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HAMARTIA AND HEROIC NOBILITY IN OEDIPUS REX by Robert Hull In these remarks on Oedipus Rex I have resisted an inclination exhibited by many of the play's thoughtful readers, which is to view it mainly in terms of the evils Oedipus eventually endures.1 Perhaps it has seemed self-evident to Sophocles' commentators that when a tragedy concludes with the grief-stricken self-mutilation of the central character we are being sent a message that conforms to moral commonplaces about human life, for example, that we shall reap what we sow or that human aspiration is a small thing since what happens to us is largely beyond our control. I think that if Tiresias could be miraculously conjured up he might endorse the first judgment; Jocasta, if she were to materialize magically, would probably favor the second. Oedipus, however , is the man this tragedy is about. How would he read it? How would the play appear to one who places a commitment to truth and conscience above happiness and security? What is the meaning of undeserved suffering to an individual of Oedipus' moral stature? As I will argue toward the end of this paper, for an individual who prefers a hard truth to a comforting lie, and who will follow the dictates of his conscience wherever they may lead, the moral relevance ofconsequences is always already displaced. This does not make Oedipus' suffering less difficult. But it does provide unquestionable proof of the authenticity and self-sufficiency of his heroic choice. This is what really matters to Oedipus, this is why he endures and this is what constitutes his selective affirmation. Of course, many of Sophocles' commentators, quite a few Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 286-294 Robert Hull287 of them on Aristotle's authority, would disagree. It is to the most influential of Aristotle's passages—his discussion of hamartia—that I now turn. The passage in which Aristotle mentions hamartia is his attempt to explain what sort ofaction should be represented in the plot ofa tragedy. He has already established that tragedy is a dramatic enactment of an action that is serious and complete, and that through the arousal of pity and fear the katharsis of these emotions is accomplished. Of the six elements of tragedy which make it what it is—plot, character, style, thought, spectacle, and lyric poetry—Aristotle has identified the plot, or the structure of events depicted in a tragedy, as the most important; and this because the other elements exist (when they are present) for its sake, and because the emotional power of tragedy is largely due to components of the plot, viz. reversals and recognitions. Furthermore, the plot must exhibit unity, in the sense that the several events that comprise its action unfold because ofone another, and do so in a manner that is contrary to expectation and yet plausible. These features will serve to produce the emotional arousal and katharsis unique to tragedy. This arousal, however, can only occur if the individual whose fortunes are reversed is neither preeminent in virtue nor extremely evil; in the former case, our reaction would be repugnance, not pity and terror, and in the latter instance we may feel moved but this is not the tragic experience. Aristotle continues, We are left, then, with the figure who falls between these types. Such a man is one who is not preeminent in virtue andjustice, and one who falls into affliction not because of evil and wickedness, but because of a certain fallibility [hamartia2]. He will belong to the class of those who enjoy great esteem and prosperity, such as Oedipus, Thyestes, and outstanding men from such families. It is imperative that a fine plot-structure be single and not double (as some assert), and involve a change from prosperity to affliction (rather than the reverse) caused not by wickedness but by a great fallibility on the part of the sort of agent stipulated, or one who is better, not worse, than indicated.3 This passage has sparked a great deal of controversy among commentators , and those who would look to Aristotle for support in interpreting Oedipus Rex as a sin-and-punishment tragedy are inclined...


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