Tragic Flaws of Oedipus Rex Essay Sample

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The identification of Oedipus’ hamartia differs from reader to reader and from critic to critic. Some critics are of the view that excessive arrogance and self-confidence of Oedipus is the main cause of his tragedy. He harbors unjustified suspicions against Tiresias and Creon; in one place he goes so far as to express some uncertainty about the prophetic natures of oracles and truth of their prophecies. It is hardly likely that even a combination of all these would be equal to what Aristotle considered to be a serious hamartia. His tragic flaw was a combination of his excessive pride, his intellectual blindness and his denial to accept the realities and combination of these finally bring his downfall.

            The crucial point is that whether Sophocles wants us to think that Oedipus has basically unsound character. One way of deciding this question is to examine what other characters in the play say about Oedipus. The only result that we can arrive at in this way is that Sophocles intends us to consider Oedipus an essentially noble person. In the opening scene of the play, the priest of Zeus refers to him as the greatest and noblest of men and the divinely inspired savior who saved Thebes from being destroyed by the Sphinx. The Chorus also considers him to be noble and virtuous. They refuse to believe in Tireseas accusations of him. When catastrophe befalls Oedipus, not a single character in the play justifies it as a doom which has deservedly overtaken Oedipus. (Dodds 1966, 39) So there were certain other tragic flaws that were acting behind the curtain to bring about Oedipus tragedy.

            Oedipus seems to be obsessed with his own intelligence and this leads him to very unfortunate and uncomfortable situations. This tragic flaw of Oedipus laps over with his pride as he is extremely proud of the fact that he was able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx which had proved too much for any other person. He thinks that Gods has capacitated him with intelligence and wisdom to solve riddle that the Thebes is afflicted with. Oedipus even taunts Tireseas on his inability in solving the Sphinx’s riddle. He says;

“And where were you, when the Dog-faced Witch was here?/ Have you any word of deliverance then for our people?/ There was a riddle too deep for common wits;/ A seer should have answered it, but answer there came none from you…..” (12-16)

After calling the soothsayer false prophet, Oedipus boasts of his own skill in having solved the puzzle which proved too much for the blind seer;

“Until I came—I, ignorant Oedipus, came—/ And stopped the riddler’s mouth, guessing he truth/ By mother-wit, not bird-lore.” (17-19)

So he describes Tireseas predictive cautions as the whims of a fanatic and opposes the seer’s prophecy with arguments of his own. Self-confidence and pride in his own wisdom is an outstanding feature of his character that also brings his tragedy. Here Oedipus fulfills the traits of Aristotelian tragic hero as he possesses a noble tragic flaw. The man who sets out on his new task by sending first for the venerable seer is not lacking in pious reverence; but we also observe that Oedipus manifests unrestrained arrogance in his own intellectual achievement. No seer found the solution, this is Oedipus boast; no bird, no god revealed it to him, he “the utterly ignorant” had to come on his own and hit the mark by his own wit. This is a justified pride but it amounts too much. This pride and self-confidence induce Oedipus to despise prophecy and feel almost superior to the gods.

He tell the people who pray for deliverance from pathos and miseries they are afflicted with if they

listen to and follow his advice in order to get a remedy.

            Some critics are of the view that major tragic flaw of Oedipus is his intellectual myopia. He has a limited vision and is unable to assess the situations in a right perspective. Robert L. Kane puts this preposition in this way; “He[Oedipus] was the victim of an optical illusion”. (196) The juxtaposition between “outward magnificence and inward blindness of Oedipus and the outward blindness and inward sight of the prophet” (Kirkwood 1958, 130) depicts two types of blindness i.e. physical and intellectual. One is related to physical sight whereas the other, the most pernicious type of blindness, pertains to insight. Teiresias is physically blind but whereas Oedipus is blind intellectually. This intellectual blindness of Oedipus also contributes greatly to lead him to his tragic destination.

Oedipus possesses faultless physical vision throughout play except in the end but he remains blind to the reality regarding himself. At one point in the play, he has the ability to see but he is not willing to do so. He intellectual vision comes with his physical loss of sight but he is unable to cast away the psychological “slings and arrows” and mental sufferings that intellectual blindness has afflicted on him. So his blindness, both intellectual at the start of the play and physical at the end of the day, is the worst.
Blindness interweaves with the main plot from the very start of the play when Oedipus says, “I would be blind to misery not to pity my people kneeling at my feet.” (14) It manifest that he refers to blindness that if h will not recognize the distress of his people. This shows his physical sight but intellectual blindness as he himself was the cause of those afflictions.  Later he acknowledges that although Teiresias is physically blind but has prophetic power when he says, “Blind as you are, you can feel all the more what sickness haunts our city.” (344). Tiresias response refers to the gravity of Oedipus’ inability to see his future. He says, “How terrible – to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees!” (359)

Later on Oedipus denounces his own acknowledgement of Teiresias as a seer and abuses him by saying, “You’ve lost your power, stone-blind, stone-deaf – senses, eyes blind as stone! (423) and “Blind, lost in the night, endless night that nursed you! You can’t hurt me or anyone else who sees the light – you can never touch me.” (425). It is illustrated that it is Oedipus who is blind intellectually as he is not willing to comprehend the situation and to understand the truth. In retort to his slur, Tiresias refers to worst form of blindness that Oedipus is suffering. He says, “You with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life, to the house you live in, those who live with – who are your parents?” (470) and foretell, “Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich, he will grope his way toward a foreign soil, a stick tapping before him step by step.” (517).

These supportive texts clearly manifest that Oedipus was afflicted with severe intellectual myopia as he was unable t see the truth that was pervasive all around him. Actually he was unwilling to see truth around him, prior to his physical blindness and afterwards as he blinds himself not to observe the things around him. His is the most insidious form of blindness.

            At the start of the play we find an Oedipus who is oblivious of his true parentage and the situation in which he is placed by committing the murder of his own father. But later he freely opts to disregard what is factual, and this eventually leads him toward his tragic downfall. After blind prophet Tireseas’s clearly hints about his involvement in the criminal act of Laius murder, Oedipus does not accept the truth and looks forward to pursue truth in a more enthusiastic way. His look for truth inculcates in him a spirit to deny everything apparent and true.

All the above-mentioned manifestation of tragic flaw, their supported arguments and views of the critics clearly proves the thesis that Oedipus unavoidable ignorance was the major factor of his tragedy because he was unable to locate that the man whom he assaulted on the crossroads to Thebes was his father. Secondly, if he would not have been occupied by his aspirations, he would have possibly explored the horror of his deed and could have avoided the additional tricky situations by not marrying his mother. Thirdly, his “conscious and intentional” act includes his decision to “bring what is dark to light” (133). Furthermore, as result to revelation of Tireseas, he charges Creon with conspiracy and murder and denounces Tiresaeas as an accessory. Although these actions were intentional and bring Oedipus to tragic end but have a clear background that illustrate that these actions were not “deliberate”. Fourthly, all these errors originate from a hasty and obstinate temperament, unjustified anger and excessive pride that compel him to an energized inquisitiveness. With the development of the plot, all these ascriptions of his character jumps back with amplified force on his head that finally culminates at his tragedy.


Dodds, E. R. On Misunderstanding the Oedipus. Greece & Rome. 13. 1. (Apr. 1966). 37-49.

Kane, Robert L. Prophecy and Perception in the Oedipus Rex. Transaction of the American

            Philological Association. 105 (1975). 189-208.

Kirkwood, G.M. A study of Sophoclean drama. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 1958.

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