristotle continues...

The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life. -- II

Aristotle means both better-spoken and of better moral character. Aristotle goes on to explain why people make poetry in the first place. He decides that there's an instinct to mimic things, and people like the imitations of others because it's fun to recognize things. He continues...

Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men. -- IV

Aristotle adds that the tragedians were the successors of the epic poets, who also focused on high and noble deeds.

Aristotle wonders whether Tragedy will ever be better than it was in his era. He tells about its origins in improvisation, and its recent history.

Aeschylus first introduced a second actor; he diminished the importance of the Chorus, and assigned the leading part to the dialogue. Sophocles raised the number of actors to three, and added scene-painting. -- IV
Originally, tragedies were songs sung by a chorus. Then one member would take the role of a character. Aeschylus added a second speaking part apart from the chorus. Sophocles added a third, and introduced stage scenery.

Now Aristotle moves into the famous definition of tragedy.

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. -- VI

Tragedy must be a unified story, about something important. Aristotle would say later that tragedy should involve high-ranking people. He doesn't give any reason that makes sense. Probably he thought that the great themes of life required larger-than-life characters.

Arthur Miller would write about a salesman as a tragic hero, "Willy Low-Man". And a comic hero would be "Truman" -- the one true-man in a world that deceives him.

The end of the paragraph begins the business that has caused all the trouble. "Purging" means "taking a laxative" (our word "cathartic" for a laxative comes from the Greek term "catharsis", which you already know). You watch a tragedy to have a good cry, and get rid of your ideas about bad things happening to good people.

Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. -- VI

Aristotle goes on to explain what these are.

Ingre painting What is missing? Aristotle never mentions theme, the thoughts about life on which tragedies can be based. Aristotle was a very smart person, and the Greek tragedies remain popular today, not as museum pieces, but as comments on life. Yet Aristotle is silent on this important element of tragedy.

As you continue to study literature, you'll constantly look for themes. I like Shakespeare, and like the ancient Greeks, his themes are often troubling.

Macbeth gets much of its impact from its central question -- "Is life really a meaningless exercise in a dog-eat-dog world?"

Hamlet focuses on the phoniness and meanness of human society. Hamlet starts by wishing he was dead. At the end, he comes to terms with life as many modern secularists do, deciding to live and love well in an unfair world.

The themes of Romeo and Juliet were radical in Shakespeare's time. Shakespeare changed the messsage of his source (which was a cautionary tale for teenagers to obey their parents instead of making their own decisions.) Young people should be allowed to choose their own husbands and wives. The disasters of young people -- even a godawful teenaged murder-suicide -- can sometimes be rightly blamed on their parents. And love gives happiness and dignity even in the worst circumstances.

Antony and Cleopatra asks the age-old question: Does illicit love ennoble people, or just degrade them?

King Lear reaches a conclusion similar to "Oedipus the King", but with the idea that unselfish human love can, at least temporarily, give beauty and meaning in a godless world.

Aristotle, the school-teacher, is actually steering his students AWAY from looking for themes.

Aristotle goes on to say that the plot is best kept unified, without subplots, and the action not covering more then 24 hours. Subjects from mythology are traditional but not mandatory. (Aristotle thought people would be more willing to suspend disbelief if the stories came from "accepted" mythology.) If there are to be coincidences, they should seem to make sense.

But again, Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best. -- IX

Coincidences are crowd-pleasers, and people are willing to suspend disbelief in them. (People want to believe in magic.) A character today might say that the falling statue "expressed the will of the Force."

Aristotle launches into a big discussion about "simple" vs. "complex" plots. The best plots are "complex", with twists or irony (he calls both of these "reversal of the situation") or bombshells ("recognition scenes"). Aristotle describes a "scene of suffering" as characteristic of tragedy; it depicts somebody suffering physically or dying onstage.

A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous -- a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families. -- XIII
This passage continues to cause problems. Plays about bad people ending up happy don't satisfy Aristotle. ("Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" doesn't fit Aristotle's definition of tragedy.) Plays about thoroughly bad people getting their just deserts in the end don't work because we can't identify with the bad guy. ("Richard III" doesn't fit Aristotle's definition of a tragedy, either.) Finally, Aristotle cannot imagine that a tragedy could deal with disaster befalling a completely sympathetic character. He says this would merely shock us.

But "Oedipus the King" DOES shock us, and is intended to do so. Why is Aristotle avoiding the obvious? We'll soon see.

A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue, rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than worse. The practice of the stage bears out our view. -- XIII

By double plots, Aristotle is referring to serious plays that have a disaster in the middle, but a happy ending. Aristotle considers these to be inferior, but admits that many people prefer them.

In the second rank comes the kind of tragedy which some place first. Like the Odyssey, it has a double thread of plot, and also an opposite catastrophe for the good and for the bad. It is accounted the best because of the weakness of the spectators; for the poet is guided in what he writes by the wishes of his audience. The pleasure, however, thence derived is not the true tragic pleasure. It is proper rather to Comedy, where those who, in the piece, are the deadliest enemies -- like Orestes and Aegisthus -- quit the stage as friends at the close, and no one slays or is slain. -- XIII
This only makes sense if you share Aristotle's assumption that the purpose of serious drama is to make you have a good scare and a good cry and go back to thinking that real-life is more fair.

Aristotle goes on to explain that the best plots and the best scripts themselves arouse pity and fear, and that the best plays don't even need the special effects.

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. -- XIV

Aristotle goes on...

Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us as terrible or pitiful. -- XIV
They are aroused especially when people kill friends or family. The killer may or may not know what he/she is doing. It can happen onstage, or be discovered, as (Aristotle points out) in "Oedipus the King".

Aristotle was a product of his times.

In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most important, it must be good. Now 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. This rule is relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless. The second thing to aim at is propriety. There is a type of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness is inappropriate. -- XV

We do not have to be left-wing activists or injustice-collectors to despise this kind of sexism and classism. But the truth is that on the Greek stage, the women are as interesting, sympathetic, intelligent and brave as the men -- an obvious fact that Aristotle ignores.

Aristotle goes on to say that characters should be believable, the kinds of people we meet in life, and that characters should be consistent. Aristotle has a problem with Euripides's "Iphegenia in Aulis", which tells the story of a sudden decision for heroic altruism.

It remains to speak of Diction and Thought, the other parts of Tragedy having been already discussed. Concerning Thought, we may assume what is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more strictly belongs. Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite. Now, it is evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic speeches, when the object is to evoke the sense of pity, fear, importance, or probability. -- XIX

Not themes.

Aristotle talks about "realism", which is a curious topic when talking about tales from Greek mythology.

Further, if it be objected that the description is not true to fact, the poet may perhaps reply, "But the objects are as they ought to be"; just as Sophocles said that he drew men as they ought to be; Euripides, as they are. In this way the objection may be met. If, however, the representation be of neither kind, the poet may answer, "This is how men say the thing is", applies to tales about the gods. It may well be that these stories are not higher than fact nor yet true to fact: they are, very possibly, what Xenophanes says of them. -- XXV

Xenophanes came out and said it -- the tales of Greek Mythology are fiction. Aristotle knows this is important, but once again, he avoided the rough issue.

Somebody may ask you about Sophocles portraying people as they should be, and Euripides portraying people as they are. Sophocles shows Oedipus as gracious, capable, and altruistic. Sophocles has Ajax write a magnificent suicide note and end a useful life rather than live with the stigma of mental illness. Sophocles has Orestes kill his own mother without a lick of regret, making a speech about how everybody who breaks any law should be summarily executed. Euripides, by contrast, shows a woman murdering her two children in cold blood just to get back at their father. You can have fun examining this further.

I think I understand.

Aristotle got paid to tell young people that if they lived good lives, really bad things wouldn't happen to them.

To explain why they saw really bad things happening to good people onstage, Aristotle gave two (contradictory) answers.

1. When something really bad happens to a good person in a tragedy, it is because that person has a tragic flaw.

2. When something really bad happens to a good person in a tragedy, it is just make-believe. It is so you can have a good scare and a good cry. This gets these emotions out of your system. You can go back to the real world, where life is fair.

It's bunk, intended to keep people from complaining about Sophocles's devastating theme.

5. Today

Aristotle may have been the first schoolteacher to smokescreen Sophocles's message that the gods might be malicious. He may have thought he was right to do so. Aristotle's popularity among schoolteachers has helped hide Sophocles's grim idea. Even today, students are forced to write essays about "tragic flaws" and "purging pity and fear".

Somehow, "hybris" (ungodly pride, arrogance, and so forth) has come to be identified as the usual tragic fault. I cannot understand why -- the idea does not seem to be Aristotle's. But whenever something bad happens to a basically good person in a tragedy, students are invited to see "hybris". ("Hubris" is the same word; the Greek letter "upsilon" looks like our "Y" and is its origin, but the sound was more like the "uhh" that I make when I have no idea what to say.) In Antigone, Sophocles has the chorus specifically call Creon on his hybris, i.e., his impious decree "intended to promote national security".

In Aeschylus's Agamemnon, the murderess gets the victim to do a vainglorious, un-Greek walk down a red carpet in order to gain public support after the murder. Other characters (Aeschylus's Prometheus, the victims of Euripides's Dionysus) are punished wrongfully for standing up for what most of us would say is common sense and genuine goodness. It is hard to generalize this. Interestingly, I can't find the idea of "hybris" in Aristotle's "Poetics".

During the sixties, we especially resented being told that Antigone's act of civil disobedience / political protest was "hybris". You can't defend yourself against an accusation of "hybris". I am an honest physician who engages in public debates. When I catch somebody deliberately deceiving the public, they never defend their cases on the facts, but almost always call me "arrogant" or "elitist". (If you have no case, shout "hybris!") Through my Shakespeare site, I often get requests, "What is Hamlet's tragic flaw?", etc., etc. I tell people that they're asking the wrong question, and to look instead at what the author is really saying about life.

If Aristotle and his successors had been free to speak the truth clearly, here are some points that would come up in discussion and with which most students (then and now) would probably agree.

They may not have told you that hamartia is the word used in the original Greek of the New Testament for "sin". The King James Version has 172 instances.

Jim Donahoe's essay on Oedipus's tragic flaw is no longer online. "In the end however, Oedipus becomes more humble and accepts his fate. He becomes a better person and is better off after his fall."

Dr. Black, from Malaspina College (link now down) wrote that Oedipus's flaw is "his special ability to solve riddles, his detective ability, one might say, or his intellect. Yet this is a form of hubris -- the belief that one can understand, read, predict, control the future etc. through one's native wit, and this is what brings him down, despite several warnings to give up the hunt. Reason = Apollo."

Myth Man. "Oedipus... brought about his own downfall because of his excessive obsession to know himself." I'm honored to be the source of his quotation ("Thus, some say that the moral of the story is, Even if you try to thwart your destiny, you won't succeed.").

Link is now down. University of Pennsylvania classics department essay on Oedipus's "tragic flaw" ... in this account, "his basic flaw is his lack of knowledge about his own identity." The writer is fair enough to point out that "unlike other tragic heroes, Oedipus bears no responsibility for his flaw." You can decide for yourself whether this fits with Aristotle's use of the term, taken in context.

Ian Johnston -- also offers a free translation (thanks!) Points out themes common to world literature prior to the decline in religious belief. "Who does control our lives? What sort of relationship do we have to that divine force?" Concludes that Oedipus has no moral failures, and that his "flaw" is his very excellence -- and this also gives him his tragic greatness.

Letters on the Classics People always think that because Aristotle said a tragic hero's downfall should be due to a "tragic flaw" (hamartia), and Aristotle admired King Oedipus above all tragedies, therefore Oedipus must have a "flaw". [This is a false premise under Aristotle's very own logic.] And so they have struggled to find one!... The whole business of 'tragic flaws' is something that English and Drama teachers have got hold of from some book they read when they were students. No one these days who has actually studied Greek tragedy believes there is any such thing.

Tragic Flaws . ... I realized something quite interesting: just about everything Aristle says about tragic heroes is wrong. Aristotle had postulated the principle of the tragic flaw in tragedy. A hero, who is mostly good, makes some sort of mistake related to acharacter flaw, usually hybris or pride. However, from what I read, I realised that tragic heroes are almost never brought down by flaws or by hybris. In fact, in most cases, the protagonist is actually destroyed by his or her virtues. In puzzling over this, I realised that Aristotle is, in fact,not trying to explain exactly what is happening in tragedy but what should be happening. He is answering a very specific challenge to the very existence of tragedy presented by Plato in the Republic Book III. Plato had argued that tragedy corrupted the audience. Aristotle's development of the tragic flaw is a response to this challenge. The author has a Ph.D. in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy.

Link is now down: Cyber Essays to help students. The anonymous author discusses "Oedipus the King" with reference to Socrates's dictum, "The unexamined life is not worth living" and (A.A. "Winnie the Pooh" Milne's dictum) "When ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise." Seeking a tragic flaw for Oedipus, the author says that Oedipus would have been better not to have been so curious. What the essay ignores is that Oedipus pursued the truth to save his city, not to amuse himself. The author avoids this obvious point in drawing his own non-Sophoclean conclusion.

"It's better not to know." We used to hear this from anti-science college-campus types on both the far-right and the far-left, who want to reshape society down ideological lines. You'll have to decide for yourself about this. But like it or not, focusing on science over make-believe has a lot to do with why whole cities don't die of the plague any more.

Free School Paper on Oedipus's tragic flaw.
Free College Essays on Oedipus's tragic flaw.

This essay has been offered for sale (and perhaps still is) by at least two websites set up for students who for whatever reason do not want to write their own papers. I have received no response to my protests.

Teachers: Click here to begin your search for online essays intended for would-be plagiarists. "Dishonesty was your tragic flaw, kid!" Good luck.

turnitin.com -- anti-plagiary software


Plagtracker.com -- a new, free plagiary-catcher service

Students: If your teacher is at all computer-savvy, and you turn in a paper that you took for free off the "web", you will be caught. Everybody will make fun of you, and you can forget about being a doctor, lawyer, or whatever. That'll be your "tragic flaw." Ha ha!

Arthur Miller wrote, "The flaw, or crack in the character [of Oedipus], is really nothing -- and need be nothing -- but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status. Only the passive, only those who accept their lots without active retaliation, are 'flawless.' Most of us are in that category." Miller adds that "the terror and the fear that is classically associated with tragedy" comes from questioning the unquestioned. Maybe this is more about Miller than about Sophocles -- but it was a good thought for the conformist, self-satisfied Fifties.

Productions Origin unknown

The Classics Pages -- Oedipus. Best online Oedipus site.

Jocaste (was Iokaste) -- contemporary novel about Oedipus's wife-mother. Release date Sept. 2004. Re-released 2011.

I'm Ed. You can visit me at my own page and follow the links from there to my autopsy page, my notes on disease (the largest one-man online medical show, helping individuals around the world), my Adventure Gaming sites, or any of the other sites.

You can E-mail me at erf@kcumb.edu.

Brown University, Department of English -- my home base, 1969-1973.

Teens: Stay away from drugs, work yourself extremely hard in class or at your trade, play sports if and only if you like it, tell the grownups who support you that you love them (no matter what the circumstances), and get out of abusive relationships by any means. The best thing anybody can say about you is, "That kid likes to work too hard and isn't taking it easy like other young people."

Greek tragedies include some characters who commit suicide. It is almost always a bad idea. Among young people who made serious attempts and failed, 99% said a year later that they are glad they failed.

Thanks for visiting. Health and friendship.

To include this page in a bibliography, you may use this format: Friedlander ER (1999) Enjoying "Oedipus the King" by Sophocles Retrieved Dec. 25, 2003 from http://www.pathguy.com/oedipus.htm

For Modern Language Association sticklers, the name of the site itself is "The Pathology Guy" and the Sponsoring Institution or Organization is Ed Friedlander MD.

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"What is there about the classics that would interest a contemporary American?"

Visitors send me this question from time to time.

If being a "contemporary American" means being focused on dirty TV sitcoms, greed, casual sex, big-money sports, shout-and-pout grievance-group politics, televangelism, professional wrestling, crybabies, slot machines, postmodernism, political action committees, and "war on drugs" profiteering... then the answer is probably "Nothing."

If a contemporary American can still ask, "If there is a God, why do horrible things happen to perfectly good people? And how do we explain this to children?" -- then the answer is maybe that "Sophocles deals with basic human issues."

From the Tuebingen Production

Afterwards...

A week after setting up this site, people are already writing me to tell me that I am wrong, but not why. Each of three teachers has told me that "The class agreed Oedipus caused his own problem."

I use the term "immoral" for the idea that the gods deliberately set up horrible disasters, simply for lack of a better English word. And it seems appropriate to me. ("Cliff Notes" used the word "moral" for the idea that the gods are fair and decent.) If you can think of a better one, please let me know.

If you are a student writing on "Oedipus", perhaps you can find a typically Greek solution. Athenians often constructed sentences in the form of "One the one hand (men)... and on the other hand (de)...." Argue both sides. It'll be fun and prevent trouble.

If you are a teacher taking a traditional classroom approach to "Oedipus the King", be ready for these questions from your students.

Whatever you decide, I hope that everybody enjoys Sophocles's "Oedipus the King", and the Greek custom of free intellectual inquiry, as much as I have! Health and friendship!

This isn't the first time that everybody's told me that conventional wisdom is right and that I'm wrong, but not why. In the 1970's, I said:

I'm no Teiresias. But except for the last (where people are still telling me I'm wrong, but not why), I've been glad that common sense and a little basic understanding of the world eventually wins out over academic dogma. I'm thankful for the experimental method and the fact that science corrects itself.

To the best of my knowledge, all the links on my literature pages are to free sites. In August 2000, the operator of the large for-profit help-with-homework online Shakespeare site offered to buy these pages out "for a price in the low four figures." I refused, and the site owner replied that "I wish you would just close down the domain and spare everybody from a lot of wasted time. It's a shame." This site will always remain free, to help everybody enjoy the works that I have, myself, enjoyed so much. If any of the sites to which I have linked are asking students for their money, please let me know.

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Ed says, "This world would be a sorry place if people like me who call ourselves Christians didn't try to act as good as other good people."


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Click here to see the author prove you can have fun skydiving without being world-class.

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Travis Morgan -- gym buddy, skydiver, long-term friend -- has a new site to help ordinary folks catch computer misbehavior.

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