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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Blog on The definition of a tragedy according to Artistotle and the The tragedies of Oedipus Rex and Medea.


-Shreya Shyamsunder

"A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable acces­sories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with in­cidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions."

"Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action of high importance, complete and of some ampli­tude; in language enhanced by distinct and varying beauties; acted not narrated; by means of pity and fear effectuating its purgation of these emotions." (L. J. Potts: 24).

            Excepting the famous concepts of "unit of time" (or length of tragedy) and "character's flaw" (or hamartia), probably there's not other concept or part in Aristotle's Poetics as puzzling and celebrated as the famous definition of tragedy.

In his Poetics, Aristotle outlined the ingredients necessary for a good tragedy, and based his formula on what he considered to be the perfect tragedy, Sophocles's Oedipus the King. According to Aristotle, a tragedy must be an imitation of life in the form of a serious story that is complete in itself; in other words, the story must be realistic and narrow in focus.

A good tragedy will evoke pity and fear in its viewers, causing the viewers to experience a feeling of catharsis. Catharsis, in Greek, means "purgation" or "purification"; running through the gamut of these strong emotions will leave viewers feeling elated, in the same way we often claim that crying might ultimately make you feel better.

Aristotle also outlined the characteristics of an ideal tragic hero. He must be "better than we are," a man who is superior to the average man in some way. In Oedipus's case, he is superior not only because of social standing, but also because he is smart: he is the only person who could solve the Sphinx's riddle. At the same time, a tragic hero must evoke both pity and fear, and Aristotle claims that the best way to do this is if he is imperfect. A character with a mixture of good and evil is more compelling that a character who is merely good. And Oedipus is far from perfect; although a clever man, he is blind to the truth and stubbornly refuses to believe Teiresias's warnings. Although he is a good father, he unwittingly fathered children in incest. A tragic hero suffers because of his hamartia, a Greek word that is often mistakenly translated as "tragic flaw" but really means "mistake". Oedipus' mistake - killing his father at the crossroads - is made unknowingly. Indeed, for him, there is no way of escaping his fate.

Hubris is translated as excessive pride. This term inevitably comes up almost every time you talk about a piece of ancient Greek literature. There's no denying that Oedipus is a proud man. Of course, he's got pretty good reason to be. He's the one that saved Thebes from the Sphinx. If he hadn't come along and solved the Sphinx's riddle, the city would still be in the thrall of the creature. It seems that Oedipus rightly deserves the throne of Thebes.


As far as heroic or non heroic behaviour is concerned the battle between good and evil seems to always be waged. In contrasting Oedipus and Medea we see this battle again, but with a twist because the tales both end in tragedy. The question is, however, in keeping with our discussion of heroes, whether or not a heroic behaviour is displayed by either Oedipus or Medea during the battles. The answer is yes and no. There are many differences between Oedipus and Medea but in the end they ultimately destroy everything around them that they love the most because of the wrong choices they make in the face of anger. First of all however Medea does display some heroic qualities by showing that she is willing to do whatever is necessary to get the job done. In this case it was to be with Jason. As discussed before heroes are clever and resourceful. Medea certainly was both. Instead of using brut force to accomplish her plans, Medea uses her mind instead. Physical strength is always impressive but Medea uses cleverness and intelligence which are more impressive as heroic qualities. Things change a bit though when she poisons the King of Corinth with the poison gifts taken to him by her children. This plan makes Medea into the perfect villain. In this role of villain Medea's behaviour is then seen as cunning and manipulative and alternates between rational and irrational, and in the end is just plain evil. On the other hand Oedipus' downfall was his heroic quality of always seeking the truth no matter the cost. It was the need for truth that caused him to consult the oracle and learn about 

the prophecy. This need for truth caused his sins to be revealed to the world. As with all heroes he would not stop until he had what he was after. He was not to be stopped until he had it. He sought the truth in the end though it was his pride that was responsible for his downfall. Pride was responsible for him not stepping aside at the crossroads. Heroes need to know when to use good judgment. Oedipus did not use good judgment. He let pride over ride that. It was pride that caused him to want to solve sphinx's riddle which helped fulfill the second part of the tragic prophecy. Also his pride played a part in his eagerness to find Laius's killer, believing that he was the only one who could do it and he wanted to show it off. Both Medea and Oedipus' downfalls were also pushed by the lack of good judgment in making the right choices and extreme anger to the point of rage when things did not go as they were suppose to. They were both placed in situations where they reacted with such rage it clouded their judgment. Fate was also a huge part of it seemingly. But as far as fate goes, it seems like Oedipus was forever running away from his fate by trying to escape the oracle's prophecy. One the other hand Medea was generally cold, manipulative and ruthless; She knew her mind well and did exactly what she wanted; she was leaving nothing to fate. Oedipus and Medea proved in both situations that in the end any action or choice comes with responsibility and consequences. 

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