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Comparative Analysis of the Tragedy in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Othello

INTRODUCTION

It is known that Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher has written extensively on different subjects including physics and metaphysics, theatre and music, ethics and logic, politics and rhetoric, biology and poetry. The most important ideas of Aristotle concerning poetry can be found in Poetics, his book of literary theory. In this book, the famous Greek philosopher discusses the structure, major purpose and intended effect of tragedy, one of the art forms focused on human sufferings. Although there are a great number of literary works written in the form of tragedy, one can find certain differences between them. The famous Athenian tragedy Oedipus the King written by Sophocles and performed in c.429 BCE and the popular Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello written in 1603 have very much in common, but at the same time there are a lot of differences between them. The major goal of this paper is to conduct a comparative analysis of the tragedy in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Othello, using Aristotle’s notion of tragedy.

ARISTOTLE’S NOTION OF TRAGEDY

According to the ideas of Aristotle represented in his work Poetics, tragedy is always a rather serious literary work which is characterized by dignity and includes the main “great” character who faces a reverse of fortune. Moreover, he considers that a reverse of fortune can be represented in different ways: from bad to good, and from good to bad. The last one is more tragic as it develops fear and pity in spectators. Besides, tragedy as a form of art always results in catharsis, an emotional cleansing of the spectators as response to the sufferings of the main character of the tragedy. Aristotle wrote in Poetics, “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; . . . through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” (Aristotle 21). According to the ideas of Aristotle, the structure of the tragedy should be complex and should represent a number of incidents “arousing fear and pity – for that is peculiar for that form of art” (Aristotle 43). As a rule, a reverse of fortune is the result of some action that is inevitable for the main character. The tragic hero is always a character of noble stature. It means that he should hold the high status position in the society, but he is not perfect. The main character’s downfall may be due to his own fault or the result of some free choice, but not of accident. However, his downfall is not pure loss for the tragic character, as the main character has a chance to develop awareness. So, the main five elements or criteria of the tragedy according to Aristotle include the existence of the tragic hero or main character of noble birth, the tragic flaw, the main character’s downfall, the moment of remorse or awareness, and the catharsis (Jones 12).

SOPHOCLE’S TRAGEDY OEDIPUS THE KING AND ITS MAIN FEATURES

The Greek tragedy Oedipus the King written by Sophocles is a literary work which adheres to all five elements of Aristotle’s tragedy (Jones 56). It is known that in Poetics, the Greek philosopher defines this tragedy as a true example of Aristotelian tragedy with its forms and purpose. The plot of the tragedy is a complex one. First of all, Oedipus is really a noble hero. He is brave and active leader who takes care of his country and his people. However, he is not a perfect man. He has a fiery temper and he is ready to kill everybody who ignores or offends him. For example, he kills Laius the King because of their quarrel concerning the issue: whose chariot has the right of way. He is the son of Laius, the powerful King of Thebes, but does not know the truth about his birth parents. The second element, the tragic flaw is also found in the tragedy. According to Sophocles, Oedipus kills Laius, his birth father being unaware of their identity, and marries Laius’ wife Jocasta, who is his true mother. Of course, Oedipus is unaware of this fact. The main character’s downfall is when Oedipus learns that his wife Jocasta is his mother and that Laius the King is his father, but he cannot change the situation. His father is dead and his mother kills herself when she learns the truth. The moment of remorse is when Oedipus makes a decision to plunge the long gold pins of Jocasta’s dress into his eyes and become blind. He says, “No more, No more shall you look on the misery about me, The horrors of my own doing! Too long you have seen, Too long been blind to those for whom I was searching! From this hour, go in darkness!” (Sophocles 152). The catharsis, the fifth element in the tragedy is when the spectators realize that Oedipus deserves pity. It means that the tragedy Oedipus the King “arouses the emotions of pity and fear, wonder and awe” (Aristotle 10). At the beginning of the tragedy, he is a powerful King who has a beautiful wife and children. At the end of the tragedy, Oedipus is shown as a blind bagger who wants to forget the murders he did, but he cannot do it. He knows that it is his fate and that he deserves this punishment (Jones 37).

SHAKESPEARE’S TRAGEDY OTHELLO AND ITS MAIN FEATURES

The play Othello written by William Shakespeare has many elements or criteria of Aristotle’s tragedy. As an excellent playwright, William Shakespeare uses Aristotle’s guidelines to tragedy in his play Othello. It is known that the play has its tragic hero Othello, a noble Moorish general, whose tragic flaw changes his life and transforms him from a respectful nobleman into a rather destructive creature that will lead him to his downfall at the end of the play. The transformation of the tragic hero creates a complex plot of the play from the beginning to the end of the story. The tragic hero makes the audience feel pity for him and fear for themselves and for other characters including Desdemona and Emilia who are severely killed by their husbands. The downfall of Othello is when he learns the truth about innocence of his wife and the mean plans of Iago and Rodrigo. The moment of remorse of the main character is when Othello makes a decision to kill himself with a sword. He says, “I kissed thee ere I killed thee, No way but this, Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (Shakespeare 142). He realizes that he cannot live when his innocent wife is dead. Being in anger, Othello smothered Desdemona to death when she tried to explain him the truth (Hall 14). The catharsis of the tragedy is represented in the last scene when the audience response to the sufferings of the tragic hero. The catharsis shows the spectators’ pity towards the tragic end of the story as well as fear for their own life. The tragedy Othello can be considered as one of the greatest tragedies written by Shakespeare because the author follows the guidelines of Aristotle’s tragedy (Hall 11).

SOME SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES BETWEEN TWO TRAGEDIES

Both Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello can be defines as narrative poems which discuss and describe the downfall of the main characters. Moreover, the main characters of both tragedies are great men. Othello and Oedipus are two noblemen who are rather powerful and brave. Although these tragedies are written by different authors and in different periods of time, there are many similarities between them in terms of Aristotle’s criteria to tragedy. Thus, both Othello and Oedipus are considered to be tragic heroes. Othello is a highly respected general who served in the Venetian Army, while another hero Oedipus is the king of Thebes (Hall 32). Each of these heroes is respected and honored by the members of their community. Both of them had to overcome many obstacles in order to gain their high positions. The stories of these two characters are similar. Each of the young men has troubles in revealing the truth. Moreover, the wives of both characters played an important role in the tragedies as both of them were dead at the end of the stories. However, there are certain differences between them. It is known that Oedipus’ wife Jocasta committed a suicide, while Othello’s wife Desdemona was murdered. It means that Oedipus and Othello are different tragic heroes. Othello was moved by jealousy when he killed Desdemona. In both tragedies the family and friends of the main characters played an important role as they were active participants of events. Oedipus married his mother not knowing about this fact, while Othello killed his wife according to the severe plans of his companions (Smith 3).

Both Othello and Oedipus are the victims of the tragic downfall which transformed their personalities. However, there are certain differences between them. Othello killed himself because he could not live with such sins, while Oedipus decided to become blind because he did not want to see anything anymore. Both Othello and Oedipus allow the pride to rule their lives. Othello showed his pride when he believed that those people around him would never betray him. Oedipus was too proud of his origin that he could not believe that his birth father was killed by him and his birth mother was his wife (Segal 12).

Both tragic heroes have their tragic flaws that lead to their downfall. According to Aristotle, in tragedy the main characters who are tragic heroes always face a reverse of fortune. In Shakespeare’s Othello, the tragic hero is too violent, self-confident and trustful. He does not believe his wife who is a faithful woman. That is why his fate is so cruel to him. In another tragedy Oedipus the King, the tragic hero also faces a reverse of fortune. Oedipus is sure that his birth parents are King Polybus and his wife Merope. When the Delphic Oracle tells him that he is destined to kill his parents, the young man leaves Corinth and tries to avoid the prophecy of Oracle. However, he could not escape from his fate. Besides, according to Aristotle, the reverse of fate in the tragedy can be represented from good to bad. Both tragedies, Othello and Oedipus the King, have the same reverse of fate – from good to bad (Hall 34).

Both tragedies result in catharsis, when the spectators feel pity for the fate of the main characters. Othello is too trustful, while Oedipus is the victim of the tragic circumstances. Of course, catharsis is obvious in both tragedies.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, it is necessary to say that both literary works discussed in this paper, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Othello are written in the form of tragedy. Both works are written according to Aristotle’s criteria of tragedy, including the existence of tragic hero, the tragic flaw, the reverse of the fate, the downfall of the tragic hero, and the catharsis. The only difference between two tragedies is that in Oedipus the King, the tragic hero blinds himself, but he does not commit a suicide, while in Othello, the tragic hero kills himself. It means that both heroes realize their mistakes and deserve punishment.

 

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Poetics. Createspace. 2011. Print.
Hall, J.L. Othello: A Guide to the Play. Greenwood Press. 1999. Print.
Jones, J. On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. Oxford University Press. 1987. Print.
Segal, C. Oedipus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. Oxford University Press. 2001.
Shakespeare, W. Othello. Wordsworth Editions. 2010. Print.
Smith, S. Love, Pity and Deception in Othello. Papers on Language & Literature. Vol.44(1).2008.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. 2nd Edition. Grene, David and Lattimore, Richard, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991. Print.