Oedipus Rex: Character Analysis

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  • 0:04 Tragic Flaws
  • 0:41 The Pride of Oedipus
  • 1:24 Oedipus' Temper
  • 2:13 Other Examples of Temper
  • 3:42 Good Traits Too
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Becky Kowalczyk

Becky has taught Literature, Writing, and Film Studies and has degrees in both English and Education.

Oedipus is a great ruler, but he has a major flaw that, sadly, he'll never overcome. Learn more about the title character of the play 'Oedipus Rex', also known as 'Oedipus the King'.

Tragic Flaws

All of us have flaws, which are character weaknesses. Some people have a lazy streak, for example, or a tendency to lie, or maybe a lack of patience. Most of us get through life just fine with our flaws, and we can even overcome them; but a tragic flaw is a weakness that a person can't overcome. Instead, it will ruin their life, like someone too lazy to hold a job and keep a home, or someone whose lies or lack of patience destroys relationships.

The play Oedipus Rex is a literary tragedy, and its hero Oedipus' most famous character trait is also his tragic flaw: hubris, or excessive pride.

The Pride of Oedipus

Pride sounds like a good thing, but too much can get you into trouble - especially if you're an ancient Greek who's supposed to be doing what the gods say. A man with hubris might start questioning the gods' authority, possibly even acting like he's better than they are, and as all ancient Greeks knew, the gods don't like that at all. In fact, acting like that pretty much guarantees a horrible punishment.

As a young man, Oedipus got a prophecy from the local oracle that said he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. It's hard for modern readers to find a problem with what he did next, which was to run away, but for the original audience of this play, it was a sin to even think about outrunning a divine prophecy. Oedipus knew this, but his hubris made him believe he could get away with it.

Oedipus' Temper

One thing that can make extreme pride even more of a problem is a hot temper. People who think they're always right and who get angry at anyone who disagrees with them are just asking for trouble, and that's what happens to Oedipus after he runs away from the people who he thinks are his parents.

Oedipus happens upon an old man coming the other way in a carriage with a small entourage of guards and servants, and the road is very narrow. Somebody has to move out of the way. Does prideful Oedipus think it should be him? Nope. Unfortunately, the carriage driver feels the same way and tries to force him off the road. The old man clunks Oedipus on the head with a club. We can understand how furious Oedipus is about that, but he doesn't deal with it by yelling or even making a rude gesture; instead, he gets his own club, pulls the old man off the carriage, and beats him to death. Then, he kills all the other guys, too.

Other Examples of Temper

Several other (perhaps less extreme) moments in the play further reveal this character trait combo. Now the King of Thebes, Oedipus embarks on a hunt for clues to the long-ago murder of the former king, Laius. He questions several people, and when they have no information - or worse, offer bad news - his response is typically quick-tempered and arrogant.

For example, he questions the tribal elders who make up the Chorus, since they were around when the old king disappeared. Unfortunately, they know nothing about it. First, he asks politely and offers a reward for any info, but when they can't help, he starts yelling and threatens to banish them.

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