The Tragedy of Oedipus
A Greek tragedy is not like stories today. Certain elements separate Greek tragedies from modern day plays. The main aspect that distinguishes the difference between Ancient Greece and now is the sense of pity and fear. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex proves to be a Greek tragedy, according to Aristotle’s “The Art of Poetry”, through its plot and dramatic twists of events. One could classify Oedipus Rex as a Greek tragedy because it contains the elements, such as suffering, peripety and discovery, character, unity of plot, and the power of pity and fear.
Suffering is an emotional ingredient that must pertain to the plot in order to be considered a Greek tragedy. Aristotle defines suffering as “an action of a destructive or painful nature, such as murders on the stage, tortures, woundings, and the like,” (96). Suffering is an act within a Greek tragedy that causes pain, preferably within the family, such as death or physical pain. After a long search, Oedipus realizes what he had done to his family and says “their father slew his father, sowed the seed where he himself was gendered, and begat these maidens at the source wherefrom he sprang,” (70). Oedipus had admitted to killing his father and through a twist of events, had children with the woman that birthed him. Aristotle makes a point to say that “the deed of horror may be done by the doer knowingly and consciously…or he may do it, but in ignorance of his relationship,” (98).
The deed of horror is at its best when it is done in ignorance of the relationship between the doer and the victim. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus kills his father in ignorance and portrays the best way a deed of horror should be done to commit suffering and pain. The story of the birth and supposed death of Oedipus, however, is not represented through ignorance but knowingly. When Jocasta, the wife of Oedipus, explains to her husband the death of her first-born boy she says, “when Laius, its ankles pierced and pinned together, gave it to be cast away by others on the trackless mountain side,” (36). She describes her sons supposed death, fully knowing that she was letting her baby boy be killed. Jocasta’s confession still shows suffering in Sophocles’ tragedy but in the form of knowledge. The tragedy of Oedipus includes the emotional element of suffering through the deeds of horror recognized in the story.
Peripety and discovery create the dramatic twist in events that changes the situation of the story. Peripety is the actual situation change and discovery being the realization behind it. Aristotle explains the two elements as “…the change from one state of things within the play to its opposite of the kind described” and as “a change from ignorance to knowledge…” (96). In a Greek tragedy the situation changes to its opposite and discovery is what causes the change, through the finding of facts that the character(s) had previously been ignorant about. The major peripety in Oedipus Rex is when the messenger, in response to Oedipus questioning his origins, says “since Polybus was naught to thee in blood,” (49). The messenger tells Oedipus what he was ignorant of, which was that Polybus was not Oedipus’ biological father. Therefore the oracle was not wrong and it was still possible Oedipus could have killed his father. The twist of Oedipus’ past changes how he thinks and strikes him with fear, because he could still possibly kill his father and sleep with his mother.
Character in a Greek tragedy establishes the action and only that. According to Aristotle, “…they include the Characters for the sake of the action…reveals the moral purpose of the agents…” (93). Characters are added into a Greek tragedy to show what is being sought or avoided within the story and not meant to have any more importance. Throughout Sophocles’ tragedy Jocasta gives up her search for Laius’ killer when she tells Oedipus “Henceforth I will look for signs neither to right nor left,” (41). In response to Jocasta’s lack of effort Oedipus replies, “Thou reasonest well. Still I would have thee send and fetch the bondsman hither. See to it,” (41). Jocosta was done searching for the killer of her former husband, Laius, because their first-born son died before he, which proves the oracle to be wrong. Oedipus however was still seeking the murderer. Jocosta’s response shows she was avoiding the truth and Oedipus was doing the opposite. Oedipus and Jocasta are used only for their actions and to reveal the ending.
The plot of a Greek tragedy all ties together from the beginning to end through the complexity of the plot and the appearance of peripety and discovery. In Greece, the tragedies have a plot that pertains to a certain setup. Aristotle describes the setup to have “A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it,” (94). The beginning of the tragedies do not normally occur in the middle of the story, the middle has something before and after it, and finally an end that has nothing after it. The plot of Oedipus Rex follows the sequence starting from the beginning where Oedipus is king but discovered everything that truly happened from the beginning of his life to his banishment and the end of his rein. It also has a complex plot, which is defined by containing peripety and discovery. Finally the plot would not be a complete whole without the unexpected events, such as Oedipus’ true place of birth and the fact that he killed his biological father and slept with his mother. Without the plot twists the story would not be a whole, therefore not meeting the standards of a unified plot.
Pity and fear is the overall goal of a Greek tragedy and can be found in the plot and type of suffering the characters experience. Aristotle believes that “the tragic pleasure is that of pity and fear, and the poet has to produce it by a work of imitation…” (98). He believes that in order to make a successful Greek tragedy pity and fear must be incorporated in the plot. In Oedipus Rex, the emotion of fear is struck into Jocosta and results in her saying “with that last word I leave thee, henceforth silent evermore,” (53). The peripety and discovery of her husband’s past actions and origins overcomes her. She then decided to be silent and kill herself, which brings the feeling of pity to the audience, who feels sorry for the woman who innocently married a man, only to find out it was her son. The suffering of the characters and the appearance of peripety and discovery are what unify the plot of Oedipus Rex and put the emotions pity and fear into the story.
By the standards of Aristotle’s idea of a Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex contains the elements, such as suffering, peripety and discovery, character, unity of plot, and the arousal of pity and fear, that create the
tragedy of Ancient Greece. The specific elements separate a Greek tragedy from a story of today.