Showing posts with label Greek Literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Greek Literature. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Role of Fate in the Downfall of Oedipus in 'Oedipus Rex'

For the Greeks, `Fate` means the foretelling of what will happen. It is the essential part of Greek tragedies and epics and in the case of `Oedipus Rex` it is not otherwise. As it is shown that the characters of the Greek tragedies are free but their freedom is tied with destiny. In the play `Oedipus Rex` fate plays an important role by controlling the destiny of the characters. It controls the characters, Jocasta, Laius and Oedipus, and pre-determines the major events in their lives. But in carrying out the plot Sophocles has shown that the characters are not altogether puppets in the hands of fate. As they are presented on the stage, they are free agents, freely choosing various actions.

The Function of  Fate in ” Oedipus Rex”

Long before the birth of Oedipus, it was announced from the Delphi that he would kill his father and marry his mother. All human beings through their kindness,intellect,inquiry and all other activities acted only to fulfill this prophecy. Here every character tries o trick the fate but ultimately realizes that the fate can not be tricked. As we have seen pity, cruelty, foresight and bravery have all been employed in trying to circumvent fate and have actually themselves woven into the web of fate. The cruel decision of Laius and Jocasta to expose the babe, the pity of the Herdsman who found it,the decision of Oedipus to give up his life as a king’s son by leaving Coriath- all have played their part in bringing about the fulfillment of the fate.              

The fate controls the character,Jocasta. Jocasta knew what the oracle had prophesied and went on to bear Laius’s child and then attempted to get round the consequences of the fate. She has even been willing to kill the child to forestall the horror of what he may do. She makes her decision and commits herself to a course of action which brings her doom upon her.  

The fate also seals the destiny of the character Laius. He did everything to prevent the fate which had been pronounced by the Delphi. He chained and handed over the child to a servant who passed it to a Corinthian shepherd, who passed the baby to the Corinthian king. The child grew up as the son of  Polybus and Merope,the king and queen of Corinth.Subsequently the child,  Odeipus killed his the father, Laius fulfilling the prophecy of the Oracle.

The fate also has the contribution in bringing about the tragedy in the life of Odeipus. He learnt the terrible prediction concerning him from the oracle and like his parents tried his utmost to avert such a fate. He fled from Corinth, determined never to set eyes on his supposed father and mother as long as they lived. Unfortunately, on the way of his journey, he killed his father ,king Laius, unknowingly. He also married the king’s widow.Jocasta, his real mother, after saving the city Thebes, from a frightful monster,Sphinx,who  was causing a lot of destruction. So the unavoidable fate has made Oedipus do two horrible crimes, killing his father and marrying his mother.

The occurrences which bring about the tragedy in the lives of Laius,Jocasta and Oedipus are the work of fate.All these characters performed the disastrous acts as a direct result of their efforts to escape the cruel fate which the oracle at Delphi had communicated to them. They are informed in advance that they will become the victims of certain shocking events. They take whatever measures they think of to avert those events but things turn out exactly as they had been foretold by the oracle.

According to Aristotle, the tragic hero must belong to a well-known family and his downfall is due to his error or hamartia .In this respect,Oedipus as a tragic hero does not meet the criterion .His downfall is fate- bound. Sooner or later he must fall from his position .It can be argued that his inquisition nature is responsible for his downfall.

But it is hard to say whether his inquisitive nature had originated, if the gods would have not sent a plague in the city Thebes and caused the search for the killer of the king.So in the downfall of Oedipus we see the humbling of a great man by the fate or gods. This treatment is not deserved by Oedipus.It is not a punishment for insolence nor it is due to any fault of judgment in man.The gods display their power because they must . Now it is vain to ask why Oedipus is punished fir sins of which he had no knowledge.Man may not cross question the gods and Oedipus has no such right.

But the argument has its other side. Oedipus is not a flawless person. He has many faults in his character. He is rash,hot-tempered,hasty in  forming judgments, easily provoked and very much inquisitive.Not all of his acts are pre-determined. He is a free agent freely choosing a series of actions which lead to his own ruin. The oracle’s prediction was unconditional; it did not say that if Oedipus did such and such a thing ,he would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus does many things to evade his fate, but unfortunately instead of delaying his acts precipitated his downfall.He failed to understand(blinded by the over-confidence)that not all difficulties are riddles to be solved by the application of pure intellect but that some are mysteries not to be solved at all.

Considering all the facts ,we can say that Oedipus is neither a free agent nor a mere victim of fate. The major events of his life are determined by fate, but his own acts such as fleeing from Corinth, killing an old man, marrying an aged woman,without knowing his whole identity,showing over-confidence and milking the shepherd for information all have contributed in precipitating the disaster.

Monday, December 9, 2013

“The Iliad” as a Primary Epic

An epic has been generally described as a long narrative poem, on a grand scale, about the deeds of warriors and heroes, kings and Gods. It is  majestic both in theme and style. It is a polygonal heroic story incorporating myth, legend, folktale, religion, and historical events of national or universal significance, involving action of broad sweep and grandeur. Epics are mostly of national significance in the sense that they embody the history and aspirations of a nation in a lofty or grandiose manner. An epic is a cultural mirror with a fixed ideological stance, often reflecting the best and the noblest principles of a nation’s ethos.

“The Iliad” is an epic poem by the ancient Greek poet Homer, which recounts some of the significant events of the final weeks of the Trojan War and the Greek siege of the city of Troy. Written in the mid-8th Century BC, “The Iliad” is usually considered to be the earliest work in the whole Western literary tradition, and one of the best known and loved stories of all time. Through its portrayal of the epic subject matter of the Trojan War, the stirring scenes of bloody battle, the wrath of Achilles and the constant interventions of the gods, it explores themes of glory, wrath, homecoming and fate, and has provided subjects and stories for many other later Greek, Roman and Renaissance writings.

Epic poetry falls into two distinct categories: primary and secondary epic. The Iliad belongs to the former. A primary epic  begins in medias res. In Medias Res is Latin for "it begins in the middle of things" and then has flashbacks to explain action leading up to that point. In THE ILIAD, for example, the story begins after the war between the combined forces of Greece and the forces of the walled city of Troy and their allies has been in progress for nearly ten years.

Like other primary epics, The Iliad also begins with an invocation to a god or gods. The poet, who in those days would have been reciting the epic to an audience, say, at a banquet, began by calling for a blessing--for a god or gods to attend this effort of his. They probably literally believed that the called upon god or muse came into them and, therefore, that it was not the poet who recited, but the god in the poet's body. Poet's, then, were considered very sacred, for they could call down a god and have the god in them, at least temporarily. We continue to have remnants of this belief, of course.We often think of poets or of any true artist as being different or touched by a special hand.In the case of the beginning of THE ILIAD, the poet says something like

"Sing, goddess of epic poetry, the story of the anger of Achilles."

In a primary epic the theme is usually stated at the beginning of the epic, because these poems are so long and so complex, although the basic stories would have been familiar to the audiences, the poet would begin with announcing what the recitation was to be about. The theme or central interest of The Iliad is the wrath of Achilles, which is stated at the beginning of the poem.

A primary epic usually has many epithets. These epithets are re-namings of the characters, gods, or things by stock phrases. An example is the re-naming of Agamemnon and Menelaus as "Atreus' two sons" or "the twin eagles." It is important for us to notice these epithets, first,because they add description, and second, because we get confused about who is doing what if do not recognize the epithets as well as the names.

In a primary epic, there are catalogues of things and characters; there are many lists, both long and short. Just as the Old Testament has catalogues of genealogies--you remember all those begets--just so do ancient epics keep track of the lists of history. In one book of THE ILIAD, for example, there is a list of the ships that sailed from Greece to Troy.

There are long and formal speeches by many characters. You will not have any trouble spotting these. Sometimes they happen in the heat of battle and other seemingly inappropriate times, but more often they occur at various kinds of meetings, as in an assembly of the chieftains.

In a primary epic, Gods intervene in the affairs of human beings in these stories. For example, in Book I of THE ILIAD, Achilles, getting very angry at Agamemnon, starts to pull out his dagger to kill him. Suddenly, a goddess rushes to the side of Achilles to warn him not to be so hasty.

The setting of an epic is vast. The setting of The Iliad is also vast encompassing both the Greek and Trojan islands.  

Epics use the epic simile. An epic simile is a long comparison of two things that are in different classes. They make vivid an image and describe or clarify. An example can be found in the long comparison of Paris Alexander, a Trojan prince, to a fine horse that has been manger fed a long time in a stable. When released to pasture, it races out with quick, sure strides, neck arched, knees high, mane flowing, proud it its beauty and strength , to race to drink from a clear flowing stream. So Paris ran to battle.

The heroes embody the values of their civilization. The physical strength and stamina of Achilles, for example, is made much of. The lifting of the latch of the door of his stockade requires the strength of three soldiers, but Achilles lifts it with one hand. His spear, thrown so lightly, is eighteen feet long. He is a power machine. Today, we all know, a tiny female can have more killing power than Achilles ever dreamed of. We have created compensations--weapons.

Thus, we see that as an epic The Iliad fulfills almost all the requirements of a primary epic.

Aristotle's Definition of Epic in Poetics and his Consideration of Tragedy as Superior to an Epic

To Aristotle, an Epic is a narrative poem written in heroic hexa-metre. It has four constituent parts namely plot , character, thought, & diction. Aristotle defines every point in much detail & finally, having compared between tragedy & epic, comes to the conclusion that a tragedy is superior to an epic.

According to Aristotle, the plots of epics should be dramatically constructed like those of tragedies. They should centre upon a single action whole & complete & having a beginning, middle & an end. Nor should epics be constructed like the common run of histories. The aim of history is to focus on a single period, while the task of an epic is to focus on a single action that is required. In this respect, Aristotle appreciates the greatness of Homer beyond all other poets. Though the Trojan War had a beginning & a war, Homer didn't attempt to put the whole of it to 'The Iliad'. As whole would have been too vast a theme to be easily embraced by a single view. Homer has selected one part of the story & has introduced mant incidents from other parts as episodes in order to give the poem a touch of variety. Other epic like the authors of 'Cypria' & 'The Little Iliad' have used many separate incident in their works. 

Thus, while only one tragedy could be made out of the 'Iliad' & the ‘Odyssey’. Several might be made out of the 'Cypria' & more than eight out of the 'Little Iliad’. Again epic poetry must divide into the same type as tragedy; it must me simple or complex or ethical or pathetic, & its thoughts & diction should be as artistic as they are in tragedy. The best models,again,supplied by Homer. His 'Iliad' is at once simple & pathetic & ‘Odyssey’, complex & ethical. Moreover,in diction & thought, they surpass all other poems. The epic, like tragedy, requires reversals of the situation, recognition & scenes of suffering.

Epic can be greater in length than tragedy. Unlike tragedy, an epic action should have no limit in time. It is the special advantage of epic that it may be of considerable length. In tragedy, it isn't possible to represent several parts of the story as taking palce simultaneously. Epic poetry, on the contrary, is able to represent several incidents that are taking place simultaneously. And if these incidents are relevant, they increase the gravity of the poems & also relieve the poems of monotony & dullness.

Epic represents the life of an entire period & relates an action concerning the fortunes or destiny of a nation.

The marvellous has a function in epic . The irrational on which the wonderful depends for its chief effects,has a wider scope in epic poetry because there the persons' acting ain't visible. The pursuit of Hector by Achilles in Homer's 'The Ilaid' before the Greeks, standing still & watching the scene with passive interest, would be simply laughable on the stage, whereas in the epic the absurdity passes unnoticed.

In the final chapter of poetics Aristotle raises the question whether the epic or the tragic drama is the higher form of imitation. According to him , the better form of art is less vulgar & the less vulgar is always that which is designed to appeal to the better type of audience . Now it's obvious that the form that appeals everyone is extremely vulgar. Thus epic is said to appeal to cultivated readers who don't need the help of visible forms, while tragedy appeals to meaner minds. If ,then, it is a vulgar art, it is obviously inferior to epic.

But this accusation can be defended by saying that the tragic drama can achieve its end without the help of action. Like epics, the quality of a tragic drama can be staged, while tragic drama can be staged as well as recited. Moreover, the disadvantage that tragic drama appeals to meaner minds can be compensated by the other respects in which tragedy is definitely superior.

The second accusation inherent to tragedy is that when the performers act on the stage ,they sometimes do a great deal of unnecessary movements. The performers can't act the parts of respectable women.

The flute players can't do their job properly. And the older actors always criticize the younger.But this kind of arguing is a criticism of acting, not of poetry , for it is also possible for a bard to exaggerate his gestures while reciting, & for a singer too.

The tragic drama is also superior because it has all the epic elements, while epic doesn't have all the elements of tragedy. Tragic drama may even employ the epic metre ,& it has the additional attraction of music & spectacular effects which are the sources of distinct feeling of pleasure. Then the effect is as vivid when a play is need as when it is acted.

Aristotle is a teleologian, the upholder of the theory that everything has a purpose to fulfill. The purpose of a poetic imitation is to give pleasure. In this respect, tragic drama achieves its ends in shorter compass, and what is more compact gives more pleasure than what is extended over a long period . For example, if the play 'Oedipus Rex' by Sophocles was cast in a form as long as the epic ''The Iliad' , the effect of the play would greatly be diminished. An epic has less unity than a tragedy. An epic can furnish subject for several tragedies & this shows that , then, is less unity in an epic poem.

Concluding his discussion Aristotle says that if tragedy is superior to epic in all these respects , it fulfills its artistic function in achieving its end better than epic. It must be the better form of art & also fulfilling its artistic function then, obviously, in achieving its ends better than epic; it must be the better form.

Aristotle's Theory of Purgation or Cahersis and the Functions of a Tragedy as Given in Poetics

Aristotle believes in teleology, a metaphysical position according to which everything has a  function or end to fulfill. Every kind of poetic imitation has its own assigned function, says Aristotle. The function of a tragedy is to succeed through the representation of an action that is serious, complete and of certain magnitude, in arousing pity and fear in such a way as to accomplish a purgation or Catharsis of such emotions. So tragedy works in a two folds ways   1, first exciting the emotions of fear and pity and  2, then abating them, thereby effecting an emotional cure.

So, Catharsis or purgation, the most debate arousing word in entire Poetics, depends on the emotions coming from the combination of pity and fear. By pity Aristotle means the sympathy we feel for the undeserving sufferer. We pity one who is suffering and to pity we must participate to some extent in his suffering. But we feel pity for one who suffers more than he should. We feel pity for Oedipus, when we see him suffering from undeserved misfortune. We feel pity for Agamemnon hearing his death-cry.    

Agamemnon is not wholly responsible for such kind of suffering. Another essential part of   suffering is fear  which we feel for someone just like ourselves. It is closely connected with pity. We pity others, while we fear for ourselves, if we are placed in these circumstances. We have a sympathetic emotion of fear for one who is similar to us. When we see Oedipus on the stage is suffering from untold sufferings.  We realize our kinship or identity with him. And the effect of tragedy depends on this inward similarity between the hero and the spectator. The hero is as much a human being as any of us. Imaginatively, we feel that we too may meet such a fate, and we recoil. 

According to Aristotle there are two ways in which fear and pity can be aroused in the audience. Fear and pity may be excited in the audience by means spectacle. But they can also take their rise from very structure of the action and this is the bitter way and indicates the superior art. In fact, the plot should be so constructed that even without the use of his eyes, the listener, who hears the late, will be thrill with horror and melt to pity at what happens in the story. This is the impression we should receive from listening to the story of Oedipus. But to produce this effect by means of stage-spectacle is less artistic and those who employ spectacle to produce an effect, not of fear, but of something merely monstrous, are ignorant of the purpose of tragedy. The purpose of tragedy is to give pleasure which comes from pity and fear through imitation.

Fear and pity can also take their rise from the very structure of the plot. And in order to produce such situations the dramatists should choose those horror-deeds that take place between persons who are near and dear to each other. A brother killing or intending to kill a brother, for example- Polyneices killing of Eteodes in Antigone, son killing his father, as Oedipus did, a mother killing her son as Medea did or son killing his mother or any other deeds of same kinds the tragic dramatist must choose. We see that the most of the situations suitable to tragedy are supplied by a number of well- known legends of these well-known families, such as that of Clytemnestra having been killed by Orestes or Eriphyle by Alemaeon.

But the duty of a dramatist is to use these elements effectively. He should use his inventive faculty. Aristotle has suggested four possible ways in which these horror-deeds can be committed.

1) The deed may be done by characters acting consciously and in full knowledge of the facts for example Euripides made Medea kill her children.

2) Or they may do it without realizing the horror of the deeds until later, when they discover the truth, this is what Sophocles did with Oedipus.

3) A third alternative is for someone who is about to do a terrible deed in ignorance of the relationship and to discover the truth before he does it.

4) There is still another way which is least acceptable. In this situation someone in possession of the facts is on the point of acting but fails to do so. Such a situation is shocking without being tragic, because no disaster occurs. Hence nobody is allowed to behave like this, as when Haemon fails to kill Creon in the Antigone.

It is better that the character should act in ignorance and only learn the truth afterwards for there is nothing in this to outrage. Our feelings and the revelation comes as a surprise. However, the best method is one in which the character is about to do an act of ignorance but discovers the truth before he does, when for example in the Cresphontes Merope intends to kill her son, but recognizes him and does not do so, or when the same thing happens with brother and sister in Iphigena in Tauris or when in the Helle, the son recognizes his mother when he is just about to betray her. 

There is a controversy over the fact that which way is the best, the first one or the second one. If we keep in mind the arguments put forward by Aristotle, then it seems to us that the situation in which character does a thing in complete ignorance and later discovers the truth is the best way. But the contradiction arises from the very language Aristotle has used.

Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy and Tragic Hero in Poetics

In chapter 6 of Poetics Aristotle embarks upon the most important subject of Poetics- the tragic drama. And in the following chapters he discusses the nature of tragedy and its constituent parts such as plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song. He also draws distinctions between various kind of plots and introduces us to some technical terms namely reversal, discovery and calamity. Chapters 13 and 14 contain Aristotle’s well known discussion of what he means by his association of pity and fear with tragedy. Now let us proceed to Aristotle's definition of tragedy and its various aspects as given in Poetics.

According to Aristotle tragedy is a representation of an action that is worth serious attention, complete in itself, and of some amplitude. By the expression “representation of an action” Aristotle means the representation of a plot for in his language action and plot are synonymous. By ‘serious’ he means something that matters. Serious is concerned with important values as opposed to what is slight, trivial, transitory or of the surface. The action of tragedy must be complete. By ‘complete’ he means the action which has a beginning, a middle and an end which are causally connected. The action of tragedy must be long enough for the catastrophe to occur and on the other hand short enough to be grasped as a single artistic whole and not like a creature a thousand miles long.

According to Aristotle the language of tragedy should be enriched by a variety of artistic devices appropriate to the several parts of the play. By ‘enriched language possessing rhythm and music or song and by artistic devices appropriate to the several parts’ he means that some are produced by the medium of verse alone and others again with the help of song.

According to Aristotle tragedy should be presented in the form of action, not narration. He distinguishes tragedy from the epic, because an epic narrates the events and does not represent them through action.

Now in order to describe the function of tragedy, Aristotle says that the function or end of  a tragedy is purgation which comes through arousing the feelings of pity and fear in the audience.

According to Aristotle every tragedy has six constituents, which determine its quality. They are character, plot, diction, thought, spectacle and song. Plot, character and thought are the objects of imitation, diction, and song are the media of imitation and spectacle and song are the manners of imitation in tragedy.

Of the six elements, plot stands as the most important element of a tragedy. To Aristotle the ordered arrangement of the incidents is plot. Plot is the life blood or the soul of a tragedy. The plot must be of a reasonable length, so that it may be easily held in the memory. But Aristotle emphasizes on the unity of plot. The plot must be a whole, complete in itself, and of certain length. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end. The various incidents of a plot must be so arranged that if any of them is taken away the effect of wholeness will be seriously disrupted. Plot of a tragedy may be simple or complex. The simple plot is without peripeteia or discovery and the complex is with peripeteia or discovery. Aristotle prefers complex plot like the plot of Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles to simple plot. Of all plots, the episodic are worst.

The second constituent of tragedy is character. According to Aristotle, there are four things to be aimed at in a character.

1, The character should be good or fine.
2, It should be true to type. (e.g unlike Metanippe)
3, He/she should be true to human nature or true to life.
4, He/she should be consistent in his/her behavior. (Unlike Ighigeneia)

Character also, like the plot, should be governed by the law of probability or necessity.

The third constituents is diction which includes several parts such as letter, syllable, connecting words, noun, verb etc. The perfection of style demands clearness without manners. The greatest thing in style is to show a command of metaphor. The use of metaphors is the mark of genius, because to make good metaphors demands an eye for resemblances.

Another important element of tragedy is thought- the ability to say what is appropriate in any given circumstances. It has to be communicated to the audience through the speeches of the characters. Of the remaining parts, song holds the chief place among the embellishments. Then comes spectacle, which surely has an emotional attraction of its own but least artistic. The power of tragedy can be felt even apart from spectacle.

Aristotle separates historical truth from poetic truth and prefers poetic truth as the object of tragedy. He insists that the poet’s function is to depict not what has happened but what might happen.

Aristotle's Definition 'The tragic hero'

Aristotle’s conception of tragic hero finds expression in chapter 13 of Poetics. The heroes of tragedies must belong to renowned families. The materials for tragedies have been supplied by the distinguished families. The men of common birth are unfit for tragedies. That is why; the heroes of tragedies must belong to the distinguished families such as the families of Oedipus, Orestes, Melenger, Thystes etc. A man of eminence always claims our special attention, for when a king or any great man falls a nation is affected.

Now the vital question is that- what sort of ethical outlook should belong to a tragic hero? Should he be totally virtuous or depraved or middle of them?   

According to Aristotle tragedy should represent such actions; tragic poets should represent actions capable of awakening pity and fear. So in order to represent such actions, tragic poets should avoid some sorts of plots such as- good men should not be shown passing from prosperity to misery, for this does not inspire our pity and fear, it merely disgusts us. Nor should evil man be shown passing from misery to prosperity. This is neither moving nor moral. Nor again should an utterly worthless man be shown falling from prosperity into misery. This is moral but not moving.

So, Aristotle’s remarks disqualify two types of characters for tragedy: purely virtuous and thoroughly bad. There remains, then, the character between the two extremes – that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty- hamartia . The hamartia of Oedipus in his over confidence and the hamartia of Agamemnon is his pride.

Concluding our speech we can say that the tragic hero will be a man of mixed personality- neither blameless nor absolutely depraved. His misfortune will follow from some error flaw of his character and he must fall from prosperity. Such a man will help the tragedy in arousing the emotions of pity and fear.