Answer: This is a specific sort of flaw, also known as “Hamartia”, which is possessed by Aristotelian tragic heroes. It is a flaw which causes an otherwise noble or exceptional character to bring about his own downfall and, often, his eventual death. Examples of this could include hubris, misplaced trust, excessive curiosity, pride and lack of self-control. This fall usually occurs at the beginning of a story, with the story itself concentrates on the consequences or attempted redemption of the fall.
The ancient Greeks were fond believers of Fate. Fate, defined according to Webster’s, is “the principle or determining cause or will by which things in general are believed to come to be as they are or events to happen as the do.” The Greeks take on Fate was slightly modified. They believed that the gods determined Fate: “…fate, to which in a mysterious way the gods themselves were subject, was an impersonal force decreeing ultimate things only, and unconcerned with day by day affairs.” It was thought that these gods worked in subtle ways; this accounts for character flaws (called harmatia in Greek). Ancient Greeks thought the gods would alter a person’s character, in order for that person to suffer (or gain from) the appropriate outcome. Such was the case in Oedipus’s story.
The great Sophoclean play, Oedipus Rex is an amazing play, and one of the first of its time to accurately portray the common tragic hero. Written in the time of ancient Greece, Sophocles perfected the use of character flaws in Greek drama with Oedipus Rex. Using Oedipus as his tragic hero, Sophocles’ plays forced the audience to experience a catharsis of emotions. Sophocles showed the play-watchers Oedipus’s life in the beginning as a “privileged, exalted [person] who [earned his] high repute and status by…intelligence.” Then, the great playwright reached in and violently pulled out the audience’s most sorrowful emotions, pity and fear, in showing Oedipus’s “crushing fall” from greatness.
Sophocles intentionally gave certain flaws in character type to Oedipus—he intended a downfall. That was the purpose of all ancient Greek drama: it was meant as “a dramatic reminder of [their] own mortality”. Sophocles used his plays in order to force people to learn at other’s mistake. Oedipus is a perfect example. His tragic flaws, persistence and ignorance caused his inevitable doom.
Oedipus’s persistence is seen even from the beginning of Oedipus Rex. “The first instance in which [it] is revealed is when he first encounters Teiresias, a seer who refuses to divulge the truth he admits to knowing.” Teiresias begs to Oedipus, “let me go home” . “However, Oedipus doesn’t want anything withheld from him, and he gradually becomes more heated in his wheedling…” Teiresias even plainly states Oedipus’s flaw, “Why persist in asking? You will not persuade me.” Despite this comment, eventually “the prophet spits out the truth in disgust, and, cursing, takes his leave.” This is the first case in which Oedipus’s persistence causes him trouble. Oedipus’s persistence comes out again just before the anagnorisis, when talking with the Shepherd. At this point in the play, “the subject of Oedipus’s inquiry has shifted from the identity of Laios’s murderer to his own identity.” Oedipus is searching for an answer, and the Shepherd is reluctant to give it to him, “For God’s love, my King, do not ask me any more!” Yet, the persistence takes over; “Oedipus is determined to have the whole truth, no matter how disastrous the truth may be.” Finally, as did Teiresias, the Shepherd gave in to Oedipus’s flaw and said, “For if you are what this man says you are, No man living is more wretched than Oedipus.” His “discovery” ensues, suddenly changing him from ignorance to knowledge.
Ignorance is not bliss…for Oedipus anyway. His ignorance causes him to miss obvious references to his Fate—all of which, if picked up in time, could have allowed Oedipus to escape his doom. His ignorance is first seen in the encounter with Teiresias. The wise man clearly states the killer of Laios, “I say that you are the murderer whom you seek.” “[Oedipus] hears the prophecy in language, which is as ominous as it is plain and unmistakable.” It is Oedipus’s pure ignorance that limits his understanding of this grave subject. “He prioritizes the truth above his personal well-being, and, by doing so, admits his view of fate as a lesser force in his consciousness than the safety of Thebes.” Oedipus even is too ignorant to recognize Teiresias’s prediction of his Fate, “…And he will go tapping the strange earth with his staff…” “Oedipus is not so much challenging fate as oblivious to it…”
The use of ignorance in the play is also expressed through light and dark imagery. Light, of course, meaning knowledge, and dark imagery representing ignorance (namely that of Oedipus). Oedipus’s ignorance is very strongly shown in the story, until his epiphany. The text is flushed with references to Oedipus’s darkness, which indicates not only his ignorance, but also his terrible doom: blindness at his own hands. By far the most depicting scene of this light and dark imagery is the encounter between Teiresias and Oedipus. “This confrontation between the figuratively and literally blind proves to be a clever example of peripety as well as irony.” The ignorance is shown that way by references to darkness, as Teiresias says, “You mock my blindness, do you? But I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind…”
Oedipus’s downfall was the direct result of his tragic flaws. First, persistence forced the tragic hero to continuously search for the truth, whatever it may be. Whether questioning for the murderer of Laios or his own life history, Oedipus was determined to find the answers.
However, it was his ignorance that prohibited him from recognizing the answers he received. That is what brought him to his end. His incomprehension of the obvious proved critical to Oedipus.