There can be little doubt as to the fact that Sophocles’ “Antigone” and Shakespeare’s “Othello” are highly emotional dramaturgic pieces: in both tragedies, the motifs of love, treachery, misunderstanding, honor and one’s call of duty, actually define the semantic subtleties of a plot. Both plays represent the very best of European dramaturgy, as we know it, which is why we cannot be referring to them as being solely associated with high literary value – the reading of these two masterpieces continue to provide us with the insight on the essence of many political, social and demographic processes, even today. At the same time, it would be appropriate to suggest that in their plays, Sophocles and Shakespeare promote essentially different views on what causes people to choose in favor of wrong course of action, while facing life’s challenges. In its turn, this can be explained by particularities of socio-political reality, associated with time when Sophocles and Shakespeare were working on their tragedies. This paper is aimed at exploring different aspects of this thesis at length.
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The similarities between “Antigone” and “Othello” correspond to the structural distinctiveness of tragedies’ plot. In both dramaturgic works, the characters of Creon and Othello (assumed protagonists) realize that condemning their dear ones to death (Antigone and Desdemona), was a proper thing to do, on their part. In the end, such their decision is being revealed as utterly inappropriate. In both tragedies, the theme of war and patriotism plays a prominent role, with both: Creon and Othello striving to act as “statesmen” first and as “family men” later. Initially, Creon and Othello deny the very possibility that they would ever listen to the advise of a woman, only to feel sorry about their apparent sexism, at the end of both plays. Both: Creon and Othello seem to believe in stoic virtues, although in the case with Othello, such his belief turns out to be artificial. Both: Creon and Othello have no doubt as to the fact that they simply cannot be wrong, while reacting to different sets of circumstances, simply because they consider themselves as representing the embodiment of “manliness”. However, the most obvious similarity between both plays is the fact that “Antigone” and “Othello” promote the idea that, within a context of individuals pursuing a relationship with each other, the possibility for such relationship to be affected by a high tragedy always exists. Moreover, they imply that the tragic “chain reaction” of events, might begin at just any moment of people’s lives.
At the same time, these plays assess the concept of tragedy from different perspectives. Even a brief analysis of conversations that take place between Antigone and Creon, on one hand, and between Othello and Desdemona, on the other, reveal striking difference between Sophocles and Shakespeare’s outlook on what accounts to a dramatic playwright emanating realistic soundness. Whereas, Creon’s tragedy derives out of his acute sense of social duty (punishing traitors), Othello’s ultimate demise is being shown as resulting out of this character’s life being strongly affected by his irrational anxieties (jealousness). While explaining his decision to sentence Antigone to death, Creon reveals it as the result of absolutely rational considerations, on his part: “If any one transgresses, and does violence to the laws, or thinks to dictate to his rulers, such an one can win no praise from me… Disobedience is the worst of evils. This it is that ruins cities, this makes homes desolate” (Sophocles). He does it for the sake of Thebes’ citizens – if people were allowed to get away with defying laws and regulations, it will only be the matter of time, before society becomes engulfed by anarchy. Othello, on the other hand, decides to kill Desdemona, simply because he thinks that her indecency has caused a great deal of harm to his good name:
“O, I have lost
My reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
Myself, and what remains is bestial” (Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 3).
In other words, it is namely highly irrational impulses, within his psyche, which caused Othello to act like a monster, towards his wife. Shakespeare presents Othello as individual who is simply incapable of relying on his rationale, within a context of pursuing a romantic relationship. By doing it, author had proven himself as a supreme psychologist, well before the emergence of psychology as science. Moreover, he appears to have been well aware of the fact that one’s racial affiliation has a strong effect on his or her mode of behavior, well before the rise of genetic biology in 20th century.
Given the fact that “Antigone” had gained an immense popularity among the general public in Ancient Greece, during the course of Classical period of its history, and also the fact that “Othello” had instantly became a “hit”, after being staged in early 17th century Britain, we can conclude that motifs, contained in both plays, corresponded rather well to the existential mode of an intended audiences. In Greek cities-polices, citizens used to think of one’s allegiance to the concept of common good as representing a foremost social virtue, on his or her part. In Elizabethan Britain, this was no longer the case – the establishment of trade routes with the New World and with the countries of Orient, had resulted in more and more Britons becoming increasingly preoccupied with accumulation of material riches, which was gradually depriving them of their former existential idealism. This explains why the themes of irrational jealousness and unmotivated maliciousness play such a prominent role on Shakespeare’s masterpiece – author strived to increase tragedy’s popular appeal by allowing as many people as possible to emotionally relate to the motifs, contained in it.
In Sophocles’ “Antigone”, we cannot find characters that would symbolize a metaphysical evilness by the mere fact of their existence: Antigone acts out of love to her brother. Creon acts out of love to the people of Thebes, while proving himself as responsible statesman: “For since I have taken her, alone of all the city, in open disobedience, I will not make myself a liar to my people – I will slay her” (Sophocles).
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Ismene and Haemon act out of love to Antigone. The play’s tragic consists in the fact that, while acting in accordance with their highly idealistic beliefs, and while striving to benefit others, as their foremost priority, “Antigone” main characters still end up causing a great deal of harm to each other. In its turn, this relates to the very essence of Ancient Greek dramaturgy, which tends to portray people as the subjects of fate. This is why in Sophocles’ tragedies; characters’ misfortunes appear to have external properties. In his article “Rebels with a Cause”, Phoebe Pettingell points out to the fact that it is quite impossible to define villains in “Antigone”: “Sophocles’ text it is unclear which of the two main characters – Antigone or Creon – is the protagonist and which the antagonist. Each has a tragic flaw, both fall victim to their own pride, and both have rational motives for believing themselves to be right” (Pettingell 39). The similar thesis could not possibly apply to Shakespeare’s tragedy, because in it, author clearly defines the perpetrators of evil (Iago and Roderigo), while implying that their maliciousness has an inborn qualities. While plotting against Othello, Iago strives to add his plans for revenge a rational sounding, but he fails, while ultimately exposing himself as being a slave of his animalistic urges and the very agent of evilness:
“So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all” (Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 3)
Thus, in “Othello” Shakespeare describes the rising dramatic tension, within the play, as the result of Iago’s irrational desire to take revenge on Othello assuming a rational form, which implies that Othello’s life has been rather “accidentally” then “deterministically” destroyed. The same can be said about the life of Desdemona – had she managed to convince Othello in her innocence, which could have been easily done, she would not suffer a death by suffocation. Therefore, we can say that the tragedy of “Othello” derives out of the fact that such tragedy could have been prevented. This significantly differs Shakespeare’s play from “Antigone”, which implies that Creon could not possibly act in less stubborn manner, while listening to the advices of Haemon and Teiresias, because then, he would cease to be worthy of his office. Such difference derives out of historical contexts of both plays – Ancient Greeks believed that everything happens for a reason. Their worldview was deeply pantheistic, which is why the majority of citizens in Greek cities-polices used to lead a highly communal lives, while simultaneously acting as soldiers, philosophers, artists, and farmers. For them, the well-being of their community represented the greatest of all ideals.
On the other hand, when Shakespeare was working on “Othello”, the existential integrity of Western societies has been already significantly undermined. At that time, more and more Europeans were experiencing a “spiritual void”, while trying to assess the objective essence of surrounding reality and while trying to find practical applications for their inborn sense of existential idealism. We can say that, unlike Ancient Greeks, Europeans in 16th-17th centuries knew more then they could possibly understand, which is why they used to refer to Sophocles’ times as the “golden age”, with the concept of Renaissance simply signifying the attempt, on the part of prominent Europeans, to regain back ancient cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual ideals. There can be little doubt that Shakespeare had read Sophocles’ tragedies and that he was able to greatly benefit from it, in literary context of this word. However, being the son of his time, Shakespeare could not possibly instill “Othello” with the spirit of scientific determinism, as seen in “Antigone”, simply because in the 16th-17th centuries, the empirical science still remained in the state of being freed out of Christianity’s spiritual imprisonment, which is why it could not yet serve as metaphysical foundation for people to base their worldviews upon. This, of course, does not imply Shakespeare’s “Othello” representing a lesser literary and philosophical value, when compared with Sophocles’ “Antigone”. Whereas, “Antigone” is being focused on defining the effects of people’s sense of rationale affecting their act, “Othello” explores irrational motifs behind people’s behavior, which makes the reading of this particular play being especially adapted to the realities of modern living, when the very concept of rationality is being often discussed as “euro-centric” and therefore “evil”. Despite the apparent differences between two tragedies, analyzed in this paper, it would be absolutely appropriate to suggest that the reading of “Antigone” and “Othello” provide us with the better understanding as to what accounts for enduring (structural) qualities of drama, as defined by Gustav Freytag: exposition, rising action, climax (or turning point) and falling action1. Also, we can say that both plays’ distinctive characteristic is the fact that they contain a strong element of suspense and that they are marked with a didactic sounding – in other words, “Antigone and “Othello” fit rather well into the concept of Western dramaturgy, as we know it.
Pettingell, Phoebe “Rebels with a Cause”. The New Leader. (87) 6 (2004): 37-9.
Sophocles “Antigone”. [442 B.C.E], 1994. The Internet Classics Archive. Web.
Shakespeare, William “Othello, the Moore of Venice”. . 2000. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Web.