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Greek Tragedy

Part 3: Sophocles

More of This Feature
Sophocles Life

Related Resources
Elements of Greek Tragedy
Oedipus Resources

Elsewhere on the Web
Sallie Goetsch

Aristotelian Tragedy

Tragedy did not mean a play with an unhappy ending. It did mean a noble hero ran into obstacles to what we would think of as happiness. These obstacles could be based on personal excess (as of pride) or a conflict between one set of laws and another. Necessity (ananke) and mortality constrain all of mankind but, even more so, tragic heroes.

Portland State's Sophocles page [www.greekciv.pdx.edu/ arts/drama/ sophocles/mon.htm, 11/18/97] used to say:

"[Tragedy] deals with the pain and suffering caused when an ind ividual, obstinately defying the dictates of divine will or temporal authority, or refusing to yield to destiny and circumstance, instead obeys some inner compulsion that leads to agonizing revelation...."

From Montreat College in Asheville, North Carolina,
[www.montreat.edu/ humanities/english/ King/TRAGEDY.HTM, 11/18/97] comes this interpretation of hamartia:

"A more subtle change was from the numinous morality of Aeschylean tragedy to a focus on human frailties. According to Aristotle, the plot of Greek tragedy involves the fall of a noble man caused by hamartia, some excess or mistake in behavior, not because of a willful violation of the gods' laws."
Aristotle's description of the elements of Greek tragedy can be seen most clearly in the context of Sophocles' tragic hero or protagonist. Although Sallie Goetsch of Didaskalia cautions:
"Aristotle uses Sophocles' Oedipus--the play, not the man--as a paradigm of his ideas about anagnorisis and peripeteia (recognition and reversal). But most fifth-century tragedy doesn't fit Aristotle's paradigm that well. (Sophocles, of course, had never heard of Aristotle, who lived about a century after him.) In Sophocles' time a tragedy would have been defined as a form of choral performance; Aristotle ignores the chorus (in his time not integral to the play) and defines tragedy as 'the imitation of an action.'"

Tragic Hero 1 - Oedpius

"Oedipus is thus the patron saint of philosophers, scientists, poets and artists - of all truth-seekers. Like Mulder and Scully in the X Files, Oedipus knows 'the truth is out there', but unlike them, he doesn't expect to have his eyesight restored for next week's episode!"
Interpretation of Oedipus.
The legend begins with Laius, King of Thebes, learning from the oracle that his son will kill him and marry his wife Jocasta. When a son is finally born, the king orders his infant to be abandoned, with its feet pierced, on a mountaintop.

A shepherd rescues the child, Oedipus (lit. 'swollen feet'), and gives him to his king, Polybus, King of Corinth. When Oedipus grows up he learns from an oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Fearing he might kill Polybus, Oedipus banishes himself and sets out towards Thebes where he runs into a belligerent man whom he kills. Oedipus doesn't know he has killed Laius, or that Laius is his real father.

Continuing on his way he passes a riddling sphinx. Because Oedipus guesses the answer, the curse that has beset Thebes is lifted and Oedipus wins the hand of Jocasta, Queen of Thebes. With her he has 4 children: Eteocles, Polynice, Antigone, and Ismene.

To try to lift a Theban plague 25 years later, Oedipus consults an oracle. This time it says the plague will be lifted when the killer of King Laius has been banished or killed. Oedipus resolves to find and punish the murderer.

When Oedipus learns that Laius had a son whose feet were pierced, things start to unravel. Then the Corinthian shepherd who "rescued" Oedipus the baby comes forth, and all the horrible truth is revealed.

Tragic Hero 2 - Ajax

From Ajax to Odysseus
Times change. The gods no longer prefer a man of action to a man of wisdom. Death or shame are the result of a breach in the code of warriors. When Ajax fails to kill the Greek chieftains he incurs shame for slaughtering the innocent cattle by mistake.
[www.iup.edu/~puyreza/ajax.htm, 11/18/97]
Like a TV melodrama about a Viet Nam vet whose medal-winning skills render him fit only for the street, Ajax, finding his talent no longer valued, goes insane.

Homer's Ajax prays to Zeus, but Sophocles' tragic hero hubristically claims he doesn't need the gods' help in battle. When the armor of the slain Achilles is awarded Odysseus instead of Ajax -- despite a common perception that Ajax was second only to Achilles in what it takes to be a warrior -- Ajax is overcome with vengeful passion. Athena steps in and makes Ajax go mad. Thinking he's killing his comrades, he savagely butchers livestock. Once he sees what he's done, suicide becomes the only honorable way out.

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