Oedipus the King" by Sophocles Research Paper

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¶ … Oedipus the King" by Sophocles and "The Darker Face of the Earth" by Rita Dove. Specifically it will compare incest in the two works. Both of these works include elements of incest as a central theme. Dove's play is loosely based on "Oedipus the King," the classic story of the man who kills his own father, marries his mother, and has several children with her before he discovers the truth. In both of these plays, the incest between the characters is unknown to them, but it represents the twist of fate that is the central theme of these two plays.

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Playwright Rita Dove was once Poet Laureate of the United States, and won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry, only the second black poet to win the Prize (Bloom 59). She wrote "The Darker Face of the Earth" in 1994, and revised it in 1996. One literary critic says of the play, "It is a poet's reading of 'Oedipus the King,' resonating with the beauty and richness of the ancient images and the harrowing dynamics of the mythic plot" (Carlisle 135). Woven throughout the two plays are parallel journeys of two sons, whose fate has already been decreed. One kills his father and marries his mother unknowingly. The other has an affair with his mother, unknowingly, meets his father, even though he does not know it, and then kills him accidentally. Dove says she had an epiphany about writing the play. She says, "I saw the institution of slavery as an allegory for the Greek pantheon, the gods who control everything from the beginning. There was an overriding sense that a slave in this system could not possibly emerge from it whole" (Dove). Using Oedipus as a model, she constructed her play in much the same way Sophocles wrote his, in poetic verse, with a chorus of characters all related to the action.

Research Paper on Oedipus the King" by Sophocles and "The Assignment

The disturbing theme of incest is present in both plays, but it plays different roles. In Oedipus, it is the final straw that drives Oedipus to blind himself and leave Thebes. In Dove's play, it is the result of slavery, that "peculiar" institution. Critic Carlisle continues, "Whereas incest and parricide are the foretold destiny of Oedipus, that which causes his tragedy and Jocasta's destruction, here incest and parricide are by-products of the institution of slavery" (Carlisle 135). Dove's play is really a brutal look at the realities of slavery, while Sophocles was attempting to indicate the power of the gods, and that mere mortals could never come close to those powers. Carlisle says, "Finally, however, all aspects, even the seemingly random and accidental, are carried along in the larger horrific supernatural Destiny, the fate associated with Apollo and the father" (Carlisle 135). The relationship between incest and slavery continues throughout the play. Carlisle states, "While Oedipus loses his ability to name his parents due to his incest and parricide, Augustus loses his power to recognize parricide and incest because he has been denied the freedom to know his parentage" (Carlisle 135). And yet, it is essentially the same story, simply modernized and updated. Sophocles can certainly be seen in the pages of Dove's work, and in the recurring themes, as well.

Incest is certainly a taboo subject, and it is the root of Oedipus' tragedy and his fate, as well. However, in Dove's work, incest is not the root of the tragedy, there is another aspect of it that is much more important. That is that the practice of masters abusing their slaves and using them sexually was a common practice, and it was quite common to have many mulatto children on the plantation. Of course, those were usually the result of the master's dallying, not the mistress, as it is in this case, but the practice was a common one, and this play just indicates the immorality of that practice. Carlisle notes, "The master and, in this case, the mistress as well have children in common with their so-called property. This sexual co-mingling and consequent genetic intermixing of the races and the social casts is the taboo subject of the slave-based society" (Carlisle 135). Another aspect of this sexual behavior is the involuntary nature of much of it. Another critic notes, "Both kinds of sexual miscegenation, voluntary and involuntary, combine in the text to explain the creation of the mulatto Augustus: His mother Amalia voluntarily pursued a miscegenous relationship with Hector in response to her husband, Louis, raping slave girls" (Pereira). Just because Amalia's sexual escapades are consensual does not make them any "better," they still have dire consequences for the characters. Louis rapes the unwilling, Amalia sleeps with the willing, but their conduct is still wrong, and takes advantage of the slave community, a central core to the theme of incest.

Both of these characters suffer from a classic Greek tragedy motif, the fatal flaw. Oedipus' fatal flaw is that he thinks he can defy fate and the gods, while Augustus' fatal flaw is that he abandons his race, leading to his "fall from grace." Because he is half white, and has been educated as a white child, he does not fit in with the traditional slave community, but more than that, he is sleeping with the mistress, instead of pursuing a relationship with someone of his own race, in effect, turning his back on his own race. In a sense, Oedipus does the same thing, because he cannot admit, even to himself, that he may be the source of the trouble in Thebes, and he will not listen to any other opinions about it. Tiresias, the blind prophet tries to warn him. He says, "Tiresias: That's your truth? Hear mine: I say honor the curse your own mouth spoke. From today, don't you speak to me, or to your people here. You are the plague. You ruin your own land" (Sophocles, 425-430). That is the element of Greek tragedy that causes each of these men to make poor decisions, including incest with their mothers, and the element of both these works that makes them so tragic. Augustus ignores the warnings, too, just as Oedipus does. His come from Scylla, the sorcerer of the play. She says, "Oh, you may dance now, but you will fall. The evil inside you will cut you down to your knees, and you will crawl - crawl in front of us all! Lights dim, then grow mottled and swamp green as all exit" (Dove 88). Both men are willful and do not take advice, and this allows both of them to commit incest and seal their own fate at the same time.

It is interesting to note that Dove edited the work two years after she initially wrote it, and altered the ending and the characters considerably. She more fully develops Amalia and Augustus in the newer version, and they do not die in the end. Their relationship is much more romantic, as well. At one point, the rose motif, brought up in the beginning of the play, shows the romance between the two. Augustus says, "You can put a rose in a vase / with a bunch of other flowers; / but when you walk into the room / the rose is the only thing you see" (Dove 93). Dove makes them more sympathetic and the reader somehow wants it to work out between them, even if the relationship is wrong, because of these changes. This is far different that the Oedipus character, who seems far less appealing than Augustus. He is far more arrogant and sure that he has evaded his real fate. He is also far less sympathetic because of his arrogance, and so, his fate seems more deserving in the end.

In the first version of the play, Augustus and Amalia all die at the end, victims of rioting slaves that had asked Augustus to murder Amalia. However, Dove changed the ending in the second version. Instead, Augustus learns the truth about his father and mother, and Amalia kills herself. The rebellious slaves think Augustus killed her, and hail him as a hero, leaving him to live with the horror of what he has done. Critic Pereira notes, "For Dove, and for her daughter Aviva, this ending now makes sense because Augustus has ahead of him a tragic life of knowing he killed his father and had sex with his mother (Sophocles was right after all)" (Pereira). This second ending is more in line with the Sophocles play too, where Oedipus banishes himself from Thebes and blinds himself, as well. Augustus is not blind, but he has been blind, both to his origins and his slave community and he will pay the price.

Both men are horrified by their incest, as well. Augustus seems to be a hero at the end of the play, but the audience knows that is really not the case, and that he will have to live with himself for the rest of his life. The same is true… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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