Is Oedipus a Tragic Hero? (2023)

by Alexandra Morozov

Is Oedipus a Tragic Hero? (1)

The great Greek philosopher Aristotle penned intriguing ideas about the nature of drama and tragedy in his work Poetics. Though the phrase “tragic hero” is not used, Aristotle does propose several key characteristics of the protagonist in a tragic play. Furthermore, Aristotle considered King Oedipus in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, written in 430 B.C., to be an accurate representation of his ideas, since he cites the play no less than 11 times in Poetics (Aristotle, 330 B.C.). Reading Oedipus Rex in light of Aristotle’s ideas, the modern student will gain a deeper appreciation of Sophocles’ artistry and Aristotle’s insight into tragedy. Oedipus is a model of Aristotle’s tragic hero: he is a part of the nobility, his character flaws exacerbate his poor judgment, he loses his kingdom, and he discovers truth through his downfall.

Aristotle’s description of the tragic hero in Poetics can be summarized by four key traits. First, according to Perrine’s Literature, the character is of noble birth (Johnson & Arp, 2018). The protagonist could be an emperor, a king, a queen, a prince, or a princess. Second, the character has a hamartia, which is traditionally defined as a fatal flaw but is more accurately a “missed mark”. Jules Brody, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, counters the “tragic flaw” definition of hamartia:

Hamartia is a morally neutral non-normative term, derived from the verb hamartano, meaning “to miss the mark,” “to fall short of an objective” [. . .] Hamartia may betoken an error of discernment due to ignorance, to the lack of an essential piece of information. (Brody, 2014, p. 23)

Third, the character experiences a reversal of good fortune because of his hamartia, as explained by Perrine’s Literature (Johnson & Arp, 2018):

(Video) Oedipus the Tragic Hero ... or Tyrant?

The hero’s downfall, therefore, is his own fault, the result of his own free choice — not the result of pure accident or someone else’s villainy or some overriding malignant fate. Accident, villainy, or fate may contribute to the downfall but only as cooperating agents: they are not alone responsible . . . .(p. 1253)

Fourth, the character discovers some truth about himself, his situation, or the world through his downfall; this is called anagnorisis. Perrine’s Literature’s (Johnson & Arp, 2018) argues that this discovery:

“ . . . is accompanied or followed by [. . .] an increase not only in knowledge but in wisdom. Often this increase in wisdom involves some sort of reconciliation with the universe or with the protagonist’s situation. He exits not cursing his fate but accepting it and acknowledging that it is to some degree just. (p. 1253)

The definition of an Aristotelian tragic hero is a character who is part of the nobility, has a hamartia, falls from his high position, and discovers some truth at the end of the play. King Oedipus fulfills each of these requirements.

First, Oedipus is of noble birth and is a mighty ruler. He is royal in three ways: he was born into the Theban royal family, he was adopted into the Corinthian nobility, and he becomes King of Thebes by marring Queen Jocasta. Oedipus is not only royal by blood, but he also acts as a powerful commander. When Thebes suffers under plagues, the people turn to King Oedipus for help because he was able to defeat the Sphinx:

. . .[W]e have come to you to make our prayer

As to the man surest in mortal ways

And wisest in the ways of God. You saved us

(Video) Oedipus Rex as A Tragic Hero | Aristotle’s Views Rejected

From the Sphinx [. . .]

A god’s touch, it seems, enabled you to help us. (Prologue.36–42)

Despite the praise of the people, Oedipus is a harsh, jealous ruler, argues playwright and theater critic Dr. Roy Glassberg. When Oedipus hears the words of the prophet Teiresias, Oedipus becomes furious and threatens to kill the innocent Creon for sabotaging his rule, and according to Glassberg, shows some paranoia (Glassberg, 2017). Oedipus is the heir of royal authority and acts as a tyrant.

Second, Oedipus has a hamartia, which causes him to lose his status and power. The cause of Oedipus’s downfall is twofold: he unknowingly murders his father and sleeps with his mother (his hamartia or error), but he worsens the situation by believing that he is innocent and that he has escaped his fate. Oedipus pronounces a royal decree that exiles or kills the person who murdered his predecessor, King Laius: “As for the criminal, I pray to God / — Whether it be a lurking thief, or one of a number — / I pray that that man’s life be consumed in evil and wretchedness” (Scene 1.232–234). The dramatic irony is that he is the criminal he seeks to eliminate. Additionally, Oedipus believes he has outrun the Delphic prophecy by leaving his “parents” in Corinth:

I heard all this, and fled. And from that day

Corinth to me was only in the stars

Descending in that quarter of the sky,

As I wandered farther and farther on my way

(Video) Fate, Family, and Oedipus Rex: Crash Course Literature 202

To a land where I should never see the evil

Sung by the oracle. . . .(Scene 2.752–757)

The audience knows that by fleeing to Thebes, Oedipus has fulfilled the terrible prophecy, another example of dramatic irony. Glassberg explains that Oedipus’s errors and poor judgment, coupled with his flaws of jealousy and rashness, create his tragic downfall (Glassberg, 2016). King Oedipus’s hamartias are his immoral actions against his parents, while his belief of innocence and his character flaws punctuate the tragedy of his fate.

Third, King Oedipus experiences a reversal of good fortune. He finally discovers that he has fulfilled the Delphic prophecy of murdering his father and sleeping with his mother and that he must be exiled. When the truth about his identity as Laius and Jocasta’s son is revealed, Oedipus’s world is shattered. He realizes that Laius and Jocasta tried to kill him as an infant, and his reunion with his mother is blackened with the realization that he has sexually defiled her. Anders Zachrisson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oslo, writes about Oedipus’s search for truth as the driving element of the play: “In the tragedy, Oedipus represents more than the figure we all know, the protagonist of the Oedipus complex. He is also determined to discover the truth about himself. The main theme of the tragedy is this quest” (Zachrisson, 2013, para. 3). Oedipus’s downfall is not simply a reversal of position, but a deeply personal shock about his true parents and his crimes against them.

Lastly, Oedipus is a tragic hero because he discovers truth through his downfall: that fate is inescapable and that human understanding is limited. In an earlier scene, the Choragus mourns Oedipus and Jocasta’s disdain for the gods: “Our masters call the oracle / Words on the wind, and the Delphic vision blind! / Their hearts no longer know Apollo, / And reverence for the gods has died away” (Ode 2.861–864). More than mocking his fate, Oedipus has been figuratively blind to his sins against his parents, and he physically blinds himself at the end of the play. Oedipus recognizes that his fate was controlled all along by the gods: “. . . Dear / Children, the god was Apollo. / He brought my sick, sick fate upon me. / But the blinding hand was my own! / How could I bear to see / When all my sight was horror everywhere?” (Exodus.1285b-1290). Additionally, Glassberg (2016) points out that the audience experiences catharsis (a purging of emotions, especially of pity and fear) in this play by seeing Oedipus’s tyrannical and violent behavior toward Teiresias, Kreon, and the Herdsman, which absolves some of the pity they feel for his tragic end. Oedipus’s discovery of truth at the end of the play confirms him as an example of a tragic hero.

When measured against the standards set forth in Poetics, King Oedipus fits Aristotle’s picture of the tragic hero. First, as a mighty king, he holds the land of Thebes in the palm of his hand. Second, when his flaw of jealousy is combined with his hamartia, ignorance of his role in the prophecy, Oedipus engages in tyrannical behavior. In a twist of dramatic irony, Oedipus threatens to harm and kill the loyal Kreon, Teiresias, and Herdsman, when he, in fact, is the defilement contaminating Thebes. Third, Oedipus finally realizes that he has fulfilled the Delphic prophecy that he would commit patricide and incest, and he must flee his kingdom and family. Lastly, Oedipus learns truth through his tragic fall: though he once disdained the gods and prophecies, he finally grasps that humans cannot outrun their fate. Oedipus’s fall from high position makes the audience experience catharsis, a purging of pity and fear. As Aristotle (330 B.C.) writes in Poetics, “[P]ity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves” (para. 47). Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex compels the audience to question whether they could be blind to a truth that will lead to their downfall.



Aristotle. (2007). Poetics. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. (Original work published ca. 430 BC). Retrieved February from

Brody, J. (2014). Fate, philology, Freud. Philosophy and Literature 38(1), 1–29. doi:10.1353/phl.2014.0007.

Glassberg, R. (2016). Oedipus the tyrant: A view of catharsis in eight sentences. Philosophy and Literature 40(2), 579–580. doi:10.1353/phl.2016.0039.

Glassberg, R. (2017). Uses of hamartia, flaw, and irony in Oedipus Tyrannus and King Lear. Philosophy and Literature 41(1), 201–206. doi:10.1353/phl.2017.0013.

Johnson, G., & Arp, T.R. (2018). Perrine’s literature: Liberty University English 102 custom e-book.

Sophocles. (2016). Oedipus the king. In G. Johnson and T. R. Arp (Eds.), Perrine’s literature: Liberty University English 102 custom e-book. Boston, MA: Cengage. (Original work published ca. 425 BC).

Zachrisson, A. (2013). Oedipus the king: Quest for self-knowledge — denial of reality. Sophocles’ vision of man and psychoanalytic concept formation. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 94(2), 313–31. doi: 10.1111/j.1745–8315.2012.00655.x

(Video) Oedipus as a Tragic Hero in ''Oedipus Rex'' by Sophocles

(Video) Oedipus Rex as Tragic Hero


Why Oedipus was a tragic hero? ›

Oedipus fulfills the three parameters that define the tragic hero. His dynamic and multifaceted character emotionally bonds the audience; his tragic flaw forces the audience to fear for him, without losing any respect; and his horrific punishment elicits a great sense of pity from the audience.

Why is Oedipus not a tragic hero? ›

Oedipus is less a 'tragic hero', and more a deeply flawed individual, overpowered by hubris and anger, undeserving of pity or respect. To prove this, it must be made clear that Oedipus' character is dominated by vice. Oedipus Tyrannous does not have enough redeeming character traits to be pitied.

What are the 6 characteristics of a tragic hero in Oedipus? ›

Tragic hero characteristics
  • Born of a noble birth.
  • With some kind of imperfection that makes them human and relatable.
  • They have been wounded by some traumatic experience.
  • They have a fatal flaw.
  • Their fatal flaw leads to some kind of realization.
  • They meet a significant downfall.
Dec 11, 2022

How is Oedipus a tragic hero quote? ›

Thesis:In Sophocles play 'Oedipus the king',Oedipus is an example of a tragic hero because he changed from a hero at the beginning of the play into a tragic hero by the end by experiencing power,tragic flow,downfall and death.

What is Oedipus tragic flaw *? ›

What is Oedipus' tragic flaw, or hamartia? It is hubris or pride. Upon reaching adulthood and hearing the prophecy that he will murder his father and take his mother as his own wife, he attempts to flee the fate the gods have laid out before him by leaving Corinth.

What was Oedipus tragic character and flaw? ›

King Oedipus, though a smart, capable, and caring ruler, is blinded by a tragic flaw (a weakness that a person can't overcome). His weakness is hubris, an excessive pride that makes him ignore his ancient Greek belief in the superiority of the gods.

Is Oedipus responsible for his own downfall? ›

In Oedipus the King by Sophocles, Oedipus is responsible for the tragedy of his downfall. Oedipus is presented with a series of choices throughout the play, and his arrogant and stubborn nature push him to impulsively make the wrong decisions, the decisions that ultimately lead him to his downfall.

Why is Oedipus not responsible for his downfall? ›

Oedipus is not responsible for his own destiny because Jocasta and Laius are his birthers, he had no decision in being born. Jocasta and Laius didn't believe the warning the Oracle gave them so they took every warning with a grain of salt.

What makes Oedipus a tragic hero What makes his predicament fascinating rather than merely horrifying? ›

He opposes the will of ancient gods and loses, but this struggle makes his predicament fascinating. Oedipus does not know that he kills his father and marries his mother; the only motif he follows is to protect people he loves and become happy (Wood 76). That is why all his actions are not merely horrifying.

What type of tragedy is Oedipus? ›

Oedipus Rex is a typical classical tragedy because it has the element of tragic setting, atmosphere and mood, tragic character with tragic hamartia, tragic plot design moving to tragic disintegration, and therefore the tragic realization by the character and audience.

Why does Oedipus blind himself? ›

His determination to find a cure and the reasons behind it led to the shocking truth that he had, in fact, killed his own father and married his own mother. This truth led to the demise of his wife and mother and brought Oedipus to blind himself using two golden pins from Jocasta's regal dress.

What makes Oedipus a tragic hero quizlet? ›

His prophecy marks his significant fall and makes him go on a journey. Oedipus' prophecy leads him to his downfall. He marries his own mother, kills his father, and takes his own eyes out. King Laius is killed by Oedipus.

How does Sophocles define a tragic hero? ›

In him, Sophocles achieved one of the enduring definitions of the tragic hero—that of a man for whom the liberation of the self is a necessity.

What is the quote of Oedipus Downfall? ›

Oedipus' Tragic Downfall

The horror of darkness, like a shroud, Wraps me and bears me on through mist and cloud. Ah me, ah me!

How are Oedipus and Hamlet tragic heroes? ›

Hamlet and Oedipus are tragic heroes as they possess distinctive traits of this type of character. They both have good intentions despite having many flaws. Both Hamlet and Oedipus Rex are quite noble characters. The actions they take while seeking the truth appear to be life-changing.

What is the theme of the tragic Oedipus? ›

Free Will. Fate versus free will is the central theme of the play. The story revolves around Oedipus' attempt to use his own free will to escape the prophecy given to him by the Oracle of Delphi. The oracle prophesied that Oedipus' fate was to marry his mother and kill his father.

What is Oedipus worst character trait? ›

The flaw or failing in the tragic character leads to their downfall. In the case of Oedipus, his tragic flaw is hubris, or excessive pride.

What is the main conflict in Oedipus the King? ›

The major conflict of Oedipus the King arises when Tiresias tells Oedipus that Oedipus is responsible for the plague, and Oedipus refuses to believe him. The major conflict of Oedipus at Colonus is between Oedipus and Creon.

Is Oedipus a positive or negative character? ›

Ultimately Oedipus' character is a fundamentally good, moral and brave person who suffers a terrible fate. However, he is not without his flaws. Aristotle argues that a tragic hero can't be perfect. Instead, they should have a fatal flaw, or “hamartia,” which results in their tragic downfall.

What is an example of a tragic hero? ›

Romeo Montague

In William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo Montague, the male protagonist, is an excellent example of a tragic hero. Romeo comes from noble birth and has the tragic flaw of being impulsive and having a fair share of hubris.

What type of irony is in Oedipus? ›

Oedipus the King is a classic example of dramatic irony in that the audience knows that Oedipus is the killer throughout the play, but Oedipus himself is unaware of this fact. Tragic irony, which is a form of dramatic irony, is found throughout Oedipus the King.

Is Oedipus downfall the result of his ignorance or his pride? ›

The infamous fall of Oedipus the king is due to his blinding pride and self-importance. His pride is the main cause of his ignorance and his ignorance is the ultimate reason of his disgrace. The three quotes about pride, coupled with Oedipus's actions, bring out the important questions of pride v.s. modesty.

Should Oedipus be blamed for his actions? ›

To be sure, Oedipus did massacre Laius and his attendants following a dispute over whose chariot had the right of way — what seems to be an ancient instance of road rage. Even if he did not know that Laius was his father, we might say Oedipus was culpable for a hyper-violent overreaction to a minor slight.

Was Oedipus downfall fate or free will? ›

Did Oedipus Have Free Will? No, Oedipus did not have free will. He was fated to fulfill the prophecy of the Oracle at Delphi and was ultimately doomed to suffer a terrible fate no matter what he did.

How does Oedipus try to avoid his fate? ›

Oedipus tried to escape his fate by never returning to Corinth, the city where he grew up, and never seeing the people he thought were his parents again. Ironically, it was this action that led him to kill his real father Laius and to marry his mother Jocasta.

How is Oedipus a tragic hero essay? ›

He continually causes problems for himself and further advances the central conflict of the story. Furthermore, Oedipus' hubristic nature, quick temper, and determination depict him as a tragic hero and lead to his tragic downfall. Oedipus' inflated self-image and ego reflect his hubristic attitude.

How does Oedipus go about discovering his tragic fate? ›

To learn the truth, Oedipus sends for the only living witness to the murder, a shepherd. Another worry haunts Oedipus. As a young man, he learned from an oracle that he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Fear of the prophecy drove him from his home in Corinth and brought him ultimately to Thebes.

Do you consider Oedipus as a tragedy? ›

The Oedipus Rex is a tragedy of fate; its tragic effect depends on the conflict between the all-powerful will of the gods and the vain efforts of human beings threatened with disaster; resignation to the divine will, and the perception of one's own impotence is the lesson which the deeply moved spectator is supposed to ...

Is Oedipus the perfect tragedy? ›

Oedipus is the perfect tragic protagonist, for his happiness changes to misery due to hamartia (an error). Oedipus also evokes both pity and fear in its audience, causing the audience to experience catharsis or a purging of emotion, which is the true test for any tragedy according to Aristotle.

What is an ideal tragic hero? ›

The ideal tragic hero is a man who stands midway between the two extremes. He is not eminently good or just, though he inclines to the side of goodness. He is like us, but raised above the ordinary level by a deeper vein of feeling or heightened powers of intellect or will.

Why did Oedipus marry his mother? ›

This king claimed the boy and raised him as his own. When Oedipus grew to manhood, a prophet warned him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Not knowing that he had been adopted, and that his real parents were Jocasta and Laius, Oedipus left the country to avoid committing such crimes.

Did Oedipus marry his mother? ›

Years passed, during which Oedipus had four children with Jocasta. Oedipus found out that he killed Laius, his father, and married his mother, Jocasta. He was horrified, so he gouged his eyes out and exiled himself from Thebes.

Why does Oedipus punish himself instead of killing himself? ›

He had blinded himself because there was now no sight iri Thebes which he would like to see. He did not kill himself because he could not have faced his father and his mother in the realms of death. He had robbed himself of his eye-sight, and he would have liked to deprive himself of his power of hearing also.

How does Oedipus pride lead to his downfall? ›

Oedipus' pride is turned to shame as his murder of his father and his incestuous relationship with his mother are brought to light. Then he begins to lose those things that are most precious to him. First, he loses his mother and wife as Jocasta is found "hanging, the twisted rope around her neck" (1294).

What are two major characteristics of a tragic hero? ›

Hamartia – It is the tragic flaw that causes downfall of a hero. Hubris – It is excessive pride and disrespect of hero for natural order.

What happens to Oedipus at the end of the tragedy? ›

Oedipus blinds himself at the end of Oedipus Rex. He does this when he learns that he has killed his father and married his mother, Jocasta. Oedipus was destined to kill his father and marry his mother because it was predicted by the oracle at Delphi. The sequel to Oedipus Rex is Antigone.

What was Oedipus first mistake? ›

Oedipus learns of the fate bestowed upon him: that he would murder his father and sleep with his mother. In an attempt to escape this prophecy, Oedipus decides to leave his home in Corinth, defying the fate bestowed upon him. His decision is the first and most reprehensible sin committed by Oedipus.

How is Oedipus downfall foreshadowed? ›

The blind prophet Tiresias, both through dialogue and his blindness, hints at Oedipus' fate while the oracle at Delphi foreshadows Oedipus' murder of his father, Laius, King of Thebes, and marrying his mother, Jocasta.

What kind of hero was Oedipus? ›

Oedipus is a classic example of the tragic hero. As a young man in the city of Corinth, he learns from the Delphic oracle that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother.

What type of tragic hero is Hamlet? ›

In addition to the play ending with the death of Hamlet and a host of others, Hamlet himself is a classic tragic protagonist. As the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet is a figure whose actions matter to an entire kingdom, which means the play's events reverberate through the entire world of the play.

Is Hamlet based on Oedipus? ›

Hamlet and Oedipus is a study of William Shakespeare's Hamlet in which the title character's inexplicable behaviours are subjected to investigation along psychoanalytic lines.
Hamlet and Oedipus.
Cover of the first American edition
AuthorErnest Jones
Publication date1949, 1976
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)
8 more rows

What are the 4 characteristics of a tragic hero? ›

Hamartia – It is the tragic flaw that causes downfall of a hero. Hubris – It is excessive pride and disrespect of hero for natural order. Peripeteia – The reversal of fate that the hero experiences. Anagnorisis – This moment happens when hero makes an important discovery in the story.

How is Oedipus character responsible for his downfall? ›

In Oedipus the King by Sophocles, Oedipus is responsible for the tragedy of his downfall. Oedipus is presented with a series of choices throughout the play, and his arrogant and stubborn nature push him to impulsively make the wrong decisions, the decisions that ultimately lead him to his downfall.

Which of the following best explains why Oedipus the King is considered a tragedy? ›

Which of the following best explains why Oedipus the King is considered a tragedy.? the fact that a respected and admired king is undone by circumstance and by flaws in his own character.

What was Oedipus tragic choice? ›

Oedipus' tragic flaw leads him to his fate: mainly to kill his father and to marry his mother.

How can you identify a tragic hero? ›

What are characteristics of a tragic hero?
  1. Is a male character, usually a noble, who suffers a reversal of fortune.
  2. Makes a consequential mistake.
  3. Experiences a downfall as a result of his hubris (excessive pride)
  4. Typically dies in the end.
  5. Sparks sympathy and fear in the audience.

Which character is the best of a tragic hero? ›

Romeo Montague. In William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo Montague, the male protagonist, is an excellent example of a tragic hero. Romeo comes from noble birth and has the tragic flaw of being impulsive and having a fair share of hubris.

Does Oedipus deserve his fate? ›

Answer and Explanation: Yes, Oedipus deserves his fate because he decides out of the free will to pursue the truth. He is destined to kill his father and marry his mother, even before he is born. Yet, he is persistent in his search to find the murderer of Laius.

What is the main conflict in Oedipus? ›

The major conflict of Oedipus at Colonus is between Oedipus and Creon. Creon has been told by the oracle that only Oedipus's return can bring an end to the civil strife in Thebes—Oedipus's two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, are at war over the throne. Oedipus, furious at Thebes for exiling him, has no desire to return.

Is Oedipus the King a tragedy or comedy? ›

Oedipus Rex, also known by its Greek title, Oedipus Tyrannus (Ancient Greek: Οἰδίπους Τύραννος, pronounced [oidípoːs týrannos]), or Oedipus the King, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed around 429 BC.

Why did Oedipus blind himself instead of killing himself? ›

He had blinded himself because there was now no sight iri Thebes which he would like to see. He did not kill himself because he could not have faced his father and his mother in the realms of death. He had robbed himself of his eye-sight, and he would have liked to deprive himself of his power of hearing also.


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