Universal Truth in Light of Oedipus Rex and Riders to the Sea
The true value of drama lies in the fact that it communicates universal truths....
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201
NAME: Hassan Basarally I.D.: 806007430 Faculty: Humanities and Education Semester: 2 Academic Year: 2006-2007 Course Code: LITS 1201 Course Title: Elements of Drama Assignment Title: The true value of drama lies in the fact that it communicates universal truths. Discuss this notion by reference to two plays studied on this course. Date of Submission: 21/03/07
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201
Drama possesses realities that are identifiable in everyday life. These realities or universal truths are occurrences in life that repeats itself wherever people are regardless of time, place, ethnicity or any other possible demarcation within humanity. According to Aristotle tragedy is the highest form of drama and universal truths pervade two tragedies, John Milton Synge’s Riders to the Sea and Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.1 Riders to the Sea and Oedipus Rex contain several universal truths, among them fate, death, discovery, hope, efficacy of divine prophecy and fallibility allowing the drama to be a representation of reality. Fate, destiny or will of the Divine propels people to work to achieve their goals despite obstacles as their success might be pre ordained, it also gives solace that failure is not necessarily due to ones inadequacies but subject to a higher plan. Oedipus Rex is considered a “tragedy of fate” (Knox 131). This is because fate is the single source of the majority of action in the play. Fate is inescapable and Oedipus is the perfect example. It is preordained by the oracle that he would commit parricide and incest. He is sent to be killed by his parents but spared by the gentle shepherd. He hears the prophecy in adolescence and runs from committing the act against those he believed to be his true parents. It is from here that he fulfills the prophecy. It is understood that the will of God or the gods in the case of Oedipus will take place without hindrance. The nature of fate is exposed through Oedipus as by ignorance he fulfills his destiny. As for the gods, “Oedipus is their victim . . . he fulfills it in ignorance of what he is doing, but he must fulfill it” (Bowra 167). However though fate is inescapable one still has a degree of free will that when discharged honorably transforms a victim to a tragic hero. This is evident 1
The Poetics (v)
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201 in the self-blinding of Oedipus. The curse he calls upon the killers of Laius, who in reality is he, does not call for self-mutilation. He says: let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful stepI curse myself as well . . . if by any chance he proves to be an intimate of our house, here at my hearth, with my full knowledge, may the curse I just called down on him strike me! (282-287) Oedipus is at this time unaware, his curse calls for exile and degradation. His act is as a need for atonement outside of the curse. This does not contradict Bowra’s assertion that “he is prompted and guided by a daimon, a divine spirit which rules his actions for him” (179). Instead he realizes that the daimon’s influence is from the gods and willingly succumbs. He never uses ignorance as an excuse but accepts the wrong that the gods demand punishment for. As Bowra (185) says “[h] e is not to be condemned for resisting his destiny but to be admired for accepting it in all its horror and for being ready to work with the god to see that he makes his full amends. The concept of fate is also present in Riders to the Sea. Fate here is the driving force of Mauyra. After losing her husband and six of her sons to the sea, she believes that the sea would take the last two. When Michael, one of her two remaining sons, is missing she believes that fate has done its task, despite her daughters hiding the possible evidence from her, clothes retrieved from a body in the north. Now with one son remaining she knows that it is her fate to remain without any. After the last son Bartley conveys on her blessings and leaves to the sea she says, “[h] e is gone now, God spare us, and when the black night is falling I’ll have no son left in the world”.2 Clark (as qtd. in Bushri 46)
The copies of the play provided by the University did not have and line number. Hence they could not be cited in the paper.
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201 States that “[t] he action of Mauyra in trying t keep Bartley at home and Bartley’s action in insisting on going may equally be described as to persevere against overwhelming odds, and in the face of constant and ultimate defeat.” This is the beauty of human nature. Despite fate man continues regardless to the fact that failure is inevitable. “As a tragedy Riders to the Sea is without doubt remarkable in the way is presents unpretentious heroism opposing Sea and Tempest that hang like fate over men’s lives” (Peacock as qtd. by Clark in Bushri 46). Like Oedipus her acceptance of fate gives a heroic dimension. It is not just the acknowledgement of Fate but the understanding that as mortals there are things in life that one cannot explain, understand or control, this gives moral character. The difference between both characters is that Maurya’s lack of “the sense of heightened life” in the end (Donoghue as qtd. in Bushri 48), contrasts Oedipus whose end is the beginning of another noble journey in his life. As long as man lives he dies, mortality stirs man’s insecurity and death is the source of action in tragedy. Death is the most recurring theme in both plays. In Riders to the Sea it begins with the mention of a “drowned man in Donegal” and ends with Maurya saying, “[n] o man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied”. This according to the Dictionary of Literature is a “superb little tragedy and the death of the last son”(206). It is death that causes her melancholy mood throughout the play, the belief that death is her sons’ destiny causes her short unsustained conflict with Bartley and death that causes her to say some of the most profound statements in the one act play. The failure to kill Oedipus results in parricide and incest by him, unwittingly of course. The murder of Laius propels Oedipus into power and when the gods demand justice for his murder, the process of finding the truth uncovers one that causes Jocaster, Oedipus’ wife
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201 and mother to commit suicide. Here the principle movements are governed by death. Death is ever present; the difference lies in response to it and its consequences for those that it involves. The plays show the two extremities of death’s impact on the living. Maurya is strengthened by death, “ there isn’t anything more the sea can do “ to her. On the other hand Oedipus is unraveled by the series of deaths the Fate had dealt. As the Chorus says, "[n] ow what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. / Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, / Come no man happy till he dies, free from pain at last” (1682-1684). Death to Maurya can no longer hurt her while Oedipus awaits it to remove the shame of his crimes from the earth, through his own death. Every human when confronted by a problem goes on a journey to seek the truth; this truth either brings peace of mind or bitter awareness. Discovery or recognition as Aristotle puts it is “a change from ignorance to knowledge producing love or hate between persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune” (xi). Oedipus fulfills this definition better than Maurya. Her recognition is guided through a divine revelation that serves to concrete her sense of fatalism that Michael is dead and Bartley will soon follow. On the other hand Oedipus achieves discovery through his own investigation. This type of recognition is more common throughout mankind and tends to have the most profound consequences. To seek a cure for the plague Oedipus Creon, his brother in law to the Oracle of Delphi, summons Tiresias and interrogates the messenger from Corinth. Through this search for the truth, the truth of his unknown actions comes to bear. Aristotle comments “the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is he produces the opposite effect”(xi). This
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201 creates a “reversal of situation” 3 or what is known in modern terminology as irony. Reversal of situation and recognition are key parts of plot which Aristotle calls” the soul of tragedy” (vi). Oedipus embodies the human nature to be curious, to want to discover. He is not content to have “nothingness” as Bowra says, "[t] he nothingness of man lies in his knowing nothing” (201). He also asserts “[t] he core of the drama is Oedipus’ discovery of the truth about himself” (201). However this seeking of the truth is not just due to man’s need for answers but part of him being a good king. When addressing the priest who comes to beseech his assistance about the plague, he says: I wasn’t asleep, dreaming .You haven’t wakened meI have wept through the nights, you must know that Groping, laboring over my paths of thought. After a painful search I found one cure: I acted at once. . .(76-81) Here one sees the irony of how Oedipus’ search for a cure leads to his destruction. It is acts like these that create a tragic hero. The feeling that a favorable outcome will occur despite the difficulties is a human emotion that is embodied by both Maurya and Oedipus. It is hope that counters the fatalism that Fate brings. Hope allows the belief that anything is possible. In Riders to the Sea, hope struggles against fatalism, a belief that an inevitable destiny awaits. Hope allows one to believe that the destiny maybe what one desires despite all signs to the contrary. the young priest attempt to give hope against Maurya’s tide of fatalism: Nora: Didn’t the young priest say Almighty God Won’t leave her destitute with no son living? Maurya: It’s little the like of him knows the sea . . .
Reversal of situation (peripeteia) is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite subject always to our rule of probability or necessity. See the Poetics xi.
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201 However, she still turns to God in the hope that Bartley would be spared his brothers’ and father’s fate. . . . It isn’t that I haven’t prayed for you, Bartley, to the Almighty God. It isn’t that I haven’t said prayers in the dark night till you wouldn’t know what I’d be saying. . . Despite the strength of one’s belief in fate there is always the faint hope that regardless of circumstances things will satisfy our desires. in Oedipus Rex, Fate for a moment is replaced by hope, though through desperation. As the puzzle of Laius’ slowly begins to fall in place, Jocaster tries to persuade him that Chance rules everything (1069). This creates false hope in Oedipus that his fate is something to be anticipated with gleeful expectations. He declares, “I count myself the son of Chance”(1188). Chance is the hope that luck determines ones destiny, that it is not set but molded by the individual as time goes by. Even the Chorus indulges into these expectations. They speculate that his parentage maybe of some divine nature such as “a nymph”(1206) or “Pan”(1207) or “Hermes”(1210) or “Dionysus”(1211). Hope in a way blinds him of the reality that Jocaster slowly becomes aware of. Despite her pleading he continues to search for his parentage. “He is wildly excited, carried away by a last desperate hope”(Bowra118). Only in this point of the play hope is a comfort not a means. The belief that ones fate and actions are immediately governed from the commencement of a form of Divine communication is present in every society. This “ efficacy of divine prophecy” as Knox (135) calls it involves belief that whatever divine knowledge is revealed will ultimately come to pass and to doubt this would be foolish of the individual. In Oedipus Rex the belief in it resulted in Oedipus’ ankles being pierced and sent to abandonment, his belief in it caused him to flee Corinth and the point where
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201 he fails to listen to it is the beginning of his downfall. “He tells the blind prophet Tiresias “[m] uch as you want. / Your words are nothing - / futile” (416). Though this maybe dismissed as an angry outburst later in the play Jocaster begins to doubt the truth of prophecy as contradicting facts emerge (945). The Chorus responds to this as a blasphemy as for them prophecy is “the very existence of the gods” (Knox 137). They say: They are dying, the old oracles sent to Laius, now our masters strike them of the rolls. No where Apollo’s golden glory nowthe gods, go down. (994-997) It seems that this challenge is met in the end with Oedipus’ fate. However his response is unlike Maurya’s, he has a less insightful understanding of prophecy, what he takes sparingly she takes fully. “He resist . . . because the ways of the gods are always hard for men to understand not least because they are presented in symbols and riddles” (Bowra202-203). Perhaps the divine communication to Maurya was clearer in the image of her son Michael, confirming her motherly instinct. Oedipus is made to understand that the will of the Divine always supercedes Chance, after he calls himself the “son of Chance”(1188); the revelation of his true parentage is revealed. There is a lesson in this as Bowra points out referring to Oedipus and Jocaster, they show a grave irresponsibility and culpable ignorance of what the gods are “(207). This is not to be expected from those of their stature as rulers of a land subject to the gods. Hence the heroic dimension of Oedipus appears again, his treatment is “a means to enforce a lesson on others”(Bowra176). He accepts this, coming to the realization after his folly that Chance occurs not alone instead it is assisted by a higher power. The other lesson is that of the
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201 Gods’ stance on crime, such as incest and parricide, they are still crimes whether committed knowingly or in ignorance and will be punished. In Riders to the Sea Maurya sees a vision of her now dead son Michael, “ I looked up then and I crying,at the grey pony, and there was Michael upon it. . . “. This is a negation of any doubt and an affirmation of the fate she believes is in store for Bartley. She says, “Bartley will be lost now”. “Maurya is the voice of humanity uttering its resignation to an incurable human plight”(Deane60). Maurya is the archetype of those who never doubt the truth from divine prophecy. Instead they await it and prepare to face the trials and tribulations that come with it. This is shown in her response to Michael and Bartley’s death, she is not overcome with grief as she has grieved through the entire play. Here prophecy soothes the emotional trauma and she is able to give the blessing that she could not have before” and may He have mercy on my soul, Nora, and on the soul of everyone that is left living in the world”. Man’s action carry consequences, his flaws either strike him immediately or for men to cause his downfall, even if the flaw is of a conscious or unconscious nature. Oedipus Rex displays the effects of fallibility. According to the Dictionary of Literature Sophocles is a good dramatist because “his characters are plausible, have recognizable human failings and in their tragic situations have a story element of pathos”(194). This recognizable human failing is the most outstanding universal truth. The errors made by Oedipus do not account for his fate, however it makes the outcome of the play more painful to him. The errors in judgment that he has are pride or overconfidence, anger and haste. Pride is a flaw displayed by Oedipus when faced with the extremely difficult task of finding Laius’ murderers. His pride or overconfidence leads to his judgment being
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201 clouded so much that when he is told the truth he rejects it. In turn the truth devastates him. Had he been able to realize it sooner he would have braced himself for the horrible truth. He is warned by the Chorus “ [p] ride breeds the tyrant” (963). He is so confident that he cannot be the murderer that he disregards Tiresias’ refusal to divulge the murderer and assigns to it sinister motives. Even Jocaster is fooled by overconfidence that she speaks harshly of the divine laws (948-949). Scholia says” pride breeds the tyrant whenever there comes to be a vain superabundance for a person of things which are not opportune or fitting for him”. Their superabundance lies in not taking fate into consideration constantly. Bowra actually claims that his punishment is not just for killing Laius but” being in general proud and aggressive” (165). Anger also seems to be one of Oedipus’ weaknesses. When he recounts his meeting with Laius where the three roads meet he describes his response to being pushed out of the way. He says” I struck him in anger!”(891). He also shows that he cannot control it as he says “I paid him back with interest!” (894). It is in anger that he lashes out against Tiresias and Creon; the two that could offer the most help to him. It is anger that turns his quest to uncover Laius’ murder into an obsession leading to haste. Haste is another of his failings that makes the truth of his parentage unbearable to both him and his wife. Despite his wife’s pleading he continues his search, she has begun to realize the reality of the situation unlike Oedipus. As Scodel puts it” all his energy and skill have only brought him ruin”(70). The concept of fate requires submissision to the divine will, however man still has the ability to soften the blow fate throws. It is through failings that man’s life becomes more difficult, but since one rarely realizes ones failings or realizes it too late they become an unfortunate part of existence.
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201 As life is represented in drama, good drama possesses universal truths. Fate gives one the belief in a higher order. Death is a part of life that one has to confront. Discovery is a process that one must undertake top find the truth. Hope is an emotion that allows one to believe in the unlikely. Efficacy of divine prophecy gives one a personal line of communication with the Divine. And fallibility gives one the opportunity to learn frame ones mistakes. These truths present in every day life give a sense of believability that is necessary for drama to reach the audience.
Hassan Basarally 806007430 LITS 1201 Bibliography
Aristotle. Theory of Poetry and Fine Art. Translated by S.H. Butcher.London:Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,1911. Author unknown. Dictionary of Literature. New Lanark:Children’s Leisure Products Ltd. 1995. Bowra, C. M. Sophoclean Tragedy. London : Oxford University Press,1964. Bushrui,S.B, ed. Sunshine and the Moon’s Delight. Beirut:American University of Beirut & Colin Smythe Ltd., 1972. Deane,S. Celtic Revivals:Essays in modern Irish Literature, London: Faber & Faber, 1985. Scholia, Sophoclis Trageodias Vetera, Translated by A Cook,Leipzig:Teubner,1888. Scodel, R. Sophocles. Boston:Twayne Publishers,1984. Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, Translated by R. Fagles, Princeton: Penguin Classics, 1983.