19 Aug 2022


How Sophocles’ "Oedipus" exemplifies Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero

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The auspices of the concept of a tragic hero are defined through the commonly disambiguated mantra that the value of man is measured not by their actions but by their character (Wurmser 2) . It is this definition which has been the basis of the definition of tragic heroes by Aristotelians. The inference of this definition is that the tragic hero is an ordinary man who has both flaws and virtues and it is on account of these virtues that their actions, regardless of the outcome, should not be used to judge the hero. The definition was drawn as a way of informing the society that the assimilation of the characters of a virtuous man should be so that the ways of the society are amended and thus the placement of emphasis on the flawed actions of an individual should not disregard the character which is to be assimilated (Wurmser 2) . Following on other literature, various other writers had the same opinion and one such author is Sophocles who, through his text Oedipus the King tried to exemplify the characteristics of a tragic hero as presented in the characterization of Oedipus. In the following paragraphs, these characteristics and flaws are described from the perspective of Sophocles.

According to Sophocles, the tragic hero is normally at first assumed to have revered characters. This makes the members of the society to uphold them by a definite standard akin to God. Oedipus , the protagonist was assumed as a God by the people of Thebes to the extent of even worshiping him (Sophocles 285) . The association of God, and especially in the Greek setting, was significant glorification of the individual. There is assumed reverence when the public denotes that a person was alleviated by the power of God. Similar to the characterization of a tragic hero according to Aristotle, the tragic hero should be virtuous beyond reproach (Zerba 49) . It is this assumption which acknowledges the similarities of the definitions of the tragic hero between Sophocles and Aristotle. However, it is this perception of the society, and the honor the hero must retain on account of these perceptions which result in tragedy. Often the perception of the society is that heroes should be reproachable and pure. In religion, the inference of the purity of Christ and the denunciation of the humanism of Christ is replicated throughout the culture of the society. However, the contextualization of heroes helps the audience to identify themselves with the hero and thus becoming a more effective communication tool.

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The misfortunes of a tragic hero befall them on account of their flaws. Humanism in heroism portends that the hero is not a perfect being (Zerba 64) . The use of contrast is used to denote that the individual is a man like any other and that what separate protagonists from antagonists are the flaws. The inference of this is that humans should not be always too quick to blame others for their action. In Oedipus , the role of both protagonist and antagonist were played by Oedipus. While he was the hero, he was the antagonist who caused his own downfall. The depiction of characteristic flaw is important as it helps the audience to realize the only person who can prevent evil from happening is themselves, and there is no one to blame for their own actions. Aristotle noted that misfortunes befall a man “…not through vice or depravity but by some error of judgment…” iterating that there is no one to blame for misfortunes but a person’s own flaws. Sophocles upheld this definition where Teiresias notes of Oedipus that, “…I say you and your most dearly loved are wrapped together in a hideous sin…” (Sophocles, 428). And later also, “…you are the murderer of the king whose murderer you seek…” (Sophocles, 428). In this, the virtue of love and justice is contrasted with hideous sin and murder respectively, and it is on account of this virtue that the misjudgment is made and the misjudgment leads to tragedy.

Having noted the personal definitions of a tragic, hero, there is also the aspect which the authors sought to denote; learning from the hero. A hero is not a hero unless the society can learn from his actions and his life (Wurmser 8) . In order for this to happen, the hero must be a person who is well known and recognized by the society that they serve as a hero. This definition portends the characteristic of recognition and notability. It can be noted that in human society, a person can learn best about behavior through cognition which can only be achieved where interaction with the person whose behavior is exemplified is constant and frequent (Wurmser 8) . In order to achieve this, the tragic hero must be conspicuous and recognized by members of the society. It is this definitive character which Oedipus exemplifies when Oedipus refers to himself saying, “…I am a man who all men call the Great…” (Sophocles 342) Notability is a key ingredient is a tragic hero. This also draws from the inferences of credibility as a rhetoric device. In order to convince the society regarding the perspective of a person’s character, the person should be well known in order to achieve effectiveness. This moves to show that, a person is recognized and revered not by the actions which caused their downfall but because of their virtuous living (Zerba 154) . At the time setting of Oedipus, the society was not aware of his flaws. They referred to him as Great and assumed that he had ascended to the throne by God’s guidance on account of the kind of life that he had led which was a virtuous life. In so doing, the authors of the tragic hero drama usually indicate that the popularity of a hero is not bound to their actions but to their character. This is important as it helps to waive the biased judgment which the society may have, and at the same time elicit the reactions of pity from the misfortunes which would befall the tragic hero.


While tragedy befalls all men regardless of their character, is serves to note that being a hero denotes the observance of virtue and moral standing even in the face of misfortune. The depiction of a tragic hero, as defined by Aristotle and as exemplified by Sophocles is a plight to the audience and to the society as a whole to emulate the virtuous character of an individual, not based on their actions but rather based on their intrinsic character. The society should at all times, separate character from action because, as noted earlier, character makes a man and not his actions nor the results of their actions. With the structure of the society, it is important for the members of the society to realize that while the actions and decisions of individuals is based on psychological inferences derived from developmental interaction with the social environment, behavior, as driven by cognition, is manifested as the character of a person which is as a result of the moral inferences of the person with regards to how they chose to react to the input of the society following.

Works Cited

Sophocles. Oedipus the King . MacMillan and Company, 1885.

Wurmser, Léon. "Prologue: Psychoanalysis and Tragedy: Awe, Hubris, and Shame, and Their Clinical Significance." Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 35(1) (2015): 1-12.

Zerba, Michelle. Tragedy and theory: The problem of conflict since Aristotle. Princeton University Press, 2014.

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StudyBounty. (2023, September 14). How Sophocles’ "Oedipus" exemplifies Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero.


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