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Chapter III


Philosophers and theologians through the ages have debated the question
of the origin of suffering. Both Christian and Greek thought agree that mans
dignity and value are ultimately affirmed by the fact that his behaviour attracts the

attention of heaven. Every generation listens to the ancient world and hears new
resonances in tune with its own contingent preoccupations, and perhaps it is

tragedys very susceptibility to reinterpretation which lends it its aura of

universality. Despite the changes that have taken place in drama it remains
umbilically attached to the ancient theatre. Greek tragedy has exerted such a
profound influence on European art that subsequent western dramatists have not

been able to avoid locating themselves either by imitation or rejection of a

tradition founded by the playwrights of classical Athens. W e are not trying to

interpret Shakespearean tragedy in terms of Greek aesthetic theory but it is true

that in Greek tragedy too people love and hate as in Shakespearean tragedy;
they protect and destroy even like the characters of a Shakespearean tragedy;
like them they deceive each other or themselves. To avenge their fathers deaths,
both Orestes and Hamlet must in turn murder another kin. Both types of plays

translate the clash of will and motive and both represent human actions and
convey them with intensity. So in order to understand and explore the mystery of
the tragic phenomena one is naturally tempted to compare the two great forms.

W e o u g h t to bear in m in d th a t th e re is no s im p le o r s tr a ig h tfo r w a r d

e v o lu tio n o f t r a g ic d r a m a . D r a m a in s o m e fo r m is fo u n d in a lm o s t e v e r y s o c ie ty ,

p rim itiv e and c iv iliz e d , and has s e rv e d a w id e v a r ie t y o f fu n c tio n s in th e

c o m m u n ity . D e s p it e t h e im m e n s e d iv e r s ity o f d r a m a a s a c u ltu r a l a c tiv ity , a ll p la y s

h a v e c e r ta in e le m e n t s in c o m m o n . F o r o n e th in g , d r a m a c a n n e v e r b e c o m e a

p r iv a te s t a t e m e n t in t h e w a y a n o v e l o r a p o e m m a y b e w it h o u t c e a s in g to b e

m e a n in g fu l th e a tre . The c h a ra c te rs m ay be s u p e rh u m a n and g o d lik e in

a p p e a ra n c e , speech, and deed or g ro te s q u e and rid ic u lo u s , p e rh a p s even

p u p p e ts , b u t a s lo n g a s t h e y b e h a v e in e v e n v a g u e ly r e c o g n iz a b le h u m a n w a y s

t h e s p e c ta to r c a n u n d e r s ta n d t h e m . A p la y , th e r e f o r e , te lls its t a le b y t h e im ita tio n

o f h u m a n b e h a v io r . T h e r e m o t e n e s s o r n e a r n e s s o f t h a t b e h a v io u r to t h e r e a l life

o f t h e a u d ie n c e c a n im p o r ta n tly a ffe c t t h e r e s p o n s e o f t h a t a u d ie n c e : it m a y b e in

a w e o f w h a t it s e e s , o r it m a y la u g h w ith d e t a c h e d s u p e r io r ity a t c lo w n is h a n tic s ,

o r it m a y f e e l s y m p a th y . T h e s e d iff e r e n c e s o f a lie n a t io n o r e m p a t h y a r e im p o rta n t,

b e c a u s e it is b y o p e n in g o r c lo s in g th is a e s t h e t ic g a p b e t w e e n t h e s t a g e a n d th e

a u d ie n c e t h a t a d r a m a t is t is a b le t o c o n tro l t h e s p e c ta to r 's e x p e r ie n c e o f t h e p la y

a n d g iv e it p u r p o s e . M a y b e , S h a k e s p e a r e , w h e n h e s ta r te d w ritin g , d id n t k n o w

w hat d ra m a w as. Though we w e re in p o s s e s s io n of g re a t d ra m a b e fo re

S h a k e s p e a r e , it h a d w e ll-n ig h d is a p p e a r e d f o r n e a r ly t w o th o u s a n d y e a r s a g o

u n til it e m e r g e d a g a in fu lly w ith S h a k e s p e a r e . T h e r e w a s n o tr a n s la tio n e v e n o f

G r e e k d r a m a in to E n g lis h . S h a k e s p e a r e ju s t lik e t h e G r e e k s th e m s e lv e s , h a d t h e

g r e a t p r iv ile g e t o p ro d u c e g re a t d ra m a as if fro m n o w h e re and th r o u g h th e

m e d ie v a l m y s te r ie s and m ir a c le s a n d t h e u n iv e r s ity w its , had in itia te d it. H is

d r a m a is a s e x t r a o r d in a r y a s t h a t o f t h e G r e e k s . G r e e k d r a m a t is ts lik e S o p h o c le s ,

A e s c h y lu s , E u r ip id e s a n d a ls o S h a k e s p e a r e h a d n o r e a l m o d e ls ; t h e y a r e p e a k s

w h o r o s e o u t o f n o th in g e x p lic a b le .

. H u m a n b e h a v io u r in G r e e k d r a m a is n o t o f s o m e s p e c ia l, u n iq u e k in d ; it

c o n c e r n s t h o s e f u n d a m e n t a l h u m a n lim ita tio n s w h ic h a r e r e fle c te d t o a g r e a t e r o r

le s s e r d e g r e e in t h e lite r a tu r e o f a ll n a tio n s a n d a ll p e r io d s . T h e fo r m a n d s ty le o f

ancient Greek tragedy, which flowered in the 5th century BC in Athens, was
dictated by its ritual origins and by its performance in the great dramatic
competitions of the spring and winter festivals of Dionysus. Participation in ritual
requires that the audience largely know what to expect. Ritual dramas were
written on the same legendary stories of Greek heroes in festivals after festivals.

John Henry Newman observes:

. . . the Greek drama, as a fact, was modelled on no scientific principle. It

was a pure recreation of the imagination, revelling without object or
meaning beyond its own exhibition.. . The very spirit of beauty breathes
through every part of the composition. W e may liken the Greek drama to
the music of the Italian school in which the wonder is, how so much
richness of invention in detail can be accommodated to a style so simple
and uniform.1

The great size of the Greek arena demanded that the players make grand but

simple gestures and intone a poetry that could never approach the realism of
modern conversational dialogue. Moreover, the dramas of the highest excellence
like those of the Greeks as well as of Shakespeare are not always produced on
the rules prescribed by Aristotle. According to Aristotle the excellence of tragedy
depends on its plot which in turn is the exhibition of an action. But Newman opens

our minds towards something which needs to be noticed:

The Greek tragedians are not generally felicitous in the construction of

their plots. Aristotle, then, rather tells us what tragedy should be, than
what Greek tragedy really was . . . by reference to Aristotles principles,
we think it will be found that the most perfect in plot is not the most

1John Henry Newman, Poetry With reference to Aristotles Poetics (1829), included in English
Critical Essays (Nineteenth Century), ed. by. Edmund D Jones, (Oxford University Press, London,
1916), p. 194.
2 ibid., p p .192,195.

Thus, the beauty and sublimity of Greek tragedy is not contingent upon the
construction of the proper plot and thereby upon action. W hat genuinely goes into
the qualities that give pleasure to the senses and the mind is in the depiction of

the character, sentiments and diction.

Sophocles greatest play, Oedipus the King, may serve as a model of the
total dramatic achievement of the Greeks. Embodied in it, and suggested with
extraordinary dramatic tact, are all the basic questions of tragedy, which are

presented in such a way as almost to define the form itself. It is not surprising that
Aristotle, a century later analysed it for his definition of tragedy in the Poetics. It is

the seminal Greek tragedy, setting the norm in a way that cannot be claimed for
any other work, not even the Oresteia, at least as implied by Aristotle. Newman is

right in observing that Greeks did not write by the principles stated by Aristotle
later but in their own free style with poetry on one hand and character on the

. . .in neither the Oedipus Colonus nor the Phitoctetes, the two most
beautiful plays of Sophocles, is the plot striking; but how exquisite is the
delineation of the characters of Antigone and Oedipus. . .[In
Agamemnon] the very simplicity of the fable constitutes its especial

beauty. The death of Agamemnon is intimated at first - it is accomplished

at last: throughout we find but the growing in volume and intensity of one
and the same note - it is a working up of one musical ground, by figure
and imitation, into the richness of combined harmony. But we look in vain
for the progressive and thickening incidents of the Oedipus.. . The action
of the Bacchae is also simple . . . it exhibits the grave irony of a god
triumphing over the impotent presumption of man, the sport and terrible
mischievousness of an insulted deity. . . Here then are two dramas of

extreme poetical power, but deficient in skilfulness of plot. . . Aristotle,

then, it must be allowed, treats dramatic composition more as an
exhibition of ingenious workmanship, than as a free and unfettered

effusion of genius. The inferior poem may, on his principle, be the better

tragedy. 3

This substantially proves that Aristotles remarks on tragedy need not be taken as
the last words. In the same way his sacred principles on hamartia which leads to
the suffering of the tragic protagonist and to the tragic catastrophe can also be
seriously challenged; if not fully but fairly. Aristotles definition of tragedy excludes
not only the Greek plays but the Shakespearean plays too. Rather than stating

what Greek tragedy was, which was written long time before Aristotle sat down to
write his Poetics, his comments are on what a tragedy of the highest order ought

to be. This way we would do well to examine why they have turned out to be

masterpieces of tragic art.

Each new drama provided the spectators with a reassessment of the

meaning of the legend along with a corporate religious exercise. The chorus of
Greek tragedy played an important part in conveying the dramatist's intention.
The chorus not only provided a commentary on the action but also guided the
moral and religious thought and emotion of the audience throughout the play: it
tells us much of our own moral duty and speaks much of moral good and moral

evil in general. For Aeschylus (c. 5 2 5 -4 5 6 BC) it might be said that the chorus
was the play. For even Sophocles (c. 4 9 6 -4 0 6 BC) and for Euripides (c. 4 8 0 -4 0 6

BC) it remained powerful in differing ways. The superhuman characters of these

plays, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra, Oedipus and

Antigone, are as if from a great operatic tableaux, built for weight and not speed,

and are evidently intended to carry their huge audiences to a catharsis of


Elizabethan tragedies have been concerned with issues such as the

miscalculations which turn out to be fatal, or the limited knowledge of the tragic
hero and the extent to which that person achieves some higher wisdom in the

3 op. cit., pp.193, 196-98.

midst of adversity. In Greek tragedy too often the tragic deeds are committed
unwittingly, as when Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his own
mother. If the deeds are committed knowingly, they are not committed by choice:
Orestes is under obligation to Apollo to avenge his father's murder by killing his

mother. Greek tragedies as Helen Gardner suggests:

. . .are representations of significant actions of the most varied kinds in

which the powers of the gods can be seen, and from which men can
ieam wisdom by gaining understanding of the interaction of human and

divine wills4.

Also, an apparent weakness is often only an excess of virtue, such as an extreme

probity or zeal for perfection as in Euripides Hippolytus. It has been suggested in
such cases, since the tragic hero is never passive but struggles to resolve his

tragic difficulty with an obsessive dedication, that he is guilty of hubris, that is,

presumption of being godlike and for attempting to overstep his human limitations
(moira). Nemesis or divine retribution will pluck him down.

As the Greeks developed the tragic form, they raised questions about
man's existence. W hy must man suffer? W hy must man be forever torn between

the seemingly irreconcilable conflict of good and evil, freedom and necessity, truth

and deceit? Are the causes of his suffering outside him, in blind chance, in the evil

designs of others, in the malice of the gods? Are its causes within him, and does
he bring suffering upon himself through arrogance, infatuation, or the tendency to
overreach himself? Why is justice so elusive? Why is it so, that the whole blame is
ultimately put upon the tragic protagonist?

It is these questions that Aeschylus asks most insistently in his two most
famous works, the Oresteia (the only extant organic trilogy comprising
Agamemnon, Choephoroi, and Eumenides) and Prometheus Bound (the first part

4 Helen Gardner, Religion and Literature, (Faber and Faber, London, 1968), p. 39.

of a trilogy of which the last two parts have been lost). Is it right that Orestes, a

young man in no way responsible for his situation, should be commanded by a

god, in the name of justice, to avenge his father by murdering his own mother? Is
there no other way out of his dilemma than through the ancient code of blood
revenge, which will only compound the dilemma? Again, was it right that in
befriending mankind with the gifts of fire and the arts, Prometheus should offend
the presiding god Zeus and thus be horribly punished? Aeschylus opened
questions whose answers in the Homeric stories had been taken for granted. In
Homer, Orestes' matricide is regarded as an act of filial piety, and Prometheus'
punishment is merely the inevitable consequence of defying the reigning deity. All
of the materials of tragedy, all of its cruelty, loss, and suffering, are present in
Homer and the ancient myths, but are dealt with as necessities self-sufficient
and without the questioning spirit that was necessary to raise them to the level of
tragedy, it remained for Aeschylus and his fellow tragedians first to treat these

absolutes critically and creatively in a sustained dramatic form. They were,

indeed, the bold explorers of the human spirit.

In Aeschylus plays evil is inescapable, loss is irretrievable, suffering is

inevitable. W hat the plays say positively is that man can learn through suffering.
The chorus in Agamemnon, the first play of the Oresteia, says this twice.

Suffering, says Aeschylus, need not be embittering but can be a source of

knowledge. The capacity to learn through suffering is a distinguishing
characteristic of the tragic hero, not only of the Greek tragic hero. It is true of the

Shakespearean tragic hero, even more emphatically. He has not merely courage,

tenacity, and endurance but also the ability to grow, by means of these qualities,
into an understanding of himself, of his fellows, and of the conditions of existence.

Sophocles has been called the great mediating figure between Aeschylus
and Euripides. Of the three, it might be said that Aeschylus tended to resolve
tragic tensions into higher truth, to look beyond, or above, tragedy with a constant

overtone of metaphysics. Euripides' irony and bitterness led him the other way to
focus on the disintegration of the individual. Sophocles, who is often called the

purest" artist of the three, was perhaps truest to the actual state of human
experience. Sophocles sets his characters free on a course seemingly of their
own choosing. If life is hard and often destructive, the question Sophocles asks is,
how did this come to be or why did such a misfortune have to happen; given the
circumstances, how must a man conduct himself, how should he act, what must
he do? This also means that the full responsibility of the tragic catastrophe can

not be put solely upon the tragic protagonist.

In Oedipus the King the torments that Oedipus suffers at the realisation

that he has committed parricide and incest are not adequately explained by the
term 'tragic flaw. Can anyone say at any moment that Oedipus is without
character or without any personality1? He is at any rate a man of virtue. Though

much has been made of the influence of fate on the action of the play, and the
emphasis on the freedom with which Oedipus acts throughout, the later critics

agree with the moral innocence5 of Oedipus and rightly say about the crim es,
which he committed against blood relations that he did so in ignorance of their
identity. In him, Sophocles achieved one of the enduring definitions of the tragic
hero that of a man for whom the liberation of the self is a necessity. The action
of the play, the purpose of which is to discover the murderer of Oedipus' father

and thereby to free the city from its curse, leads inevitably to Oedipus' suffering

the loss of his wife, his kingdom, his sight. There are many verdicts on the play
and according to them the action is so presented that the final impression is not of

human error caused by some kind of pride (hubris). Steering his own course with

5 This is the broad conclusion reached in the writings of A J A Waldock, Sophocles the Dramatis [
Cambridge University Press, 1951 ]; Bernard Knox, Oedipus at Thebes. Sophocles Tragic Hero
and His Times, ( Yale University Press 2nd ed, 1966); Waiter Kaufman, Tragedy and Philosophy,
(Princeton University Press, Oxford, 1969), p. 105; G W F Hegel, Tragedy as a Dramatic Art,
Reprinted from Hegel on Tragedy, in Tragedy, ed by John Drakakis and Naomi Conn Liebler
( Longman, London & New York1998), p.40. E R Dodds too agrees about the moral innocence of
Oedipus in his article On Misunderstanding the Oedipus R ex , Greece and Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol.
13, No. 1,(1966), p. 42.

great courage, Oedipus has ferreted out the truth of his identity and administered

his own punishment, and, in his suffering, learns a new humanity. The impression
that Oedipus creates, far from being one of unmixed evil, is of a massive integrity,
powerful will, and magnanimous acceptance of a horribly altered existence.

Chained to a foreordained fate, he is every moment free.

In contrast, Sophocles Antigone is a play in which the female protagonist

acts, in the present, has full knowledge of the meaning of her actions, and knows
the consequences also. She is very much unlike Oedipus whose actions are
revealed under the pressure of the discovery of his identity, and is held

responsible for the actions he committed in ignorance. But even though the
situations under which they both act are different, the plays have similar concern
with the ethics of action. And again the same question arises: is Antigone to be
held responsible for her tragic end?

The tragedies of Euripides present in detail the wreck of human lives under

the stresses that the gods often seem wilfully to place upon them. No Euripidean
hero may approach Oedipus in stature. The margin of freedom is narrower, and
the question of justice, so central and absolute an ideal for Aeschylus, becomes a
subject for irony. In Hippolytus, for example, the goddess Aphrodite never thinks

of justice as she takes revenge on the young Hippolytus for neglecting her
worship; she acts solely out of a personal spite. In Medea, Medea's revenge on

Jason through the slaughter of their children is hideous. In the Bacchae, when the
frenzied Agave tears her son, Pentheus, to pieces and marches into the town with
his head on a pike, the god Dionysus, who had engineered the situation, says

merely that Pentheus should not have scorned him. Many qualities, however,

keep his tragedies from becoming a mere literature of protest, of cynicism, or of

despair. He reveals a profound psychological insight, as in the delineation of such
antipodal characters as Jason and Medea, or of the forces, often subconscious, at
work in the group frenzy of the Bacchae. He has a deep sense of human values.

Medea, even in the fury of her hatred for Jason and her lust for revenge, must
steel herself to the murder of her children, realizing the evil of what she is about to

do. In this realization, Euripides suggests a saving hope: here is a great nature

gone wrong but still a great nature for all that.


Agamemnon focuses on Clytemnestras murder of her husband

Agamemnon. She wants vengeance because Agamemnon sacrificed her

daughter Iphigenia at Aulis ten years earlier in order to placate the goddess
Artemis. This goddess had been sending contrary winds to prevent the Greek
armies from sailing to Troy and if he refused to sacrifice his daughter she would

prevent the Greek fleet from sailing, in an effort to thwart the will of Zeus. Moira
(share or limit) denotes one's earthly portion, all the attributes, possessions,

goods, or ills that together define one's position in society. Greek society is
stratified, from Zeus to the meanest beggar. To behave in accordance with one's
share is to behave in accordance with one's status; and if one goes beyond ones
limit he is likely to be punished for it. Zeus, the most powerful divinity in the Greek
universe, certainly has the power to go beyond his share; but if he does so, the
other gods will not approve. And Zeus may be restrained, unless he feels that his

excellence, his ability to perform the action, is being called into question. Atreus
sons were commanded by Zeus to mount the revenge expedition. The opposition

posited between Artemis and Zeus means that the divided loyalties among gods
inevitably put all the stress on one man. This shows the suffering that so often
seems to accompany divine intervention in human affairs.

When Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus set out to revenge against

Troy as Paris had taken away Helen with him, Agamemnon was faced with a
terrible dilemma, for he had conflicting sacred obligations to his family and his
army and whichever decision he made he was bound to be sinful. Finally when

necessitys yoke was put upon him he chose to ignore his feelings as a father:

III lot were mine, to disobey!

And ill to smite my child, my households love and pride'
To stain with virgin blood a father's hands, and slay
My daughter, by the altars side!
Twixt woe and woe 1 dwell -
I dare not like a recreant fly,
And leave the league of ships, and fail each true ally;
For rightfully they crave; with eager fiery mind,
The virgins blood, shed forth to lull the adverse wind -
God send the deed be well! (Lines: 249-58)

The choral account of the events before the expedition to Troy is a

reminder of the curse on the house of Atreus.

For virgin Artemis bears jealous hate

Against the royal house, the eagle-pair,
Who rend the unborn brood, insatiate -
Yea, loathes their banquet on the quivering hare. (Lines: 67-70)

Two giant eagles attacked and ripped apart a pregnant hare, killing her and her
unborn young. Artemis, the virgin goddess of hunting gets angered at Zeus
because his eagles had destroyed the hare, her sacred animal. Thus fate and
curse circumscribe Agamemnons choice for which he is apparently held
responsible in the decision to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia by the crafty

5 All the lines that I have cited from the play have been taken from The Harvard Classics,
translated by E D A Morshead, ( P F Collier &Son Corporation, USA, 55th printing, 1963), pp.7-75.

The choral passage on Zeus is an attempt to justify the ways of God to

men and introduces one of the main philosophical ideas of the trilogy that wisdom
is learnt through suffering and that affairs on the earth are controlled by divine will:

To Zeus, and Zeus alone,

He shall be found the truly wise.

Tis Zeus alone who shows the perfect way

Of knowledge. He hath ruled,
Men shall learn wisdom, by affliction schooled. (Lines: 213-17)

There are many mysteries that man can not solve, but God is the source of it all. It
is possible that Aeschylus viewed the gods of the Olympian Pantheon as symbols

of ultimate power and Zeus as the primary moral power in the universe.

Kitto rightly observes:

The vengeance taken on Paris was conceived and carried out

independently by Zeus and Agamemnon. Zeus and Agamemnon are
sharers of the responsibility, which is the literal meaning of the word
metaitioi. As for the other half of the statement, that the gods have
played their part in securing his safe return, we know that this is tru e . . 7

Though there had been a storm at sea, only Agamemnons ship has safely

returned, while, for instance, Odysseus took ten long years to reach home.

At home, Ciytemnestra is the human embodiment of the bitterness and

wrath. She in whose womans breast beats the heart of man (line15), as in Lady
Macbeths. W hereas Agamemnon is a man of heroic stature and great
accomplishments, he is also conceited and pompous at his victory over Troy, and
this makes him vulnerable to Clytemnestras treacherous cajoling. She wants him

7 H D F Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama, (Methuen, London, Barnes& Noble, New York, 1960),

to walk into the palace on a valuable purple tapestry in order to cause him to
commit an act of insolence which is enough to evoke the disgust and hatred of
men and the vengeance of the gods. Agamemnon surrenders to his wifes
pressure and walking on the purple tapestry, enters the palace, soon to die, as

Clytemnestra, with the help of her lover Aegisthus prepares to murder


After the murder the reasons that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus give for the
deed needs to be reassessed. She initially claims that she murdered Agememnon
to take revenge upon him for he had killed Iphigenia:

. . . my husband, when he held as light

My daughters life as that of sheep or goat,
One victim from the thronging fleecy fold !
Yea, slew in sacrifice his child and mine,
The well loved issue of my travail-pangs.. .

That deed of his, I say, that stain and shame,

Had rightly been atoned by banishment; (Lines: 1631-38)

But here Aeschylus wants to stress that Clytemnestra does not believe it to be an
adequate reason herself and so she does not even press it much. Her next
allegation is that Agamemnon committed adultery with Chryseis and Cassandra:

Wronging his wife with paramours at Troy,

Fresh from the kiss of each Chryseis there! (Lines: 1665-66)

In a patriarchal and masculine-oriented culture such as that of the Greeks, men

indulged in sexual relationships outside the home without question. So it is

doubtful whether her claim can ever be recognized. All her excuses ring hollow
since she invokes Aegisthus as her lover and even attributes to him a kinglike and
fatherlike position:

While in this hearth and home of mine there burns
The light of love - Aegisthus -a s of old
Loyal, a stalwart shield of confidence -
As true to me as this slain man was false (Lines: 1661-64)

She claims that she was merely the agent of the avenging fury of Atreus. But
Clytemnestras overwhelming excuses look lame as it is obvious by now that
these are all surface excuses, and the truth remains concealed. The Chorus

immediately makes the claim rebound on her.

When Clytemnestra returns to entice Cassandra, by friendly persuasion, to

the same destruction as that of Agamemnon she remains dumb and immovable.

But scarcely is the queen away when, seized by the prophetic rage, she breaks
out into confused indistinct wailings. Presently, she reveals her predictions to the
chorus more clearly; she beholds, in spirit, all the atrocities which have been
perpetrated within this house: that Thyestean banquet in which the children were
served up to the father, and from which the son turned away his eye; the shades

of the mangled children appear to her on the battlements of the palace. She sees
also the murder which is in readiness for her, and though shuddering at the risk of

death she does not lay the blame for her destruction on either Agamemnon or

Clytemnestra but she blames Apollo for it:

Apollo, Apollo!
God of all ways, but only Deaths to me,
Once and again, 0 thou, Destroyer named,
Thou hast destroyed me, thou, my love of old! (Lines: 1234-37)

Moreover, according to the religious notions of the Greeks, an ancient

curse weighed heavily on Agamemnons house; Aegisthus, the author of his
overthrow, is a son of that very Thyestes on whom his father Atreus had taken so

unnatural a revenge, and this fateful connection is vividly brought before our
minds not by the choral odes, but by the vivid prophecies of Cassandra.

To look for any specific tragic flaw in Agamemnon alone is to disregard the
presence of divine element in the workings of the universe. He who attempts to
work according to the commands of one God is tossed by another from one side

to the other. In short, his life as we know contradicts the illusion of absolute
freedom of action. If this is the truth, then it is mocked by the rough and tumble of
this world as well as the mysterious divine world, where justice struggles against
injustice, good is pitted against evil, and each side insists upon unconditional
surrender. Thus, we cant trace the origin of the tragic flaw in the hero alone. So
to blame it on the hamartia of the hero, leads us only to a circularity from which

there is no escape. W hat is perhaps the unalterable fact is the tragedy of

Agamemnon, the fail from prosperity into a horrible state where his own wife
glories in having caught him in a disgraceful death-trap. All the reasons that
Ciytemnestra advances do not succeed in identifying Agamemnons hamartia:

they only stink with foul infidelity or may be, even incest.


Sophocles presents in his plays mans heroic magnitude which is counter

pointed by his utter vulnerability to circumstances. The poet always recognized
that alongside mans potentialities for greatness are set his helplessness and
mortality. He may indeed be godlike in his achievements and endowments, but he
is caught in the infinite web of circumstances outside his control; the ignorance of
the past, present and future impede his judgment or undermine his will, which
destroys him and others.

Sophocles seems to have been fascinated with the myth of Oedipus, a

story that hurts the human sense of justice even as it appears to hurt religious

faith itself. At the interval of fifteen years, the poet twice worked on this myth. In
420 B. C. he wrote Oedipus Rex. And then again in 405 B.C., at the age of 90,
he took up the same subject in a new form, as if not satisfied with the
denouement he had given to the earlier play, and rewrote it in the form of a
sequel Oedipus at Coionus. Maybe he wished to think out the subject thoroughly

all over again in order to know whether the gods could punish an innocent man; to
know what becomes of man in a world governed by gods. Aristotles two
examples of hamartia are Oedipus and Thyestes who are blamed to have

committed appalling crimes against blood relations but they did so in ignorance
of their identity8.

The story of the play is well known where a man kills his father
unknowingly and marries his mother without having the slightest idea of what he
is. He is punished for these crimes though it had been destined to be so even
before his birth. Oedipus acknowledges these sins as his own, but for which we

do not judge him responsible. The first scene in the drama presents the picture of

Oedipus at the peak of human greatness. A misfortune has descended on

Thebes, a plague is destroying the very seeds of life. Oedipus had once saved

the city from the Sphinx and it is as though he is challenged to save the city once
again. In the eyes of his subjects he is the best man to do so. He carries with him
the splendid memory of his acts, his good deeds. Sophocles has not shown him
as a haughty tyrant, drunk with success, but has given him a pious paternal

image. Even before the people come to beseech him he had sent his brother-in-
law, Creon, to consult the Oracle at Delphi. He feels responsible for the country
he governs and loves, and thus incarnates the highest virtues of man and ruler.
Everything about him is authentic. Every situation presents itself as a series of

incidents or chances of which he can not perceive the connection. There are

8 Gerald Else, Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument, (Harvard University Press, London, 1957),

concurrently two principal problems in the play: the detection of the murderer of
Laius and the identity of Oedipus himself. The tragedy of Sophocles concerns a
resolute, intelligent, civilized man, determined to understand everything; but he
can never do so because there is some mysterious element present in things
which eludes his comprehension and finally destroys him. It is the consummate
and supreme irony of the play that in a bid to save the country he destroys


The first instrument that destiny seems to use to strike Oedipus with is the

prophet Teiresias for whom Oedipus had sent, to help him in throwing light on the

murder of Laius. As the price for the salvation of Thebes, Apollo has decreed the
expulsion of the murderer. Teiresias knows everything, as to who has killed Laius:
he knows it is Oedipus himself and that Oedipus is also the son of Laius. He
constantly refuses to reply because he is aware of the storm that the truth would
raise. It is equally natural that his silence should irritate Oedipus as here is the

only man who would reveal the truth and save Thebes, and he is stubbornly
silent. He as a king then not wrongly, suspects Creon as the assassin and

Teiresias as an accomplice of the guilty man9. Teiresias, who again, feels

outraged by the allegation, proclaims the truth: thou standst there a murderer
(Line 390). The first blow has been struck and Oedipus is now faced with the truth

he has been seeking, but he can not just understand it because of his human
limitations. Bernard Knox gives an account of the Teiresias scene, where he

9 Here I do not want to lay much emphasis on Oedipus outburst on Creon which is seen by many
critics, like Kitto and Lattimore, as his pride (hubris) because this event does not by itself lead to
the catastrophe and moreover he excuses Creon when the chorus demands so. See H D F Kitto,
The Greek Tragedy, A Literary Study (University Paperbacks, Methuen, London, 1966), p.179;
Richmond Lattimore, The Poetry of Greek Tragedy, (John Hopkins University Press, 2003),
pp. 91-2.

Oedipus is so furiously angry at this apparent senseless but nonetheless
terrible accusation that the prophecy makes comparatively little
impression on him, and in any case he did not understand i t .10

Oedipus thinks that the charge is baseless as he believes that he is the son of the
King of Corinth and that he never had anything to do with the land of Thebes prior
to the day when as a young man he had saved the place from the Sphinx. Boal is

rash when he asserts that Oedipus "has a tragic flaw that is his pride as:

. . .even after Teiresias has declared that the criminal is Oedipus himself,
the latter does not accept it and continues the investigation on his o w n .*11

After Oedipus gets the answer for who killed Laius, the pattern of events is so

dislocated that various inquiries are needed to be made, and with the uncertainty

of the issues rises the question of his own identity. A fearless quest for his own
identity leads him on to further investigation. This should answer some of the
modern critics who say that Oedipus caused his own downfall through being too
inquisitive. Moreover, as for the pride of Oedipus, it was not considered to be a

flaw in him. Kaufmann gives a very balanced account of the meaning of pride in
the Greeks. He writes:

. . .the portrait in the Ethics makes very clear that Aristotle did not
consider the pride of Prometheus, Oedipus or Antigone a fault: A person
is thought to be great-souled if he claims much and deserves much"(W D
Ross, in his translation of the Ethics, actually speaks of proud and
"pride").. .In fact, Aristotle says expressly that it was megalopsychia [ the
greatness of soul] that drove Achilles to wrath and Ajax to suicide"
because they could not endure insults (Posterior Analytics II 13:97b).
And we may think of Oedipus as well as Socrates in the Apology, when
Aristotle says: The great-souled are said to have a good memory for any
benefit they have conferred", and It is also characteristic of the great-

10Bemard Knox, Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles Tragic Hero and His Times, (Yale University
Press, 1957), pp.6-7.
11 Augusta Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, (Theatre Communication Group, 1985), p.41.

souled . . . to be haughty towards men of position and fortune" (H

Rackham's translation, Loeb Classical Library).

The popular notion that the central theme of Greek tragedy is that pride
comes before a fall is very wrong and depends on projecting Christian
values where they have no place. For Aristotle and the tragic poets, pride
was no sin but an essential ingredient of heroism.12

The entire meaning of hubris then changes. Thus, Kaufmann rightly states that:

Many who speak easily of the tragic flaw, without being aware of the
problems posed by Aristotles term, hamartia, assume that hybris (which
is not mentioned once in the Poetics) means pride or arrogance, and that
this was the typical tragic flaw of the heroes of Greek tragedy. But the
meaning of hybris has almost nothing to do with pride.. .
Hybris can be contrasted with dike and sophrosyne, two words that are
notoriously hard to translate, but the former suggests established usage,
order and right, the latter moderation, temperance, (self-) control. Hybris
is emphatically not pride in ones own accomplishments and worth, nor
even making a point of ones desert. It is not, like pride, something one
feels (or takes) but rather something that involves action.13

Kaufmanns statements reflect how different philosophers have failed to

appreciate the tragic structure. Oeidpus quest for the true murderer of Laius is
not really because of pride. He is of course not venturing into this quest because
he is proud of his earlier accomplishments when he saved Thebes from Sphinx

but all his endeavour is targeted to save the city from plague. Whether it is
Prometheus, Oedipus or Antigone, they are not acting out of pride but unfortunate

ignorance. So they should not be charged with any serious moral shortcoming.

Jocasta unwittingly is the second instrument chosen to strike another blow

on him. The words of Jocasta to reassure Oedipus that Laius had been killed at
the cross-roads, makes Oedipus plunge into memories of the past. And yet there

12 Walter Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1969), p.63.
13 ibid., p.64-65

is another detail which does not fit in Oedipus mind and that is: the only serving
man who had escaped from the massacre at the cross roads had declared that
his master and his companions had been killed by a band of brigands. Oedipus
knows that he was all alone, and in order to know further he sends for the servant.

Now we have the third strike of destiny: the messenger from Corinth. When

Oedipus was young the oracle had delivered to him that he was to kill his father
and marry his mother and it was for this reason that he had left Corinth and come
to Thebes. When Oedipus wants to unravel the secret of his birth he goads the

messenger on with questions and in answer to those questions the latter tells
Oedipus that he had himself handed him as a child to the king of Corinth, that he
had received the child from a shepherd at Cithaeron14, one of Laius own

servants. His words in the play precipitate the catastrophe as Jocasta links up
everything and understands that she is the mother of the child left exposed.
Jocasta implores him not to force the secret:

Ah, by the Gods, if that thou valuest life,

Inquire no further. Let my woe suffice. (Lines: 1016-17)15

Oedipus puts her request down to female vanity saying:

. . . but I, who count

Myself the child of Fortune, fear no shame.

My mother she, and she has prospered me.

And so the months that span my life have made me
Both high and l o w. . . (Lines: 1038-42)

14 The sinews of the childs feet had been pierced before he was left exposed on the mountain
side. This is the last fearful clue to the identification, the name Oedipus means swollen-footed.
Laius had his son exposed because the oracle at Delphi had warned him that if he had a son, by
that son he would die
15 All the lines that I have quoted from the play have been taken from The Harvard Classics,
Antigone &Oedipus the King .translated by E H Plumptre, ( P F Collier &Son Corporation, USA,
1963), pp.209-254.

This is true of Oedipus that he had been great. Though the greatness is his own

achievement it is destiny which seems to thrust it his greatness on him only to

torment it and mock at him.

Now destiny has in store for Oedipus the final blow. The messenger from
Corinth, the only man saved at the cross- roads, the shepherd who consigned the
unknown child to a Corinthian reveals everything to Oedipus. When the king
learns from his fathers servant that he is the son of Laius whom he had killed and
his wife Jocasta is his mother, he rushes to put out his eyes as though in
response to the blinding truth. It is the terror, pity, admiration we feel for the tragic

hero Oedipus that compels us to ask ourselves: W hy such a destiny for this man?
Is he really responsible for what destiny has done to him? Is he really innocent or


W e see a man caught in a trap. He is an honorable man. The trap had

been laid by the gods, and it is that the gods themselves impose the crime on
him. W e see that Oedipus is innocent because in the first instance we see no fault
in him apart from the voluntary choice by which he has taken the right course of
seeking the truth. W e cannot evidently think that Sophocles here means that

Oedipus has chosen evil freely, because this would attribute to Oedipus a full
consciousness of doing the wrong. He had, on the contrary, tried to escape from

situations that would involve him in evil. It is only in the denouement that he

discovers he had taken the wrong course unwittingly. Laius and Jocasta do
whatever they can to avoid the possibility of crime. Similarly, Oedipus, when he

hears the second oracle, leaves his parents, that is, Polybus and Merope whom
he believes to be his parents. Here we can say that Kitto is wrong in asserting that

once he had heard the oracle he shouldnt have quarreled with a man old enough
to be his father and shouldnt have married a woman old enough to be his mother

and this reveals his arrogance and pride in doing so16. Oedipus seems to know

very well who his parents are and it is just a coincidence that he happens to meet
Laius at the cross roads. Coincidences can lead to causes, but those causes can
not be explained. His killing of Laius is provoked by the objectionable behaviour of
Laius only. As Oedipus tells Jocasta that he met Laius at the cross roads where
he struck/ My forehead with a double pointed goad." (lines: 751-52) These are
the faults which Oedipus is accused of having as pointed out by Kitto and also

Richmond Lattimore17 and Augusto Boal18. D W Lucas in his appendix on

hamartia writes:

Oedipus labours under the disadvantage of not possessing vital

information without which a right decision is impossible...not only is he
unaware who his parents are, but he believes he knows who are his
parents when he does n o t.19

Everyone seems to be arguing from hind-sight. The knowledge of the horrid truth
leads him to commit the disastrous act of blinding himself. If we compare this
evidence with Nichomechean Ethics V8, we seem to get a very paradoxical result:

if Oedipus parricide is to be fitted into one of the categories of NE V8, it is not a

category of mistake (hamartema) at all, but a mishap (atuchema). For it was

contrary to reasonable expectation for Oedipus that he should be slaying his

father. The cause of this lay not only in his negligence but in the external fact that
the passer-by just happened to be his father. Oedipus seems to be acting in a
simple human situation, being totally unaware that he is but playing a part in an
unprecedented drama where the gods have the upper hand.

16 H D F Kitto, Greek Tragedy, A Literary Study (University Paperbacks, Methuen; December

1966) pp. 138-9.
17 Richmond Lattimore, The Poetry o f Greek Tragedy, (John Hopkins University Press, 2003),
p.92; accuses Oedipus for killing a man old enough to be his father and marrying a woman old
enough to be his mother.
18 Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, ( Theatre Communication Group, 1985), p.19
19 D W Lucas, Aristotles Poetics, (Clarendon Press, 1968), pp.303-4.

I would like to deal with Freuds observations on Oedipus also because if
Oedipus had such a psychological complex it could have been for Merope first,

with whom he lived as mother and not with Jocasta with whom he lived as wife,

and here I would like to quote Vernant who writes:

he [Oedipus] doesnt have an Oedipus complex . . . because Jocasta,

the woman he married, is not his mother. He never had the relationship
of a son to her, but to another woman who took him in when he was an
infant. There is not a word in the text to indicate that he had any feeling

at all for Jocasta.20

W e see that neither his good intention nor his faith falters in any

circumstances. As C M Bowra suggests:

The great man is he who, being endowed with superior qualities of body

and mind, uses them to the utmost . . . he spares no effort and shirks no
risk in his desire to make the most of his gifts and to surpass other men
in his exercise of them .21

He desires only one thing, to save his country, and he counts, for his success, on
the support of the gods. If all actions are to be judged by intentions, then Oedipus
is innocent not only of parricide and incest which he neither desired nor was

conscious of. He even consciously tried to avoid the abominable possibilities. No

doubt that he alone without a shadow of doubt launched the series of events that

lead to the tragic catastrophe. But the part he played is such, where in the given
circumstances any responsible man who means good will would do what Oedipus

ruthlessly does. The second oracle too reveals just that much needed of the
future to come true and Oedipus also does not question it more regarding his
parents. The revelation causes those elements of freedom in the human soul to

20 J P Vernant, Greek Tragedy: Problems of Interpretation, cited by Brian Vickers, Towards Greek
Tragedy, (Longman Group Limited, London, New York, 1973), p. 509.
21 C M Bowra, The Greek Experience, (Weidenfield &Nicolson, London, 1958), p.21.

act precisely in the same direction as the mechanism of destiny. Jocasta also

reassures him that at the core of human existence, there is nothing but chance:

Why should we fear, when chance rules everything?

And foresight of the future there is none;
'Tis best to live at random, as one can.
But thou, fear not that marriage with thy mother:
Such things men oft have dreams of; but who cares
The least about them lives the happiest. (Lines: 925-30 )

This is the tragedy of a man in full possession of human worth but driven
by unfathomable forces to tragedy. Sophocles presents Oedipus as a man who
possesses sound human judgment, that is, the power of intellect to choose the

better part in every matter, spirit of decision, energy, and power to translate
thought into action. He had always devoted thoughtful action to the service of the

community. All this is an essential aspect of mans pursuit of perfection. His faults
have nothing to do with a bad use of his gifts or an evil will, trying to cause private

interest to prevail over the public good. At every moment Oedipus is ready to
devote himself entirely to the city. And the words of the chorus at the end of the
play ring in our ears:

Who knew the famous riddle and was noblest,
Who envied no ones fortune and success
And lo! In what a sea of direst woe
He now is plunged. (Lines 1500-4)

This shows that human action is subject to another law that governs all. The

universe seems to be concerned with its own order, an order into which our lives
have a place but which remains inexplicable to us. This sense of an overwhelming
feeling of mystery where the gods are seen as not hospitable to men can be felt in
The Women of Trachis , when Hyllus speaks of the cruelty of the gods. It is even

felt so in Hippolytus where Artemis abandons Hippolytus when he is in his death
agony. W e feel this even in Agamemnon where the gods demand sacrifice of his

own daughter Iphigenia from the hero and in the end leave him alone to be
blamed for this and murdered by his own wife precisely because he has listened

to the gods.

Thus we can say that modern interpreters of the play like Bernard Knox are

unfair, who argue that:

Oedipus action is not only the action of the free agent, it is also the
cause of the events of the play. The hero is not only free but fully
responsible for the events which constitute the pl ot . . . That is to say by
which Oedipus identity is revealed.22

This view of the critics who have stressed him as a free agent, innocent in

intention but guilty in act, have completely neglected the deterministic

interpretation of the play whereby all events including moral choices are
determined by previously existing causes that preclude the experience of an

absolutely free will and the possibility that humans could have acted otherwise.
Moreover as Brian Vickers writes:

. . .freedom means - at the very best - that I am able to act and control
my actions with full knowledge of who I am, so that my intentions
(whether fulfilled or not) derive from a coherent connection between my
present and my past - then Oedipus is not fre e .23

The responsibility of any action ought only, in all fairness, should be

attached to an individual if he knew the full causes and consequences of his
action. And here comes the modern notion of responsibility of an action.
Existentialists like Kierkegard, Nietzche, Heideggar and Sartre, against the

22 Bernard Knox, op. cit., p. 12

23 Brian Vickers, Towards Greek Tragedy, op. cit., p. 499.

Hegelian necessitarianism, interpreted existence in terms of possibility over

reality. It is the feeling of what can happen to a man even when he has made all

of his calculations and taken every precaution. Nietzsche had viewed the amor
fati (love of fate) as the formula for man's greatness. Freedom consists in
desiring what is and what has been and in choosing it and loving it as if nothing
better could be desired. However for all existentialists the choice among
possibilities, that is, the projection of existence, implies risks and limitations.
Heideggar and Sartre suggest that man does not have a nature that determines

his modes of being and acting, instead these modes are simply possibilities from
which he may choose and on the basis of which he can project himself. As
possibility, human existence is the projection, the anticipation, the expectation of
the future. The future is the fundamental, temporal dimension to which the present
and the past are subordinate and existence is always stretched out towards
future. According to the religious form of existentialism, being which is a mystery

is contrasted with having which is the condition of man in the world; that is to say,
man has objects before him that are foreign to his subjectivity, he tries to organise
them and in the course discovers the bond that ties those objects together.

Such is the knowledge that the tragic poets reveal to us in a tragedy. To be

treated by the world as if man is omniscient when the threat that hangs over the

destiny of a man who always remains ridden with ignorance and the world in

which he is to act is almost entirely obscure. This should answer

Richmond Lattimore who writes that the tragedy of Oedipus is the intellectual
tragedy, his tragic flaw is that his wit cannot cover, foresee, account for all24. Man
does not know the ensemble of forces whose equilibrium constitutes the life of the
world. A mans freedom to act is always limited by his circumstances which are

inherited from the past, about the future he knows just one thing that he is to die
one day, and as for the present he is compelled to act as if he is in full knowledge

of things though he is ignorant of what is in store for him in the future. His good

24 op. cit., p 95.

will, good intention therefore, remains ineffectual in preserving him from
misfortune. The human happiness is nothing but an illusion. To quote the words of


To reckon no man happy till aye

The closing day; until he pass the bourn
Which severs life from death, unscathed by woe. (Lines 1505-7)

The destiny of Oedipus appears to us as paradigmatic of every human destiny.

One can avoid being a wicked man, but how can a responsible person avoid

being a man of action? Oedipus is simply a man who through his actions has
made a success of his career, whose life is made up of good works; and now
suddenly in the end he discovers he had always been moving towards a hostile
tribunal of a universe impenetrable to him.

At the end of the play, Oedipus action in destroying his eyes enables us in

fact to reach to the astonishing conclusion of a tragedy: the highest meaning it

contains lies in the catharsis of the emotions. W e fee! pity and fear for the
undeserved sufferings of Oedipus. Oedipus in putting out his eyes embraces the

chastisement that destiny had reserved for him. Here he makes his first gesture
as a truly free man, as he loudly proclaims in his answer to the chorus:

Chorus' O man of fearful deeds, how couldst thou bear

Thine eyes to outrage? What power stirred thee to it?
Oedipus: Apollo! oh, my friends, the God, Apollo!
Who worketh all my woes - yes all my woes.
No human hand but mine has done this deed. (Lines:1308-12)

Oedipus rejection of any daimon behind his impulse to blind himself and his

acceptance of the reality is the mark of a great human being, who unlike any
average person, does not avoid or deny or try to shift the blame to anyone else.
The ordinary, unheroic kind of person runs away or avoids or even tries to put the

blame on others, but Oedipus on the contrary, faces and accepts the truth. It is

beneath the dignity of a person of such high stature like him to evade the

responsibility, though he committed the terrible deeds without being aware of

them. It is his unique way of affirming his identity by reconciling himself to the

forces that had dominated him, from the very birth.

Thus Oedipus attitude is founded on an objective recognition that there

exists in the world that force which is still unknown to man but which governs his
actions. Between this unknown power, this divine mystery, this unknown world

separating the world of man lies a gulf which can neither be bridged, nor
comprehended by man. Oedipus is thrown in the horrid world where his act of
blinding himself, a blow which he delivered on himself, was never in the Oracles

agenda. He has done it with his own hand on himself. It is a strong act of the
human hand at which even the gods should shudder. It is an act of heroic

atonement. This is as powerful as Macbeths incapacity to face his own bloody

hands or Banquos ghost. Thus the tragic hero accepts the divine power only in
the hope of redeeming himself from an offence he had committed without knowing
or even willing it. In a great sense, he wills what the gods themselves had willed.
Brian Vickers writes:

Sophocles Oedipus needs no external moral evaluation of his acts: he is

both judge and executioner. Neither Jocasta nor Oedipus try to evade

responsibility . . . they punish themselves for i t . . . it is a validation of

human morality.25

Oedipus accepts the existence of a reality whose equilibrium seems to have been
disturbed. He seems to perceive the mystery he has unwittingly clashed with. He
realises the threats reserved for the man who wishes to live in greatness and
righteousness. Here the greatness of Oedipus, his lofty human stature, stands
once more aloft. W e see his greatness now not in the sense that we imagined at

25 op. cit., p.517.

the beginning of the play, a greatness which was perhaps founded on good
fortune. Now it is a true greatness gifted by misfortune: he has duly borne the

ordeals and accepts sufferings fully for the evils he had not only never willed but

constantly tried to avoid.

According to Hegel the difference between the accomplished fact and the

purely ideal attitude of the soul in the self-conscious life26 should be seen in
holding one responsible for a tragic catastrophe. Hegel is correct in writing that

with no intention of doing what he has done under the directing

providence of the gods, . . . slays his father, marries his mother, begets
children in this incestuous alliance, and nevertheless is involved in these
most terrible of crimes without active participation either in will or
knowledge . . . crimes of this description . . .were neither referable to
personal knowledge or volition, were not deeds for which the true
personality of the perpetrator were responsible27.

C M Bowras is a justifiably human response:

More subtle and more persuasive than any of these theories is

Aristotles, that Oedipus falls through a mistake (Poetics 1453a16).
Aristotle missed one vitally important element in King Oedipus. He says
nothing about the part taken by the gods in the rise and fall of Oedipus.
His omission is understandable since he was, apparently, not interested
in this aspect of tragedy and did not discuss it in his Poetics. But it
seriously impairs his view. For though Oedipus mistake in killing his
father leads to other disasters, it is itself foreordained by the gods. The
tragic career of Oedipus does not begin with it. His doom is fixed before
his birth.

26 G W F Hegel, Tragedy as a Dramatic Art, Reprinted from Hegel on Tragedy, included in

Tragedy, ed. by John Drakakis and Naomi Conn Liebler { Longman, London & New York1998),
p. 40.
i7 ibid., p. 40

The activity of the gods is an essential part of King Oedipus. Oedipus is

their victim. They have ordained a life of horror for him, and they see
that he gets it. He is even the instrument by which their plans are
fulfilled. The prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother
leaves him no escape. He fulfills it in ignorance of what he is doing, but
he must fulfill it . . . More even than the Women of Trachis, the play
shows how human life is at the mercy of the gods.28

I may be forgiven for quoting from Prof. Dodds lecture extensively since he
has made a very-very valid point which others have missed. According to him:

The immediate cause of Oedipus ruin is not Fate or the gods - no

oracle said that he must discover the truth - and still less does it lie in his
own weakness; what causes his ruin is his own strength and courage,
his loyalty to Thebes, and his loyalty to the truth. In all this we are to see
him as a free agent: hence the suppression of the hereditary curse. And
his self-banishment are equally free acts of choice.29

Dodds is further right in analysing as to why does Oedipus blind himself when we
all know that he is morally innocent:

He [Oedipus] tells us the reason (1369 ff): he has done it in order to cut
himself off from all contact with humanity; if he could choke the channels
of his other senses he would do so. Suicide would not serve his purpose:
in the next world he would have to meet his dead parents. Oedipus
mutilates himself because he can face neither the living nor the d e a d . . .
Morally innocent though he is and knows himself to be, the objective
horror of his actions remains with him and he feels that he has no longer
any place in human society.30

I would like to emphasise that the tragic flaw the tragic hero is supposed
to possess is taken in the Christian scheme to be a moral error, but to the ancient

28 C M Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy, (Clarendon Press, London, 1944), pp.166-7.

29 E R Dodds, On Misunderstanding The 'Oedipus Rex', op. dt., p.43.
30 ibid., pp. 43-44.

Greek philosophers the term implies an intellectual one, an error of judgment.

And to quote from Prof. Dodds, again,

Oedipus Rex is a play about human greatness. Oedipus is great not in

virtue of a great worldly position - for his worldly position is an illusion
which will vanish like a dream - but in virtue of his inner strength:
strength to pursue the truth at whatever personal cost, and strength to
accept and endure it when found. This horror is mine he cries, 'and
none but I is strong enough to bear it (1414). Oedipus is great because
he accepts the responsibility for all his acts, including those which are
objectively most horrible, though subjectively innocent.31

Only thus can we save a moral giant like Oedipus who rises higher than he ever
fell, in the eyes of the gods and men, from disgrace. W e do confirm and endorse
the Christian notion that we sin only if we sin at heart. Though the two ethics
differ in significant ways, the moral insight is almost identical: Oedipus falls in

innocence even as, in a broad way, Adam does. Both are redeemed since they
are not morally culpable.


Let us now turn to another play, Antigone for deciphering the vision of

human life and the concept of hamartia in Greek tragedy. The play Antigone

presents not just the conflict between Antigone and Creon, a collision which gives

rise to Hegels most celebrated analysis of Greek tragedy but something beyond
that which I seek to discuss in this part of the chapter. Hegel argues that both

31op.cit., p. 48.

characters are right from their point of view, yet both are wrong for having split the

ethical claim32. According to him:

Antigone reverences the ties of the blood-relationship, the gods of the

nether world. Creon alone recognizes Zeus, the paramount Power of

public life and the commonwealth.33

And this he says is one of the fundamental features of the dramatic composition
where individuals who act in conflict with each other34 not because of bad will,
crime, worthlessness35, but because of the ethical right to a definite course of

action...the decision and deed depends on the wholly personal aspect of interest
and character, upon lust for power, love, honour, or other similar passions, whose
justification has its roots exclusively in the particular inclination and

individuality .36 The 'ethical claims to which both the individuals adhere and
execute in one restricted direction of particularization, in the end lead to their
destruction and the so-called harmony of the ethical substance is re-established
with their deaths. For Antigone it is the unburied body of Polyneices, for Creon it

is his state and his throne, and it is their conflicting passions which arouse the
whole imagination of the most of the critics.

This is the view taken up by many critics who look for single- mindedness

as the tragic trait in Antigone. Martha Nussbaum assessing Hegels claim in the
light of the play writes that both Antigone and Creon are one-sided, narrow in
their pictures37 and as for Antigone she writes:

32 G.W.F. Hegei, Tragedy as a Dramatic Art, reprinted from Hegel on Tragedy; included in
Tragedy, ed. and introduced by John Drakakis & Naomi Conn Liebler (Longman, London and New
York, 1998), p.39.
33 ibid., p.39.
34 ibid., p.39.
35 ibid., p.39.
36 ibid., p.39.
37 Martha.C.Nussbaum, Fragility o f Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy,
(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001), p. 67.

. . .her single-minded identification with duty to the family dead is the
supreme law and supreme passion for her. And Antigone structures her
entire life and her vision of the world in accordance with this simple self-
contained system of duties. Given in this system if a conflict ever arises
she is all ready with a fixed order of priority that will clearly dictate her

choice. 38

As the play progresses we realise that Sophocles presents Antigone as an

admirable, committed character, while our regard for Creon for his dedication to

the state is vitiated because of the ways in which he uses his power. Is it right for
Creon to refuse burial to Polyneices, the one who is considered as a traitor by the
state, an attacker of Thebes? Here we can say that Creon is right to a particular
extent as the Greeks could legitimately refuse burial to those whom they
considered as murderers or traitors. Complete loyalty to the polis is his theme. But
his particular application of the principle is entirely another matter. Creon goes too

far as he decrees that the rebels corpse be left unburied for the birds to peck at
and the wild beasts to gnaw at:

. . .none should dare entomb,

That none should utter wail or loud lament,
But leave his corpse unburied, by the dogs
And vultures mangled, foul to look upon,
Such is my purpose (233-37)39

And for the person who disobeys, there waits within the citys walls as a

punishment the death of stoning (39-40). Public stoning Kitto writes:

. . .was reserved for public enemies - the only form of execution in which
the whole community could actively take part.40

38 op. cit., p. 64.

39 All the lines that I have quoted from the play have been taken from The Havard Classics,
Antigone &Oedipus the King, translated by E H Plumptre, (P F Collier &Son Corporation, USA,
55th printing, 1963) pp.255-302.

Creon proceeds like a tyrant, imposing his own law towards the dead,
without a higher regard for traditional rights and traditional restraints. Bernard

Knox writes that Creons actions represent those of:

. . .a tyrant prepared to impose his own will, right or wrong, on the city

which he considers his own property.41

It was indeed for this reason that tyranny was hated. He is confident in his
judgment, fearful of conspiracy, unwilling to listen to any person who disagrees

with him. Brian Vickers is right in assessing that:

Creon is not the concrete embodiment of the will of the state. He

embodies his own will, and since executive power is vested in a single
man then - although he claims to be acting on behalf of the whole - it is
really his mind, his intent.42

Hearing the news of the burial of the corpse Creon violently attacks the chorus
when they orthodoxly think that the burial might be a gods action. Creon says
that the chorus has become insane as well as old, and declares that the gods can

not protect a person who had attacked the city and its gods (324-27). Haemon,
his son says:

The Gods, my father, have bestowed on man

His reason, noblest of all earthly gifts...
And yet anothers thoughts
May have some reason. (Lines: 788-92 )

40H. D. F. Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama, (Methuen, Barnes& Noble, London, New York,
1960), p.166.
41 B M W Knox, The Heroic Temper, Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy, (California University Press,
California, 1964), p. 112.
42 Brian Vickers, Towards Greek Tragedy, (Longman Group Limited, London & New York, 1973),

He goes on to remind his father to listen to what others say and:

.. .wear not one mood alone

That what thou say'st is right, and naught but that;
For he who thinks that he alone is wise,
His mind and speech above what others boast,
Such men when searched are mostly empty found.
But for a man to learn, though he be wise,
Yea, to learn much, and know the time to yield,
Brings no disgrace. (Lines: 809-816)

The Chorus makes a fair-minded comment on Haemons speech, but

Creon forgets the two maxims that any Greek audience would think about:
Remember what you are, and nothing in excess. Creon bursts into his typical
authoritarian style:

Chorus: My king! tis fit that thou shouldst learn from him...
Creon: Shall we at our age stoop to learn from him
Such as he is, our lesson?
Haemon: 'Twere not wrong.
And if I but young, not age but deeds
Thou shouldst regard...
The men of Thebes with one accord say, No.
Creon: And will my subjects tell me how to rule?...
Haemon: That is no state
Which hangs on one man's w ill...
Creon: O thou sin-stained soul,
A womans victim ...
Of this be sure,
Thou shalt not wed her in the land of life ...
Haemon: If thou wert not my father, I would say
Thou wert not wise. (Lines: 829-85)

W e find that we are already alienated from Creon as his claim does not

seem to be that of the state but his own. This answers the question which Kitto

poses is the play essentially political: the state versus the conscience of the
individual? 43 At the same time it disqualifies Hegels statement also that Creon
recognises Zeus. Creons violence goes beyond mere male arrogance, family
love and loyalty and even against the sacred laws of Zeus. He is, to say the least
perverse and abandoned both his humanity and a deeper religious sense.

Creon commits himself so that it becomes impossible for him to draw back

on knowing the truth. Creon doesnt even care for the life of his son:

Creon:. . . Thou shalt not go free

To flout me with reproaches. Lead her out
Whom my soul hates, that she may die forthwith
Before mine eyes, and near her bridegroom here.
Haemon: And thou shalt never see my face alive,
So mad art thou with all that would be friends. (Lines: 890-96)

He has the opportunity of relenting, of seeing that circumstances alter

cases, that a King ought to forgive a girl whose only motives are love, loyalty
towards her dead brother, and humanity at large; and he should know how to

differentiate between her and a political enemy. Kitto is right when he says:

[Antigones] appeal is to what we should call the overriding demand of

natural love and common humanity; to him [Creon], this is nothing but
disobedience, lawlessness and folly, with shamelessness added, it is not
enough to say of his behaviour here that it reveals him as the typical
tyrant. It does this, of course; but what we should emphasise is that it
shows his lack of 'understanding', his narrowness, and his reckless

43 H D F Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama, op. cit., p.146.

44 ibid., p.158.
He adheres to his tyrannical wishes and listens to no one not even to Teiresias

who is quintessential^ human when he says:

to err, indeed,
Is common unto all, but having erred,
He is no longer reckless or unblest,
Who, having fallen into evil, seeks
For healing, nor continues still unmoved.
Self-wili must bear the guilt of stubbornness:
Yield to the dead, and outrage not a corpse. (Lines: 1183-89)

Here lies Creons fault that he does not recognize the point beyond which his
arguments have no weight. He swears to punish Antigone, but he changes his

punishment of stoning to death to another way, which he feels is the best kind of

punishment to keep the city free of pollution:

Where the desert path

Is loneliest, there, alive, in rocky cave
Will I immure her, just so much of food
Before her set as may appease the Gods, (Lines: 907-10)

As to the other questions posed by Kitto, that is, is the play an Aristotelian
tragedy of character; and if so, what is the hamartia, the tragic flaw1, in Antigone?

Or is the central figure not Antigone but Creon ? 45 my answer lies in the
assessment of the character of Antigone drawn by Sophocles, who portrays her

As one who of all women worthiest praise,

For noblest deed must die the foulest death.
She who, her brother fallen in the fray,
Would neither leave unburied, nor expose
To carrion dogs, or any bird of prey,

45 H D F Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama, op. cit., p,138.

May she not claim the meed of golden crown? (Lines: 798-803)

In Sophocles play Antigone protests against her uncle, the king who has
denied burial to her brother. The unburied brother may have been a traitor but
after his death he belongs to the gods. Antigone speaks of the ancient Greek way
of being reverent, and one way out of the many is remembering what is to be
human, and by that memory she wants to play a truly human part in lifes drama.
The chorus at first in the play seems to think that Antigone has gone too far; they
think her enthusiasm for reverence to the dead is dangerous, and perhaps also
unjust, and that thy stubborn mood, / Self-chosen, layeth low (Lines 1017-18).
This is exactly what Hegel also seems to think but we should not forget that

towards the end of the play the reformed chorus recognizes that she has
exhibited true reverence and they admire her for this. As for the burial rites Kitto

rightly says that:

it was believed by the Greeks that unless a body was buried, literally or
symbolically, the soul of the dead man could not find rest in Hades; this
explains why such importance is given, in this play, to the burial of

Sophocles presents two sisters and draws a contrast between the two: one
of the two is Antigone who out of love, loyalty, humanity, religion47 stands to
resist the King Creon. As for her hardness to lsmene it is not a major flaw, hardly
enough to spoil a perfect figure. Furthermore, Antigones pursuit of virtue is her

own. It involves nobody else not even her sister lsmene and commits her to
abusing no other person not even Creon. She is determined that any physical

horror should not be inflicted on her brothers body, as it has been noted by C M

Bowra that:

46 H D F Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama, op. cit., p.147.

47 ibid, p.149, Kitto liberally uses these expressions to define Antigone's motives.

Greeks felt that the bond of blood was stronger than any tie of citizenship
and in the last resort imposed obligations which can not be shirked...This
is characteristic of the heroic outlook, which makes a man proud of his
kith and kin because they belong to him, and in exerting himself for them
he obeys something very deep in his nature.48

Antigone is aware of her duty and is conscious enough that in the course of

achieving it she must die, and in this knowledge of hers the beauty of the whole is
enhanced. Here I would like to compare her with Homers Hector who faces
Achilles. Hector knows very well that he is certain to be killed by Achilles who is
stronger than him; still he proceeds to fight with him because he feels that he
owes some duties towards his family, his countrymen; and their protection and
safety is his foremost concern. This sense that a man is bound to perform a
supreme sacrifice for his own people because he lives with them and is tied to
them in such a bond makes Antigone to pursue the burial of her brother and

despite of ail her personal claims as suggested by Hegel, she becomes a vital
part of central significance of the tragedy.

Antigones priority for a brother over other relations is justified by her when
she says:

I had not done it had I come to be

A mother with her children, had not dared,

Though twere a husband dead that mouldered there,

Against my country's will to bear this toil.
. . . Had I lost a husband dear,

I might have had another; other sons

By other spouse, if one were lost to me;
But when my father and my mother sleep
In Hades, then no brother more can come. (Lines: 1051-60)

48 C M Bowra, The Greek Experience, (Weidenfield &NicoIson, London, 1958), pp.29-30.

Sahara B Pomeroy finds Antigones choice reasonable and writes that:

in the context of Classical Athens... patriarchal authority asserted that

the child belonged to the father, not the mother. . .upon dissolution of a
marriage. . .the woman returned to the guardianship of her father, if he
were dead, her brother. Thus the brother-sister bond was very


Antigone shows a deeper understanding of the community and its values

than Creon does when she argues that the obligation to bury the dead is an
unwritten law, which can not be set aside by the decree of a particular ruler. Here
I would like to cite Martha Nussbaum who is right in pointing out Antigones
position that:

the belief that not all values are utility- relative, that there are certain
claims whose neglect will prove deeply destructive of communal
attunement and individual character.60

The ordinary citizens of Thebes also think high of her. According to the people
she deserves not punishment but the crown of gold for showing courage in

questioning the rights of the King by preventing her brothers body from being
savagely eaten by dogs and birds.

A purely humanistic interpretation of the play might leave out of account

one of its essential features, the gods. For the Gods did not in the Greek times
have the habit of taking a back seat in the human theatre. Howsoever vivid the

character drawing may be, or unresolvable the conflict of ethical and political
issues may be, the gods do play an active role in the plays. C M Bowra writes

49 Sarah B Pomeroy, Images o f Women In the Literature o f Classical Athens] reprinted in Tragedy,
ed. by John Drakakis & Naomi Conn Liebler, ( Longman, London, New York, 1998), p.221.
soop. cit., p.66.

this was the glorious time when gods walked visibly on the earth...divine
sanction played part in their ethics...right and wrong ought to be a
concern of the gods because they were emphatically a concern of men.51

And if Sophocles is suggesting and expecting his audience to understand that

Antigone is working together with the gods, if not consciously but perhaps
unconsciously, and gods are on her side, then to search for a tragic flaw in her
would be to proceed on a wrong course. Watchman also speaks of divine hand in
the burial of the body. Chorus too remarks about the hand of God. Creon on the

other hand is revealed as one who is setting himself in opposition to the gods.
Thus Creons original decree recoils upon him to crush him; and on a deeper level
it is the offence against the gods themselves; both work in a parallel mode.

The idea that we come across again and again in Greek drama is, as C.

M. Bowra notes:

There may be conflict between the laws of men and the unwritten laws of
the gods, and when such a conflict arises, the laws of the gods must be

Antigone affirms that the laws of heaven are unwritten and unchanging:

They are not of today nor yesterday,

But live for ever, (Lines 505-6).

When someone acts out of the deepest necessity of human life and when the
Gods are seen on his side, it could be said that the person is working with the
gods and the gods with that person. The universal principle is implied in a

51 C M Bowra, The Greek Experience, op. cit., pp.42-64..

52 ibid., p.68.

particular action. This clears Antigones position which had been left untouched by
the plays theatrical presentation of her single-mindedness.

Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation. The
Greek conception of reality is closely tied up with the concepts of goodness and
harmony. Virtue, for the Greeks, is a matter of attaining our real nature and of
finding our true form. Thus, moral failure is not a matter of guilty recalcitrance, but
simply a matter of error, of shortcoming, or of being unable for whatever reason,
to attain our true nature. Hamartia, then, represents the Greek, and not the
Christian conception of moral failure. Greek heroes are not bad people-Aristotle
explicitly states that they cannot be bad people but are simply good people who
fall short in some important respect. Tragedy is less a matter of showing how bad
people are punished for their crimes, but on the contrary, it is always more a
matter of showing how ignorance and error can have disastrous effects. The
action is tragic precisely because we are all ignorant to some degree, all flawed,
and we may all suffer deeply for these errors. From this very understanding we
may proceed to see whether in a Christian situation, we can sort out our notion
of what happens to a tragic hero when he goes wrong or what is the fulcrum of
tragic experience in a post-Greek tragedy.