The reader is told in Aristotle’s Poetics that tragedy “arouses the emotions of pity and fear, wonder and awe” (The Poetics 10). To Aristotle, the best type of tragedy involves reversal of a situation, recognition from a character, and suffering. The plot has to be complex, and a normal person should fall from prosperity to misfortune due to some type of mistake. Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, is a great example of a Greek tragedy. Its main plot is Oedipus’ goal to find out his true identity, the result being his downfall by finding out he has married his own mother and killed his father.
The three unities, noble character, and complex plot, are what make Oedipus Rex a good example of a tragedy in relation to Aristotle’s Poetics. As defined by Aristotle, the three unities are the time, place and action of the tragedy. Oedipus Rex fits the time duration that Aristotle says a good tragedy should have “for tragedy is especially limited by one period of the sun, or admits but a small variation from this period” (Poetics 10). The play takes place at one main site, the palace in Thebes, and has action that has no subplot.
Throughout the play, Oedipus is trying to find out his true identity. Subsequently his search for a cure to end the plague that has struck the city is related to Oedipus’ goal. Aristotle mentions Oedipus Rex in his Poetics to demonstrate how recognition of a character is best with a reversal of a situation. The main character, Oedipus, learns that he has done the unthinkable by killing his father and marrying his mother. This reversal of a situation adds to an effect central to a tragedy, where one who was once superior is brought down to an inferior level.
This action is ironic since it has been prophesied to Oedipus’ father, Laius, and to Oedipus himself years before, and each man had sought to undermine the prophecy. The Chorus asks if the gods could even exist if the forebearings of Oedipus’ life turn out to be false because, after all, the people have only known the gods through the prophets: Divine Zeus and Apollo hold Perfect intelligence alone of all tales ever told;- For wisdom changes hands among the wise. Shall I believe my great lord criminal At a raging word that a blind old man let fall? -These evil words are lies.
Literature Structure, Sound, and Sense 1031) The use of recognition is clearly noted when a messenger comes to Oedipus to deliver the news of Polybus’ death. At first, this is depicted as good news because Polybus was thought to be Oedipus’ father. Oedipus knows that he did not kill Polybus, so he thinks the prediction of the oracle did not come true. Jokasta and Oedipus do not show remorse when first hearing the news; instead, they feel relief. Soon enough, they realize the appearance of the good news turns out to be dreadful. A sense of pathos adds to the sense of tragedy in the play.
As the audience watches the play, they become mortified as the plot unfolds. There is fear and uncertainty in the beginning because of the plague. “The breath of incense rises from the city/ With a sound of prayer and lamentation” (Structure 1018). Later in the play, Jokasta and the audience realize with horror what has transpired. Just the thought of a son marrying his mother and murdering his father can make an audience shudder. Consequently, the audience feels much sympathy and sadness for Oedipus, the fallen king, once-savior of Thebes, and now a victim of circumstance.
The point at which the messenger tells Oedipus what his true identity really is, is the time when the audience figures out what has happened and is overwrought for Oedipus and Jokasta. Another element contributing to the tragic effect is the use of hamartia, the error of judgement due to ignorance. When Oedipus finally understands what he has done, he is so disgusted with himself that the audience is afraid for him and what he may do.
After seeing Jokasta’s dead body, he blinds himself, saying: No more, No more shall you look on the misery about me, The horrors of my own doing! Too long you have seen, Too long been blind to those for whom I was searching! From this hour, go in darkness! (Structure 1051) By this time, the fate of Oedipus and his “lightless life” has the audience pitying and pondering over Oedipus’ plight.
The blindness of Oedipus, which had been prefigured by the blindness of Teiresias, ends the play. It also leads to the enlightenment of this tragedy– through vision. Oedipus Rex could be the quintessence of tragedies causing grief for the characters as well as the audience.
Aristotle says that the best plots are the ones with a complex plot which includes an undeserved change of fortune (Oedipus’ fortune), where the imitation of events evoke pity and fear, and there is a change of result of hamartia. The tragic hero is a man who fails to achieve happiness in such a way that it brings upon fear and pity in the highest degree. Through the three unities, the noble characters, and the plot, Oedipus Rex is blatantly an excellent tragedy, as confirmed by Aristotle’s Poetics.