Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King

The term hubris and hamartia are frequently used in discussions of tragedy. how are they relevant to the story of Oedipus?

Oedipus Rex

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People will tell you incessantly that 'hamartia' (an Ancient Greek word) should best be translated as 'tragic flaw'. This, in turn, has given rise to a complete misreading of Aristotle's Poetics, one of the most important works of literary criticism ever, which has a very famous section on tragedy, using Sophocles' 'Oedipus Rex' (the play in which the Oedipus story - though Sophocles didn't invent it - seems to first appear).

This theory goes as follows: tragedy is about a man in good fortune who comes crashing down to bad fortune (and often death) because of a tragic flaw in his personality.

This theory is nonsense. 'Hamartia' translates as mistake if read correctly in the Ancient Greek, and it makes far more sense to be read as such.

What brings about Oedipus' eventual downfall? It's because he killed a man, not known to him as his father, at a crossroads. And he did it at a point when, in fact, he thought he had escaped his parents - and was fleeing away from Corinth (what he thought was his birthplace) towards Thebes (his real birthplace). He thought he was safe.

What 'personality flaw' caused him to do this? What 'fatal tragic flaw' brought about his tragedy? Well, exactly. Short-temperedness? That's about as near as I can get, and it's not quite the same as 'pride' (the usual 'flaw' cited). And it's not very moving: a man whose temper brought him crashing down.

It makes far more sense to say that Oedipus is a man who made a mistake. One day, at a crossroads, because he thought he was safe from the curse that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he made a mistake, over-reacted to a passing aggressive traveller and killed him. And that mistake, though it's not until the very end of hte play that he realises, tracks him through his life until, finally, it destroys - and ultimately blinds - him.



Oedipus experiences problems from the beginning as a result of his hubris. Everyone is affected by Oedipus' blindness of his own problems and arrogance. He never gives into this, and continues to play "Oedipus the Great," as he named himself all the way until he "orders" Creon to bury his mother/wife and exile him. He's still giving orders until the end........

"Without knowing it, Oedipus' own actions filled with hubris negatively affects himself and everyone else around him. Thebes goes through a plague because Oedipus unknowingly killed the king. Oedipus remained ignorant about the idea that he was the murderer, and the plague continued on in Thebes. Oedipus would not allow all the bad things that he had done to be accepted as the truth. While in search of the answer to the mystery that troubled him, Oedipus got Jocasta involved. Since he would not accept the idea that he was Laius' murderer, the people of his city suffered and Jocasta, his own wife and mother, committed suicide as soon as she realized the truth. Oedipus was figuratively blind, and after seeing Jocasta dead, he realized he really did do everything that was prophesized and that he must humble himself. He blinded himself just like Teiresias, the man he mistreated for telling the truth. Oedipus learned that he must control his hubris, or he and others would continue to suffer. It ultimately led to his and others' downfalls."

According to Aristotle, the tragic hero is distinguished, occupies a high position, belongs to a higher status, lives in very prosperous circumstances that quickly change as he/she falls into misfortune on account of a “hamartia” or some defect of character. This ties into the same subject we've just discussed. Oedupus is the King and quickly falls. Many things happen because he won't open his eyes to the truth and believes himself perfect. The things he's made aware of "can't be true," his decisions are based on the belief that he is "without blame," and that everyone else is wrong.


Oedipus Rex