In most dramatic plays, tragedy usually strikes the protagonist of the play and leads him, or her, to experience devastating losses. While tragic instances can be avoided, there are other instances where one's fate and future is out of the protagonist's control. In Oedipus the King, written by Sophocles and first performed around 249 BC, Oedipus cannot escape his destiny and even though he tries to overcome and circumvent prophecy, he finds out that supernatural forces will get what they want in the end. Oedipus meets the criteria of a tragic hero set forth by Aristotle and his fate within the play demonstrates that one does not always have free will in their lives.
Traditionally, in Greek drama, tragedy is meant to reaffirm the concept that life is worth living and that people are in constant opposition with the universe. Action within Greek tragedies commonly comes from inner conflicts. These actions are also intended to create feelings of pity and fear within an individual ("Greek Theatre History Notes," 2011). Greek tragedy also holds that the hero of the play, who is a good person yet not perfect, must fall from his or her position of nobility, grace, or power. Additionally, Greek tragedy contends that the audience must experience catharsis after tragic events happen and that the hero is left to face the world by him or herself ("Greek Theatre History Notes"). Aristotle defined tragedy as, [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; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality -- namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody. (Aristotle)
Moreover, "tragedy evolved from the choral lyric poem in honor of Dionysus, sung and danced around an altar of Dionysus in circular dancing place" ("Greek Tragic Drama").
In Oedipus the King, Oedipus can be considered to be the tragic hero of the play. Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero holds that the tragic hero is "a person who is neither perfect in virtue or justice, nor one who will fall into misfortune through vice or depravity, but rather, on who succumbs through some miscalculation" (Brown). Aristotle also believed that the tragic hero's misfortune or demise was not "wholly deserved" and that the punishment would exceed the crime that he or she committed ("Aristotle"). The tragic hero's fall was also meant to serve as an allegory and intended to "raise awareness [or] gain self-knowledge" ("Aristotle"). In many cases, the tragic hero's fall is due to a tragic flaw that serves as a catalyst for his or her demise. In other cases, supernatural forces help to cause the tragic hero to fall ("Tragedy: The Basics"). In the case of Oedipus, it is King Laius that initiates the conflict between himself and Oedipus who retaliates against the king and kills him in self-defense. When Oedipus is told the truth, he cannot understand what has happened, which is a direct result of being lied to about his biological parents. When Oedipus is finally able to piece together the fragmented facts that have been presented before him, he is overcome with guilt, blinds himself as punishment, and requests that he be banished from Thebes so that order can be restored to the ruined kingdom.
The foundation of Oedipus' tragic flaw, or hubris, can be found in his stubbornness, pride, and ignorance. There are many instances within the play where events are not caused by these flaws, but rather are predetermined by the gods. However, Oedipus' tragic flaws make it easier for prophesies in the play to come to fruition. For example, while it has been prophesized that Oedipus will kill his father, his stubbornness helps to ensure that he acts out on the prophecy. Oedipus kills his biological father, King Laius, on a narrow road -- while he is ironically trying to flee his adoptive home to prevent killing King Polybus, whom he believes is his father -- but because both Oedipus and King Laius are too stubborn to let each other pass, Oedipus ends up killing King Laius after the King assaults him (Sophocles). This is only one of several instances where Oedipus is too stubborn to see the truth although the truth is often right in front of him. For example, Oedipus refuses to listen to Tiresias who is advising him that Oedipus is responsible for what has befallen on Thebes and that Laius' murderer is the king himself. When Tiresias tells Oedipus, "I say, the murderer of the man/whose murder you pursue is you," Oedipus becomes enraged by Tiresias' accusation and does not believe what he has been told is true (Sophocles). Because Oedipus is too hard-headed to comprehend the truth about who his true parents are, and refuses to accept that King Polybus and Queen Merope were not his biological parents, he delays apprehending the person responsible for King Laius' murder. His obstinate nature does not only affect him, but has an impact on almost everyone that surrounds him. One of the people that is affected by his stubbornness is Jocasta, his wife and mother. As the truth is revealed to Oedipus, and before he understands what it all means, Jocasta recognizes that once Oedipus sees the truth it will destroy them all. In an attempt to stop Oedipus from figuring out the truth, she begs him to not look into King Laius' murder any further, warning him, "Do not proceed…Though I'm pleading for what's best for you" however Oedipus does not listen to her (Sophocles).
Another tragic flaw that prevents Oedipus from coming out of his ordeal unscathed is ignorance. Tragically, Oedipus cannot be blamed for his ignorance because his entire life appears to have been a lie. Oedipus has been under the impression that King Polybus and Queen Merope of Crete were his biological parents; however his real parents were King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. Because Oedipus had been told that was destined to murder his father, he fled Crete in an attempt to avoid fulfilling this prophecy, but because he did not know that King Polybus was not his real father, ends up killing King Laius on his journey. While Oedipus' ignorance is partially his parents' fault, it can also be argued that it was the gods that deliberately made it so that finding out the truth would destroy Thebes and Oedipus' family.
Oedipus' third tragic flaw is his pride, which, in turn, causes him to be arrogant and a braggart. His pride and arrogance are evident even after he defeats the Sphinx, saves Thebes, and ascends the Theban throne (Sophocles). Oedipus' pride is closely tied with his stubbornness because he is unwilling to listen to anyone that suggests that he is the reason that Thebes is experiencing its present crisis. Additionally, Oedipus threatens and mocks Tiresias even after he called him to the palace for answers -- while Tiresias tells him the truth, Oedipus disregards what he is saying because he is not giving him the answers that he is looking for. In the exchange between Tiresias and the king, Oedipus goads Tiresias into mocking his riddle-solving skills and boasts that decryption is his best skill. Tiresias retorts that Oedipus' best skill is the one that will lead to his demise (Sophocles). Oedipus' arrogance and stubbornness during the initial conversation between himself and the soothsayer does not allow him to comprehend the truth at the time that it is revealed and Oedipus unravels what Tiresias was trying to tell him too late, which eventually leads Jocasta to commit suicide and for Oedipus to gouge his eyes out.
Like in many Greek tragedies, supernatural and divine powers play a major role in the fate of the tragic hero and the outcome of the actions that are committed by individuals in the play. In the case of Oedipus, the gods have been plotting against him even before he was born. The prophecy in Oedipus the King is motivated by Laius' actions at Peloponnesus. Laius is responsible for everything that happened to Thebes because of how he behaved prior to being crowned King of Thebes. According to Greek mythology, Laius was once hired to tutor Chrysippus, a hero of Elis in Peloponnesus; Chrysippus was the illegitimate son of King Pelops and Axioche, a nymph. One day, while Chrysippus was en route to compete in the Nemean Games, he was abducted by Laius and subsequently raped. Because Laius insulted the hospitality of Peloponnesus and because he raped Chrysippus, Laius, his family, and kingdom are punished by the gods (Gantz). Many times, the gods to not interfere directly with the lives of individuals, but rather will prophesize events that will occur in the future. Ironically, the actions that Laius and Oedipus…