Aristotle considers tragic hero as a ‘distinguished person occupying a high position or having a high status in life and in very prosperous circumstances falling into misfortune on account of a “hamartia” or some defect of character.’ In other words, a tragic hero should have high standing in the society. He should neither be a perfectly good nor utterly wicked person. He should be of intermediate type. The fall of this person from happiness to misery is the result of his tragic flaw.
King Oedipus of the play ‘Oedipus Rex’ has some of these qualities. Firstly, Oedipus is the son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta. He is brought up by King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth. Afterwards, he became the king of Thebes. Thus from social point of view he is an eminent person indispensable for the city of Thebes. Secondly, he is also a man of good moral character, though not a paragon of saintly virtues. There are certain defects in his character which, along with his fate, lead him towards his downfall.
As a king, Oedipus was a perfect example of a dutiful king. He is a well-wisher of his people. He is a great administrator and intellectual. It is because of his dutifulness towards Theban people that he is highly respected by them. All the time he is ready to help his people. For example, he had saved Thebes by conquering Sphinx. He had already sent Creon to find out the cause of the sufferings of his people. When Creon announces the reason, he declares that he would find out the criminal and punish him.
He is presented as a man who believes in oracles. Actually, his belief in prophesies is the very basis of the play. He is a man of family. He is a devoted husband to Jocasta and a loving father to his daughters. Even his relations with other people are also cordial.
However, it doesn’t mean that he is a faultless person. He certainly has his own faults. He is a hot-tempered person. He quickly becomes angry first with Teiresias and then with Creon. He blames Creon of conspiring against him. This shows his arbitrariness and dictatorial tendency. His disbelief of Creon is presents him as a thoughtless person who prefers to behave as per his own whims.
Another aspect of Oedipus’ personality is his absolute pride in his wisdom. This feeling of pride is nourished as he solves the riddle of Sphinx. He boasts of his wisdom even in front of the prophet, Teiresias. It is his sense of pride that alienates some of the sympathy of the audience. His attitude of intolerance towards both Teiresias and Creon undoubtedly leads him towards his downfall. But his pride is not the direct cause of his tragedy. As he is already aware of the oracle, he is seen trying his best to avoid
the fulfilment of the prophecies. There is no any fault of his in his killing his father and marrying his mother. It was completely in a state of ignorance that he committed these crimes. But there is a scope to think that Oedipus could have avoided it if he would have behaved a little more carefully. Actually, it seems that it was possible for him to avoid the quarrel on the street. But it was because of his hot-tempered nature that he got involved in the quarrel which led to his killing King Laius and then getting married with Jocasta. But it would be wrong to say that it was only because of his hot-tempered nature that his tragedy occurred.
But Oedipus’ character proves that his tragedy lies in the discovery of his crimes. It seems that there was something in him which drove him towards discovery. Actually, Teiresias had refused to disclose the name of the murderer but Oedipus forced him to disclose it. We see Jocasta discouraging him from finding out the truths regarding the prophecies. But he did not pay any attention towards her. It is this insistence on the truth that leads to the discovery in which lies the tragedy.
In this way, Oedipus is a perfect tragic hero because his tragedy is as much due to his own faults as to the external forces. But we admire him for the way in which he endures his sufferings.