top of page
14 Oedipus.jpeg

Is Oedipus Rex the Perfect Tragedy?

Aristotle’s Poetics establishes the plot of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as the most fully realised and logically developed of all Greek tragedy, specifically drawing attention to the complete reversal of fortune (peripeteia) combined simultaneously with Oedipus’ recognition of his true identity (anagnorisis) which successfully inspires ‘pity and fear’ (Aristotle, p. 9) in the audience. Within his Poetics, Aristotle characteristically refers to the specifically tragic elements within Oedipus the King, then extrapolates them to characterise the genre of tragedy as a whole, throwing light onto the importance of the play in formulating Aristotle’s conception of tragedy, and why the play has been such an influential tragedy throughout the history of drama. However, reading Aristotle’s treatise alongside Oedipus the King can confuse the reader further through neglecting some key aspects of the tragedy (specifically the presence of divine influence). Thus, the play contradicts various characteristics of tragedy outlined in the Poetics, while other features of the play are left wholly unexplored. Ultimately, however, a reading of Aristotle’s Poetics helps to qualify the tragic elements fundamental to the genre through sustained reference to Oedipus the King as its primary example, thus establishing the play as the antithesis of the genre.

Within his Poetics, Aristotle defines tragedy as ‘an imitation of an action’, which effects ‘through pity and fear the katharsis of such emotions’ (Aristotle, p. 9) by representing a ‘complex plot’ written in iambic trimeter, and containing a ‘reversal’ and ‘recognition’ (Aristotle, p. 15) – this is precisely the form the genre took in Oedipus the King, conveying Sophocles’ pre-eminence in forming Aristotle’s understanding of the tragic genre. Aristotle prioritises the plot above his five other elements of tragedy, arguing that merely ‘hear[ing] the events’ of a tragedy should evoke ‘shudders and […] pity’ as one would when ‘listening to the plot of Oedipus’ (Aristotle, p. 18). Thus, Aristotle reduces the influence of ‘spectacle’ and staging in Oedipus the King, since they require a ‘stage machinist’ rather than the poet (Aristotle, p. 18), and instead focuses on the actions of the plot themselves. Moreover, ‘character’ is subservient to the plot; action is not engaged in to ‘represent [the] character’, but the character is taken on ‘for the sake of action’ (Aristotle, p. 10), somewhat reducing the capacity for Oedipus’ character to be fully analysed according to this form of criticism. Nonetheless, Oedipus does conform to Aristotle’s four elements of character: he is ‘good’ in his noble will to action, ‘appropriate’, ‘lifelike’ in his actions and ‘consistent’ in his unfaltering commitment to the truth (Aristotle, p. 20). Ultimately, it is Oedipus’ choices which render Oedipus the King wholly tragic; Aristotle draws attention to Sophocles’ focus on Oedipus’ attempts to evade his damning prophecy as the perfect source of the recognition through a shift from ‘ignorance to knowledge’ (Aristotle, p. 15) embodying Oedipus’ hamartia, leading to the subsequent reversal of his fate. Aristotle’s Poetics identifies Oedipus the King as the ‘best form of recognition’ since it is ‘accompanied by a reversal’ (Aristotle, p. 15), representing the tragic shift of the protagonist from embodying fifth century intellectual progress – the noble (yet fundamentally ignorant) judge and physician who must find the ‘cure’ (Sophocles, p. 162) to the ‘dying’ Thebes – to the damning realisation that he himself is the criminal, the source of corruption that must be ‘root[ed] […] out’ (Sophocles, p. 164). Aristotle advocates that the poet ‘must try for’ a ‘tragic event’ (Aristotle, p. 19) such as that in Oedipus the King, namely the fact that Oedipus has ‘[made] love with [his] own mother’ and ‘shed [his] father’s blood’ (Sophocles, p. 216). By situating the tragedy within the ‘sphere of the natural affections’ (Aristotle, p. 19), where love and affection between kin is expected, Sophocles engages in society’s most heinous taboos, and successfully evokes fear and pity in the audience.

* * *

Aristotle’s Poetics expresses a fundamental critique of Plato’s theory of the forms in his Republic, wherein Plato banishes the poets from his ideal state since they merely imitate an imitation, thus operating at a level ‘thrice removed from reality’, and present Gods and Kings as corrupt and wicked, leaving future rulers nothing to aspire towards. Instead, Aristotle advocates for mimesis or ‘imitation’ as an action ‘rooted in human nature’, which we both ‘take pleasure in’ and also gain our ‘first lessons’ from (Aristotle, p. 6). Aristotle identifies the ‘pity and fear’ evoked in the audience in the process of ‘katharsis’ (Aristotle, p. 9), since they can pity the fatal mistakes far nobler persons have committed (such as the King, Oedipus), giving rise to the all too probable catastrophes, and fear that this may also happen to them, highlighting the positive transformative effect of Sophoclean theatre. However, Aristotle’s posited notion of ‘katharsis’ is never explicitly defined within his Poetics, and has only retrospectively been interpreted as either purification, purgation or an intellectual clarification, thereby confusing a coherent comprehension of Sophocles’ intention in both presenting a theatrical purification of Oedipus’ corruption and achieving a purgation of the theatre-goers emotions. Aristotle’s other writings and non-Aristotelian frameworks, specifically Aristotle’s use of the term in the medical sense led critics such as F.L. Lucas to advocate that the term be rendered as “purgation”, in the sense of ‘the human soul [being] purged of its excessive passions’. However, this inflection is countered by G. F. Else, who argues that such an interpretation ‘presupposes that we come to the tragic drama […] as patients to be cured, relieved, restored’, despite there not being ‘a word to support this’ in the Poetics; on the contrary, it is clear that Aristotle is presupposing ‘“normal” auditors, normal states of mind and feeling, normal emotional and aesthetic experience’. Alternatively, Lessing interprets catharsis as a purifying, corrective measure: a process which allows men who are ‘sometimes too much addicted to pity or fear, sometimes too little’ in real life to control irrational emotions when watching tragedy in order to bring them back to a ‘virtuous and happy mean’, in line with Aristotle’s conception of virtue being a state of balance between deficiencies and excess. Ultimately, Oedipus the King embodies all three inflections of the term, with Oedipus undergoing a ‘quasi-medical […] catharsis in being banished from Thebes as the source of the city’s pollution’ and also comes to an ‘intellectual clarification about his error through reversal and recognition’ (Michelle Zerba), while the audience (through their active engagement in the plot) also experience a purgation of the extreme emotions of ‘pity and fear’ in their sympathies toward Oedipus and realisation that they could succumb to the same fate.

Within Oedipus the King is a strong conflict between freedom and free will on one hand, and destiny and divinely ordained prophecy on the other hand, which can prove problematic when considered alongside Aristotle’s Poetics, given his secularisation of the Greek tragedy and his prioritisation of plot and action over a character’s autonomous moral choices. In Oedipus’ active struggle to avoid his prophecy, he inadvertently fulfils it, thus suggesting that Oedipus is merely at the mercy of a pre-determined cosmic order, being ‘cursed by the gods’ (Sophocles, p. 239), specifically Apollo, who ‘ordained [his] agonies’ (Sophocles, p. 241). Despite this, however, there is a strong sense of character’s within Oedipus the King actively attempting to embrace a chaotic and anarchic universe devoid of order, most obviously in Jocasta, who disregards prophecies as ‘hollow’ (Sophocles, p. 211), and instead advocates to ‘live at random…as if there’s no tomorrow!’ since ‘chance rules our life’ (Sophocles, p. 215). Moreover, Oedipus himself is ‘always dodging home’ in an attempt to avoid ‘Apollo’s oracle […] com[ing] true’ (Sophocles, p. 217), yet discovers his fate cannot be evaded, leading to a complete withdrawal from the horrific reality; Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself in an embrace of the ‘blessing’ of ‘oblivion’ (Sophocles, p. 243). Freud thus identifies Oedipus as a ‘tragedy of destiny’ where the spectator must, from witnessing the tragedy, recognise ‘his own impotence’ and be ‘submissi[ve] to the divine will’ as Oedipus must be, however Aristotle’s prioritisation of the plot as the soul of tragedy contradicts this reading, since in order for the plot to fully engage the audience and identify with the characters, they must be convinced of their autonomy to ‘choose or reject when the choice is not obvious’ which thus reveals their ‘habit of moral choice’ (Aristotle, p. 11). In this sense, Oedipus’ suffering through recognition must come about through ‘that which springs from the events themselves’ (Aristotle, p. 20), and his character must be kept ‘consistent’ through himself being responsible for his tragedy; thus in Oedipus’ only freedom (that is, to seek the truth that will destroy him), he pursues this truth vigorously. He defiantly ‘must hear’ the ‘horrible truth’ (Sophocles, p. 230) even as various characters actively dissuade him from recognising his fate, thus making Oedipus’ heroic and noble quest towards the truth, which is ‘only pain to him who sees’ (Sophocles, p. 176), the source of the tragedy in the play. Knox identifies this ‘presentation of the hero’s freedom and responsibility in the context of the dreadful prophecy already unwittingly and unwillingly fulfilled’ as an ‘artistic juxtaposition’; a ‘momentary illusion of full reconciliation’ between two opposites: freedom and destiny, yet this can only be an illusion since ultimately cosmic destiny prevails. Thus, the play stands as a ‘tremendous reassertion of the traditional religious view that man is ignorant, that knowledge belongs only to the gods’, and is therefore a ‘terrifying affirmation of the truth of prophecy’, resolving an issue of intense contemporary consequence in Sophocles’ time regarding the extent to which man’s ‘intelligence’ (Sophocles, p. 182) could undermine the Gods’ ability to determine one’s fate.

* * *

Given the vast influence of Aristotle’s Poetics in formulating the west’s conception of tragedy, reading the text alongside Oedipus the King can actually obscure Sophocles’ original intentions, as Aristotle only emphasises certain strands of the plot merely to convey his own understanding of the tragic. As Anthony Kenny identifies, Aristotle’s Poetics is a ‘striking illustration of the lengths to which [Aristotle] was prepared to go to secularise the plots of Greek Dramas’, through a prioritisation of the rational plot of tragedy which exorcises the ‘irrational parts’ of the plot to ‘outside the play’ (Aristotle, p. 36), yet leaves a ‘troublesome gap’ which fails to recognise or illuminate the ‘essential’ role of the Gods in Oedipus’ fall. Knox, on the other hand, argues that this ‘reaction toward the mysterious, the irrational’ has been exaggerated: ‘so far as the action is concerned, it is the most relentlessly secular of the Sophoclean tragedies’, which Aristotle correctly identifies in the play’s denouement being brought about ‘from the plot itself’ (Oedipus’ drive to find out the truth) rather than ‘from the machine’ (Aristotle, p. 20). Ultimately, however, it may be reasonably asserted, as Eckart Schütrumpf has, that Aristotle’s Poetics ‘does not do justice to Sophocles’, and, despite its profound influence on the inherited assumptions surrounding the myth and tragedy of Oedipus, the play actually fails to meet Aristotle’s criteria for ‘the best form of tragedy’ (Aristotle, p. 17), and instead adheres to elements which he argues tragedy’s should avoid. Most strikingly, the plot of Oedipus the King clearly displays a ‘completely good man […] passing from prosperity to misfortune’, which is explicitly rejected as tragic by Aristotle, since it fails to inspire either ‘pity or fear, but only revulsion’, while the Poetics also contradicts itself by citing Oedipus’ fall, a man who of ‘high esteem and prosperity’ as the best example of hamartia (Aristotle, p. 17). Moreover, Aristotle forces the play to adhere to his conception of tragic reversal by framing the messenger as chiefly sent to ‘reliev[e] [Oedipus] of fear with regard to his mother’, however doing ‘just the opposite of this’ (Aristotle, p. 15), which Thomas Tyrwhitt critiques for obscuring the realities of the plot which we would have been ‘bound to believe’ had we not had access to the original text; instead, the messenger comes to proclaim Oedipus ‘king of Corinth’. One must then accept Aristotle’s Poetics, which Simon Goldhill usefully identifies, as ‘a theory of tragedies, not a theory of the tragic’, moving from ‘examples towards a general model’, which cannot be expected to provide a unified account of the tragic nature of the fall of Oedipus through its selective exploration of tragic elements.


To conclude, despite the contradictions inherent within his Poetics, Aristotle’s treatise remains the most authoritative analysis of the nature of the tragic, and thus can only enhance and illuminate a reading of Oedipus the King through highlighting its key elements which render it the most perfect embodiment of the genre, and the most suited to evoke fear and pity in the audience. One must, therefore, overlook inconsistencies within the Poetics and instead employ the text as a means of understanding why Sophocles has been considered as one of the most successful Tragedians of all time, and how Oedipus the King has been and continues to be such a potently subversive tragedy, over two and a half millennium since its conception.



Primary Texts

Aristotle, Poetics, ed. by Anthony Kenny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Aristotle, Poetics, ed. by Michelle Zerba and David Gorman (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018)

Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, ed. by Bernard Knox (New York: Penguin Books, 1984)

Secondary Texts

Ahl, Frederick, Sophocles’ Oedipus: Evidence and Self-conviction (Ithaca, N. Y.; London: Cornell University Press, 1991)

Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953)

Goldhill, Simon, Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Husain, Martha, Ontology and the Art of Tragedy: An Approach to Aristotle’s Poetics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002)

Knox, Bernard, Oedipus at Thebes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957)

Rutherford, R. B., Greek Tragic Style: Form, Language and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Swift, Laura, Greek Tragedy: Themes and Contexts (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)

bottom of page