Hamartia: Oedipus' Tragic Flaw


According to Aristotle, the tragic hero is impeded by a distinguishable characteristic or character trait which leads to his ultimate demise. This trait is known as hamartia, or the "tragic flaw." This characteristic is said to not only lead to the hero's demise but may also enable the reader to sympathize with the character. So it follows that in Oedipus the King, a Greek tragedy, the tragic hero Oedipus should have some sort of flaw. However, after close examination of the text, no distinguishable "flaw" is revealed. Although Oedipus appears to have many "flaws" on the surface, namely his poor temperament, carelessness, curiosity and pride, close examination of the text reveals that he has many seemingly flawed characteristics that are not only justifiable but in some cases to be expected.

One might expect that a quick and even murderous temper would be considered a serious impediment to Oedipus. However, he is quite justified in his rage against Creon and Tiresias, and he has good reasons to suspect them of plotting against him. From the view point of Oedipus, he has just discovered that the antecedent king Laius was savagely murdered along with the members of his entourage. Furthermore the murder has yet to be solved many years later, and the gods have placed a plague on his city until the murderer(s) is apprehended and punished. After learning of the death of Laius, Oedipus concludes that the murderer is "a thief, so daring, so wild, he'd kill a king? [It's] impossible, unless conspirators paid him off in Thebes" (140-142). Creon concurs that this thought had also crossed his mind. So with this evidence, it is easy to see why Oedipus is distrustful of his own peers.

Maybe the actual killing of Laius and his four servants is an extreme display of Oedipus' murderous temperament. While it may seem a bit extreme in hindsight, at the time of the incident his actions are totally justifiable. Oedipus describes the incident as thus: as he was

"making [his] way toward this triple crossroad [he] began to see a herald, then a brace of colts drawing a wagon, and mounted on the bench . . . a man, just as [Jocasta] described [Laius], coming face-to-face, and the one in the lead and the old man himself [was] about to thrust [him] off the road-brute force - and the one shouldering [him] aside, the driver, [he] struck [him] in anger - and the old man, watching [Oedipus] coming up along his wheels - he brings down his prod, two prongs straight at [his] head"(884-893).

Oedipus, although living in self imposed exile, still considers himself to be of royal blood. Therefore any offense, especially by some old man and his servants, is cause for a serious reprimand. In the case of Oedipus, this means murder. Although one could argue that Laius' actions are justified because he is a king, therefore superior, there is no evidence in the text to suggest that either man knows the status of the other. The entire episode is a really grisly incident of road rage.

Even if his rage is justified, what about his carelessness? Surely after discovering that he is destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother, one would expect Oedipus to become celibate and nonviolent. From the view of the audience, this is the most logical course of action. However, from Oedipus' standpoint, he knows who his parents are. He is the son of Polybus and Merope, prince of Cornith. By leaving Cornith, Oedipus takes all the reasonable precautions he can to prevent the oracle's prophecy from coming true. Some may argue that the drunk outcry of one of the men at the banquet, hinting that Oedipus was not his "father's son," should have given him reason to doubt his lineage. However, his parents deny the drunk's accusations, and Oedipus quickly dismisses his initial misgivings as "hardly worth the anxiety [he] gave [them]"(line 857).

Oedipus could be described as overly curious. The saying "curiosity killed the cat" definitely holds true here. However, as a damaging flaw, curiosity does not hold. Oedipus' quest to find Liaus' murderer is very understandable. The killer is possibly a threat to his own leadership, and his own life. He justly includes himself in the inquiry, and his quest for the truth is one of human nature. As Mulder and Scully would say, "the