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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.

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