The Mystery of Oedipus' Hamartia
You could wallpaper every home on Earth with the amount of scholarly papers written on Oedipus. Sure, that's a bit of an exaggeration. You could probably only wallpaper every home in a midsized American city.
So what are all these papers about? Well, there is a whole lot of disagreement about one central aspect of Oedipus' character. Scholars have been getting riled up and metaphorically punching each other (scholar fight! woo-hoo!) for centuries over one essential question: what is Oedipus' hamartia (often called a tragic flaw)?
Aristotle tells us in his Poetics that every tragic hero is supposed to have one of these, and that the hamartia is the thing that causes the hero's downfall. Aristotle also cites Oedipus as the best example ever of a tragic hero. Why then is it so unclear to generation after generation, just what Oedipus' hamartia is? Let's take a stroll though some of the major theories and see what there is to see.
Theory # 1: Determination
It's true that if Oedipus wasn't so determined to find out the identity of Laius' real killer he would never have discovered the terrible truth of his life. Can you really call this a flaw, though? Before you go all Judge Judy on the guy, there’s another way to think about this. Oedipus is really exemplifying a prized and admirable human trait: determination. Check out this rock-hard resolve:
OEDIPUS Let the storm burst, my fixed resolve still holds, To learn my lineage, be it ne'er so low. [...] Nothing can make me other than I am. (1077-1086)
Dang, Oedipus. Way to stick to your guns.
Why is it that we praise Hemingway’s Old Man and Homer’s Odysseus for the same determination for which we condemn Oedipus?
Furthermore, the reason Oedipus is dead set on solving the mystery is to save his people. Creon brings him word from the Oracle of Delphi that he must banish the murderer from the city or the plague that is ravaging Thebes will continue. It seems like Oedipus is doing exactly what a good ruler ought to do. He's trying to act in the best interest of his people.
Theory #2: Anger
Okay, it's definitely true that our buddy Oedipus has a temper. Indeed, it was rash anger that led to him unknowingly kill his real father, King Laius, at the crossroads. The killing of his father is an essential link in Oedipus' downfall, making his violent temper a good candidate for a tragic flaw.
Of course, Oedipus has a pretty good case for self defense. There he was—a lone traveler, minding his own business. Then, out of nowhere, a bunch of guys show up, shove him off the road, and hit him in the head with whip. If we were Oedipus, we'd be angry too.
Killing all but one of them seems like an overreaction to modern audiences, but Oedipus' actions wouldn't have seemed as radical to an ancient Greek audience. They lived in violent times. A man had the right to defend himself when attacked, especially when alone on a deserted road.
Within the play we see Oedipus' anger when he lashes out at both Creon and Teiresias for bringing him bad news:
OEDIPUS O wealth and empiry and skill by skill Outwitted in the battlefield of life, What spite and envy follow in your train! See, for this crown the State conferred on me. A gift, a thing I sought not, for this crown The trusty Creon, my familiar friend, Hath lain in wait to oust me and suborned This mountebank, this juggling charlatan, This tricksy beggar-priest, for gain alone Keen-eyed, but in his proper art stone-blind. Say, sirrah, hast thou ever proved thyself A prophet? [...] Methinks that thou and thine abettor soon Will rue your plot to drive the scapegoat out. Thank thy grey hairs that thou hast still to learn What chastisement such arrogance deserves. (380-404)
This time he just talks trash, though. We don't see any ninja-style violence. What's most important to notice is that these angry tirades don't do the most important thing for a hamartia to do—they don't bring on Oedipus' downfall. He just rants for a while and threatens to do bad things but never does. These tirades don't cause anything else to happen. In fact they seem like a pretty natural reaction, to a whole lot of very bad news.
Notice too, that anger in no way causes Oedipus to sleep with Jocasta... which is an important part of his downfall.
Theory #3: Hubris
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.
Many scholars point out that Oedipus' greatest act of hubris is when he tries to deny his fate. The Oracle of Delphi told him long ago that he was destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus tried to escape his fate by never returning to Corinth, the city where he grew up, and never seeing the people he thought were his parents again. Ironically, it was this action that led him to kill his real father Laius and to marry his mother Jocasta.
It's undeniable that by trying to avoid his fate Oedipus ended up doing the thing he most feared. This is probably the most popular theory as to Oedipus' hamartia. We would ask a rather simple question, though: what else was Oedipus supposed to do? Should he have just thrown up his hands and been like, "Oh well, if that's my fate, we should just get this over with." This thought is ridiculous and more than a little twisted. It hardly seems like the moral we're supposed to take from the story. Is it really a flaw to try to avoid committing such horrendous acts?
Theory #4: We've got hamartia all wrong
Though hamartia is often defined as a tragic flaw, it actually has a much broader meaning. It's more accurately translated as an error in judgment or a mistake. You can still call it hamartia even if the hero makes these mistakes in a state of ignorance. The hero doesn't necessarily have to be intentionally committing the so-called "sin."
Hmm, does that sound like anybody we know?
The word hamartia comes from the Greek hamartanein, which means "missing the mark." The hero aims his arrow at the bull's eye, but ends up hitting something altogether unexpected. Oedipus is the perfect example of this. The target for Oedipus is finding Laius' murderer in order to save Thebes. He does achieve this, but unfortunately brings disaster on himself in the process. Oedipus aims for the bull's eye... but ends up hitting his own eyes instead.
Sure, Oedipus has some flaws. Just like the rest of us, he's far from perfect. There's a strong argument, though, that ultimately the man is blameless. Some say that all this talk of tragic flaws was later scholars trying to impress a Christian worldview onto a pagan literature. The Greeks just didn't have quite the same ideas of sin that later societies developed.
The reason that Aristotle admired Oedipus the King so much is that the protagonist's downfall is caused by his own actions. We are moved to fear and pity at the end of the play not because Oedipus is sinful, but because he's always tried to do the right thing. The terrible irony is that his desire to do the right thing that brings about his destruction. When Oedipus gouges out his eyes at the end of the play, he symbolically becomes the thing he's always been: blind to the unknowable complexity of the universe.
If you want to learn more about Oedipus, check out the next play in this uplifting trilogy:Oedipus at Colonus.Oedipus' Timeline
Read an in-depth analysis of Oedipus.
Read an in-depth analysis of Antigone.
Read an in-depth analysis of Creon.
Polynices - Son of Oedipus, and thus also his brother. Polynices appears only very briefly in Oedipus at Colonus. He arrives at Colonus seeking his father’s blessing in his battle with his brother, Eteocles, for power in Thebes. Polynices tries to point out the similarity between his own situation and that of Oedipus, but his words seem opportunistic rather than filial, a fact that Oedipus points out.
Tiresias - Tiresias, the blind soothsayer of Thebes, appears in both Oedipus the King and Antigone. In Oedipus the King, Tiresias tells Oedipus that he is the murderer he hunts, and Oedipus does not believe him. In Antigone, Tiresias tells Creon that Creon himself is bringing disaster upon Thebes, and Creon does not believe him. Yet, both Oedipus and Creon claim to trust Tiresias deeply. The literal blindness of the soothsayer points to the metaphorical blindness of those who refuse to believe the truth about themselves when they hear it spoken.
Ismene - Oedipus’s daughter Ismene appears at the end of Oedipus the King and to a limited extent in Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. Ismene’s minor part underscores her sister’s grandeur and courage. Ismene fears helping Antigone bury Polynices but offers to die beside Antigone when Creon sentences her to die. Antigone, however, refuses to allow her sister to be martyred for something she did not have the courage to stand up for.
Theseus - The king of Athens in Oedipus at Colonus. A renowned and powerful warrior, Theseus takes pity on Oedipus and defends him against Creon. Theseus is the only one who knows the spot at which Oedipus descended to the underworld—a secret he promises Oedipus he will hold forever.
Read an in-depth analysis of Chorus.
Eurydice - Creon’s wife.