Sophocles And Aristotle Essay Research Paper
Sophocles and Aristotle: The Rules of Writing
Writing particularly story writing is an art. When a person sets out to create a painting there are certain rules of composition that need to be followed. In the art of writing it is the same. There are rules of composition for writing and they must be followed by the writer. Some of these rules date back to Aristotle who set down some rules for classical drama in his Poetics a collection of class notes in which Aristotle attempted “to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds” (1028). These rules adhered to by great writers for centuries were preceded by at least one great classical work: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Interestingly even though Oedipus the King came before Poetics Sophocles’ play illustrates Aristotle’s rules for classical drama. Oedipus the King particularly displays a tragic emotion a tragic character and a tragic fall according to Aristotle’s rules.
Aristotle says that a tragedy should “imitate actions which excite pity and fear this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation” (1036). There is certainly little as pitiful as Jocasta’s anguish as she begins to suspect the truth about the man she has loved (Sophocles 1317-1342). Of course the most profoundly pathetic scene in Oedipus the King occurs off stage in the bed chamber of the King and Queen. There as described by the servant Oedipus discovers Jocasta’s body where she hung herself from a rafter. He then takes the broaches from Jocasta’s dress and stabs his eyes with the sharp pins on the back of the broaches over and over until his eyes were pulp (1600-1637). This is certainly sufficient to in Aristotle’s words “excite pity” (1036).
Aristotle also describes a tragic character a hero of sorts who is a good and virtuous person but who destroys himself by a particular flaw or error (1036). In Oedipus the King Oedipus is just such a character. He is described in glowing terms as “more like a god than any man alive” (66). He is called “greater than any man” (52). He exclaims “nothing can dishonor me ever” (1355-1356). Yet he is condemned to murder his father and to sleep with his mother (1481-1484). He has attempted to escape his fate as his parents attempted to escape theirs and in doing so he has made that fate possible. He has cursed himself unwittingly his own father’s killer (316-343). He has in a fit of anger cried “Damn my own good!” (1334). Inadvertently that is precisely what he has done. But because he has done it inadvertently he is not an evil character he simply fits Aristotle’s idea of a tragic character.
Aristotle also writes that such a drama ought to have a change “accompanied by …a reversal or by recognition or by both” (1035). The change in Oedipus the King is obviously Oedipus’ fall from a position of power and respect to a pathetic blind cripple. It is as Aristotle says it should be a change “not from bad to good but reversely from good to bad” (1037). The change in Oedipus the King is as Aristotle says it should be accompanied by a reversal and a recognition (1035). The reversal occurs when the messenger comes to relieve Oedipus of his fears of the curse but his revelation that Oedipus isn’t Polybos’ son causes Oedipus to realize his guilt instead (1187-1312). The recognition occurs when Oedipus recognizes Jocasta the woman he loves as his mother and the man that he killed as his father (1478-1484). This fulfills Aristotle’s ideal of a change a reversal and a recognition.
As shown by these examples Oedipus the King illustrates Aristotle’s rules for classical drama. Although Oedipus the King came before Aristotle’s Poetics it still holds to the same principles. Perhaps the truest rules for the art of writing were there before Poetics or before any such set of rules was written out. Perhaps the rules are set into the way the human mind works. Nevertheless Aristotle’s Poetics is a reliable guide and one that the great classics follow regardless of which came first.
Aristotle. Poetics. Literature of the Western world. Ed. D. Anthony English. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company 1992. 1028-1043.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Literature of the Western world. Ed. D. Anthony English. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company 1992. 719-767.