Oedipus the King and Death of a Salesman as Tragedy

Published 18 Apr 2017

Table of content


Roughly two thousand and four hundred years separate Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and yet Aristotle’s definition of tragedy almost fits the two plays exactly with just some minor modifications. Other than these slight modifications, Miller was able to produce a tragedy fit for modern times and the common audience. Aristotle’s definition wouldn’t be appropriate anyway in modern times because monarchy is no longer prevalent.

What Tragedy is

Aristotle defined tragedy through his work Poetics as:

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; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions (Poetics, part VI).

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Aristotle emphasized in his work that tragedy has certain elements, plot, characters, diction, thought, and spectacle. Miller followed these points but modified the element of characters to make it more appealing to the modern audience. But those definitions are Aristotle and Arthur Miller being technical they looked at certain parameters and they check if it is found on stories. If one of those elements goes amiss, they would no longer consider a play as a tragedy. Tragedy for me is simply a story that has, well, a tragic ending. Tragic meaning someone has to die or lose a very important body function or part without a reasonable cause for the character’s demise. I would not call something tragic if the character deserves to be punished. Aristotle’s definition is more like karma rather than a tragedy.

Oedipus as Tragedy

Oedipus the King is almost the perfect example of a tragedy, at least for Aristotle. Aristotle probably made his theories on tragedy around Sophocles’ play. Here are some elements that fit Aristotle’s points in his theory of tragedy: The plot – Aristotle said that the plot should follow the rule of necessity and probability, meaning events should not happen with no apparent reason. In Oedipus, events are coherent. Actions are directly related to the previous, starting from the prophecy that was made up to the end. Still on the point of plot, Aristotle argues that the plot should be complex and must have Peripeteia and Anagnorisis, reversal of fortune and recognition respectively. The reversal of fortune in Oedipus is when the messenger revealed Oedipus, out of good intent, that the parents he knew were not really his. Instead, he recognized the whole truth (anagnorisis). Characters should be from noble families to emphasize the downfall that they would eventually suffer from, and this downfall with be because of Hamartia or tragic flaw. Oedipus’ tragic flaw is his innocence. Diction is also an important element in tragedy. Diction is the “expression of the meaning of words” that are appropriate to the tragedy’s elements. Aristotle pointed out the metaphor’s use. Patterns of imagery were used in the play, light against dark, sight and blindness, and illness and pollution (McManus, 1999)

Death of a Salesman as Tragedy

Arthur Miller’s concept of tragedy is pretty much the same as Aristotle’s; they only differ in the nobility of the characters. The main reason why Arthur Miller used a common man is because the traditional “fall of princes” does not appeal anymore to readers. Readers want characters that can they relate to. You don’t get any common than a salesman. Arthur Miller defines a tragic character as “a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing–his sense of personal dignity.” And that is exactly what Willy Loman has done in the story. He committed suicide because he realized that his life is useless and his death would give insurance money to his family. Tragedies, according to Arthur Miller depicts the fear of being displaced, the common man knows this fear best. This is shown by Willy Loman’s fear of failure (Miller, 1949)

Difference/Similarities and their Meaning

The main difference between the two plays is the characters. Sophocles used royalty in his play while Miller used the common man. The fact that these plays are over two thousand years apart means that monarchy is virtually extinct. They were used back then because they were still part of the society. Now that the world is dominated by the average man, majority of works done are written for them. Tragedies also happen to commoners, even more often than the non-commoners. One similarity is the use of music, during Sophocles’ time, this was done through the chorus. The chorus was even considered as characters back then, making early plays the earliest musicals.

In Death of a Salesman, though reduced to the beginning and end of the play, the sound of flute playing is inserted. Another difference is the way the protagonists resolve their problems after the realization. Oedipus, who definitely suffered more than Willy, ironically resolved his problem in a less-drastic fashion, he did not commit suicide like what Willy has done. He gouged his eyes out and chose to live in exile. This difference is because the psychology of people has changed. Death may sound harsher than blinding oneself and living in exile but it actually isn’t. Oedipus chose to suffer more so he can pay for his mistakes. The Emotional strength of people then maybe stronger than people today.


A couple thousand years and still tragedy remains almost as it were then. The changes are acceptable since tragedy should also change with the times with the words of Arthur Miller, “It is time, I think, that we who are without kings took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time–the heart and spirit of the average man.” (The Common Man, 1949)

Works Cited

  • Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive.
  • McManus, Barbara. “Outline of Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy in the POETICS.”
  • Miller, Arthur. “Tragedy and the Common Man.” 1949
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