HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 6 Cherry Fan
Tragedy: Oedipus the King
But do not fear that you will wed your mother. Many men before now have slept with
their mothers in dreams. But he to whom these things are as though nothing bears his
life most easily.
-Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 980-3
With the story Oedipus and the tragedy about him by Sophocles, we approach the most famous tragedy
in ancient Greek literature. But before we get directly into the myth and the play, we need to pause for
a moment to consider just what a "tragedy" is. Nowadays people use the word "tragedy" for almost any
unhappy event." For our course, a tragedy is a certain kind of play. Our guide in this process is Aristotle
(381-322 BC), the philosopher and polymath who wrote about and analyzed just about everything in his
culture. In his Poetics, he gives an analysis of both epic and tragedy, where his very famous dfinition of
"Tragedy is a representation (mimesis) of a serious, complete action that has magnitude, in embellished
speech, with each of the speech's elements used separately in the various parts of the play, represented
by people acting (drama) and not by narration, accomplishing by means of pity and fear the catharsis of
such emotional states."
Aristotle, Poetics 6 1449b
Aristotle is in part reacting to his teacher, Plato (428-348 BC), who was very suspicious of poetry in
general. Instead of discussing reality directly, poetry creates representations of reality. (Because Plato
felt that the world around us is itself only a representation of a greater metaphysical reality, literature
for him involved a representation of a representation of reality.) Aristotle, however, embraces the world
around him and the attempts of people to come to terms with it, so he sees poetry and representation
(mimesis) as good things in themselves.
That a tragedy is "serious", "complete", and has "magnitude" means that it is not trivial, that is has a
beginning, middle, and end, and that it has a certain grandeur that takes it above the everyday. It uses
"embellished speech", that is , poetry. And unlike epic, which is all narrated by a single individual,
tragedy is acted. It has up to three actors in speaking parts, and the Chorus, which consists of twelve
singers/dancers, one or two of whom sometimes do solo work as if they too were actors.
For Aristotle, the goal, or end (telos), of tragedy involves the arousal of pity and fear and their catharsis.
What he means by "catharsis" is controversial. Often people speak as if emotions were bad things that
humans should get rid of. With this understanding, catharsis would be a sort of "cleaning" out of the
emotions. But Aristotle recognized that emotions are part of a healthy human response to the world. He
just thought that they needed to be trained to react in a healthy way, not too much or too little, and to
Page 1 of 6 HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 6 Cherry Fan
the right things. Along these lines, catharsis, which literally means "cleansing", would refer to a process
of making emotions themselves healthy. On the other hand, we should recall both that tragedies were
performed as part of religious rites and that Aristotle is likely to have thought that the catharsis should
be entirely achieved by the end of the performance of the play. So the catharsis would more properly be
understood a religious cleansing through the arousal and completion of emotional states.
Note these lines from a choral song in Prometheus Bound:
"I see, Prometheus; and over my eyes a mist of tears and fear spread as I see your body, withering
ignominiously upon this rock in these bonds of adamant."
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 144-6
The Chorus, acting as a sort of intermediary between the actors and the audience, cues the audience
about how they should react to the scene on stage. Their tears (pity) and fear are exactly the emotions
Aristotle wants to see. Through empathy, the audience contracts the emotional states of the chorus.
The actors performed before the skênê, a word that obviously gives us our word "scene", but which in
Greek literally meant a "tent", testifying to the temporary nature of early theatres. Below the actors on
a circular dancing floor, the orchestra, the chorus moved about in dance as it sang its choral odes, or
songs. Each song consists of a number of repeated metrical units, called strophes (turns) and
antistrophes (counter turns), sometimes with an additional unit, an epode, added on. The play generally
opens with only a couple actors on stage in a part of the play called the prologos, or prologue. The
Chorus then sings as it enters with an entrance song. Once on stage, each intermittent song it sings is
called a stasimon. Sometimes it will also sing a song as it leaves the stage.
It is important to recognize that tragedy is a product of a democratic culture. It was performed under
political supervision for a huge audience of spectators, women as well as men. The two great dramatic
festivals, both in honour of Dionysus, where the Great Dionysus in March and the Lennaea, which was
smaller, in January. The Great Dionysia took five days, the tragedies being performed over the last three
days. As a whole, the festival probably included one thousand active participants and as many as 15, 000
spectators. Each play was only performed once, as part of a series of three plays by the same playwright
on each of the three days. The playwright also served as director, and a wealthy Athenian, who
contributed as a public service, assumed the cost for the Chorus and actors. Ten judges chosen by lot
from those nominated by their tribes cast votes for the best production. Five votes were randomly
selected, to allow the god Dionysus to have his say.
Let's go back to Aristotle. He thought that pity and fear were best aroused when the main figure in the
play was made to suffer a reversal, a peripeteia:
"A peripeteia is a change of the actions to their opposite... in accordance with probability and necessity.
E.g.in the Oedipus, the man who comes to bring delight to Oedipus and to rid him of his terror about his
mother, does the opposite by revealing who Oedipus is."
Aristotle, Poetics 1542a
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Because Aristotle is very intellectually oriented, he also believes that the main figure must understand
his reversal. This sudden understanding, recognition, or revelation, is called the anagnorisis:
"An anagnorisis... is a change from ignorance to knowledge... among people with regard to people's
good fortune or misfortune. A recognition is finest when it occurs at the same time as a peripeteia, as it
does in the Oedipus."
Aristotle, Poetics 1452a
For Aristotle, the most important element in the tragedy, far more than the spectacle and performance,
is the plot, the mythos.
"The mythos should be constructed in such a way that, even without seeing it, someone who hears about
the incidents will shudder and feel pity at the outcome, as someone may feel upon hearing the plot of the
Aristotle, Poetics 1453b
Nota bene: Aristotle considers tragedy from the point of view of the poet, the person who writes the
script. So he does understand the importance of spectacle and performance; they're just not part of
Because he lived in the fourth century BC, a century after the great tragedies were written and
produced, Aristotle many only have read the tragedies and not seen them performed.
What leads the main figure of a tragedy to suffer a peripeteia, have anagnorisis of it, as thus arouse the
pity and fear of the audience? Aristotle thinks that the main figure must have made some mistake, so
that he has incurred some "mistakeness" (hamartia). Some refer to this as "tragic flaw", but this is a very
poor translation (and should never appear in anything you write for this course), since the hamartia is
not a flaw of character at all.
"This is the sort of man who is not pre-eminently virtuous and just, and yet it is through no badness or
villainy of his own that he falls into the misfortune, but rather through some hamartia in him, he being
one of those who are in high station and good fortune, like Oedipus... The change