Oedipus Rex and Othello, though two different characters from two separate times and contexts, exhibit a lot of similarities in that they both represent the narrative of the tragic hero. Having been written first, it is undoubted that Oedipus’ theme had a significant influence on Othello. The narrative poem’s near similar construction spurs speculation as to if one had an impact on the development of the other or not. The two works were developed in totally different settings further limiting such suspicions. All in all, the two literary works spark a conversation of tragedy after heroism, a major contemporary device in literature and art. They provide sensitivity to the cultural dynamics that were present at the time of the development of the works and impress upon audiences a sense of identity with the story’s fundamental premise.
Othello was a well-respected army general. He had exhibited immense courage in the battlefield, and his skills were unmatched. Othello commanded a lot of admiration from far and wide. He was feared for his ferocity by enemy armies but deeply revered by his people for his scathing wit and ingenuity in conquests (Reid 274). However, there was only one glaring challenge; he was black. Living at a time when the white man was religiously regarded as superior, Othello was subject to intense social subjugation. This was classically demonstrated when his later-to-be father in law, Brabanzio, declined to hand Othello, his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Conversely, Oedipus Rex was the newly appointed king of Thebes. He was widely honored by his people, having spared his people from wrath by correctly solving the riddle of the sphinx. He was widely admired and widely considered infallible. In both stories, the element of tragedy is introduced after their presentation as key personalities. Othello is informed of his wife secret sexual rendezvous with his loyal lieutenant, Cassio, by his trusted ensign, Lago (Shackford 17). Unable to clearly determine the truth, Othello murdered his wife, Desdemona. Soon after the tragic event, Othello realizes Lago’s deception (Reid 274). He is haunted by the prospect of killing his beloved as a consequence of his inability to determine the truth and see beyond Lago’s scheme. Eventually, he is overwhelmed by his own actions and takes his own life, leading to his downfall. Oedipus appears to suffer the same fate. Traditional literature defines tragedy at the downfall of a heroic main character by his or her own device. Each of these works appears to apply satisfy this description (Levin 14). Oedipus had heard of an ancient prophecy which claimed that the king’s life will be taken by the hands of his own son and that the son shall marry his own mother.
An oracle opens up to Laius and asserts that the prophecy shall be about him. Mortified by the diviner’s words, he quickly hands his infant son to her wife Jocasta, who then orders a servant to kill him. He doesn’t, and he grows up to become Oedipus. A difficult upbringing turns him into a robber, and he ends up killing one of his victims. Years on after assuming office as the king, he learns of the tragic prophecy and sets out to search for the king’s murderer (Shackford 17). He quickly learns that the king was murdered by bandits in the region he operated within in his heydays as a robber. He notes similarities between his life and that of the subject in the prophecy. Upon further investigations, Oedipus discovers that her lover, Jocasta, is in fact, her biological mother. Jocasta is equally devastated by the news. Oedipus heads the palace to share the dreadful news of patricide and incest with her wife only to find her dead. Tortured and frenzied by the nonpareil shame she took her own life. Oedipus cannot look any longer at the mystery that has befallen him. He reaches for pins from the dead queen’s dress and gouges his eyes out.
The contexts of the two works extensively defined their creation. During Oedipus’ time, incest and murder were two of the most shameful crimes. One would be subjected to immense indignity and dishonor. The author’s decision to include these concepts in the work is representative of the sensitivities of their audience and a depiction of a clear understanding the artistic audience provocation. A similar contextual approach is utilized in Othello. Sexual promiscuity was considered a serious depravity and unfaithful women brought great shame into one’s household (Reid 274). Therefore, context had a monumental impact on how the works were written.
Levin, Richard. Tragedy: Plays, Theory and Criticism. Harcourt College Pub, 1960.
Shackford, Martha Hale. Shakespeare, Sophocles: Dramatic Themes and Modes. Bookman Associations, 1960.
Reid, Stephen. “Othello’s jealousy.” American Imago 25.3 (1968): 274.