It is more than a coincidence that ‘Oedipus the King’ fits perfectly into Aristotle’s description of ‘The theory of tragedy’. This play served as a perfect Aristotle’s outfit for what makes up tragedy. Aristotle’s theory is retrofitted to integrate into every aspect of Sophocles’ play. According to Aristotle, tragedy is an imitation of an action that is significant, complete and of a great magnitude according to the law of necessity or probability. Tragedy is composed in a poetic language to give a dramatic presentation rather than a narrative. Tragedy incorporates instances arousing sympathy and fear, thereby accomplishing a catharsis of those feelings. The treatise called ‘The Poetics’ was composed of at least fifty years after the death of Sophocles. Aristotle admired Sophocle’s ‘Oedipus the King’ and considered the perfect tragedy while assuming that his analysis captured that play absolutely.
According to Aristotle, tragedy is greater and more philosophical than history since history tends to relate what happened while tragedy dramatizes what is likely to happen at the moment or in future according to the law of necessity. Therefore, tragedy deals with the universal history, which in turn deals with the absolute. Events that have occurred may both be due to accidents or particular to a certain moment, and not be of cause-effect relationship. Events that have occurred may be of little relevance for others, unlike tragedy that is based on the fundamental order of the world. Tragedy creates a cause-effect relationship that shows clearly, what may occur at what place or time due to the forces of the universe. Thus, tragedy creates sympathy and fear, as the audience can put themselves in this situation.
Aristotle believed that art ought to be an imitation of life. Art acts like a mirror. Art ought to be true to life. He added that tragedy is not complex but rather simple, and tragedy is a representation of terrible occurrence. If a play is simple rather than complex, Aristotle assumes it an insult to intelligence and a waste of time since it leads the audience to experience catharsis (a purge of emotions that makes one feel stronger). Complex plays challenge the viewers in a way. In ‘The Poetics’, Aristotle explains a tragedy should represent something terrible or piteous.
Aristotle explains the perfect character for a main character in a play. He tells that the kind of hero who does not qualify to act as a main character. These are the characteristics: an evil man rising from miserable life to fortune – this will not bring out sympathy nor fear among the audience. A good man falling from prosperity to miserable life – this will arouse revulsion and not sympathy or fear. Finally, a wicked man falling from fortunes to miserable life – this might arouse sympathy but no a tragedy since pity cannot be felt for an individual whose misery is deserved and also the audience will not be afraid of a wicked man’s fate of falling down on them.
The right tragic personality describes an individual who is in between two extremes. Aristotle captures Oedipus perfectly in that Oedipus was greatly regarded and had vast fortunes. He was neither guilty of any vice or depravity nor overriding in righteousness and virtue. Aristotle explains that the best tragic play moves the main character from fortunes to misery usually by some terrible mistakes he made, and not by wickedness.
Aristotle praises Euripides, who is criticized by many people for writing many plays that have a sad ending. He comments that this is how a tragedy should be, even though he still insists that a tragedy is more superior to a comedy in terms of context. Aristotle elaborates on how a character should be and Oedipus fits on these characteristics perfectly. Aristotle talks of goodness in a character; a good character should reveal through speech and actions what their moral opinions are and always gives positive opinions of the same. Oedipus has compassion, he tries to seek the truth, and he wants to redeem the people, although he is not entirely good. Oedipus is self-minded and not all selfless.
Aristotle argues that a good character should be appropriate for the traits required. Thus in the case of a man, it is appropriate to show a domineering and manly character but for a woman being opportunistic it is inappropriate. Oedipus shows the appropriate brevity and wisdom required of a man and as a leader of a great nation. Aristotle says that a character should be lifelike; this means one who is true to life or believable. A character should be like a real human being and not godly or like the mythical characters of legendary stories. Oedipus displays a humanly character; he does not possess supernatural powers and has normal human strengths and weaknesses.
Aristotle explains that a character ought to emulate consistent traits throughout the plot. Once a character is emulating a certain traits in the beginning, they should carry on that character throughout the play and should not suddenly change unless there is a justifiable variation within the play. In ‘Oedipus the King’, character traits are clearly depicted throughout the plot and remain constant. The king is revealed as a problem-solver and truth seeker, he is thirsty for self-knowledge, he wants to be a redeemer, and he is hot-tempered, arrogant and too proud.
Aristotle says that characters should only say or act what seems appropriate according to the context of the play. The outcome of the events should come out naturally from the flow of the play without contravening with any exterior means. Oedipus contravenes with Aristotle a bit and sometimes events do not appear to be natural. Aristotle concludes that tragedy is an imitation of people who are better than what normal humans are. Therefore, a tragic character should reflect what he would in a mirror or portrait, and so was Oedipus the king.