It is difficult to find another Greek tragedy in which philosophical depth and tragic force would be combined with such an inimitable elegance, noble grace and perfection of external form as it could be seen in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. The play, which narrates the story of the king who was destined to commit various actions, tried to change his fate, and thereby incurred inevitable destiny, inspired many ancient and modern authors. For example, the image of the hero as a great and virtuous person who suffers from the defect that leads to their death has become characteristic for many playwrights. This theme is also shared by William Shakespeare in his Othello, the Moor of Venice. This play is undoubtedly considered to be one of the most popular William Shakespeare’s works. The story of Othello does not pose an exceptional and exotic case, but is burdened with regularity. Shakespeare does not show pathetic culmination of existence, but its tragic routine. The Moor is surrounded by the society which breaks him and forces him to become a killer. Both discussed plays are related to the topic of tragic destiny. While the downfall of Oedipus is the work of the gods, the destiny of Othello should not be considered self-inflicted. This paper will analyze Oedipus the King and Othello, the Moor of Venice and disclose the reasons of the main characters’ downfalls.
The idea that Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is one of the most perfect creations of the human mind has probably come to many people. For example, Aristotle, who is considered the master of the world of poetry and science, sees this play as the most profound Classical Greek tragedy that still serves as an example of unsurpassed beauty. In his work Poetics, he mainly illustrates his theories with the scenes from Sophocles’ tragedy of Oedipus. According to Aristotle, all the events in Sophocles’ tragedy cling to each other, and the action itself is perfectly logical. This results in the readers’ impression that the matches made by the author own an inexorable power of rock. In the protasis of the tragedy, Oedipus rules Thebes while the “Armed with his blazing torch the God of Plague, / hath swooped upon our city emptying”. The Priest on behalf of residents asks the king to save the city for the second time, and Oedipus agrees promising to fulfill the commandment and to wreak vengeance upon the murderer of King Laius. Oedipus considers himself as “A stranger / to this report, no less than to the crime” and, cursing the guilty one, he commands to expel him of the city (literally: “to make sure that he will never see the city”). After such a beginning there should peal the thunder of heaven, and old Tieresias appears as the thunder which clearly points at Oedipus: “Then I charge thee to abide / by thine own proclamation; from this day / speak not to these or me. Thou art the man, / thou the accursed polluter of this land”. Further, Tieresias speaks with riddles and Oedipus solves them digging to the roots. In later vignettes of the tragedy “The one who understood that celebrated riddle” is destined to solve all of them.
According to André Bonnard, Sophocles has given his characters the ability to speak with a certain tinge of tragic irony, which sets the tone for the play and wary readers. Characters who are unaware of the former drama which has already taken place say the words that have an ordinary and soothing sense for them and in which they are quite confident. However, for the viewers who know the past and the future the same words have completely different and terrible meaning. This is a stylistic device which Sophocles uses in order to show viewers that the ironic words fly from the actors’ mouths as if against their will, as if they are under the influence of mysterious power hidden behind the events, as if it is the divine power that mocks at unjustified confidence of people. Divine powers are involved in every word and every action of the heroes, which creates an impression of a one-man show played by the gods.
In order to show the “power of doom” in the tragedy, Sophocles resorts to various methods. For example, Oedipus and Jocasta believe in the falsity of the “divination” despite the fact that the prophecy of Tieresias comes true: “So much for divination. Henceforth I / will look for signs neither to right nor left. / Thou reasonest well”. This situation calls for the continuation of the tragedy. Thus, the play does continue because Oedipus does not believe in divination. It is surprising that Oedipus expresses faith in god and worships when the Chorus of Theban elders enter, but in the first stasimon the words of “the master seer” confuse Oedipus, which, incidentally, Chorus explains as “Blurted out / in petulance, not spoken advisedly” and does not condemn Oedipus in his disbelief. In the second stasimon, the Chorus blames Oedipus and Iocasta’s “eulogism of mortals” over the gods. As the Chorus is the voice of all the inhabitants of the city, readers can see the loneliness of Oedipus and Jocasta in their unbelief.
When the messenger of Corinth appears and reveals the truth in the third episodion, all is over for Jocasta, and she leaves the stage to stop speaking forever, because she has already sworn thrice in her disbelief in fate. In fact, it was already over for Oedipus, too, but he stays only to make a final judgment to himself. At the end of the play, Oedipus says to Chorus that his self-blinding is the “trouble that brought Apollo”, but the Chorus answers, “What you have said is true enough”. It remains unclear to whom the Chorus is talking, to Apollo or to the oath that Oedipus has given at the beginning of the tragedy and is now fulfilling it.
On the one hand, if Sophocles wanted to demonstrate the omnipotence of doom, he would be supposed to relate the action of the tragedy with the time when King Laius was murdered and Oedipus married Jocasta. In this case it is the tragedy of knowledge, not of doom. However, on the other hand, in order to create the tragedy of knowledge, Sophocles dis not need Tieresias, while Creon could be expelled not as a traitor, but because of the suspicion of involvement in the murder of Laius. Thus, Sophocles created the tragedy of doom, and even if he did not intend to do it, he would like that the audience would think so.
While the tragic guilt of the ancient Greek character is hubris, the belief in someone’s own omnipotence and further divine punishment for the arrogance, Shakespeare’s tragic characters, on the contrary, are suffering from pride in the Christian sense of this word: they realize that they are not equal to God and commit sins trying to become Him. The protagonist of Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, the Moor of Venice is the man of passion who does not want to be himself. Iago, on the other hand, is a character without passion that rejects his own identity and wants to be himself. He knows his worth and does not want to change. He reacts on other people only in a negative sense.
Shakespeare borrowed the plot of Othello from the novel A Moorish Captain by Giovanni Battista Giraldi, published in the collection Hecatommithi, and reproduced it accurately. In Giraldi’s story, Iago is an ordinary villain: he is in love with Desdemona and he thinks that she is in love with Cassio. Shakespeare began to write the tragedy of a man who suffers from jealousy, while Iago was supposed to be a necessary intermediary. However, during the writing of the play, Shakespeare became interested in the question of why people commit evil not for the sake of evil, but for the sake of self-interest. As a result of this change of accents, Othello became a secondary character, and Iago possessed the audience’s attention. This decision put Shakespeare in a difficult situation in the end.
Iago is rather comic character, such as Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the play, he is acting for his own fun. Most of the actors playing Iago look like gloomy incorrigible villains, and that is why nobody believes them. Iago must be simple and unobtrusive man by the idea of the author. He should be completely ordinary-looking and honest person, so that the audience could believe him, as everything in the play must obey his will. His monologues are off key with his appearance, because his character is conceived as a “lurking villain.”
The only positive character in the play is Desdemona. However, despite his jealousy Othello might be considered quite positive character, too. He is the savior of Venice, a revered general who has the royal ancestors. Nevertheless, he is a lonely stranger to this country, which, in turn, despises him, apparently because he is a Moor. Even during the Venetian council about the true causes of Desdemona’s love, no one but the doge could believe in the sincerity of her feelings. The council wonders whether the Moor appeals to the magic to manipulate girl. Othello accepts her love as an unmerited gift, a miracle and great happiness. He can take any position in Venice thanks to his military merit, but he cannot join the society because of the fact that he is a Moor. These elements points to the contrast between Othello and Venetian society as a conflict between individual and community. Thus, the actions of the society surrounding Othello actually explain why he is gone mad and became a killer.
In conclusion, it is hard to call the downfall of Othello a self-inflicted one, because the main character joins the society where he feels guilty for being born. Society, in turn, puts pressure on Othello, prejudices him, and turns him into a perpetrator and a reason of their problems. Othello is not to be blamed for his tragedy, as his environment forced him to do so. In his drama, Sophocles also tried to show the power of doom over the fate of the hero. Oedipus could not be accused of the fact that he is meant to bring sorrows to his native land. , On the contrary, he tried to change his destiny, though unsuccessfully. Therefore, it could be seen that the heroes of the analyzed plays suffer from the external decisions, made either by doom or the society.