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Free Oedipus the King Essays: Hamartia in Oedipus Rex

Hamartia in Oedipus the King

According to the Aristotelian characteristics of good tragedy, the tragic character should not fall due to either excessive virtue or excessive wickedness, but due to what Aristotle called hamartia. Hamartia may be interpreted as either a flaw in character or an error in judgement. Oedipus, the tragic character in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, certainly makes several such mistakes; however, the pervasive pattern of his judgemental errors seems to indicate a basic character flaw that precipitates them.

Oedipus’ character flaw is ego. This is made evident in the opening lines of the prologue when he states “Here I am myself–you all know me, the world knows my fame: I am Oedipus.” (ll. 7-9) His conceit is the root cause of a number of related problems. Among these are recklessness, disrespect, and stubbornness.

Oedipus displays an attitude of recklessness and disrespect throughout the play. When he makes his proclamation and no one confesses to the murder of Laius, Oedipus loses patience immediately and rushes into his curse. Later, he displays a short temper to Tiresias: “You, you scum of the earth . . . out with it, once and for all!,” (ll. 381, 383) and “Enough! Such filth from him? Insufferable–what, still alive? Get out–faster, back where you came from–vanish!” (ll. 490-492)

If an unwillingness to listen may be considered stubbornness, certainly Oedipus would take advice from no one who would tell him to drop the matter of his identity, among them Tiresias, the shepherd, and even Jocasta. Even after Oedipus thinks he has received a reprieve from the fate he fears when he hears that Polybus is dead, he does not have the sense to keep still. “So! Jocasta, why, why look to the Prophet’s hearth . . . all those prophesies I feared . . . they’re nothing, worthless,” he says. (ll.1053-1054, 1062, 1064) To the shepherd, Oedipus certainly has no respect for the man’s age when he tortures him. Oedipus’ cruelty indeed literally squeezes his own demise out of the shepherd: “You’re a dead man if I have to ask again . . . I’m at the edge of hearing horrors, yes, but I must hear!” (ll. 1281, 1285)

After his recognition and reversal, Oedipus exclaims “The hand that struck my eyes was mine, . . . I did it all myself!” (ll. 1469, 1471) He is not only referring to his self-inflicted mayhem, but also the chain of events that led to his demise.

Comparing the Oedipus of Sophocles and Senaca

Comparing the Oedipus of Sophocles and Senaca

The myth of Oedipus is one of a man brought down by forces aligning against him. Over the years, different playwrights have interpreted his character in various fashions. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus is a man who is blind to the path on which his questions take him and exemplifies the typical tyrannical leader in ancient times; in Senaca’s Oedipus, it is the fear of his questions that give Oedipus a greater depth of character, a depth he must overcome if he is to survive his ordeal.

Sophocles creates a character of extreme wrath and ferocity to deal with the source of the blight on the city. He curses out the killer of King Laius, the killer who has brought the blight.

“Upon the murderer I invoke this curse – whether he is one man and all unknown or one of many – may he wear out if life in misery and doom! If with my knowledge he lives at my hearth I pray that I myself feel my curse. On you I lay my charge to fulfill all of this for me, for the God, and for this land of our destroyed and blighted, by the God forsaken (Soph. O.T. 245-254).”

When it is suggested that Oedipus himself could be the source of the plague, his anger emerges in full force. “(Truth has strength,) but not for you (Teiresias); it has no strength for you because you are blind in mind and ears as well as in your eyes (Soph. O.T. 370-371).” The Oedipus of Senaca’s play is not nearly so rash. He seems to dread what will come from his exploration into the death of Laius, even though the condition of his city is just as terrible as that of Sophocles’. “I shudder, wondering which way fate will steer. My shaky mood could waver either way. When joys and griefs so close together lie, the mind is doubtful. How much should one see? How much is best to know? I’m dubious (Sen. Oed. 204-208).” This Oedipus even has thoughts that the plague might have something to do with him, that his rule might be the pollution that has descended upon the city (Sen. Oed. 40). It is this anxiety that Seneca wishes to bring out in his play, one of the emotions that are the downfall of man.

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