Aristotle’s Poetics and Sophocles’s Oedipus

Find the short volume of Aristotle’s Poetics on the Internet and read about the importance of the “reversal” and “recognition” in ancient Greek tragedy. And instead of a “tragic flaw,” think about the central characters “error in judgment” (a better translation of Aristotle’s idea). In Sophocles’ Oedipus, identify the central character, his or her error in judgment, and the reversal and recognition he or she endures. Do the reversal and recognition occur at the same time? What advantages accrue from the reversal and recognition occurring at the same time? What are the disadvantages?

Aristotle calls this the perfect tragedy. Do you agree?


Aristotle’s “reversal,” called the “Peripeteia” in Greek, is defined as the turning point of a story. In Poetics, Aristotle writes, “Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity. Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect.”

The “recognition,” called the “Anagnorisis” in Greek, is when a character makes a critical discovery. Again quoting from Poetics: “Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune. The best form of recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation, as in the Oedipus.”

You may have noticed that Aristotle refers both of these terms to situations in Sophocles’s Oedipus. That is because it was Aristotle’s favorite work, and he basically wrote Poetics as a scholarly critique of Oedipus, finding that he could expand upon this critique and apply it to any play or story.

I am glad we are not saying that Oedipus made a “tragic flaw” in his eponymous play. His only mistake or “error in judgment” was in wanting to know the truth, which is the guiding principal of my life and is certainly not something I would consider tragic. Of course we (the audience) knew this was a mistake from the outset, as Sophocles basically gives away the whole plot of the play in the beginning and then has us witness the characters finding out the truth we already knew.

The Peripeteia and Anagnorisis in Oedipus occur at the same time, when Oedipus learns the truth about his dire situation. Having both the reversal and recognition occur at the same time is a tremendous advantage, as it adds immeasurably to the climax of the story. Despite our already knowing all the truths Oedipus finds out, we are still drawn into the story by having the critical discovery be the turning point. I do not think there are any disadvantages to doing it this way, other than perhaps this shortening the overall length of the story by giving away all the exciting parts at once.

I do agree with Aristotle that Oedipus is the perfect tragedy. The Greeks, after all, invented the tragedy, so I think he would know! I would define a tragedy as a story based on human suffering, and I cannot imagine any human suffering any more than with the knowledge that he has sired four children with his own mother after killing his father.



Work Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive. Web. 2 Dec 2015.

Aristotle’s Poetics and Sophocles’s Oedipus

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