Hamartia in Oedipus Rex

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  • 0:00 What Is Hamartia?
  • 0:31 Escaping the Prophecy
  • 1:04 Fulfilling the Prophecy
  • 1:55 Realizing the Truth
  • 2:46 Analysis
  • 3:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amanda Wiesner-Groff

Amanda has created and taught English/ESL curricula worldwide, has an M.Ed, and is the current ESOL Coordinator for the Saint Louis Public School District.

Every human is with error, and sometimes those errors can bring about great misfortune; in literature, this is referred to as hamartia. In this lesson, we will focus on hamartia in Socrates' Oedipus.

What Is Hamartia?

In literature, hamartia refers to a character defect, or flaw, that ultimately brings about the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine. In the case of Oedipus, his hamartia, or downfall, is his unintended wrongdoings. While Oedipus displays excessive pride, hastiness, and anger, his ultimate downfall comes with a series of unfortunate misjudgments that are made as he continuously aims to do the right thing.

Escaping the Prophecy

In the play we learn that Oedipus fled from home after an oracle told him he was going to kill his father and marry his mother. Not knowing that he had been cast off as an infant when his real parents, Laius and Jocasta, received the same prophecy, Oedipus doesn't realize his decision to flee is probably the worst decision he could make. He truly believes he's doing the right thing by leaving his home, thus saving his family from certain tragedy. By running away from home, Oedipus is unintentionally bringing about his own downfall and setting the prophecy into action.

Fulfilling the Prophecy

When Oedipus comes upon a carriage at a crossroads during his travels to Thebes, he allows his anger and hastiness to get the better of him when being attacked. Oedipus fights and kills the driver, and then proceeds to kill the man in the carriage, who is Laius. Oedipus does not realize whom he just killed. Unknowingly, he manages to fulfill half of the prophecy that he was trying to flee while defending himself from his attackers.

When Oedipus arrives in Thebes, he saves the city from a Sphinx that was punishing the city for the misdeeds of King Laius. As reward for this, he's proclaimed the new King of Thebes. Once again, hamartia comes into play, as Oedipus unknowingly takes his mother, the newly widowed queen, as his wife. While it seems Oedipus should be apprehensive about taking an older wife, he believes he's escaped the prophecy and is thus doing the right thing by starting a new life away from Corinth.

Realizing the Truth

At the beginning of the play, when Oedipus learns why his people are suffering from the plague, he steps up to save Thebes. His wants to help, so he's intent on seeking out Laius' murderer, the person responsible for bringing plague upon the city. Oedipus' pride tricks him into thinking he is doing the right thing by continuously moving forward in his search for the truth. Even though others beg him to stop, Oedipus is determined to be victorious.

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