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Poetry, Drama, Aristotle, Sophocles's Oedipus
To Aristotle, Oedipus the King represented the embodiment of the perfect tragedy and the idealistic representation of a hero. He saw the renown figure of a hero battling mythical creatures transposed into the image of a hero battling with his own self, in terms of his existence and behaviour. He drew certain elements concerning tragedy in his work Poetics, where he also revealed the tragic hero as "an intermediate kind of personage, not pre-eminently virtuous and just," but subject of a personal judgement error that inevitably leads to his downfall. Aristotle's vision of a tragic hero is best understood when in context with Sophocle's Oedipus, where the elements of the Aristotelian tragic hero are present: hamartia, anagnorisis and peripeteia.
A. Translated as a "tragic flow," it is represented as a human weakness and in Oedipus, the protagonist hero is the subject of his own passion, curiosity and pride which eventually lead him to his own destruction.
B. Oedipus, out of sheer impulse, murders, though unknowingly, his real father because the old man had violently accosted him.
C. However, the hero must take responsibility for his actions and acknowledge his guilt, as part of the self-discovery process. Thus Oedipus punishes himself in the end.
Anagnorisis or recognition refers to the hero's discovery of a fact about his identity or actions that have immediate and irreversible repercussions. The moment Oedipus finds he had actually murdered his father is an anagnorisis. The same, when Oedipus finds he had copulated with his own mother is when he realizes he had lived in a disrespectful manner.
As expressed by Aristotle, the peripeteia is the reversal of a course of events usually launched by an anagnorisis, when the fortune of the hero turns from good to bad. In Oedipus, it is marked as the moment when the Messenger reveals the news of his real parents to the protagonist, news that Oedipus himself had expected to be good, instead it led straight to his downfall.
Aristotle's vision of the tragedy as a literary genre consisted of six elements: Plot or Fable, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Melody, all of which, placed in the right context, transformed elsewhere a narrative, into a philosophical piece of art. He explicitly saw tragic plays as a form "to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen" (Aristotle, Part 9). To have a greater impact on the reader, tragedy was expected to arouse pity and fear, but these emotions had to be induced unexpectedly, as an effect of the protagonist's misfortune. Another issue was at stake here, that the misfortune was not to be caused by a perverted character, but rather to be induced by a judgemental error of the elsewhere highly regarded protagonist. The hero had to be portrayed like any other normal human being, having no other higher virtues than common people and no less moral standards. By no means, the path of his evolution could have emerged from desolation to happiness, this alone turning the whole meaning of tragedy upside down. It was expected of the plot to evolve around the good fortune of the tragic hero initially, only to be reduced to a series of events that would cause the character's downfall eventually.
Of the aforementioned six Aristotelian elements of tragedy, the Plot was considered as the most important of all. It suggests the action in the play and it is the central idea around all of the other elements. The Plot includes peripeteia or anagnorisis, occasionally both at the same time. Within the Plot and referring strictly to the character who is the subject of dramatic change, another characteristic is in order: the inclusion of a horrible deed emerged either consciously, or out of ignorance, or mediated by the hero. This was to be treated cautiously if to produce the desired effect to the audience. That is to say, the deed had to be directed towards someone important to the hero; elsewhere, if the hero murdered an enemy, the audience might have perceived the deed as "an eye for an eye," thus diminishing the horrifying effect. The same, if the hero murdered any random person, then the audience, again, might not have regarded the deed as too horrible. This is why the damage had to involve a close member of the family, according to Aristotle. Of the Character, which Aristotle placed second most important in the structure of a play, I already mentioned some characteristics. Others apply as well, as follows: the hero had to be noble and his experiences, up to the moment of the either peripeteia or anagnorisis, positive. Not solely this, but all of the personages had to be attributed some good features, to balance the actions of the hero with the qualities of the former. It was expected of the characters to perform the same way all through the play, meaning no drastic behavioural patters were allowed to be altered, elsewhere, the idea of "acting out of character" was indisputably rejected.
The other four elements, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Melody are not relevant in establishing Aristotle's vision of a tragic hero as reflected in Sophocle's Oedipus, therefore, I shall make no attempt to present them here, as I would rather focus on relating the already mentioned elements to the tragic play.
By the time Sophocle wrote Oedipus, the tragedy had already been subjected to a number of regulations which all of the dramatists were expected to follow in their line of composition and enacting: only three actors were allowed to perform at the same time on stage; the chorus accompanying the actors had to number fifteen members; a prologue had to precede any play and be followed by the chorus's entrance to the stage. From there on, the tragedy succeeded in episodes up to the grand finale. Evidently, Sophocles' play was not the exception and was conformed to the rules, one of which he introduced himself (the number of members in the chorus). Before making any associations, I would like to present an overview of the play to be able to follow the line drafted in the thesis statement and outline more accurately. I will summarize in a sentence the central idea of each of the play's scene, leaving out the Stasimon. The Prologue gives us Oedipus, ruler over Thebes, who is asked for help by his people to rid them off a plague. It is this initial tragedy and because of Oedipus' commitment to the cause that his gradual awakening begins (Gill, About.com) as he promises to avenge the murder of his predecessor, Laius. Next follows the first song of the chorus which is known as parodos (it marks the entrance of the chorus, the following songs being known as stasima). The First Scene (216-462) is where Tiresius, the soothsayer, refuses to help Oedipus and the King is outraged by his comments. The Chorus sings again, introducing the Second Scene (513-862) where Jocasta reveals to Oedipus that she and Laius had pinned the feet of their child and abandoned him to die so that the prophecy of a son killing his father won't come true. Oedipus has his suspicions and sends for a messenger to clear out the facts. The Second Stasimon follows (863-910), preceding the Third Stage (911-1085). This is where a Corinthian messenger brings Oedipus the news of his adoptive father's death and tells him that he had actually been adopted by the late King. The Fourth stage (1110-1185) is where the truth is revealed and Oedipus curses his fate. In the final stage, Oedipus is informed of Jocasta's suicide and this is the moment when he decides to blind himself, asking Creon to banish him.
As remarked, Sophocle's Oedipus encompasses throughly the multitude of elements depicted by Aristotle in his Poetics in regards to tragedy and the role and the fate of the tragic hero. We are presented at the beginning of the play with an Oedipus whose life had been previously, up to the discovery of truth, marked by successes, thus the plot emerges out of a positive ground. The word fate is of important connotation in Sophocles' tragedy, its usage almost implying that humans lack any kind of control over the course of their life, no matter how many detours might there be. Laius and Jocasta decide together to seal the fate of their child and to prevent the prophecy about the King's murder by leaving their boy on the mountain. But he is eventually found and adopted by the Corinthian King, childless himself, thus fate being restored to its initial target. Already born noble of the King and Queen of Thebes, Oedipus "attains a second kind of nobility, albeit a false one" (Struck n. d.) which credits Aristotle's remark that a tragic hero should be of noble descending. Furthermore, Oedipus obtains his nobility a third time when he solves the riddle of the Sphinx and is offered to rule…[continue]
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