Both Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex and William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello share some characteristics, such as an heroic yet tragic figure whose own character flaw brings about the final tragedy. In both plays, the main character’s wife dies as a result of the husband’s flaw. However, some essential differences exist between the plays. In Oedipus Rex, fate plays a central role in determining what happens to the main character, but in Othello, a very human antagonist sets the sequence of tragic events in motion.
In each play, the playwright establishes the protagonist as heroic. In Oedipus Rex, when the news arrives that Oedipus should seek for the murderer of the previous ruler, he determines to do so to serve justice and to appease the gods. As noted by Revermann, Oedipus previously “saved the city in a similar crisis” (794). Very quickly, though, other characters and Oedipus himself reveal his major character flaw is his anger. When Oedipus refuses to heed Tiresias’ words, Tiresias states, “You have found fault with my anger, but your own, /Living within you, you did not see, but blamed me” (356-357). A few minutes later, Oedipus confirms his own anger when he says, “Indeed, since I am so angry, I’ll pass over none / Of what I understand (364-365). Finally, Oedipus admits, “In my anger I struck the driverI killed them all” (834-841). Although one critic states, “Oedipus’ suffering evokes both pity and fear since his fall is not motivated by any ‘conscious’ or ‘deliberate’ transgression on his part, but rather is inherent in the tragic hero’s ‘designated’ fate and hence enforced by divine working,” (Scheepers 137), that interpretation ignores Oedipus’ choice made in free will to kill Laius and his party.
In Othello, the opening scenes reveal Othello to be respected for his valor, when he is summoned to assist with plans for an upcoming battle. Othello asserts himself as a noble character when he says, “1 must be found. / My parts, my title, and my perfect soul! / Shall manifest me rightly” (1.2.29-31). But Othello later foreshadows his own fatal flaw, when he speaks of his feeling for Desdemona. He says, “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee! And when I love thee not. / Chaos is come again” (3 3 90-93). This chaos manifests itself as his jealousy, when Iago leads him to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Othello recognizes his own internal monster when talking to Iago; he states, “By heaven, thou echoest me. / As if there were some monster in thy thought Too hideous to be shown” (3.3.106-08). As noted by Macaulay, “Iago himself reflects back to Othello the same language when he speaks of jealousy as a ‘green-eyed monster’” (273). This uncontrolled jealousy leads Othello to murder an innocent Desdemona, creating the central tragedy of the play.
Both wives in the two plays experience deep grief and die because of their husband’s actions. In Oedipus Rex, Jocasta eventually realizes that her current husband is the son of her previous husband. She initially expresses her grief in words, in lines 1087-1088. After she vents some of this grief verbally, she leaves to be alone. A servant describes her continued grief by stating, “After she had gone into her chamber, frenzied, / She threw herself onto her bridal couch, / Snatching at her hair with both hands” (1272-1274). The servant goes on to reveal that Oedipus breaks into the room and finds that Jocasta has killed herself. The clear implication is that she is so overcome with grief for her murdered husband and perhaps with guilt over her own role in the tragedy, that she could no longer bear to live. But whatever her own guilt, Oedipus’ actions precipitated her husband’s death and her subsequent marriage to her own son; his anger produced ramifications not only for him but for Jocasta and their children as well.
In Othello, however, Othello himself determines he will kill Desdemona; he states, “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men” (5.2.6). He does show some mercy for her soul; as Smith notes, “Othello’s “mercy” also manifests itself in the scene when he asks Desdemona if she has said her prayers and then allows her time to ask God for mercy before she dies” (38). Despite this mercy, Desdemona undoubtedly experiences great fear and grief when she begs for her life in lines 55-61 (5.2). Othello kills her, sealing his own fate.
One major difference between the two plays lies in the use of fate versus a human interloper to bring about the tragedy. While both tragedies could have been averted if the protagonist did not succumb to their own fatal flaw, outside influences initiated the situation leading up to the tragedy. In Oedipus Rex, that outside influence is fate, as decreed by prophecies from the gods. Creon he reports to Oedipus, “He died, and the god now orders us clearly / To take violent vengeance on the murderers (117-118). Tiresias warns Oedipus of his evil and fate in lines 428-452. Jocasta mentions the prophecy that her child would kill Laius in lines 735-753. The chorus predicts Oedipus’ fate by saying, “But if someone goes / Disdainful in hands or feet, / Not fearing Justice, / Nor revering the seats of the holy gods, / Let a bad fate take him” (912-916). In contrast to fate, in Othello, the character Iago serves as a very human interloper who deliberately destroys Othello’s trust in Desdemona. Early in the play, he says, “Make the Moor thank me, love me and reward me / For making him egregiously an ass / And practicing upon his peace and quiet, I / Even to madness” (2.1.308-11).
Ultimately, both plays present very human, multidimensional powerful men who fall from power because of their human faults. They bring tragedy and grief not only on themselves but the people they love the most.
Macaulay, Marcia. “When Chaos Is Come Again: Narrative and Narrative Analysis in Othello.” Style 39.3 (2005): 259. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Revermann, Martin. “Spatio-Temporal Dynamics in Sophocles’ Oedipus The King.” University Of Toronto Quarterly 72.4 (2003): 789-800. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Scheepers, I. “Fate and Divine Working in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.” Akroterion 50.(2005): 137. Supplemental Index. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. New Haven; Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Smith, Shawn. “Love, Pity, And Deception In “Othello.” Papers on Language & Literature 44.1 (2008): 3-51. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Clayton, Delaware: Prestwick House, 2005. Kindle Edition.