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Myth of the Tragic King -- Sophocles' construction of Oedipus the Tragic King vs. Michael of Puzo's The Godfather
The central theme of the Oedipus myth in ancient Grecian society was that the truly tragic king could not escape his fate, despite his best efforts to do so. With hubris in his heart, the tragic king attempts to avoid what the oracle forecasts, and only fulfills his fate in terrible circumstances as a result of his hubris. However, in modern, American society the idea of uncontrollable fate has somewhat fallen out of fashion. Americans are inclined to look at hubris, or ambition beyond the sphere of one's circumstances with favor. Thus, partly because of the influence of Freud and partly because of the influence of the belief that anyone can succeed in America, the myth of the tragic king, embodied in Oedipus has been rewritten, although it remains a part of American culture. Before, the tragic Greek king could not escape his fate and was condemned to a life of solitude as a result. Now, the tragic king cannot escape his family and is condemned to a life in a profession he does not want, in a family he does not want as a result.
Of course, the themes family and fate are already conjoined to a great degree in the Oedipus myth. The father of Oedipus cruelly abandons his child when he fears it will be his undoing. Ironically, Oedipus reared by a family whose identity he assumes is his own. When he reaches manhood and inquires the oracle what his life's path will be, he hears the same prophesy that his father did so many years ago, that he will marry his mother and murder his father. Horrified, he leaves what he thinks are his natural mother and father. As a result of this hubris, thinking he could avoid his fate, Oedipus the king to be flees straight into the arms of his fate. When traveling on the road, he quarrels with an old man and kills him -- but the man is the king of Thebes, Laius, and Oedipus' father. After solving the riddle of the Sphinx and apparently proving himself as a wise man, then Oedipus marries his mother and brings a plague upon the city, foolishly saying that any man he finds to have caused the plague will be cast out and condemned.
This proclamation I address to all:
Thebans, if any knows the man by whom
Laius, son of Labdacus, was slain,
I summon him to make clean shrift to me.
And if he shrinks, let him reflect that thus
Confessing he shall 'scape the capital charge;
For the worst penalty that shall befall him
Is banishment -- unscathed he shall depart. (Sophocles, "Oedipus Rex," The MIT Classics Archive, 2004)
Likewise, the more urbane Michael of Don Corleone's Mafioso family as depicted in The Godfather also resists the family role he has been cast into. But the more he resists, the more events propel him into becoming the fulfillment of his destiny and his family's destiny. He must eventually take upon the Don's appointed leadership position and become his father. In fact, according to the Internet Classics Page, "Family was [also] everything in [ancient and modern] Greek culture," and even urges the reader to "compare the Godfather films of Francis Ford Coppola to get the flavor of the intensity of family feeling," in Sophocles' tragedy. But the author of the guide uses this as proof that "thus the worst conceivable crime was to kill one's father," in ancient Greek society. "The second worst was to sleep with one's mother," because of this close sense of family connection. Thus in "Oedipus the King," more than "just an incest taboo is involved here," for no Greek could imagine a worse double curse than Oedipus's curse, an entire familial network of relationships is fashioned. A society based in family cannot condone patricide in any form. (Wilson, The Classics Page, 2004)
But note that Oedipus does nothing to bring the curse upon him -- it is just simply that he is born to a horrific fate and forced to fulfill it, despite his desire, as evidenced in the play, to uphold the laws of Thebes as proclaimed by his own lips as well as the laws that have existed for ages. Likewise, Michael Corleone is not a murderous man, but simply by virtue of being born into the Corleone family he becomes the leader of a family of organized crime. (The Classics Page, 2004)
Michael attempts to leave his family -- but like Oedipus, is pulled back within the fold of the family, despite himself, and becomes corrupted by the familial values by mere association and unintentional presence in their midst. But unlike Oedipus, Michael does not betray the family trust. Rather by upholding the family trust Michael subverts the American values instilled in him when he was in the army, at his most independent. Both Michael and Oedipus have a kind of Freudian latency period where they escape their families and appointed fates temporarily, as Michael blends in seamlessly with the overwhelmingly American identity of the G.I.s around him, and Oedipus thinks he is a common man's son. But once they return they assume their father's role in a way they do not want to. (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, quoted from Elpenor Greek World Website)
Ironically, Michael's father did not want him to assume this role of Mafioso leader. The Don wished Michael not to become overly involved with the dirtiest doings of the family, to embody a more pure ideal of the American success story. Oedipus' father did not want him to supplant his role as king. But both sons do assume their father's leadership roles -- and bedroom roles, as even Michael takes upon himself the Don's dirty laundry of revenge.
Both men's ascension to the leadership role of king marks a kind of devolution in morals, masquerading as an evolution, because they become their fathers. Oedipus thinks he frees the city of Thebes, by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, but really he condemns it by resorting to incest to rule -- unbeknownst to him at first, the widowed queen Jocasta is his mother. Michael tries to make his father proud by assuming control of the family's mafia empire and acting as an avenger, but really the Don wanted Michael to have a different, more conventionally American profession, respectability, and life -- a life of peace.
Freud read the Oedipus myth of the tragic king as a study in wish fulfillment. Oedipus' fate, Freud states moves the listener "only because it might have been our own, because the oracle laid upon us before our birth the very curse which rested upon him. It may be that we were all destined to direct our first sexual impulses toward our mothers, and our first impulses of hatred and violence toward our fathers; our dreams convince us that we were. King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and wedded his mother Jocasta, is nothing more or less than a wish fulfillment the fulfillment of the wish of our childhood. But we, more fortunate than he, in so far as we have not become psychoneurotics, have since our childhood succeeded in withdrawing our sexual impulses from our mothers, and in forgetting our jealousy of our fathers. We recoil from the person for whom this primitive wish of our childhood has been fulfilled with all the force of the repression which these wishes have undergone in our minds since childhood." (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, quoted from Elpenor Greek World Website) Oedipus functions as a kind of unconscious study of primitive sexuality, a theme Karl Jung was later to expand upon in his mythical theory of the self, whereby a hero's quest that ends in failure is a manifestation of an inability to find the true self he desires and seeks -- Lancelot's quest to find the grail and failure is evidence of his failure to achieve purity because of his adulterous relationship with his king's wife, Oedipus' tragedy is his failure as a leader and as a son to avoid his fate, and Michael's failure to leave his family is a failure of the American dream of success. (Wilson, 2003)
Michael recoils from the world of the Godfather, at first, but is then drawn into Don Corleone's orbit, despite their best intensions. Freud suggests that Oedipus terrifies us because he does what we all desire to do, to become too close and too much like our fathers in our desires. When Oedipus does this, however, he regains his identity as a Thebes and loses it again, becoming an outcast. Michael becomes an outcast to Italy as the result of an avenging murder he takes upon himself to fulfill, but ultimately must become like his family to find his identity and loses his chance at becoming an ethical participant in the American dream as a more…[continue]
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