According to Aristotle, a sense of foreboding and inevitability makes for effective tragedy. Throughout the story, there are numerous crucial decisions taken by Oedipus, which led up to his inevitable demise. Oedipus is not himself aware of the implications of his decisions, but the audience is better informed. The audience experiences ‘pathos’ as Oedipus unwittingly scripts his own fatality. As the Chorus reminds him on occasion, he alone can help. In other words, “the cause of the trouble is he himself; the chances he has had in his life are precisely the source of the plague. He righteously refuses to avoid discovering his guilt, and when Tiresias finally reveals the truth, Oedipus removes himself, banished, blinded and bereaved, and the curse on Thebes is lifted.” (Diski 49) Seen in this light, Oedipus is not only the most tragic of ancient tragedies, but also a model of Aristotelian tragedy. Oedipus’ ignorance and good intentions are no justification for escaping punishment for his wrongdoings, however inadvertent they may have been.
Aristotle thought that tragedy should base itself on matters of import in order to be effective. In other words, dramatists should avoid melodrama and trivialization of tragedy for the play to be of substance. Though the drama tries to show the human condition in a realistic fashion, the operative moral plain should carry a timeless quality that equates it to the highest social plain. In Oedipus we find events such as the dire plague in Thebes, the suicide of Jacosta and the self-mutilation of the protagonist. All these events are consistent with Aristotle’s prescriptions for tragedy in its highest form. (Segal 39)
Aristotle was the earliest philosopher to describe the aesthetics of tragedy in great detail. In his Poetics, he first makes a distinction between tragedy and other genres such as comedy and epic poetry. A meritorious tragedy is one that “constitutes an object lesson in the interplay of fate and character.” (Hoffman 17) This usually means the protagonist with a heroic stature (almost always men during Aristotle’s time) “is led to catastrophe through a tragic flaw in his otherwise admirable behaviour. The psychological interest of the audience in watching the playing out of these sad tales (eg Oedipus Rex, Antigone) is the “purging” of their emotions through the pity and terror they feel in experiencing the denouement of the tragedy.” (Hoffman 17) In this sense, Oedipus satisfies many of Aristotelian conditions for tragedy. It can be placed in the class of great tragedies that includes Shakespeare’s Othello, Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis and Schiller’s Two Queens in the Hive.