According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is 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. He should be good or fine man though not perfect. There is nothing to arouse the feelings of pity or fear in seeing a bad character pass from prosperity into misfortune while the ruin of a man who represents near-perfection in the moral sense is repugnant and horrible. The tragic hero is neither a moral paragon nor a scoundrel. He should be true to type, and consistent or true to himself. Aristotle would attribute disaster or catastrophe in a tragedy to an error rather than a deliberate crime.
The main requirements of Aristotle in regard to the tragic hero are thus (1) high social standing, (2) moral excellence or goodness, and (3) some fault of character, or error committed by the hero in ignorance. Oedipus answers to all these requirements. Oedipus is a man of royal birth; he is brought up by a King and a Queen and he himself afterwards becomes a King and marries a Queen. He is thus a man of social eminence and possessing excellent qualities of character, though his is by no means perfect. We cannot say that his misfortune is due to any defect in his character, though his defects do produce the impression that such a man must pay for his defects. It would be wrong to say that he is a puppet in the hands of fate. Within certain limits he is a free agent, though it must be recognized that the prophecy of the oracle would yet have been fulfilled.
Oedipus is a good king, a great well wisher of his people, a man of integrity, an honest and great administrator and an outstanding intellect. He is a pious man who believes in oracles, respects the bonds of family, and hates impurity. His belief in the prophecies of gods is the very basis of the whole play. The suppliant people approach him almost as a god and he is honoured as a saviour. When Creon reveals the cause of the city’s suffering, Oedipus declares his resolve to track down the criminal and he utters a terrible curse upon him. We can say that Oedipus is almost an ideal King. He also shows himself as a devoted husband and a loving father. He shows due consideration for the opinions and feelings of Jocasta and he lavishes all his affection on his daughters. His relations with the Chorus are also very cordial and he shows all due courtesy to them. In short both as a man and as a king Oedipus is worthy of high respect.
However, Oedipus has his faults. He is hot-tempered, hasty in his judgment, proud of his intelligence, and random in his decisions. He quickly loses his temper when he finds the prophet reluctant to reveal the things that he knows. He jumps to the conclusion that Teiresias and Creon have hatched a conspiracy against him. This attitude of distrust towards the prophet is in sharp contrast to Oedipus’s genuine piety. Oedipus belongs to the world of politics and human standards rather than to the divine order of the world. His piety fails also later on when, under the influence of Jocasta, he becomes somewhat skeptical regarding the oracle.
An outstanding feature of Oedipus’s character is an inherent feeling of pride in his own wisdom. Because of this arrogance, Oedipus certainly alienates some of our sympathy. When self-confidence takes the form of pride, haughtiness, arrogance or insolence, it becomes disgusting and obnoxious. His attitude of intolerance towards both Teiresias and Creon and his highly offensive and insulting words to both of them create in us the impression that he is paving the way for his own downfall. Of course, Oedipus has already committed the crimes which make him a sinner in the eyes of the god, in his own eyes, and in the eyes of other people. But the tragedy lay in discovery that he is guilty of them. If the crimes had remained unknown there would hardly have been any tragedy. Tragedy comes with the fact for discovery both for Jocasta and himself.
It would be a flaw in the logic to say that Oedipus suffers because of his sin of pride, but his pride is not the direct cause of his tragedy. He tried to avoid the fulfillment of the prophecies made by oracle. He killed his father and married his mother. His tragedy is a tragedy of error. If he had been a little more careful, things would have taken a different shape. He might have avoided the quarrel on the road if he had not been so proud or hot-tempered; and he might have refused to marry a woman old enough if he had not been blinded by the pride of his intelligence in solving the riddle of the Sphinx. But, then, the prophecies of the oracle would have been fulfilled in some other way, because nothing could have been prevented their fulfillment. Pride has little to do with Oedipus’s killing his father and marrying his mother.
If Oedipus had not relentlessly pursued his investigations, he might have been spared the shock of discovery. Something in him drives him forward on the road to discovery. After Teiresias has first refused to tell him anything and then uttered some frightening prophecies. Oedipus is discouraged by Jocasta to continue his investigations. But he pays no heed to her philosophy of living at random. She makes another effort to stop his investigations when she has herself realized the truth, but again she failed. The Theban shepherd too tries, but in vain. It is this insistence on the truth that leads to the discovery in which lies the tragedy. We may interrupt this insistence on the truth as a form of pride, the pride of intellect, or the pride of knowing everything. The link of cause and effect is unmistakable between Oedipus’s pride of intellect and Oedipus’s discovery for his sins. But there is no strong link between his pride and the actual committing of his sins because the sins would have been committed in any case, if the oracle was to be fulfilled. The oracle did say that Oedipus would be guilty of those crimes but no oracle said that Oedipus must discover the truth.
Oedipus is thus an authentic tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense because his tragedy is as much due to his own initiatives in discovering the truth as to external circumstances. To the modern mind, a high social position is not necessary for the tragic hero nor do they recognize the validity of oracles too.
In Oedipus we see the helplessness of man in the face of the circumstances and his essential greatness. The manner in which Oedipus blinds himself after realizing his guilt and in which he endures his punishment raise him high in our esteem. The spirit of Oedipus remains unconquered even in his defeat and that is the essential fact about a tragic hero.