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Outline of Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy

in the POETICS
Definition of Tragedy: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and
of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several
kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with
incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . .
Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, Plot,
Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody.” (translation by S. H. Butcher; click on the
context links to consult the full online text)

The treatise we call the Poetics was composed at least 50 years after the death of Sophocles.
Aristotle was a great admirer of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, considering it the perfect tragedy,
and not surprisingly, his analysis fits that play most perfectly. I shall therefore use this play to
illustrate the following major parts of Aristotle's analysis of tragedy as a literary genre.

Tragedy is the “imitation of an action” (mimesis) according to “the law of probability or

necessity.” Aristotle indicates that the medium of tragedy is drama, not narrative; tragedy
“shows” rather than “tells.” According to Aristotle, tragedy is higher and more philosophical
than history because history simply relates what has happened while tragedy dramatizes what
may happen, “what is possibile according to the law of probability or necessity.” History thus
deals with the particular, and tragedy with the universal. Events that have happened may be due
to accident or coincidence; they may be particular to a specific situation and not be part of a clear
cause-and-effect chain. Therefore they have little relevance for others. Tragedy, however, is
rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly
reveals what may happen at any time or place because that is the way the world operates.
Tragedy therefore arouses not only pity but also fear, because the audience can envision
themselves within this cause-and-effect chain (context).

Plot is the “first principle,” the most important feature of tragedy. Aristotle defines plot as
“the arrangement of the incidents”: i.e., not the story itself but the way the incidents are
presented to the audience, the structure of the play. According to Aristotle, tragedies where the
outcome depends on a tightly constructed cause-and-effect chain of actions are superior to those
that depend primarily on the character and personality of the protagonist. Plots that meet this
criterion will have the following qualities (context). See Freytag's Triangle for a diagram that
illustrates Aristotle's ideal plot structure, and Plot of Oedipus the King for an application of this
diagram to Sophocles’ play.

1. The plot must be “a whole,” with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning, called by
modern critics the incentive moment, must start the cause-and-effect chain but not be
dependent on anything outside the compass of the play (i.e., its causes are downplayed
but its effects are stressed). The middle, or climax, must be caused by earlier incidents
and itself cause the incidents that follow it (i.e., its causes and effects are stressed). The
end, or resolution, must be caused by the preceding events but not lead to other incidents
outside the compass of the play (i.e., its causes are stressed but its effects downplayed);
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the end should therefore solve or resolve the problem created during the incentive
moment (context). Aristotle calls the cause-and-effect chain leading from the incentive
moment to the climax the “tying up” (desis), in modern terminology the complication.
He therefore terms the more rapid cause-and-effect chain from the climax to the
resolution the “unravelling” (lusis), in modern terminology the dénouement (context).
2. The plot must be “complete,” having “unity of action.” By this Aristotle means that the
plot must be structurally self-contained, with the incidents bound together by internal
necessity, each action leading inevitably to the next with no outside intervention, no deus
ex machina (context). According to Aristotle, the worst kinds of plots are “‘episodic,’ in
which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence”;
the only thing that ties together the events in such a plot is the fact that they happen to the
same person. Playwrights should exclude coincidences from their plots; if some
coincidence is required, it should “have an air of design,” i.e., seem to have a fated
connection to the events of the play (context). Similarly, the poet should exclude the
irrational or at least keep it “outside the scope of the tragedy,” i.e., reported rather than
dramatized (context). While the poet cannot change the myths that are the basis of his
plots, he “ought to show invention of his own and skillfully handle the traditional
materials” to create unity of action in his plot (context). Application to Oedipus the King.
3. The plot must be “of a certain magnitude,” both quantitatively (length, complexity) and
qualitatively (“seriousness” and universal significance). Aristotle argues that plots should
not be too brief; the more incidents and themes that the playwright can bring together in
an organic unity, the greater the artistic value and richness of the play. Also, the more
universal and significant the meaning of the play, the more the playwright can catch and
hold the emotions of the audience, the better the play will be (context).
4. The plot may be either simple or complex, although complex is better. Simple plots have
only a “change of fortune” (catastrophe). Complex plots have both “reversal of
intention” (peripeteia) and “recognition” (anagnorisis) connected with the catastrophe.
Both peripeteia and anagnorisis turn upon surprise. Aristotle explains that a peripeteia
occurs when a character produces an effect opposite to that which he intended to produce,
while an anagnorisis “is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate
between the persons destined for good or bad fortune.” He argues that the best plots
combine these two as part of their cause-and-effect chain (i.e., the peripeteia leads
directly to the anagnorisis); this in turns creates the catastrophe, leading to the final
“scene of suffering” (context). Application to Oedipus the King.

Character has the second place in importance. In a perfect tragedy, character will support
plot, i.e., personal motivations will be intricately connected parts of the cause-and-effect chain of
actions producing pity and fear in the audience. The protagonist should be renowned and
prosperous, so his change of fortune can be from good to bad. This change “should come about
as the result, not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in a character.” Such a plot is most
likely to generate pity and fear in the audience, for “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear
by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.” The term Aristotle uses here, hamartia, often
translated “tragic flaw,” has been the subject of much debate. The meaning of the Greek word is
closer to “mistake” than to “flaw,” and I believe it is best interpreted in the context of what
Aristotle has to say about plot and “the law or probability or necessity.” In the ideal tragedy,
claims Aristotle, the protagonist will mistakenly bring about his own downfall—not because he
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is sinful or morally weak, but because he does not know enough. The role of the hamartia in
tragedy comes not from its moral status but from the inevitability of its consequences. Hence the
peripeteia is really one or more self-destructive actions taken in blindness, leading to results
diametrically opposed to those that were intended (often termed tragic irony), and the
anagnorisis is the gaining of the essential knowledge that was previously lacking (context).
Application to Oedipus the King.

Characters in tragedy should have the following qualities (context):

1. “good or fine.” Aristotle relates this quality to moral purpose and says it is relative to
class: “Even a woman may be good, and also a slave, though the woman may be said to
be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless.”
2. “fitness of character” (true to type); e.g. valor is appropriate for a warrior but not for a
3. “true to life” (realistic)
4. “consistency” (true to themselves). Once a character's personality and motivations are
established, these should continue throughout the play.
5. “necessary or probable.” Characters must be logically constructed according to “the law
of probability or necessity” that governs the actions of the play.
6. “true to life and yet more beautiful” (idealized, ennobled).

Thought is third in importance, and is found “where something is proved to be or not to be,
or a general maxim is enunciated.” Aristotle says little about thought, and most of what he has
to say is associated with how speeches should reveal character (context 1; context 2). However,
we may assume that this category would also include what we call the themes of a play.

Diction is fourth, and is “the expression of the meaning in words” which are proper and
appropriate to the plot, characters, and end of the tragedy. In this category, Aristotle
discusses the stylistic elements of tragedy; he is particularly interested in metaphors: “But the
greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor; . . . it is the mark of genius, for to make
good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances” (context). Application to Oedipus the King.

Song, or melody, is fifth, and is the musical element of the chorus. Aristotle argues that the
Chorus should be fully integrated into the play like an actor; choral odes should not be “mere
interludes,” but should contribute to the unity of the plot (context).

Spectacle is last, for it is least connected with literature; “the production of spectacular
effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” Although
Aristotle recognizes the emotional attraction of spectacle, he argues that superior poets rely on
the inner structure of the play rather than spectacle to arouse pity and fear; those who rely
heavily on spectacle “create a sense, not of the terrible, but only of the monstrous” (context 1;
context 2).

The end of the tragedy is a katharsis (purgation, cleansing) of the tragic emotions of pity
and fear. Katharsis is another Aristotelian term that has generated considerable debate. The
word means “purging,” and Aristotle seems to be employing a medical metaphor—tragedy
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arouses the emotions of pity and fear in order to purge away their excess, to reduce these
passions to a healthy, balanced proportion. Aristotle also talks of the “pleasure” that is proper to
tragedy, apparently meaning the aesthetic pleasure one gets from contemplating the pity and fear
that are aroused through an intricately constructed work of art (context).

We might profitably compare this view of Aristotle with that expressed by Susanne Langer in
our first reading (“Expressiveness in Art,” excerpt from Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical
Lectures, New York, Scribner, 1957):

A work of art presents feeling (in the broad sense I mentioned before, as everything that can be
felt) for our contemplation, making it visible or audible or in some way perceivable through a
symbol, not inferable from a symptom. Artistic form is congruent with the dynamic forms of our
direct sensuous, mental, and emotional life; works of art . . . are images of feeling, that formulate
it for our cognition. What is artistically good is whatever articulates and presents feeling for our
understanding. (661-62)
November, 1999
Barbara F. McManus

Source: http://www2.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/poetics.html. November 29, 2010.

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Unity of Action: Each of the incidents in this play is part of a tightly constructed cause-and-
effect chain. The plague in Thebes prompts Oedipus to send Creon to consult the oracle of
Delphi; the oracle’s reply that the murderer of Laius must be banished from Thebes prompts
Oedipus pronounce a solemn curse on the murderer and to send for Teiresias. Teriesias states
that Oedipus is the murderer, but since the king knows himself to be innocent (or thinks he
knows), he accuses Creon of plotting with Teiresias against him. The quarrel of Oedipus and
Creon brings Jocasta from the house; seeking to calm down her husband and prove that oracles
cannot be trusted, she tells again of how Laius died. When she mentions that he was killed “at a
place where three roads meet,” Oedipus suddenly begins to suspect that he may indeed have
killed the king without knowing who he was. To settle the matter, they send for the Herdsman
who is the only survivor of that attack. Meanwhile a messenger arrives from Corinth to inform
Oedipus that his supposed father, King Polybus of Corinth, has died. When Oedipus rejoices that
he did not kill his father as the oracle had prophesied but is still worried that he may marry his
mother, the Messenger, seeking to relieve him of this fear, innocently tells him that Polybus and
Merope were not his real parents.

The arrival of the Messenger is the only action in the play that is not directly caused by a
previous action. However, this is a perfect example of Aristotle's contention that if coincidences
cannot be avoided, they should have “an air of design,” for this messenger seems brought by
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fate, since he is the missing link in Oedipus’ story, the very man who received Oedipus as a baby
from the Herdsman. Thus, when the Herdsman arrives and they tell their respective stories, the
whole truth emerges. This is the climax, or turning point, of the plot—the truth about Oedipus
leads directly to the suicide of Jocasta and Oedipus’ self-blinding and request to be exiled. The
departure of Oedipus from Thebes will lift the plague, thus resolving the problem that started off
the chain of events and concluding the plot.

This plot is also a perfect example of the exclusion of the irrational and the skillful handling of traditional
elements of the myth on which the play is based. Sophocles does not dramatize any of the admittedly
irrational parts of the myth (e.g., why did Laius and Jocasta not kill the baby outright? If Oedipus was
afraid of marrying his mother, why did he marry a woman old enough to be his mother? etc.). Instead, in
a brilliant move, he constructs the play as an investigation of the past. The tremendous sense of
inevitability and fate in this play stems from the fact that all the irrational things have already been done;
they are unalterable. Once Oedipus begins to investigate the murder of Laius, the whole truth about the
past is bound to emerge; as he himself says, “O, O, O, they will all come, / all come out clearly!” (episode

Complex Plot: The peripeteia of the play is the Messenger's reversal of intention; in seeking to help
Oedipus by telling him that Polybus and Merope were not his real parents, he instead creates the opposite
effect, providing the crucial piece of information that will reveal that Oedipus has indeed killed his father
and married his mother. As Aristotle recommends, this is directly connected to the anagnorisis, for the
Messenger and Herdsman piece together the whole story of Oedipus, enabling him to “recognize” his true
identity, to gain the essential knowledge he has lacked. The peripeteia and anagnorisis directly cause
Oedipus’ catastrophe, or change of fortune from good to bad, and lead to the emotional “scenes of
suffering” with Creon and his children. In a sense, each of Oedipus’ actions can be considered a reversal
of intention, and each gives him a little more knowledge of the dreadful truth that will lead to his

Role of the Hamartia: The play offers a perfect illustration of the nature of the hamartia as “mistake” or
error rather than flaw. Oedipus directly causes his own downfall not because he is evil, or proud, or weak,
but simply because he does not know who he is. If he really wanted to avoid the oracle, leaving Corinth
was a mistake, killing an unknown older aristocrat was a mistake, and marrying an older queen was a
mistake. Seeking to uncover the past, cursing the murderer of Laius, sending for the Herdsman—each of
the actions that he pursued so vigorously and for such good reasons led to his doom. Oedipus is not
morally guilty, but he is radically ignorant, and Sophocles does not present him as a unique case but
rather as a paradigm of the human condition, as “a man like ourselves.” In the words of the Chorus:

What man, what man on earth wins more

of happiness than a seeming
and after that turning away?
Oedipus, you are my pattern of this,
Oedipus, you and your fate! (stasimon 5)

Patterns of Imagery: The metaphoric patterns of this play support the plot. The major patterns of
imagery—sickness and pollution, the ship of state, blindness vs. sight, light vs. darkness—illuminate the
action, themes, and characters but they do not constitute them, as they do in the Oresteia.

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The story of Oedipus belongs to Theban cycle of legends. Thebes, the native city of Dionysus
and a center of his cult, is also close to the central oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The Theban cycle
comprises the stories of the doomed kings and ghastly, cult-oriented passions.

Tragedes on the Oedipus cycle:

Aeschylus: The Seven Against Thebes.
Sophocles: Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus; Antigone.
Euripides: The Phoenician Maidens; The Suppliants.
Seneca: Oedipus; The Phoenician Women.
Voltaire: Oedipus.
Andre Gide: Oedipus.
Jean Cocteau: The Infernal Machine.
Berthold Brecht: Antigone.
Jean Anouilh: Antigone.

Theban dynasty succession: Cadmus - fought a dragon; founded Thebes; married Harmonia,
daughter of Ares, whose necklace brought a curse; in old age, they turned into huge snakes. >
Pentheus - resisted Dionysus; torn into pieces by the Bacchant women.(> Polydorus > Labdacus)
> Laius - had a prophecy that his son would kill him; exposed the baby-son. > Oedipus -
unknowingly killed his father Laius and married his mother Iocasta. > Eteocles vs. Polynices -
killed each other fighting for the throne. > Creon - Iocasta's brother; was unreasonably strict and
lost the rest of his family.

The legend of Oedipus:

1. Laius, king of Thebes, has the oracle of Delphic Apollo: his son will kill him. So, when
the queen Iocasta has a baby-boy, the royal couple has its feet pierced (Oedipous = swollen feet/
Gk. oida =know) and sends the trusted slave to leave the baby on the Mount Cithaeron. The
slave takes pity of the baby and gives it to the childless royalty of Corinth: Polibus and Merope.
2. Adolescent friends in a casual argument call Oedipus fake son. - Parents: Forget it! Yet
Oedipus goes to Delphi just to make sure; Who am I? - The oracle: You will kill your father and
breed children by your mother.
3. Coming to the the crossroad, Oedipus decides never to return to Corinth and go to Thebes,
instead. As he was approaching the crossroad between Delphi, Thebes and Corinth, distraught
and deep in thought, in a narrow passage between two rocks he met an old man in a chariot with
a few attendants. The man shouted: "Get lost! Go away! Away from this road! - and pushed
Oedipus with his long sceptre. Oedipus, angry, grabbed the staff from his hands and hit him on
the head, killing the old man, and also the slaves who tried to seize him.
4. No sooner than the struggle was over, Oedipus came face to face with the Sphinx, sitting
on her rock at the crossroad. Sphinx, a winged lion with the head of a woman, asked the riddle
from those who passed by her: Who in the morning walks on four legs, at midday on two, and in
the evening on three? Her rock was surrounded with a pile of human bones, for she ate those
who could not answer. Yet Oedipus was wise. He said: It is man! (Crawling baby - adult - old
man leaning on a cane.) So, Sphinx had to throw herself down from the cliff, and the way to
Thebes was now free. (Did he guess it 100%?...)
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5. Thus having saved the city of Thebes from this monster with her riddle, Oedipus found a
hero's welcome. As it happened, the old king Laius just lately was killed in a highway accident
on his way to Delphi, where he was to inquire the oracle, how to get rid of Sphinx. So, the throne
was left conveniently empty, and the widowed queen was still attractive, and the young stranger
seemes quite intelligent and probably would make a good king, and so, -- the grateful Thebes
offered Oedipus the throne together with the queen Iocasta. They lived happily and had four
children: twin brothers, Eteocles & Polyneices, and two girls: Antigone and Ismene.
6. All was well, till, many years later, the plague suddenly struck Thebes. (Here Oed.Rex
starts.) The crowd of people came to the king's palace to beg Oedipus do something and help
Thebes, as he once had proved himself wise and the savior of the people, - this is why he was
chosen a king.
7. Naturally, Oedipus cares of his people. He sends for the oracle of Delphic Apollo to find
out the cause of the plague. Apollo's answer is: Gods are angry, because the death of the old king
remaines unavenged. Oedipus is quite shocked at such negligence. How it is possible no
investigation of the circumstances of Laius' death was ever carried out? - Well, the chorus
explains, - it was a hard time for us all; this Sphinx, you know; everything happened so suddenly,
and then you appeared in the city and we were busy with your coronation... There really was no
clue; just one survivor; he was out of his wits from fear. Now he is a very old man, you
know...When you came to the city, he left for his hut in the mountains and never since was back.
- Never mind, send for him.
8. For openings, Oedipus puts a formal curse on the murderer of the old king, whoever he is.
No citizen is allowed to give him shelter or food. Oedipus assures the people, that he will do
everything within his powers, and he would take as great care of avenging Laius as if the late
king was his own father. Next, Oedipus summons the divine powers as well, and consults the
famous blind prophet Teiresias in hope to find out the truth. The prophet advises: Drop it, do not
even try to find it out. For your own good, don't ask me of anything. At this, Oedipus is quite
irate and accuses Teiresias of being a false prophet, or, worse even, a conspirator with murderers.
- Now the old prophet is angry: You are too young to speak to me this way; if you must know,
before the sun is down, you will find out yourself a husband and a son and brother of your
children. (Exit Teiresias.)
9. The queen Iocasta hears the shouts and comes out from the palace, finding Oedipus
bewildered and perplexed. - What is the matter, dear? Any trouble? - Oedipus complains about
that crazy uncooperative old prophet. - Oh, dearest husband, don't believe any prophets! They
are all liars, they do not know anything! Look, once in my youth my old husband had an oracle
that he would be killed by his own son. But - nothing of the kind! The poor baby died, cast away
in the mountains. As for Laius, - some robbers killed him at a crossroad. So much about the
oracles... Comforting words of Iocasta, actually, plant some seed of doubt in Oedipus' mind. - At
the crossroad, you say?.. - Yes, between Thebes, Corinth and Delphi. - When did it happen? -
Shortly before you came to the city. - How did Laius look? - Well, he was tall, about your size,
some gray showing in his hair... He did, in fact, resembe you now. Why are you asking? Tell me
what is bothering you.
10. Now Oedipus is scared: the queen's description evoked the memory of his encounter
with the old man in the chariot, whom he had left dead on the road. Could this be Laius? The
course of peripeteia (turn of events) releases the mechanisms of anagnorisis (realizing).
11. At this crucial moment, the "happy messenger' from Corinth comes with good and bad
news: Bad - Oedipus' old father Polybus is dead; good - the city of Corinth expects Oedipus to
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return and be their king. Oedipus is cautious of this perspective: Once in youth the oracle warned
me that I would kill my father and marry my mother; so, I decided never to return home, lest
somehow the prophecy comes true. - And you did pretty well in your exile! - Yes, but there is
nothing dearer than the parents' faces... - So, come and see your mother now, while she is still
alive! - As long as she is alive, I still fear the prophecy... - You know what? I'll free you from
this fear. I am a messenger of fortune, indeed! She is not your mother; there is nothing to fear. -
How so? - They adopted you as a baby. - How do you know?! - Well, I myself, for that matter,
delivered you to your parents. I got you from some shepherd aroung here; you were found with
your feet pierced on the mount Cithaeron...
12. Hearing this, Iocasta changes in her face: - Please, my precious one, I beg of you, stop
this futile investigation and do not ask any more irrelevant questions... With this, the queen
silently retreats to the palace, never to come out again. (Iocasta suddenly understands everything;
for Oedipus, however, it is only half of the anagnorisis: he is pretty sure at the moment, that he
had murdered Laius, but he does not know yet, that Laius was his real father.)
At this point, Oedipus suddenly forgets about Laius (or - it is all clear with Laius); finally, he
is back to the pursuit of his early youth: all he wants is to find out his true origin. At some point,
even the chorus tells him to back up: we will stand by you, no matter what; let it be as it is. Yet
Oedipus passion for "Know thyself' is self-destructive: he intends to face the truth at any price.
(Irony: the price = himself and his world...)
13. The Messenger from Corinth sees the old Shepherd approaching and recognizes the man:
It is he who many years ago had given you to me as a baby! Hey! Remember me? Remember the
baby you gave me years ago? - Look, here is this baby, the king of Thebes! (The old Shepherd,
on his part, does not appear to have any clear recollections of the past, and tries to avoid
questions, begging Oedipus to drop the subject and let him go.) Now, once the identity of the
baby is established, the question remains: whose baby was it? Pressed by questions, the shepherd
finally reveals the fact that the baby was the son of Laius and Iocasta: And if you are this baby, -
he says to Oedipus, - then you are definitely the most wretched man who ever lived...
14. Now comes the full anagnorisis: cries are heard from the palace: queen Iocasta is dead.
She hang herself in the bedroom which she had shared with father and son. Oedipus rushes
inside and finds her body; grabs the pin from her dress and pokes out his eyes: after what he has
committed, he feels, he must not see the sun.
Soon he appears, blind, at the entrance of the palace (anagnorisis ~ epiphany of horror) -- to go
to exile (catharsis).

Notice that the Greek tragedy nearly always includes some sort of trial or
investigation. - so the story of the daughters of Danaus; the Eumenides; Oedipus. In essence,
tragedy is a detective story. There is a tragic guilt involved: hamartia, which may be involuntary
and yet causes the public miasma - pollution, communal participation in the guilt. The irony of
the tragic investigation consists in a paradoxical turn-around of the initial assumptions
(Aristotelean peripeteia). Investigation leads to identifying the true source of affliction
(anagnorisis). Once identified, the source of affliction (=miasma, pollution) is expelled
(catharsis). Thus, tragedy is a cathartic (purgatory) genre, with the cathartic trial as its core.
Oedipus pursues two seemingly irrelevant quests:
- wants to know himself.
- investigates the murder he must avenge.
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He goes to Delphic Apollo with precisely this mission; to fulfill the Delphic precept: Know
thyself. Yet the harder he tries to know himself, the farther he runs from himself, and the more
inevitably he brings about the very prophecy he is trying to escape.
It is confronting something totally external - solving an old crime - that leads him back to his
own track. Now Oedipus, finally, knows himself; - but the irony of Apollo is that the knowledge
of the self is only achieved by self-destruction.
An additional elegance of the Oedipus Rex is the irony which makes the two Apollonian
principles - Know thyself and Nothing exessively - collide within the tragedy: it is Oedipus'
excessive strife to know himself which brought his fate upon him.

The end of the story of the house of Oedipus:

Oedipus, now blind and wretched, leaves the power to the brother of the late queen, Creon,
and goes to exile. His daughters, Antigone and Ismene, follow him to the end. Athenian king
Theseus gives refuge to Oedipus and the girls. Oedipus' death is a mystery, and his resting place
will protect Athens (Sophocles, Oedipus in Colonus). His daughters return to Thebes, and
Antigone is about to marry son of Creon, Haemon.
Oedipus' sons quarrel. Eteocles exiles Polyneices, who then raises an army with seven
prominent chieftains against his native Thebes (the war of SevenAgainst Thebes) in an attempt
to regain power. The brothers kill each other in combat. The empty throne is left to Creon, who
now becomes the new king. He orders the hero's funeral to Eteocles, defender of the city, while
leaving the body of Polyneices out in the open air, and forbids to bury him under severe
punishment. Antigone, the sister of the deceased, secretly performs his funeral rites. The king
Creon, shocked by the disobedience of a young girl, his own niece and daughter-in-law-to-be,
locks her in a cave to die, in spite of the intercession of his son Haemon, fiance of Antigone.
Warned by divine omens and the old prophet Teiresias, the king finally changes his mind and
opens the cave. - Too late: Antigone hanged herself with her girl's belt, and Haemon having
found his bride dead, curses his father, spits in his face and kills himself in his sight. (Death of
the lovers in or near a tomb - a sort of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid; Romeo and Juliet in
Shakespeare denouement?) Hearing these news, Creon's wife kills herself too, cursing her
husband. So, Creon turned out to be a looser all-around. (Sophocles, Antigone.)

Source: http://mason.gmu.edu/~oarans/oedip-story.html. November 29, 2010.