Oedipus as Aristotelian Tragic Hero


Despite the fact that tragedy genre was created long ago, there still exist the canons and regulations, which have to be followed while writing the tragedy. The Greek philosopher Aristotle has established his rules and models, which have not lost their power until today. Thousands of years have passed since the day of Aristotelian discussion of the features of tragic hero, but his model is considered to be valuable piece of even nowadays. Modern researchers analyze the tragic hero taking into account his model, depicted in the work Poetics.

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The objective of this paper is to research whether the Sophocles’ Oedipus could be considered the tragic hero taking into account the prism of Aristotelian model. The work aims at proving the reader that Oedipus is the classic Aristotelian tragic hero. This assumption is grounded on the detailed analysis of the Aristotelian tragic model and the supporting secondary sources. Moreover, the goal of this investigation is conducting the analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus character in order to reveal what features suit towards the Aristotelian model.

In general, it is known that Aristotle had an accurate range of qualities, which traditionally belonged to tragic heroes. These qualities included a) high social status; b) action of committing a mistake, which was initially conducted by the main hero, and which became the reason for the tragedy occurrence; c) the sufferings and tortures, which the character experienced because of the mistake, which he has committed. 

In the course of research, these features will have to be discussed and exemplified using the Oedipus personality. The preliminary study confirms that Sophocles Oedipus manifests all the features, and he even could be treated as a bright example of tragic hero. This individual truly committed a mistake, which cost him his happiness, well-being, and physical and emotional health. The life of Oedipus was a real tragedy, and this paper will confirm that this tragic hero totally corresponds to the Aristotelian model of tragic hero.

Oedipus as Aristotelian Tragic Hero

Aristotle was a great philosopher, whose ideas still shape the understanding of the main literature genres. This individual has defined the notion of tragedy and represented his knowledge of the tragic hero concept. The philosopher has established his rules and models, which applied to differentiate between the genres. However, the readers have encountered the problem, which it is tough for them to understand who tragic hero exactly is. The main issue is that different writers portrayed their tragic heroes taking into account not only the existing norms but also their vision and personal perception. Sophocles play “Oedipus Rex” is the bright manifestation of traditional Greek tragedy. Nowadays, some researchers consider that Oedipus refutes the Aristotelian tragic model. However, this work aims at proving that it, on the contrary, exemplifies it.

In Aristotelian Poetics, the author attempted to provide his specifications of and represent the model of a tragic hero. Despite the fact that the writing does not contain individual discussions, dedicated towards this topic, several passages indicate that Aristotle had his specifications, which he applied while considering the genre of the play. Aristotle defined tragedy as a particular imitation of personages, who are better than ordinary men are. This definition explains the Aristotelian consideration that the tragic hero had to be the man of highest stature, God or king, or the representative of the royal family. 

Aristotelian model of tragic hero consisted of some essential counterparts, which included “hamartia” or mistake conducted by the hero, “peripeteia” reversal or the sufferings, which the tragic hero endured. The issue of pain played the central role in the tragedy representation. Furthermore, the problem of hamartia one can also call the tragic flaw. It does not indicate the profound failure of the individual’s personality but shows that a person committed a mistake, which later had negative consequences. The tragic flaw, which a hero experienced, gradually led towards the dramatic end of the hero. It could include several issues, like revenge, affection, or mistaken judgment as the background reason for the flaw’s occurrence.  The tragic hero had to be in the unknown situation, and later die or experience tortures because of it. Martin Evans in his work indicates that hamartia had another name – blindness of the individual’s heart. This metaphor shows that the tragic hero committed his mistake because of the inability to perceive the unveiled reality.

The issue of peripeteia is the reversal to worse, and it results in the protagonists’ transformation from better to worse. McLeish emphasized that peripeteia should mark the movement of a hero towards the circumstances. In other words, the conditions should make the hero transform his life from happiness towards unhappiness. Moreover, Aristotle strictly stated that hamartia should be the reason for the transformation, but not the wickedness of the hero. A tragic hero was an essential component of tragedy for Aristotle. Aristotle emphasized that tragic hero description had to be with a moral purpose, appropriate, realistic, and consistent throughout the play.

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Oedipus as a Tragic Hero

By knowing the image of the tragic hero, one can state that Oedipus exemplifies the Aristotelian hero, and there exist certain features, which confirm this assumption. First, it is so because of the high status of the protagonist. In the beginning, he played the role of the prince and later has become a king of Thebes. In addition, according to the Aristotelian theory, the tragic hero should be the individual, belonging to highest social layer.

Second, Oedipus has committed a mistake, which has later resulted in severe sufferings. It confirms his suiting towards the Aristotelian model, hamartia or tragic flaw. The issue of hamartia is the fact that Oedipus had different parents and was unaware of the fact, who his biological parents were. As a ruler of Thebes, he aimed at understanding, what creature brought suffering to the city, and the truth resulted in his transgression. The tragic flaw reveals the factor, which has led towards such a development of the story. If there was no mistake in this play, Oedipus could become a powerful and virtuous personality.

Third, there is the presence of peripeteia in the play.  The work includes the negative transformation of Oedipus. When he lived with his stepparents, Oedipus was an individual ready for self-sacrifice, and when he moved to Thebes, he became a monster who killed his father. In his tragedy, Sophocles sticks towards the Aristotelian model. The protagonist of his work kills his father and marries his mother. He experienced reversal or transformation when he understood that has become a murderer of his father and husband of his mother.

The fourth factor present in the Aristotelian model is terror and sympathy, which the audience experiences while observing the actions of the play. The audience experiences sympathy to Oedipus, as it is understandable that he has committed such a disastrous crime not because of his inner nature, but because of the mistake, which mixed the events and finally led towards such a result. The audience experiences pity and terror being the spectators of the tragic action. The viewers understand that this story could have a different ending.

Oedipus exemplifies the tragic features introduced by Aristotle. Moreover, his fortune changes for misery with a course of time, and it is one of the signs of tragedy. Oedipus experiences his tortures not because of his wicked personality, but because of the state of affairs, because of a tragic mistake, which becomes the perpetrator of tragic events. The detailed analysis of the play confirms the fact that all its aspects stick towards the Aristotelian model and that this work truly exemplifies the philosopher’s vision of tragic hero.

Opposing Viewpoint

Despite the fact that this tragedy seems to be the example of Aristotelian tragic hero model, researcher Mohit Kumar Ray has an opposite view concerning this issue. According to him, the Aristotelian tragic heroes gain the sympathy of the audience because they clearly understand that if there was no such a mistake, the hero would not suffer. Ray emphasizes that it is not the case of Oedipus, as one does not know how one could change the story. Ray provides the hypothesis that even in the case of Oedipus was not the individual of mercurial temperament; he would still endure sufferings. The author states that by the Aristotelian model, the character of the hero is his destiny, but in the case of Oedipus, his despite is an omnipotent force. Ray emphasizes that tragedy presupposes the freedom and consciousness of hero, and states that without these factors, drama is just impossible.

This standpoint partially is true, but it does not correspond to the Aristotelian tragic hero model. It does include the notion of a tragic flaw, which is of groundbreaking importance for this discussion. Ray states that, if Oedipus did not come from Corinth, he would never meet his destiny. It is so, but the message, which he obtained in Corinth, served as the tragic flaw, as particular mistaken information, which became an impetus for action. It was the hamartia, previously discussed by Aristotle, who considered the tragic flaw as a particular element of vulnerability. Ray has an entirely different vision of the issue of tragedy; however, he cannot state that Oedipus does not stick to the Aristotelian model, and he does not apply this model to his discussion. He uses his subjective point of view.

Sheehan stated that Oedipus does not have a tragic flaw, as this notion has occurred due to a misreading of the Aristotelian work “and is moralizing way out of the disturbing questions that the play means to ask”. This viewpoint meets an opposition as Poetics includes the description of “hamartia,” and doubting this fact means doubting the whole model, initially created by Aristotle. Sheehan attempts to criticize the accepted fact of Aristotelian model, but its existence is an axiom for this research, and his discussion is useless.


In conclusion, the analysis confirms that the Sophocles Oedipus is a tragic hero, and his characteristics allow considering him the Aristotelian model tragic hero. This character has the existence of the tragic flaw or hamartia, which have made him acting in a particularly cruel way. Moreover, this individual has experienced the reversal of his personality, as well as, severe sufferings in the aftermath of his deeds. Oedipus is a person of high social status and obtains the sympathy of the audience. These factors serve as proofs that Oedipus is the Aristotelian tragic hero. Certain researchers tried to oppose towards this assumption. However, investigation of their critique has confirmed that it concerns their subjective perception of the notion of tragedy and tragic hero, but not the Aristotelian model. Oedipus is a splendid example of a tragic hero, as he manifests all the features, previously discussed by Aristotle.


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