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Do audiences experience fear and pity in tragedies because of the works’ shared themes of fate or as Freud hypothesised, because other factors are at work to evoke a tragic response?
Sigmund Freud’s hypothesis boldly disregards the idea that tragedies powerfully affect their audience because of their strong emphasis on fatalism and the futility of human will (Greek Drama Handout, 51-52). He opines that, for example, in Oedipus Rex, the effects are rooted in the raw aspects of the plot, such as the realization that the characters can actualize taboo childhood desires, like incest and patricide.
Freud’s complete dismissal of fatalism as an emotional catalyst seems misguided. If his hypothesis were true, it would be strange for the themes of fate and futility to be so powerfully present in both Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Both stories demonstrate the inevitability of fate, whether through Prometheus, the Titan god of forethought, or the human intervention to prevent prophecy, which ultimately fulfills it, in Oedipus Rex.
Freud’s hypothesis that something else is at work producing the emotional impact cannot be dismissed entirely; fatalism, while important, and central to tragedies, does not define the genre. Tragedies also employ the “tragic hero” archetype as a method for invoking tragic response. As a tragic hero, the protagonist must be extraordinary but relatable, so that the change in fortune that the character experiences is more plausible to the audience. If it is not relatable or plausible, the tragedy does not evoke feelings of pity and fear, as it attempts to do (Greek Tragedy Handout, 31-38).
However, Prometheus Bound whose protagonist is a god, does not employ the classic tragic hero formula, while Oedipus Rex does with the result that the outcome for Oedipus feels more tragic to the audience. In this essay, Prometheus Bound and Oedipus Rex will be compared to investigate how these Greek tragedies achieve their shared goals of eliciting pity and fear in their audience.
Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound is a Greek tragedy about Prometheus, the Titan god of forethought. After foreseeing the overthrow of the Olympian gods by humans, Prometheus aids the humans by giving them fire, which metaphorically correlates to knowledge, but also physically hastens humanity’s development: “[Y]es, I stopped mortals from foreseeing doom… I sowed in them blind hopes… [B]esides, I myself gave them fire.” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 148). In doing so, Prometheus is thwarting Zeus’ plan to destroy humanity, and is then punished; he’s chained to a rock and has his liver eaten by an eagle (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 143-144). Prometheus Bound’s main theme is that of fate; whether or not it is changeable, escapable, or definite. Because this theme is shared by virtually every Greek tragedy, it could be considered a necessary component for a text to be recognized as a tragedy. Prometheus Bound definitively demonstrates this theme, so it is plausible to conclude that Prometheus Bound is a Greek tragedy on this basis alone.
Other important characteristics are however, present in Greek tragedy which weigh against a conclusion that fatalism by itself defines the tragedy. For example, Aristotle explains the concept of the “tragic hero” who is successful and noble in his nature, yet flawed enough to be relatable to the rest of humanity, which is essential to the impact his reversal of fortune will have on the audience. If the “tragic hero” is as important as Aristotle claims, it would follow that most Greek tragedies would have one. Yet Prometheus, for example, does not fit the description of the “tragic hero”, but it is indisputable that the theme in Prometheus Bound is indeed tragic.
Another central part of Greek tragedy, according to Aristotle, is a “change of fortune… accompanied by such Reversal [of the Situation), or by Recognition, or by both” (Greek Drama Handout, 33). Aristotle believes that the main character of the Greek tragedy has to undergo a change of his fortune, which must be accompanied by some sort of Recognition or “Reversal of the Situation”, which is an action that produces an undesired, opposite effect. Yet, in Prometheus
Bound, none of these things happen, most clearly the change of fortune, because Prometheus can see the future, so he would, by definition, be able foresee and avoid a change of fortune. It seems, therefore, as if the only characteristic that Prometheus Bound exhibits that is shared with other classic Greek tragedies, is the theme of fate. Various questions of the futility of will, and the inevitability of fate are the dominant themes that place this play squarely in the category of Greek tragedy. While the obvious strength of this piece is its exploration of fate, it is a less effective tragedy overall in that it fails to employ the tragic hero and change of fortune themes. This makes it harder for the audience to empathize with Prometheus, whose fortune is clear to him at all times.
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is a Greek tragedy about Oedipus, the mortal King of Thebes, who unknowingly commits incest and patricide. Realizing what he has done, he seeks out his mother, Jocasta, only to find her dead body, after she has committed suicide (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, 132). He then proceeds to gouge his eyes out with her broaches, and exiles himself from Thebes along with his illegitimate children. Oedipus Rex can serve as a tool for comparison when investigating the three main themes outlined above and found in Greek tragedy. Oedipus, a human man, is smart witted and strong, but not as powerful as a Titan god, so he fits the description of the tragic hero. He also has a change of fortune paired with recognition, when he learns that he has not escaped the Oracle’s prophecy. The play also explores fate’s inevitability, and the futility of will. Jocasta and Oedipus try to avoid the prophecy spoken by the Oracle, that
Oedipus would commit incest and patricide, but end up fulfilling it. Oedipus Rex, unlike Prometheus Bound, seems to contain all the elements of a Greek tragedy, fate, the tragic hero, and reversal of fortune. However, according to Freud, these elements are not responsible for Oedipus Rex’s tragic effect. Freud makes the argument that the theme of fate in Greek tragedies is not the primary reason for their profound effect on humanity. He states that “[M]odern dramatists have accordingly tried to achieve a similar tragic effect by weaving the same contrast [between the supreme will of the gods and the vain attempts of mankind to escape the evil that threatens them into a plot invented by themselves… later tragedies of destiny have failed in their effect” (Freud 262). Freud essentially states that the themes of fate, destiny, and futility of will ultimately do not produce the desired effects of a tragedy. He then posits that instead, Oedipus Rex is able to produce such powerful responses from audiences because humanity has innate, subconscious desires that resonate with major themes in the play. For example, Freud believes that at some point in every human’s childhood, their initial feelings of sexuality and anger are directed towards one of their parents, depending on their sexual orientation or gender. He states that this is the reason that humanity can relate to the fate of Oedipus: they are all seeing a manifestation of their childhood desires that still exist in their subconscious. This argument of Freud’s, while persuasive, ultimately disregards one of the most important elements of Greek tragedy that is consistently present in many of the plays: fate. In trying to demonstrate that humanity’s subconscious desires may drive the audience’s’ response, Freud simply ignores one of the most important elements of the genre as a whole.
The only clear thematic similarity that Prometheus Bound and Oedipus Rex share is the aspect of fate; both are considered Greek tragedies. It is harder to apply Freud’s theory to Prometheus Bound’s story, as it is less clear what subconscious human desire Freud might attribute to Prometheus. But what is clear is that Prometheus suffered an inescapable fate as did Oedipus. The additional elements of “tragic hero”, reversal of fortune, and connection to subconscious human desires present in Oedipus Rex enhance the foundational theme of fate and resonate with humanity more personally. As there works demonstrate, however, the ultimate necessity for a Greek tragedy is an overwhelming sense of inevitability, in relation to fate. As a concept, this speaks to the human condition, and the concerns and hopes of mankind. On balance, it seems Freud’s theory while interesting and particularly well applied to Oedipus Rex, is less persuasive when Oedipus Rex and Prometheus Bound are compared. It seems clear that some form of fate mst permeate a text to evoke the experience of fear and pity and therefore for it to be considered a true tragedy.
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