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Avoid plot summary.

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Paper 1 Prompt Background:

Greek tragedies are plays that were intended to reinforce traditional religious values, as ancient Greek society became more and more sophisticated. In Poetics (which is linked from the course main page, if you want to check it out), the philosopher Aristotle discusses poetry (including epic poetry) and theatre, describing the similarities and differences in terms of format, method, and overall purpose. He provides that all artistic representations of life (which present the possibility of what could be real life, without actually describing real events) fulfill humanity’s desire to experience and learn.

“Though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art… The explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it; the reason of the delight… is that one is at the same time learning – gathering the meaning of things.”

Tragedy in particular should make people feel intensely and think carefully:

“A tragedy…is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; it is in a dramatic, not narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”

“Structure of tragedy at its best should be complex, not simple, and that it should represent actions capable of awakening fear and pity.” It should “appeal to our humanity, or awaken pity or fear in us…the well conceived plot will have a change in fortune from prosperity to misery, and it will be due not to depravity, but to some great error.”

While Greek tragedies are not specifically meant to be character studies, the best tragedies incorporate protagonists whom audiences both respect and identify. Aristotle describes tragedy as being less about a protagonist’s character than it is about the way circumstances converge to affect his life: the things that happen to him, and the consequences of the actions he takes in the course of the experience. Aristotle writes:

“Tragedy is not a representation of men but of a piece of action, of life, of happiness and unhappiness, which come under the head of action, and the end aimed at is the representation not of qualities of character but of some action; and while character makes men what they are, it’s their actions and experiences that make them happy or the opposite.”

In other words, you can have a full-fledged tragedy without knowing much about who a character is inside, but the more you know him, the more the events of the tragedy can make you feel for the character and understand the gravity of what is happening to him. The changes – normally bad – that occur in the tragic protagonist’s life create the “pity” and “fear” that the audience is supposed to feel, which in turn creates the feelings of catharsis that the audience experiences in beginning to understand the basic lessons of the work: tragedies are about understanding what it means to be mortal in ancient Greece. The tragic hero must be both relatable (i.e., not too perfect) and respectable (if he isn’t, audiences won’t be able to empathize, much less sympathize).

Oedipus (of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King) is both. In many respects he displays the characteristics of a great epic hero, a type of character that is presented in ancient epic poetry to drive home very important lessons about virtue and morality in much the same way that a good tragedy should (in fact, Aristotle believed that both epic poetry and tragedy had the same essential goals, just presented in a different style). In some ways Oedipus’ experience tracks that of an epic hero, too. The fact that Oedipus is in many ways a “good” and accomplished person of high status puts him in a league with Odysseus of Homer’s Odyssey. This is why we often refer to him as a “tragic hero,” which sounds like an oxymoron. There is a lot to look up to in his example, but his tragic flaw or “frailty” (as Aristotle describes it) combined with a really crummy prophecy makes it hard for him to stand as a wholly admirable role model. He – and others in his life – do/es socially unacceptable/immoral things (some consciously, some not) and makes questionable choices, which may make him seem a little like Gilgamesh (who is not Greek, but remains a famous ancient epic hero).

Paper 1 Prompt:

Please write an essay describing how Oedipus, as a tragic hero, might also qualify as an epic hero (remember our lecture about what makes an epic hero?). How is his character (who he is as a person), his place in society, and his life experience similar? How is it different? You can use Odysseus, a Greek epic hero, and Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian epic hero, to make comparisons and note contrasts. In particular, explain how epics like Odyssey and Gilgamesh compare in style and purpose to Oedipus, a tragedy. Also explay why you think Sophocles might want Oedipus to be a “similar type of guy” to a beloved Greek role model like Odysseus. Does Oedipus present a good example of arete (ancient Greek virtue), as Odysseus does? How might the similarities (and differences) reinforce the purpose of the play? What is the major lesson Sophocles presents in the play (Hint: the play was written for a religious festival)? How might a hero with Oedipus’ credentials present an indelible opportunity to drive home certain moral and religious points? How and why are these points delivered differently than or similarly to the heroes in Odyssey and Gilgamesh?

Remember to explain your points clearly and provide examples from the stories. Also, remember that this essay is about Oedipus, not the other heroes, so be sure to concentrate on him.

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