Friday, September 13, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Tragedy

Oedipus Rex By Sophocles. Ancient Greek tragedy.

Oedipus, King of Thebes, has a problem. A horrible plague has struck his country. It becomes clear that the gods meting out justice because his country has committed some terrible sin, but no one knows what the sin is. Also, unknown to him, what has happened has been ordained by the gods. As a matter of his fate or as the Greeks might say, his moira. Moira was an act of the Fates. What they decided would happen to you IS what happened to you. There was no escape. Not even the gods could help.

Long before the play opens, Oedipus' father, Laius is the king of Thebes. He receives a prophecy that his son will kill him. So, when his son is born the attacks the baby by pinning its feet together. He then gives it to someone to take it out and kill it.

The baby is abandoned and left to die. But a shepherd finds the infant and adopts it. Later the boy learns that he has been condemned by the Fates to kill his father and marry his mother. Because he is a good person and loves his parents, he runs away from home to prevent this from happening. When he comes to Thebes he fights the king, kills him and marries the king's widow. Strange as it seems, the Greeks considered this an acceptable method of gaining a kingship, at least in plays.

You must remember that Oedipus did not know the man he was killing was his father or that the woman he was marrying was his mother. He thought he was the son of the shepherd who raised him. But ancient Greek morality was very rigid. It didn't matter that the whole thing was a mistake and wasn't Oedipus' fault. The fact is he killed his father and married his mother, so the gods were determined to punish the entire country for what he had done. After all, he was the king, so all his subjects must suffer for his sins. This is also reflected in the Bible, remember that Israel was punished because of the sins of King David.

When Oedipus finds out that all this has happened. He is horrified. He gouges out his own eyes and flees the country to wander the world alone and helpless. His daughter decides to go along with him because of her devotion to her father. Of course, his daughter is also his sister because of the cruel trick the Fates played upon him.

Oedipus has been punished, so the gods are happy and the plague ends.

There are several morals in the story. Number one is that you cannot escape your fate. The matter what you do, you are doomed. The second moral is that if a king does something wrong the entire country must be punished for it even though everyone else is totally innocent. The final lesson is that if you do something wrong, even if you were forced to do so by the Fates and did so completely innocently, without intending any wrong, you're still guilty and deserve punishment.

None of those morals are commonly accepted today. Students of literature often refer to Greek tragedy versus Shakespearean tragedy. Greek tragedy is as described above. Shakespearean tragedy says the bad things happen to people because of their own choices and their own actions, not because of blind fate. Even though Shakespeare referred to Romeo and Juliet as starcrossed lovers, suggesting that fate and astrology caused all their problems, it's clear from the play that if they had made better decisions, things would've gone better for them.

And that may be the common ground between the two different opinions. Yes, fate may set things up in a way that makes life difficult for you and beyond your control; nevertheless you still can make decisions which can increase or reduce the impact of those matters which are outside of your control. In other words, yes they can make things good or bad for you but you still have the ability to make things either better or worse based on your own choices. You don't have complete control, but you do have some control. That means were responsible for using that control carefully and making wise, thoughtful decisions. (Unless you're Greek. Then you are judged by how nobly or basely you face your fate. Cowards whine about it, heroes struggle bravely against it. But even that allows for some free will in how you react.

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