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Tragedy in the Oedipus Trilogy
Sophocles is considered to be one of the greatest Greek dramatists, and remains among the most renowned playwrights even today. The Greek tragedy is one of the most influential genres of literary and theatrical history on the modern drama and theatre. The theatre of ancient Greece was inspired by the worship of Dionysus, and the performance of plays was considered to be a religious experience for both the actors and the audience. Because of this, the intensity of the Greek theatre was very strong, and the degree to which the plays were taken seriously as a means of influencing and interpreting life was also very high. According to Aristotle, the philosopher credited with creating the definition of a tragedy, "Tragedy, then, is 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; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality -- namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody." (Aristotle in McManus) Aristotle created this definition many years after Sophocles created his famous Oedipus Trilogy. However, Aristotle studied Sophocles' work intently, and his very definition of the tragedy was derived from his understanding of Sophocles. In fact, Aristotle boldly dubbed Oedipus Rex as the single greatest tragedy ever written. While Sophocles' other plays in the Oedipus Cycle are also tragedies, none fits the definition with as much accuracy. In a comparison of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and the sequel Antigone, it is clear that both have tragic elements, but Oedipus Rex remains the stronger tragedy.
The first way in which Oedipus Rex fits the Greek Tragedy is through the imitation of action, or mimesis. The most important element of tragedy is drama, not the narrative. Many plays revolved around narrative, where the plot was told to the audience, rather than being shown to the audience. (Many writers today follow "show, don't tell" as the most important mantra to be remembered by all writers. [Sawyer] This again reinforces the influence of the Greek tragedy on art.) Aristotle believed that tragedy is more philosophical than history itself because history is simply a narrative of past events, while tragedy shows what may happen. "Tragedy, however, is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place because that is the way the world operates. Tragedy therefore arouses not only pity but also fear, because the audience can envision themselves within this cause-and-effect chain." (McManus) Oedipus Rex clearly uses mimesis. In fact, Oedipus Rex has as one of it's major themes the appearance of reality, and sight vs. blindness. In this way, Oedipus heightens this element. Antigone also utilizes mimesis, however thematically it is not highlighted in the same way.
Unity of Action is also part of Aristotle's definition of tragedy. The cause-and-effect chain of events in Oedipus Rex clearly fits this definition. The plague causes Oedipus to send Creon to the oracle, the oracle tells that Laius's murderer must be banished, Oedipus curses the murderer, who turns out to be himself, Teiresias tells that Oedipus is the murderer, Oedipus denounces both Creon and Teriesias to be plotting against him, Jocasta accidentally slips information which proves Oedipus is the killer, and the intricacies continue to the downfall of our hero. Every single action in the play (save for the arrival of the messenger) is caused by a previous action in the play. In Antigone, while there is a suitable amount of cause-and-effect, there is not nearly the amount of Unity of Action. This is perhaps because Antigone was actually written before Oedipus Rex, and Sophocles had not yet mastered this chain of events skill. The events in Antigone are less intricately connected.
Other elements of the tragedy are far clearer in Oedipus Rex than in Antigone. Among these, conflict with the Divine is a good example. The protagonist of the tragedy is expected to be in conflict with the gods. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is the clear hero of the story, and he is in a struggle with the prophecy which guides his life. He denounces the information which has been passed to him through prophets and oracles, directly accusing the gods of being incorrect. In Antigone, the heroine is not in as clear of a conflict with the gods. Antigone's true conflict is with another mortal, Creon, and while Creon may fancy himself to be equal to the gods, he remains mortal. Antigone is actually in a struggle to do the gods' will regarding proper burial of her brother. The conflict with the divine is strongly related to another expected element of the Greek tragedy, which is the attempt on the part of the hero to circumvent fate. Oedipus is clearly trying to escape from his fate, and has spent his entire life attempting to do so, as the prophecy that he will marry his mother and kill his father has haunted him since birth. In Antigone, however, the heroine is not trying to circumvent fate. Antigone is rebelling against an unfair leader who has made unfair laws, not trying to escape her own destiny. In fact, Antigone is well aware of the cursed background of her family, having witnessed her father Oedipus' downfall. Antigone faces her fate head-on, and when put into a sealed tomb to do, Antigone accepts her death and hangs herself rather than trying to escape from this end. Creon, the other possible "hero" of Antigone, is also not trying to escape fate.
Another important element of the tragic hero that should be present in the tragedy is that he must be in a position of power. Oedipus is clearly in a position of great power. He is the king of Thebes, and held in the highest regard among his people. The fact that his people love him so dearly adds to his power, as does the state of Thebes. The plague has left his people desperate for answers, and when Oedipus steps forward to announce he will end the plague, he is seen as a messianic figure. In Antigone, her heritage (being Oedipus' daughter) has given her a position of power. However, Antigone is the underdog in this story, as Creon is the king, and she rebels against him. She is fighting against the powers which oppress her, powers which are mortal not divine. Creon is in a position of power, and while it has been argued by many that he is the true tragic hero of the story, Creon does not fit the other requirements of the tragic hero.
Perhaps the single greatest way in which Oedipus Rex fits the definition of tragedy, while Antigone is not as clearly a tragedy by the Aristotle definition, is because of the role of the tragic hero. Oedipus is considered to be the prime example of a tragic hero. An illustration of this is the role of hamartia in the play. Hamartia is the mistake or error made by the tragic hero that leads to his or her own downfall. Oedipus' mistake is not knowing who he is, not any evil or corrupted action he takes. He continually makes mistakes, such as leaving Corinth, marrying an older aristocrat, and cursing the murderer of Laius. However, these are not immoral actions, simply bad choices based on a lack of information. In Oedipus Rex, the king is presented as representative of all humans in these errors. The chorus says:
What man, what man on earth wins more of happiness than a seeming and after that turning away?
Oedipus, you are my pattern of this,
Oedipus, you and your fate! (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex)
However, in Antigone, the hamartia is not as clearly defined. What mistake does Antigone make that leads to her downfall? Antigone, unlike Oedipus, is complete aware of her situation. She is well informed of her family's past and knows her heritage. She is aware of the fact that the choices she makes regarding her brother's burial and defying the laws set by Creon. Oedipus is ignorant of what the consequences of his actions will be, and is simply trying to do what is right. Antigone knows what the punishment is for those who defy the laws of the land, and she is aware of the fact that Creon is an unfair ruler that is likely to punish her harshly for her defiance. Along the same vein, the tragic hero is meant to have a moment of recognition that his mistakes have caused his own downfall. Oedipus clearly has this moment of realization when he blinds himself as punishment, and a symbolic move of removing his sight so that he will no longer be blind to the truth. Antigone, however, supports…[continue]
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