What are the differences in the characterizations of Oedipus in Oedipus Rex and Othello in Othello?
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Conflict, or agon, and its resolution is the central aspect of Western theater. The conflicts of the plays are timeless but rooted in specific cultures: The power of the gods in ancient Greece (Oedipus), and the new mercantile order of the English Renaissance (Othello).
Oedipus represents the burgeoning theme of Greek humanism: the impulse of the great individual who rises above the community. In this way, the Oedipus is a parable about the nature of human progress, revealed in metaphors that concentrate on human pursuits like sailing and agriculture. Oedipus is a story in which the protagonist goes backward, not forward, in time. The hero realizes that, rather than the solution to the problem, he is the cause of the plague that threatens Thebes. Though guided by the oracle, Oedipus is also an agent of free will. He prescribes and enacts his own punishment. He converts his heinous crimes—dictated by fate--into a gesture of personal responsibility. His very search for the truth is itself an act of free will.
Though African—and, as such, suspect as an outsider—Othello is a trusted defender of Christian culture. Othello’s noble deeds in battle recall the exploits of the classical hero. Othello embodies the aristocratic ideals of Elizabethan England: honesty, friendship, fidelity, chivalric love. But in light of contemporary values, does such a figure seem noble—or naïve? Though of noble bearing, Othello is a black hero. As an outsider marked by his race, he is a vulnerable man in Renaissance Europe, a continent already engaged in the African slave trade. Othello is tainted by his origins in yet another way, his own mother a practitioner of pagan witchcraft. Othello the outsider uses the “witchcraft” of language to seduce Desdemona. Language, as witchcraft, has many uses. While Othello employs words as a means of seduction, Iago engages them as a potent poison.
While Oedipus concerns the establishment of law after a transgression fated by the oracle, Othello depicts a man who descends to brutality from the advice of a trusted friend. Like Sophocles, Shakespeare believes the tragic hero must ultimately come to recognize his failure.
Both characters evoke a certain amount of sympathy. While they might be guilty of some bad traits, I am not sure they both are "bad" protagonists. Yet, I do feel that there are some distinct differences. While their tragic flaws, hamartia, play a specific role in their downfall, each is uniquely different. For Othello, it is personal insecurity and doubt that cannot be managed. It is this lack of faith in self and in others that ends up causing him to become unraveled and become susceptible to Iago's insinuations. For Oedipus, it is opposite of this. It is pride that compels hiim not to be able to be accept the Oracle's readings. In this light, we see him different from Othello because the configuration that Othello is struggling against is made by humans, in particular, Iago. For Oedipus, fate is the much larger configuration against which he must do battle. In the end, both adversaries play a role in each's downfall, yet each one is different.
I'm including a link below to the Enotes page on "How to Write a Compare and Contrast Essay," since this is clearly the direction that your very interesting question is headed. I'll give you some ideas to get you started. A question like this implies a certain amount of personal opinion, so you should think carefully about what you believe about each of these characters in arriving at your own answer to this question.
First, make a list of the ways that you will compare them. You can set it up like this (a parallel example of a comparison chart is given in the "How to..." link):
- born into royalty (He's also adopted into royalty)
- known for his quick and violent temper
- determined to leave no stone unturned to get at the truth
- married to a woman who has hidden aspects of her past from him
- a murderer
- good at solving riddles
- a very successful military commander, but born a commoner
- shown (in the beginning of the play) to be calm and persuasive in his conversation
- humble (in the opening of the play)
- open to suggestion
- married to a forthright and innocent woman
- a man who has killed other men in battle, but is gentle and affable in his everyday life (as the play opens)
- good at making assumptions -- ie, assuming that 2 + 2 = 5
You will need, if contrasting these characters for an essay, to provide support from the text that demonstrates these qualities. Again, I must stress that these are ways that I would contrast the two characters. You must make sure to develop your own list of qualities, so that you compare the characters in a way that makes sense to you.
Please use the links below for more on Othello, Oedipus and writing a comparison/contrast essay.
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