Metaphysical roots of the drama; Oedipus Tyrannos: Tragic Flaw?
Well I think we can try to help to explain the work by first seeming to compound the difficulties and the confusion because I'd like to look at it from the standpoint of one of its greatest admirers. Aristotle. And treat it as an Aristotelian drown Sophocles you may know was Aristotle's favorite playwright When Aristotle wrote that the poetics with his art of poetry. She gives a definition of tragedy which still has not been surpassed for its cogency in our own day. He mentions Oedipus in the poetics more often than he mentions any of the play of the time he was writing Escalus is forgotten. He's simply a vague obscure figure from the past and Sophocles. And you replied These are the men who are competing for each other for the crown of playwright. Obviously Aristotle is much more sympathetic to soft freeze and he bases his theory of tragedy I think
largely on this work of the first to writers. In fact he cites. As an example of its perfection the identification of the and ignore SS or the Discovery and the rapidity of the reversal. At the moment when Oedipus discovers recognizes that he is the murderer of his father. And has been living in incest with his mother. The reverse will begin from from joy to grief and his tragedy comes to its completion. He sees this as a perfect form as indeed it is. You'll also notice how beautifully plotted it is. Instead of giving us Oedipus his life from the very beginning when the curse is out it when when it's assumed that the child of your caste is going to kill his father he puts him on the mountaintop. Sophocles starts at a point very late in the story right before the catastrophe right before the end comes and precedes working forwards.
Towards that catastrophe and backwards filling you in with all the information you need to know in order to understand the catastrophe. This is. Perfect classical plotting. And when absent revolutionizes the modern drone with a play like ghosts or a doll's house he does it simply by going back to the techniques of Sophocles and again by giving you a situation in which everything starts right before the catastrophe in which the dialogue goes forward and backward at the same time. We don't see Captain owling we hear about it. Just as we do not know we know about the background of the door and how much in A Doll's House by hearing about it now by seeing it. Well this is a way of keeping melodrama and violence off the stage at least until the very end. And Aristotle was very proud of the fact that there was none of this violent action in Oedipus. As for extravagant incidents he says there should be none in the story or if there are they should be kept outside the
tribe today as in Sophocles. It appears there are other Aristotelian elements in the play. For example you know about Aristotle's and systems the plot for me those mid first was the better way. Translate and the most important aspect of tragedy and character comes second. Characters call at those thus indicating the ethical aspect of drama as reflected through the character of the individuals on the stage. And he says plot is most important because tragedy is an imitation not of men but of their doing. Now Plato Aristotle was trying to correct. In his attitudes towards literature always put character first because Plato was a much more ethical philosopher than Aristotle. He's interested in the ethics of life. That's why he's not too interested in tragedy that's why he doesn't have much use for poets. We want to be kicked out of his ideal republic
because they told lives and he thought the only the best thing a poet could do the best thing a dramatist could do was to hold up Ethical ideals of conduct on the stage so that you as members of the audience would go away feeling more clever about your own characters by having seen the perfect ideal character on the stage. Well Aristotle doesn't believe that the theatre is there for ethical imitation. He doesn't believe that it has a moral function. He's trying to de-emphasize the ethical nature of tragedy a set down of Plato. Where character comes first there were questions of good or evil become paramount. He ends the tragedy should imitate the actions not of a good man or a evil man but a great man. Which is the same man who combine elements of good and evil within themselves and in discussing the nature of the tragic hero. He mentions this concept of ham
RTM which I think is central to this whole question of what does this mean. Now how much. Is variously translated as a tragic flaw or sin and tragic error an error of judgment. The word gets into Christian theology is a matter of fact to mean sin and thus has a kind of ethical quality implicit in it. He put years in this way in this very important passage in the poetics. So we are left with a man between these two extremes. That is to say the kind of man who is neither distinguished for excellence and virtue nor comes to grief on account of baseness and vice. But I provide an account of some. How mighty of some flaw or error or sin nor error. Judgment will try to find what it means. So I'm a man of great reputation and prosperity like Oedipus and conspicuous
people of such families. I was there and I think this is the crucial question what does this word mean. Because the whole interpretation of this tragedy rests on the proper translation of this word. I'm right here. Let's take it from the point of view of its most popular meaning. Tragic flaw. Now Dramatis write plays in which their characters have a tragic flaw or a defect of character. He writes plays out Carol plays in which he thought or character over the ethical aspect of the drama is most important and most conspicuous in Oedipus when people think about is how much they generally think it to be his spleen his anger his pride. And indeed he's full of anger he's full of pride. He's full of fury and irritation. He's not a very easy going man. It's anger that kills layers of the crossroads. Oedipus is walking along one day and someone comes along a chariot and tells him to get out of the way and that disposed
of the chariot bangs his head against the rock. Not a very nice way to act. And in the case you know this is not a man of great benevolent qualities. It's anger that causes him to go to resee as you'll notice him to say and you are the defiler of the it's anger that makes him unjustly accused Creon of conducting a political plot against him. And indeed it is pride and anger that makes him continue to seek out the culprit to seek out the filer of the land with everyone including his own mother wife is warning him not to do this. Now prior to the pride of Oedipus is very clear in his attitude towards everyone he thinks himself a creature of inferior birth. He's very self-conscious about the fact that he wasn't born a nobleman or they were just some of the walk along and solve the riddle and got into the aristocracy that way. And consequently when your caster wants him to go no further
seek no more don't look into your birth. Let's remain blind if possible. The reason he thinks she's doing that is because she wants him. She wants to remain superior to him. She wants to think she's more highly von than he is. I'm only thinking of you hear me I employ you says you're cast to give up the search. I will not hear of anything says Oedipus but searching the whole thing out. I'm only thinking of your good cheese as I have advised you for the best. Your advice makes me impatient he said. She may never come to know who you are unhappy man. Go someone bring the herdsman here he says and let that woman glory in her noble blood. Alas alas miserable man miserable she says that is all that I can call you now or forever. Where is Lady gowns of the chorus at a person such a transport of despair out of the silence will burst a storm of Sorrows let come what will says that as I was a lowly my origin I will discover it.
That woman with a woman's pride grows red with shame at my base birth. Now this is a complete misinterpretation of course of your pastor's impulses and motives. And it's a misinterpretation out of a character defect if you like out of bodies of character that are not noble that are not ethical that are not virtuous. Now if you consider that Oedipus as tragedy comes as a result of his pride or anger. Namely as a result of certain grievous character defects. You have the advantage of interpretation which is completely within the player. This makes Oedipus an agent of free will. At least an agent of morality. If I were more moral if I were a better man I wouldn't be in the stew I'm in now you could say and you could say of members of the audience and the result of the more moral the better man and not ever get into such a stew yourself. It seems also because he's so proud and angry he is inadvertently bringing on his own tragedy
the moral of the play being the spine of the play being the less proud the less hot tempered you'll live to a ripe old age. Well I don't approve of that interpretation I think it demeans the play. I think it takes away the complication and I'd like to submit to you another possibility which I might see is translated as tragic error. And this is the play becomes a tragedy of knowing. Aristotle remembers as it is their characters that give men their quality but they're doing things that make them happy or unhappy. And you're suggesting that ham Ikea has something to do with a doing with an action and action. Created by an edifice that has no moral aspect to it whatsoever it's simply the action and they have to have a character relationship with it but the action is what we concentrate on. What did he do that brought about this tragedy now
Airbus's doings constitute his hammer here and we could say very simply that what he did that brought about his tragedy was killing this at the crossroads. That was his tragic error. He hadn't killed him. He when the brought about what happened to him at the end. That's unfortunately outside the play. If you want something inside the play his tragic error is refusing to give up the quest for whatever reasons he refuses to give up the quest he gave up the quest he would not bring down. The tragedy upon him. Well. This makes Oedipus a much more accidental victim. He's not a man exercising free will here. He's a man who's created something in spite of himself a victim of the GAAR the victim of prophecy a victim of horrible they have said he would do such and such and he does such and such. He seems to have no control over what is done and if
this is true you again must ask yourself what kind of universe is this and why should the gods be honored. Well let's define what we mean by determinism and free will. What we mean by Oedipus is accidental doings or his voluntary doings. And I think a simple way to do it is to say the gods didn't make Oedipus do this. They simply read his book and in this sense every man has a book. Our lives are our book. And once those lives are spread out and on oil. From beginning to end the God looks down upon them reads them and then knows the beginning of the journey what the end of the journey will be. So mine is laid out for the gods like the Road seen from above. The human is walking up this road up the hill he sees only a portion of the road. But then it goes down a hill and curves around an area so he can see the
gods can see and therefore in their stance and a person is determined if the human being if you and I could see what goes around that road and goes over the hill we would lead determine lives. Now this is like reading a book twice. If we could read our own books our lives would be determined. But as long as we don't know what happens at the end of our lives we seem to be exercising free will. The first time the light was red. Characters have free will. The second time the life of the characters are the term. If you read a story the story of Francesca and Powell is use an example the Pirandello uses in done today. The first time I read that story they seemed free. The second time you read it you know what's happening to them and they are determined and each time you pick up that book they are determined to suffer in each other's arms in that level of Dante's Hell. Over and over and over again they must suffer. And you like the guards have read their
books and are aware of the exact cost of their suffering. Now the oracles know the book of Oedipus is life and therefore can prophesied what's going to happen. So they know what road he's going to say they know what curves he's going to take and therefore nobody can escape their decrees and all the attempts by you cast an edifice to escape these theories are futile. Now consider what the play would be without the oracle. If there were no oracles in this play it would be much clearer with the first half of this is how much is he has gone from here to there have been certain actions in between. And he has unknowingly to be sure broken certain laws of the universe. There are laws in this universe. If you break them you must suffer. If you sleep with your father with your mother and kill your father you have broken certain universal was and must suffer for it even though you don't know you doing it. So we can say that
Sophocles does see order in the universe. He doesn't tell you whether it's a good or a bad one. He says there are certain laws whether they're good or bad he doesn't care. There are a lot if you break the laws. You're dead if you go swimming during an electrical storm and lightning hits the water you're electrocuted. You may have been the most virtuous man in the world. You may have been the most villainous man in the world it doesn't matter you have broken a universal law and gone swimming in a fluid that conducts electricity if you stick your finger in a light socket. Doesn't matter what you are who you are what you aspire to be you're going to die if you marry your father and you sleep with your mother. And broken the same kind of law and you've got to suffer the consequences. So Sophocles accept order. And he accepts the guards who presided over this order. And so at the end the
editors. Now this is what we mean by a tragic sense of life. It's a sense of life which has neither good nor bad as a paramount concern but rather a sense of acceptance even of infuriating and unacceptable things. And throughout Sophocles you find this acceptance coupled with a sense of the terrible business of being a human being and it's generally in the choral speeches. Oedipus seemed blessed but there is no blood. The man blessed among men. And later on at the very end of the play as Jackson's fine translations make way for Oedipus all people said that is a fortunate man. And now what's dongs up beating on his head. Oh man fortunate that is not dead. The dead are free
from pain. Now Yates carries it even further than Sotheby's does by mistranslating this what Yeats would Sotheby's as Call no man fortunate until he is dead meaning you can call yourself fortunate until you have your whole life has been laid out because at the very end of your life you might become this fortunate. You see the gates is carrying it even further in his extraordinary elegiac pessimistic way and say you're not fortunate until you're dead that's the only point you can have is to die. Well this is a famous statement of Sophocles and I suppose it's most beautifully expressed in the corollary from that last play he wrote of extraordinary strange play called Oedipus at Colonus where the chorus is this and they might be saying it and it was in the earlier play as well as it appears in the later play. Though he has watched a decent age pass by. A man will sometimes still desire the world. I swear I see no wisdom
in that man. The endless hours pile up a drift of pain more unrelieved each day and ask for pleasure when he is sucking in excess of age. You will not see his pleasure anywhere. The last attendance is the same for all old men and young alike as in its season man's heritage of underworld appears there being then no Epatha Lamie and no music and no dance. Death is the finish not to be born on surpasses thought and speech. The second best is to assume the life and then to go back quickly whence we came. It's best never to have been born. The second best is a gay Good night. I quickly turn away to use his translation of that awful and beautiful inside. Well this is the tragic sense of life. After you've lived your life you realize it's better never to have
lived. And the chorus. Which is the same kind of conclusion as I suppose Shakespeare does in King Lear when Edgar the Stoics says we must enjoy our going hands even as our coming here the. Rightness is all now once you've accepted that terrible and beautiful notion. You must realize that it is the chorus who is drawing the moral. It's the chorus who's doing the philosophizing. It's the chorus that is being stoic. Oedipus finally accepts that the end of this play but he reaches this acceptance. He reaches his stoicism through friends and through suffering. This is not routine wisdom for him that's being handed to him by a chorus this is something he's reached through suffering through wisdom only comes through suffering said Escalus and we're seeing this. We're seeing this beautifully dramatized here. He
reaches that is to say a tragic perception not simply conventionally wise perception. He reaches it through action not through philosophy. And that's why he is great. That's why he's such a tremendous and durable hero. Here's a doomed hero doomed from the beginning who nevertheless tries to outface. Necessity tries to out reach the very impression of Doom which has been forced upon his life. And indeed he does out face necessity at the very end which manages to extend the boundaries of all mankind. If you simply accept the wisdom of the chorus it's better never to have lived. Then we're left with nothing but despair. But if you see Oedipus not believing in us refusing it and extending boundaries then suddenly our lives become noble and glorious. Well he takes the punishment on himself at the end. That's what makes him
such a great hero. He doesn't let the guards do it. He does it to himself and when he blinds himself and when he exiled him softened Deaves this is by his own free choice and we've finally seen Oedipus in an act of freedom. If we have seen him up till now in a determined and accidental. Action. The question at the end of this play which is asked by the chorus. Who did this to you is answered by any person the most extraordinary way. Where did you get the courage to put out your eyes to the chorus What are the earthly power drove you to that. Apollo friend Apollo so that a person but it was my own hand alone wrecked ship that I am. That quenched these art and that last piece of free will that last ever new freedom that he that he takes upon himself to act upon himself as his own punishment makes him not only a great criminal throughout this play but a great justice are
here at last he gives life form. He's had formlessness accident. Now he becomes an artist and forms his life. Create some form of poetic justice which gives. More to his life than simple accident. Now this makes him a kind of continuing character in South Africa. The kiddo tells us the Sophocles focuses on the man who is at the same time both blasted and cursed. He's the most blessed among man and he is the most cursed among men. And this is true of any person. It's true of the character named elected in the in the in the play of that name a character who you may know has been taken by Edmund Wilson to signify the modern artist a character who joins the the Greeks on their invasion of Troy develops a terrible wound along the way separating room with an awful stench. And because he smells so badly that the Greeks
can't stand him and they put him on an island. But they learn that they will not win the Trojan war unless they get from him something very special he has namely a magic bow. And they go to him to ask him for this vote. Now this notion of a man who's who smells and who was blast at the same time a person who's kind of lovely balance you get an Oedipus Oedipus to smells he too is causing a play and yet he has something wonderful that he can give us as members of the audience because that's where we'll see extrapolates the notion of the artist who has something smelly his neurosis and something marvelous is art. Directly using the tracking eye is the same kind of blessed and cursed man who goes mad and kills his own children. And in Oedipus we get patricide incest. But a man who sours the riddle of the Sphinx. I'm sure you must realize you are his lamb by throwing himself out of his land by blinding himself as his land of the play.
The Fortunate man is cursed. Call no man happy until he is dead. Now this is a very great message for us who've been brought up in an entirely different tradition a liberal optimistic hopeful affirmative democratic tradition where we can accept this kind of tragic notion. We believe that there are no problem that they can't be solved by some form of right action. If you know ironic go to a psychiatrist if you're suffering if you're poor a social worker will come and take care. Female Suffrage will have a whole problem of people rights and that sort of thing. And Heroes embarrass us heroes like Oedipus embarrass us because they leave us with a sense that there are certain things that can't be put right and indeed they also embarrass our sense of democratic averageness. We've lost the sense of tragedy in America. We speak of tragedy as something to be gotten rid of.
Some years back there was the tragedy of the plastic bags you may remember when children were playing with these little laundry bags. They had suffocate himself. The object they are to cure this tragedy was to put holes in the back door to keep children away from them. You see one notion of tragedy something you can cure by putting a hole in a bag or by designing something that will have the same effect but that's not what tragedy is at all trying to do something almost to be embraced. It has qualities in it that I know that cannot be cured and which we must learn to live with. We've also learned this notion of tragedy from the never speaks of tragic right and tragic wrong and makes us assume that a character like Willy Loman would have no tragedy if attention were properly paid to such a man. But once you start talking about tragic right and tragic wrong. Once you start saying that. People should pay attention to tragic heroes. You
merely have lost the notion of what a tragedy is. No I would dare say pay attention to Oedipus would be presumption. And also we must always remember that there is something in Greek tragedy that is in our lives too that we refuse to face this notion of necessity. That's what the play is focusing with mostly the Greeks called the unknown and it's something you can avoid. It's constantly with you that represents your faith. And ultimately I suppose it's a metaphor for death. The one thing we cannot legislate away. We cannot psychoanalyze away our coming depths. Our mortality. We cannot focus on it's a very long but it is there constantly in the backs of our spirits in the backs of our heads. And this is the final imitation which no man however heroic he is and transcend. Now Greek tragedy. Is ultimately conservative I guess in accepting
limitations its conservative and accepting this limitation in particular human mortality. But it is also radical and romantic in showing a man's eternal battle with this limitation. His refusal to accept his refusal to be defeated by. And this I think is the essence of the heroic which we who are in an age without heroes and only touch through the art of such man as softness. Thank you very much effort. You've been listening to the second in the 1968 series of six Frank L. Y O Institute lectures delivered at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. The speaker is Dr. Robert Bruce Dean Dean of the Yale School of Drama who is general topic is the metaphysical roots of the drama. The title of this program was it
opposed tyrannous tragic flaw or tragic error. Next week at this time Dr. Bruce Dean discusses Marlowe and the Promethean hero. These lectures are released through the University of Cincinnati station WG you see this is the national educational radio network.
- Oedipus Tyrannos: Tragic Flaw?
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