Aristotelian Analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

Subject: Literature
Pages: 5
Words: 1399
Reading time:
5 min
Study level: College


Oedipus the King is perhaps the oldest and best-recognized script that highlights the foundations of tragedy. The play is considered by many a perfect example of Aristotle’s descriptions of tragic events. He surmised that the objective of tragedies was to purify people’s souls of passions through the evocation of pity and fear and the achievement of catharsis. Poetics addresses two key principles, namely action and the imitation of nature. Imitation in tragic dramas can be assessed for truthfulness by virtue of the fact that they depict a well-intentioned protagonist whose actions result in disaster. The story of Oedipus is, perhaps, the most tragic narration in Greek mythology by virtue of the fact that it emphasizes people’s inability to alter their destinies. Oedipus brought shame and grief to his family and kingdom by killing his father and marrying his mother. The story of Oedipus demonstrates a mastery of the elements that, according to Aristotle, are the fundamental building blocks of a tragedy.

Plot Summary

Apollo damns Oedipus the King to marry his mother after brutally murdering his father. Upon realizing their shocking future, the king’s parents bind his feet and surrender him to a shepherd, who gave him to a childless king and queen upon seeing the child. Oedipus’ adoptive parents raise him as their own, but after knowing about his fate from the Delphic oracle, he heads to Thebes in an attempt to prevent the prophecy from coming true. Oedipus engages in battle against a man and kills him without realizing that the deceased individual is his biological father. He later marries his biological mother, the widowed queen of Thebes. The truth reveals itself as the tension in the play builds to a point where Oedipus blinds himself, seeing as he is incapable of bearing the reality of his actions.

Aristotle’s Poetics in Oedipus the King

A significant portion of Aristotle’s poetics is dedicated to tragedy. He defines it as an imitation of a serious and complete action with observable magnitude. Aristotle highlights the fact that tragedy is a dramatic rather than a narrative form. Oedipus the King best fits Aristotle’s conception of human tragedy. This is because Oedipus is the tragic hero described in Poetics. As a result of his hamartia or mistake, he is forced to endure a peripeteia or reversal, which according to Aristotle, are the formative elements of a tragedy.

The plot, which Aristotle describes as putting events together, is arguably the most critical element in a tragedy. Tragedies imitate actions in life and not the humans depicted in stories. All the outcomes and emotions are hinged on specific actions, and the feelings that people express are linked to their actions. In addition, personal traits define specific qualifications such as bad, lazy, or good. Sophocles’s play presents a complex plot structure that reveals an eventual reversal as well as discovery. Poetics stresses specific plot rules that must be followed when creating a tragic play. First, a dramatic unity of action is necessary to eliminate unnecessary distractions (Aristotle 11). This means that with regard to time, the depicted events must follow a chronological order. The events in Oedipus the King occur in real-time, in a specific order (Aristotle 11). The play must be set in a single location, thus emphasizing character development and directing attention to the plot. In this respect, Sophicles’ play takes place in a royal courtyard in Thebes. Finally, the actions in the play must be cogent and consequential.

One of the key elements of the plot, as described in the Poetics that is exemplified by Sophicles’ play, is peripeteia. For instance, in the messenger scene, Oedipus is informed that he will become Corinth’s new ruler as a result of his father’s demise. The messenger takes note of Oedipus’ reluctance for fear of committing incest with his mother. The messenger attempts to allay the future king’s worries by providing facts about his infancy, which inadvertently exposes his incest and murder (Sophocles 25). It becomes clear to Oedipus that the thing he was trying to avoid has already occurred. It should be noted that while peripeteia is not a change in fortune, it represents a shocking turn of events that creates the opposite of what the audience expects (Aristotle 9). The paradox of the change in fortune is the reversal. The messenger’s good tidings are the cause of Oedipus’ anguish as the true nature of the tragic events unfolds.

The second key element in a tragedy that is highlighted in Oedipus the King is anagnorisis or recognition. Aristotle believed that a transformation from ignorance to knowledge is necessary for calamitous stories. In Sophicles’ story, Oedipus discovers his true identity as well as those of his relatives and blinds himself, resulting in a disastrous fall from prosperity. Aristotle asserts that as a character turns and brings himself towards inevitable destruction, the disaster he experiences is worsened by the awareness brought about by information. In essence, anagnorisis deepens the play’s pathos, thus contributing to the process of catharsis. The blend of discovery and reversal, as depicted in Oedipus the King, is an effective means of arousing fear and pity. While Oedipus is depicted as a wise king who solves the sphinx’s riddle to save Thebes from destruction, he is painfully unaware of the true events regarding his childhood and parentage.

Aristotle asserts that all tragedies must have a unity of action. This means that the play’s events are linked to a specific subject and are interconnected based on the rules of necessity and probability. In Sophicles’ story, the king’s killing of his father and marriage to his mother is not coincidental. Laius is well aware of the fact that he will die at his son’s hand. In an attempt to prevent the foretold events, he sends the little infant to his death. However, a shepherd takes pity on the baby as destiny begins shaping events. When Oedipus learns of the prophecy, he escapes his father’s land, unaware that the man who raised him had adopted him as a child. Oedipus encounters his biological father, kills him, marries his biological mother, and learns the truth after the Oracle reveals all.

The play’s plot revolves around a central figure that is defined as the tragic hero. Oedipus falls from good to bad fortune as a result of some mistake rather than the result of wickedness or villainy. Poetics defines many of the aforementioned events as major errors (Aristotle 14). The story’s protagonist experiences great success, as is the case with Oedipus and his leadership of Thebes. He then commits a mistake, such as the killing of his father and incest with his mother. The mistake is unraveled and the reversal occurs as demonstrated by Oedipus’ mother’s suicide and his blinding and banishment from Thebes. Tragic heroes, according to Aristotle, are objects of pity as well as fear. The hero is defined as an individual with a fixed character who is intellectually better than average but is stubborn and oftentimes fails to comprehend the gravity of his situation.

Sophocles builds on Aristotle’s ideas by depicting Oedipus as an obstinate and proud individual. He rules with passion and is determined to learn his true history, which ironically causes his fall from glory. It is evident from the play that there was a prevailing Greek belief that when an individual of high standing is filled with pride, he is subjected to God’s punishment. He is taught a lesson by being subjected to immense suffering. Oedipus suffers a total reversal of his fortune, and his plight makes the audience feel pity and fear.


Sophocles crafts a story that adheres to Aristotle’s rules governing the depiction of tragic events. The play features peripeteia, which represents a shocking turn of events that creates the opposite of what the audience expects. It also features recognition, where the unfolding truth devastates the story’s protagonist. The tragic hero makes a mistake, and in his quest to avoid fate, he unwittingly commits the very acts he sought to escape. Despite his best efforts, Oedipus ends up marrying his mother and killing his father in cold blood. The resultant fall from glory and riches leads to immense suffering. The events that characterize the hero’s current predicament evoke a sense of fear and pity in audiences that eventually achieve catharsis. The strict and seamless adherence to Aristotelian principles makes Oedipus the King the greatest tragedy in Greek history.

Works Cited

Aristotle, The Poetics of Aristotle. Translated by S.H., Butcher. Project Gutenberg, 2008.

Sophocles, Oedipus the King. Translated by F. Storr. The Internet Classics Archive, n.d.