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WHAT IS A TRAGIC HERO?

Sophocles view seems to be that man has free will up to a point, but that this is very circumscribed by fate and the gods. That means that, although fate gives Oedipus certain circumstances, he is ultimately responsible for his own actions. Although Oedipuss fate is cruel, it is not chaotic. Oedipus is put through several hoops by fate, but he also chooses to go in certain directions and believes that he controls his life himself. So the tragic hero is usually someone who is basically good with whom we can identify to some degree, but who has a fundamental flaw which contributes in some way to his own downfall. Oedipus is a victim of fate but he is also guilty on several counts. He killed Laius in a fit of rage, he married his mother when he should never have married, but above all, his hubris means that he never fears the gods and fate as he should. He presumptuously raises himself to the level of the gods in the early part of the play and has tried to circumvent their will throughout his life. His tragedy is clear he is not who he thinks he is (this is true of many people!). He is the very corruption he seeks to punish, the polar opposite of the helmsman/healer/solver he appears to be. He has done crimes too huge for hanging and his whole life is now tainted and defiled. So what of Oedipus as hero? What qualifies him to be a tragic hero and not just a person to whom bad things have happened? His heroic traits appear early on when he is described by the people of Thebes as being first among men. They see him as their saviour, he rescued them many years before and they ask him to be the same man today, to rid them of the plague. He is decisive, kind, committed to helping his people and very fatherly in his approach to them. He is quickthinking and always ahead of others in his problem solving skills. He is very open and likes to discuss things in front of

the people. He is a good husband who is close to Jocasta and obviously has included Jocasta and Creon fairly in the exercise of power in the city. Crucially, his heroic status is confirmed in a way by his reaction to the terrible revelation of the truth. Instead of attempting to exonerate himself by emphasising how he could not have known who he was, he takes full responsibility for his actions and never shrinks from this. He punishes himself horribly for his crime and does so openly, not running away or hiding his guilt. He is still decisive and points out that although Apollo brought him down, his self-mutilation was entirely his own doing. So he is still strong and brave in a sort of way you have to admire, accepting his terrible fate. His status as tragic hero is confirmed by the fact that it is his very persistence and determination which make him such an admirable character in the early part of the play that lead inexorably to his fall. His solving of the riddle of the Sphinx confirms him as King of Thebes and as the pollution in the city. Against all sorts of pressure to let the issue go, he insists on relentlessly pursuing the question of Laiuss murder. His stubborn confidence, such an asset in some ways, becomes his ticket to doom. His refusal to accept limitations isolates him and makes him both great and terrible.