Sophocles’ Oedipus, the Ideal “Tragic Hero”


Oedipus has been one of the most well-known characters who has been mentioned by many art critics, artists, writers, and even psychologists. Oedipus Rex is a remarkable masterpiece created by Sophocles as it contains all the elements of a classical tragedy. Aristotle described the components of this type of drama in detail, and, according to him, tragedy is “the imitation” of a “serious and complete” action “with incidents arousing pity and fear” (Johnson and Arp 1251).

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The theorist emphasizes that the language is dramatic and pleasurable so that people remained interested. Tragedies address various important topics and themes, making the viewer answer the questions they offer. The drama in question is specifically exemplary in terms of its protagonist. Oedipus can be seen as a perfect tragic hero, as defined by Aristotle, who focused on such aspects as suffering, human nature, discovery, fate, action and its consequences, hard decisions to make, and viewers’ reaction.

Fate as the Maker of the Tragic Hero

Fate is one of the primary themes discussed in ancient Greek plays. As mentioned above, tragedies aim at addressing serious and complete issues, so the understanding of human will and fate is a common area of concern. Oedipus is a perfect tragic hero because he is doomed since his very first day in this world. His parents hear the prophecy and decide to kill the innocent child who is destined to commit horrible crimes (Johnson and Arp 1253).

The tragedy is in the character’s low chances of becoming completely happy without losing everything he might have. Oedipus, being a tragic hero, could hardly avoid his fate, so his virtues helped him gain the highest position, but his doom made him the most disgraceful person in his kingdom. The path from the highest top to the bottom is a common route of a tragic hero.

Suffering as a Punishment and Path to Revelation

Aristotle sees suffering as one of the major elements of a tragic hero. The renowned theorist claims that the hero should suffer substantially more than he deserves, which makes a play reach its major goal, which is to draw people’s attention to some issues. Qamar notes that suffering is a punishment for disobedience of people who ignore prophecies and Gods’ will as Oedipus tried to escape from his fate and prove that he is the master of his life (313).

The protagonist of the play states that he “fled,” and Oedipus adds, “To a land where I should never see the evil / Sung by the oracle” (Sophocles 1280). At the same time, the Aristotelian view is rather different as the ancient critic claims that the suffering is not a complete punishment, but an opportunity to become a better man (Johnson and Arp 1253). It is also necessary to note that excessive suffering is also a tool to achieve viewers’ empathy.

Viewers’ Attitudes as Factors Affecting the Development of the Character

At this point, it is important to claim that Aristotle places a significant value on the viewer’s attitudes and judgments. The theorist stresses that the viewer should not feel that the suffering is a justified punishment but should empathize (Golden 24). Empathy is gained with the help of several features that are critical to a tragic hero. The major focus is on specific features of the character and the protagonist’s actions.

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First, the audience should be able to identify the hero with themselves. The tragic hero should not be a perfect good or pure evil (Leech 38). At that, being noble is an important feature the true tragic hero should possess because this trait is central to becoming strong enough to transform into a better man. Oedipus is an illustration of this kind of hero since he is noble by birth, as well as in nature. The man is a prince who is destined to rule, but he is also ready to leave everyone he loves to avoid committing the horrible crimes he hears about in Apollo’s temple. Oedipus is a “[t]rue king, giver of laws” who “though death sang, stood like a tower / To make pale Thebes take heart” (Sophocles 1292). He made various right decisions and contributed to the development of his city.

However, he still married his mother and killed his father, which makes him seem a negative person. He is also prone to pride, which can be seen as the greatest sin and one of the weaknesses of the hero. His overconfidence can be one of the reasons behind his misfortune (Evans 57). Aristotle shows such flaws as an intrinsic trait of all tragic heroes with pride being one of the most common sins (Golden 4). Interestingly, the choice of the theorist is quite justified as many people have a similar flaw, which makes them identify with the hero.

Actions and Consequences: Major Flaws of the Tragic Hero

As far as actions are concerned, ancient Greeks paid considerable attention to people’s actions and their consequences. According to Aristotle, decisions and actions are critical components of a tragic hero (Golden 22). External factors do not serve as the major instruments of the hero’s fate. The protagonist makes errors and acts inappropriately as his actions are based on erroneous assumptions. Oedipus decides to leave his city, which is the first biggest mistake he makes.

The man is not a witness to his father’s death, but he argues with the king and kills him. He is the one who makes decisions and, hence, he is completely responsible for the consequences. This flaw (hamartia) has a twofold outcome as it helps the hero improve and become a better person, on the one hand (Golden 24). On the other hand, viewers empathize with the hero because they also make mistakes and often have to address the consequences of their errors.

As mentioned above, the tragic hero is punished by the suffering but also purified by it. Discovery becomes the most intense moment of misfortunes since the hero realizes the nature of the mishaps. Simultaneously, discovery becomes the point of acceptance and transformation. For example, when Oedipus learns about his true origin and understands that the prophecy came true, the king becomes the most wretched person in his kingdom.

He soon accepts the reality and gains certain reconciliation with himself. He laments that the gods made him suffer so much, but he is also ready to sacrifice his life for the good of all. He injures himself heavily, which can be seen as the greatest form of humiliation or a manifestation of his pride. The king stresses that he deserves the punishment, but he emphasizes, “But the blinding hand was my own!” (Sophocles 1296). He punishes himself without waiting for other Gods’ penalties. By his actions, the king reveals his belief in humanity’s control over their lives and their actions.

Discovery and the Superiority of Tragic Heroes over Themselves

It is necessary to emphasize that discovery is an important element contributing to the development of a tragic hero. This component is instrumental in evoking strong feelings in the audience. Again, people empathize with the hero who is overwhelmed with the new information but is often capable of managing it. Oedipus is an ideal tragic hero since his discovery makes viewers think of the ways such situations could be addressed, as well as times when they had to cope with their discoveries. Such revelations make people better humans who can contribute to the creation of a just society.

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In conclusion, it is possible to note that Oedipus is the ideal tragic hero because he has all the characteristics of this type of character, as described by Aristotle. Oedipus is doomed to commit horrible crimes, but he seems completely responsible for his actions. The king is not a completely positive character since he has some serious flaws, but he is not a total evil. The protagonist attempts to be wise and helpful, making people’s lives better. The tragedy of his existence is that his efforts are all in vain as his errors bring plague to his kingdom. Oedipus’s suffering is also overwhelming and may seem unjustified.

However, the true tragic hero is also rewarded for the pain he has to endure. In Oedipus’s case, his discovery makes him transform into a better creature void of common human flaws, including pride. All in all, it is possible to note that the tragic hero of the play under consideration makes the tragedy reach its goal. The tragedy is a reflection of a serious issue, so the tragic hero is the illustration of ways people use to address diverse problems.

Works Cited

Evans, Richard. “Bill F. Ndi’s Gods in the Ivory Tower: An Expression of Universal Academic Tragedy.” The Repressed Expressed: Novel Perspectives on African and Black Diasporic Literature, edited by Bill F. Ndi and Adaku T. Ankuma. Langaa RPCIG, 2017, pp. 53-71.

Golden, Leon. Aristotle and the Arc of Tragedy. Radius Book Group, 2017.

Johnson, Greg, and Thomas R. Arp. Perrine’s Literature. 13th ed., Cengage, 2018.

Leech, Clifford. Tragedy. Taylor & Francis, 2017.

Qamar, Farah. “A Short Analysis of Greek Tragedy and its Causes.” South Asian Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 1, no. 3, 2019, pp. 312-314.

Sophocles. “Oedipus Rex.” Perrine’s Literature, edited by Greg Johnson and Thomas R. Arp. Cengage, 2018, pp. 1258-1302.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, June 25). Sophocles’ Oedipus, the Ideal “Tragic Hero”. Retrieved from

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"Sophocles’ Oedipus, the Ideal “Tragic Hero”." StudyCorgi, 25 June 2021,

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StudyCorgi. "Sophocles’ Oedipus, the Ideal “Tragic Hero”." June 25, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Sophocles’ Oedipus, the Ideal “Tragic Hero”." June 25, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Sophocles’ Oedipus, the Ideal “Tragic Hero”'. 25 June.

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