Every epoch heroes reflect their major beliefs, which can be clearly traced when analyzing literary works. Sophocles’ Oedipus The King and Shakespeare’s Othello are quite different dramatic pieces of writing in terms of their historical and cultural background but they share the common pattern of a tragic hero. However, because of the epochs’ different beliefs, the nature of tragedy is revealed by the authors in different ways, which is reflected in the following statement: “The Downfall of Oedipus is the Work of the Gods; the Downfall of Othello is Self-inflicted”.
Speaking about Oedipus as a character of Sophocles’ tragedy, it is worth saying that he is not a self-standing hero, unlike Othello and other characters typical for the modern literature. First of all, he is deeply rooted in the ancient mythology and old plots, which were quite familiar to the Greek audience. Thus, when writing a tragedy to stage, it was not a task of Sophocles to tell a totally new story to the audience or to surprise them in any way. On the contrary, he had to tell the old story with a character which was known by all spectators but to do this in the way to capture them by tragic spirit. Oedipus’ link to previous epochs and mythology is an important touch because it helps to understand what role this character has according to Sophocles. In fact, the author’s aim was to place the hero into a universal paradigm outside of time and place, and to tell the story about the laws of the Universe and place of humanity in this paradigm. Hence, even when the play begins, the audience already knows the further fate of Oedipus, and this knowledge helps them to treat it exactly as fate not ruled by a human but exclusively by the gods. As a researcher puts it, “common sense reality and our ethical priorities are illusory: dark fate lies heavily over them” ( Raphos, p.4). Thus, it is known from the character’s birth that he has to kill his father and get married to his mother, and his future life is a struggle to live a life which would be different from the prophecy. He challenges the gods’ will demonstrating his strength as a human but he is not able to change the fate according to the beliefs, which are expressed in the play.
In contrast Shakespeare’s Othello is a product of Renaissance, which has a completely different vision of people’s place on the earth. Renaissance came after gloomy Middle Ages, which proposed an idea of a small human whose life is totally in the hands of severe God. In fact, it is medieval vision, that looks close to the one offered by Sophocles. However, the Renaissance values are completely different. First of all, the Renaissance ideals are focused on a human as God’s the most perfect creature. Because of this, people are believed to have a variety of talents and opportunities, and to be empowered by God to make their choices on their own. Of course, there is a certain social determination about the characters’ actions in Othello. Thus, because the hero is a moor, a representative of a different race, Desdemona’s father is against his daughter’s marriage to the man, so they have to elope. Thus, it is clear from the very beginning that there are some dark forces that play against Othello, yet he is able to take his own choices about his life. It is remarkable that a secret marriage is a rebellion, which is not approved by society, but not so much as in the epoch described in Oedipus. On the contrary, Renaissance authors were quite sympathetic about rebellion (Paradise Lost can be given as an example to illustrate the point). Hence, despite some social resistance, Othello is empowered to take his own decisions, and no direct connection with God’s anger can be traced.
Returning to Oedipus, it is made clear that human range of choices is limited. Several characters address oracles to find out their fate, and are told the tragic truth. However, all of them refuse to accept their lot and struggle to change it. Sophocles, as a representative of his culture, reveals an idea that people are punished by gods for their self-confidence and pride. It was a man’s decision to let Oedipus die as a child but because the gods have different plans about him, he does not die at this stage. Despite his power and royal origin, he is just a toy in the gods’ hands, and this what makes the situation tragic. When considering Oedipus as a tragic hero, it would be useful to address to the classical definition given by Aristotle: “the protagonist, the hero or chief character of the tragedy, is a person of high estate, apparently a king or queen or other member of a royal family… It is the nature of tragedy that the protagonist must fall from power and from happiness; his high estate gives him a place of dignity to fall from and perhaps makes his fall seem all the more a calamity in that it involves an entire nation” (Kennedy, p. 856). Because the fate of Oedipus is known to the audience and partially to him, the only thing to blame him for is his blindness. It is not accidental that he chooses to blind himself to punish himself for not seeing how the truth came true. Even though both he and Jocasta know some information, they do not want to believe it. Jocasta persuades Oedipus not to worry: “So don’t concern yourself with prophecies./ Whatever gods intend to bring about/ they themselves make known quite easily” (Sophocles). Thus, it is possible to say that Oedipus’ fall is planned by gods and that he should not be blamed by it but vice versa respected for his attempts to change his lot. He says in the end “But wherever my fate leads, just let it go” (Sophocles). Even that it might seem that Oedipus demonstrates a belief that he cannot escape the fate, he does not hope for it: “Is Oedipus a coward? Does he not show that impetuous, arrogant bravery which may seem the cause of his downfall? Yes, and many times. But his prideful drive, facing up to enemies and obstacles in his way, is no more than a shell, a shield covering what all the while moves him and shapes his character: the choice of fearful flight with no expected refuge, the choice to sever himself off from the inseparable, to run away from that which in running is still carried along - his self to be, his own future” (Adamczewski, p. 44).
Discussing Othello in the same context, it is worth saying that he does not completely match the above mentioned definition of tragic hero as understood by Aristotle. Yes, he is a person of high rank, a brave military commander, which partially is in line with Aristotle’s vision about falling from high position. On the other hand, it is made clear by Shakespeare that the tragedy is created by his own hands. Indeed, he has enemies around who plot against him and make the situation look false and unbearable to him. However, not divine forces but his own vices and passions cause the situation in which he cannot control himself and kills his wife for the betrayal that she has never committed. Othello’s enemies like Iago see his flaws and use them in their own interests. Unless he had them, no one would be able to manipulate him and make him believe that Desdemona is unfaithful. A critic speaks about Othello’s “inherent weakness…Othello lives all his life by faith, not by sight” (Bhattacharyya, p. 35). Shakespeare reveals an idea that fate might partially affect people’s lives, however a lot depends on one’s own personality. Iago, the antagonist, knows that Othello’s internal enemies will destroy him sooner than anyone from his surroundings.
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O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; (3.3.15)
Thus, as a representative of modern literature, Shakespeare treats his hero as an individual in the first place, which means that he bears responsibility for his actions. If Sophocles focuses on the external laws of fate and gods’ will, Shakespeare is more interested in the character’s psychology, in his inner demons that rule his life and his deeds. In a way, the situation of Othello and other characters of modern literature is more tragic than of those from ancient tragedies because they have no one but themselves to blame for their unhappiness. One can say for sure that their loneliness and misery is devastating because of the fact that they will always remember that they are the cause of tragedy. Utter freedom causes utter bitterness. Yet, as a critic points out, the characters of Othello speak much about fate and in fact are not always sure about the origin of their feelings and ideas. Thus, they are still not completely ready for the responsibility attached to the freedom: “Yet, their very confusions painfully underline and intensify our own difficulty in maintaining any clear-cut distinction between the “fated” and the “free” aspects of the self… Are the feeling we cannot help having really “fated” to us?” (Adamson, p.8). However, despite the fact that once in a while Othello seems to be doomed by his passions and emotions, his reactions are private, they do not work like part of a larger force like in Sophocles’ tragedy.
To conclude, it is worth saying that Othello and Oedipus have much in common as tragic characters despite belonging to different epochs. However, there is a significant difference between an ancient Greek perception of a tragedy and more modern Renaissance literature. Sophocles’ society believed that a person’s life is totally controlled by the gods, which found its reflection in the tragedy. Awareness of fate and its inevitability makes the story tragic because however hard he tries, the character cannot change his fate. In contrast, Othello is not a slave of gods but of his own emotions, including extreme jealousy. This is why despite the fact that his enemies created the tragic situation, he was the one to make a final choice, thus his downfall is self-inflicted.
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