Can someone explain what this essay topic means: Compare and contrast the corruption of the truth in Shakespeare's Hamlet and corruption of knowledge in Sophocles Oedipus Rex. Corruption has...

Can someone explain what this essay topic means:
Compare and contrast the corruption of the truth in Shakespeare's Hamlet and corruption of knowledge in Sophocles Oedipus Rex.

Corruption has negative consequences in the lives of characters. 

How do I compare and contrast these two corruptions?

Expert Answers
thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In both plays, there are strong religious themes, in which human evil is seen as corrupting both truth and knowledge. In both cases, truth and knowledge are aligned with moral goodness and falsity with evil.

Sophocles appears almost to advocate the Platonic position that "to know the good is to do the good", with Oedipus's lack of knowledge leading to his committing morally wrong deeds. In the case of Hamlet we have the Aristotelian problem of "akrasia" or powerlessness, in which various factors stand between a character's knowledge of the good and accomplishment thereof.

The original source of evil in Oedipus Rex is the curse on Laius after Laius has violated the divinely ordained rules of guest-friendship by mistreating the son of his host. This curse is passed on through the generations, although in Sophocles' late play, Oedipus at Colonus, the curse finally becomes a blessing upon the death of Oedipus himself, although it continues to affect his family. The form of knowledge that is corrupt in the case of Oedipus is not knowledge itself but interpretation. Oracles and other divine signs are able to provide true and accurate insights, but Oedipus, although sufficiently intelligent to solve the riddle of the sphinx is blinded both by the curse and his own pride from correctly understanding the truth; as Tireisias states:

      So I say this to you, 
      since you have chosen to insult my blindness—
      you have your eyesight, and you do not see
      how miserable you are, or where you live,
      or who it is who shares your household.

In the case of Hamlet, we are not dealing with truths that are misinterpreted, but outright lies, first on the part of Claudius who feigns friendship with Hamlet while plotting his death, and then on the part of Hamlet feigning madness though he is really sane. The central difference is that it is not knowledge that is corrupted with misinterpretation, but truth that is corrupted by lying. In the first case, though, Oedipus' metaphorical blindness, which eventually becomes real blindness after he discovers the truth and blinds himself, is due to fate and the curse of the gods; Oedipus himself is basically a morally good character, as are Creon, Jocasta, and Tiresias. In Hamlet, Claudius is intended as a villain, and Hamlet's necessary stratagems to avenge his father put him in a problematic ethical position. In Hamlet, evil destroys truth.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

After first defining what the two terms of "corruption" mean relative to each text and forming your thesis for the essay, you will want to exemplify instances in which this manipulation of the truth and of knowledge influence and even drive the development of plot, theme, and characterization in the respective plays. That is, discuss the impact of the corruption as thematic and how this corruption relates to the analyses of important characters as well as the outcome of the narrative/plot. 

One of the first things that you can do in planning your essay is to determine what the definition of corruption is relative to the two texts. One working definition that you can use is alteration for the worse, perhaps, even manipulation for ulterior purposes. In Oedipus Rex, for example, Tiresias takes a certain part in the corruption of knowledge with respect to Oedipus as he is extremely reluctant to directly inform the king of the reasons for the plagues upon Thebes because he is fearful of Oedipus's anger and because the king may not believe him, as well as fearing the repercussion of making the king miserable, if Oedipus does believe him. In Hamlet, it is more for ulterior reasons rather than self-preservation and the protection of the hero's pscyhe that Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia and others corrupt the truth, making things "rotten in Denmark."

By tracing these two types of corruption throughout the texts of the two tragedies, you can find the points of comparison and contrast that you will need. Form your thesis after you have completed this research and made notes so that you can readily see what points you can support. Often it is effective to divide a worksheet into half with Comparisons at the top of one column and Contrasts at the top of another. Then, an examination of your finding should aid you in forming a thesis and the points which you wish to make that will act as topic sentences for the body of the essay. [You can find some good information from various sites on writing Comparison/Contrast essays; one of which is mentioned below. Note: it is better to use the point-by-point method in which you write about both texts, rather than writing about one, then the other]