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Aristotle’s Thought on Tragedy and Analysis of the Tragedy in Sophocles Oedipus the King

Uriel enjoys reading topics on philosophy and has a special interest in Greek mythology.

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In his extensive writings on tragedy, Aristotle argues that tragedy is one and the same with poetry. For this reason, he argues, tragedy is a form of imitation. However, he contends that the form of imitation found in tragedy is different from that which is found in other forms of poetry in the sense that it seeks to raise serious and pertinent issues (Sata 50).

In this context, Aristotle argues that tragedy had a serious purpose and as a result, it used direct action instead the usual narrative that is used by other forms of poetry to achieve their objectives (Sata 48). Aristotle argues that the main aim of tragedy is to instil a sense of fear and pity among the spectators. After creating such emotions, Aristotle argues that tragedy also serves the purpose of enabling the spectators to purge or deal with feelings created (Sata 48).

Additionally, tragedy helps the spectators to understand the mannerisms portrayed by god, as well as those portrayed by men (Sata 48). Generally, the emotions of pity and fear are created by watching or witnessing bad or disastrous events.

The plot

The plot is one of the two primary elements of tragedy as listed by Aristotle. Basically, the plot refers to the arrangement of the events that make up the tragedy (Harrison et al 53). A tragedy is made up of several events and therefore, the plot is the manner in which all these events are arranged. The plot is, however, divided into five different acts, which are outlined as below.

The elements of tragedy in Aristotle’s Writings

According to Aristotle, tragedy is made up of six elements which he lists as the plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song. Among the six, only the plot and the character are listed as the primary elements of tragedy.

Rising Action

The rising action is the part of the plot, where the main event or conflict of a tragedy is fully introduced (Harrison et al 54). Prior to this, the main characters and elements of the tragedy will have been introduced. However, at this stage, the main characters do not have a comprehensive understanding of the tragedy and for this reason; the introduction of the rising action usually raises tension and excitement, which ultimately makes things more interesting.


Introduction

Basically, the introduction is the part where all the characters and all the elements of the plot are revealed (Harrison et al 54). It is also at the introduction that the major conflict or the main purpose of the story is revealed. While, a tragedy or story might be made up of several conflicts or events, the smaller ones are usually revealed later in the conflict (Harrison et al 54). Generally, the introduction happens during the first stages of a conflict.


The Climax

The climax is basically the point at which a tragedy reaches a turning point (Harrison et al 54). Most often, at this point, the main character in the tragedy gets into danger. This danger is often demonstrated by the character’s failure to resolve the prevailing conflict.


Falling action

The falling action usually follows the climax. Typically, this stage encompasses the introduction of actions or ideas that will help to resolve the conflict, which the main character failed to resolve in the climax stage (Harrison et al 54).

Resolution

Basically, the resolution is the end of the tragedy. It is usually the last element in the plot.at this stage, everything about the tragedy becomes clear and therefore the spectators can easily understand the whole action (Harrison et al 55). Also, the conflicts in the tragedy are resolved fully thus bringing the outcome of the entire tragedy. The outcome can either be good or bad, which basically means that the resolution can either cause sad or happy emotions.


Character

The character is the element of a tragedy that addresses the main characters involved in the tragedy (Harrison et al 55). Basically, the character is the part that addresses the men and women who act. Usually, there is the hero and the heroin among the characters; these two are the most important characters and for this reason, they play the most important roles in the tragedy (Harrison et al 55).

Often times, the hero and the heroin might get into a dangerous situation thus creating sad emotions among the spectators (Harrison et al 55). In other circumstances, these two main characters might get into exciting experiences, hence informing anxiety and excitement among the spectators.


Thought

The thought is the third element of a tragedy. It refers to the feelings displayed by the characters as the plot unfolds (Harrison et al 55). Most of the time, thought refers to the feelings the characters have about their situation or circumstances in the tragedy. These thoughts are often demonstrated by the character’s utterances (Harrison et al 55). The dialogues between the characters also reveal their feelings about their career or role in the development of the tragedy.

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The diction

Basically, the diction is the medium of communication that is used by the characters to reveal their feelings (Harrison et al 56).

The song

The song is one of the artistic embellishments that are used as the communication medium in diction (Harrison et al 57). The song might include other smaller elements such as the spectacle, which is basically a theatrical effect displayed on the stage as the tragedy unfolds. The spectacle often includes scenes that demonstrate physical torture, dances, and lamentations (Harrison et al 57). Colourful garments worn by the main characters are also a demonstration of the spectacle that is used as a medium of communication by the characters in the tragedy.

Tragedy in Sophocles Oedipus the King

In Sophocles Oedipus the king, the plot unfolds right after the birth of Oedipus. In this context, after the birth of Oedipus, his father King Laius, the king of Thebes is informed by an oracle that his fate was doomed. The oracle explained to the king, that his new-born son-Oedipus would kill him once he grew up (Sophocles vii). The oracle went on to inform the king that besides killing him, Oedipus would take control of his kingdom and also marry his wife, who also happened to be the mother to Oedipus (Sophocles vii).


Upon learning the horrible news, King Laius ordered his wife to kill the new-born child in order to avoid the occurrence of the events that had been described by the oracle. However, King Laius’ wife and her servants did not manage to kill the infant and as a result, they abandoned him in the fields. It is after being abandoned that the infant was found and taken to the childless king Polybus the king of Corinth, who raised him as his own child (Sophocles vii).

When he grew up, Oedipus learnt that King Polybus was not his biological father and consequently, he sought after the help of an oracle in order to establish his real identity (Sophocles vii). On meeting with the oracle, Oedipus was informed that he would marry his biological mother. Oedipus did not believe the rumours that he was not the biological son of king Polybus and his wife Merope.

As such, he was absolutely sure that they were his biological parents. Afraid that he would marry his mother as foretold by the oracle, Oedipus left Corinth for Thebes, which unknown to him was the land of his biological parents (Sophocles vii).

While on his way to Thebes, Oedipus encountered king Laius-his biological father. However, none could recognize the other. An argument ensued between the two and during the altercation, Oedipus killed King Laius (Sophocles viii). The murder of King Laius by his own son led to the fulfilment of the oracle’s prophecy.

After unknowingly killing his father, Oedipus moved to Thebes where he helped to resolve the Sphinx riddle. As a reward for helping to free the kingdom of Thebes from the curse imposed upon it by the Sphinx, Oedipus was given the hand of Queen Jocasta in marriage (Sophocles 2). Oblivious of the fact that Jocasta was his biological mother, Oedipus married her and committed incest with her. It is important to note that neither Oedipus nor his mother knew of the true identity of the other.

As the plot unfolds, a plague falls on the city of Theban and for this reason, elders from the city call upon Oedipus, who is now the kin, to help them deal with the plague (Sophocles 9). At this point, Oedipus sends an emissary to the oracle in order to establish when and how the plague will end. The oracle informs Creon, who was sent by the king, that the plague will only end when the murderer of King Laius is found. Oedipus vows to continue with the search for the murderer and as a result, he consults Tiresias (Sophocles 12)

Apparently Tiresias knows the answers to the king’s queries but due to the pain the truth will cause, he refuses to reveal it. He actually advises the king to abandon his search for the truth. Tiresias’s actions enrage the king who accuses him of having played a role in the murder of King Laius (Sophocles 12). At last, Tiresias informs Oedipus that he himself is the real killer. The revelation by Tiresias causes Jocasta and the others to know the true identity of Oedipus and as a result, hell breaks loose on him.

The Congruence between Aristotle’s thought On Tragedy and Oedipus the King

Generally, Sophocles’ Oedipus the king conforms to the principles and ideals of tragedy as outlined by Aristotle. In this context, Sophocles structures the play by first revealing the identity of the main characters in the play, who are Oedipus, King Laius and Jocasta. Afterwards, the poet takes the spectators through scenes that cause, happiness, anxiety and sadness. For instance, after the introduction, the poet reveals that the newly born Oedipus will kill his father and as a result, the king orders for his murder.


This is a rather sad scene and the audience is left anxious to know whether Jocasta and her servants will fulfil the wishes of the king. The audience is left happy, when the child is spared and ends up in King Polybus’ palace, where he is brought up as the king’s child.

In accordance with Aristotle’s thought on tragedy, the spectators are taken through the rising action part, where Oedipus is informed that he would kill his father. He commits the murder, takes over the Kingdom of Thebes and proceeds to marry his biological mother, just as the oracle had foretold. After the rising action part, the spectators in Oedipus the king are taken to the climax, where Tiresias’s revelation puts the life of Oedipus in danger.

After the climax, the falling action is demonstrated by Oedipus blindness. The conflict is resolved after Oedipus is exiled from the kingdom of Thebes. Generally, all the events in Sophocles’ Oedipus the king are in line with Aristotle’s writings on tragedy.

Works Cited

Harrison, George William Mallory, Vaios Liapēs, and Vayos Liapis, eds. Performance in Greek and Roman theatre. Vol. 353. Brill, 2013.

Sata, Megumi. "Aristotle's Poetics and Zeami's Teachings on Style and the Flower." Asian Theatre Journal 6.1 (1989): 47-56.

Sophocles, E. A. Oedipus the king. Classic Productions, 1994.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Uriel Kushiel

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