Oedipus and Othello: Pride and the Tragic Hero
Pride is one of the seven deadly sins. Its effect on people, however, is often subtle at the start and hard to detect. Most proud people will never consider themselves to be truly proud until they come face to face with the consequences of their pride. Sophocles and Shakespeare both address this dilemma in their plays Oedipus and Othello. Through their nobility, their tragic flaws, the fall these flaws cause, and the suffering and wisdom they derive from these falls, Oedipus and Othello reveal the true character of the tragic hero and show the devastating consequences of pride.
Both Oedipus and Othello are distinguished by nobility: Oedipus by birth and deed and Othello by a distinguished career. Oedipus is the son of King Laius and Jocasta his wife, the king and queen of Thebes. Because of an oracle prophesying that King Laius will be murdered by his son, Oedipus is left to die in "the mountains where Cithaeron is"(1472). He is then rescued by a shepherd and raised by "Polybus. . . king of Corinth/and Merope, the Dorian" (834-35). Not only is Oedipus noble in his birth and upbringing, he is also noble in deed. Upon coming to Thebes as a young man, Oedipus answers the riddle of the Sphinx, who is terrorizing the citizens, and rids the city of this monster. In turn he is made King of Thebes and marries, unknowingly, his mother, the queen. Othello, on the other hand, is noble only by deed. He is a Moor and a barbarian by Venetian customs. He is an outsider, yet he is accepted by the Venetian people because of his distinguished career as general of the Venetian army. In defense of his lack of noble heritage, Othello asserts: "I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege" (1.2.20-21). It is his rank that makes him noble. His contemporaries also praise him as "brave Othello" (2.1.37), and they declare that he "commands / Like a full soldier" (2.1.35-36). Oedipus and Othello have the nobility that a true tragic hero must have, yet this nobility is only the armor that covers the true weakness that lies within each man.
Although they show it in different ways, Oedipus and Othello both suffer from a similar character flaw, the sin of pride. Oedipus' pride is revealed in his belief that he is greater than the gods. He believes that he is capable of establishing his own destiny apart from the gods' control or help. When the priest, at the beginning of the story, begs Oedipus to help the people in the time of famine and trouble, he states: "It was God / That aided you, men say, and you are held / With God's assistance to have saved our lives" (43-45). The priest is referring to Oedipus' answer to the riddle of the Sphinx, which delivered the people of Thebes from the Sphinx's oppression. Later, however, Oedipus' pride is revealed when, speaking of the same event, he says: "But I came, / Oedipus, who knew nothing, and I stopped her. / I solved the riddle by my wit alone" (433-35). Othello also suffers from the hamartia of pride. His pride, however, stems from his insecurity concerning his appearance and social graces. His father-in-law speaks of Othello's "sooty bosom" in reference to his blackness (1.2.69). Othello admits freely that he is "rude . . . in [his] speech" (1.3.81). And finally, insight is given to this appearance through the words of Brabantio, his father-in-law, who speaks incredulously of his daughter's love for Othello: "To fall in love with what she feared to look upon" (1.3.98). The insecurity Othello feels concerning his appearance and social graces ultimately leads to jealousy over Desdemona's love for him, yet, within this jealousy, his true fear and pride are revealed. Othello's true fear is what other people will think about him. When Iago prods him, Othello says: "My name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black" (3.3.383-84). Later, when speaking to Desdemona, Othello whines: "But alas, to make me / The fixed figure for the time of scorn" (4. 2.53). Othello fears that other men will laugh at him because of the unfaithfulness of his wife, and his pride is what truly motivates his desire for revenge. Pride becomes the fertile ground in both Oedipus and Othello for the seeds of their destruction and ruin.
Although the details vary, Oedipus and Othello both suffer great shame and loss because of the pride within their hearts. Oedipus' pride is turned to shame as his murder of his father and his incestuous relationship with his mother are brought to light. Then he begins to lose those things that are most precious to him. First, he loses his mother and wife as Jocasta is found "hanging, the twisted rope around her neck" (1294). Next he loses his sight as he takes Jocasta's "gold chased brooches fastening her robe" (1299) and dashes "them upon his eyeballs" (1301). Finally, he loses his kingdom as Teiresias' prophecy is fulfilled: "blindness for sight / And beggary for riches his exchange" (503-504). Othello's pride is also turned to shame as he listens to the villainous Iago and murders his innocent wife. In doing this terrible deed, he also loses those things most precious to him. First, he loses his true love as Desdemona forgives him from her death bed by trying to hide his guilt. When asked "Who has done this deed?" she replies: "Nobody-I myself" (5.2.123-4). Later, Othello admits that he "threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe" (5.2.343-44). Then he completely loses his honor as he is replaced by Cassio as governor and branded a murderer. Finally, he loses his life as he declares: "I took by the throat the circumcised dog / And smote him-thus" (5.2.351-52) as he kills himself. Pride destroys both Oedipus and Othello.
Oedipus and Othello both learn through their experiences that pride is a destructive vice indeed, and that men who choose to be proud are destined for great suffering in this life. Blind Oedipus and dead Othello, who feared even greater suffering beyond the grave, are true tragic heroes in their final state, for it is here that people can look upon them and learn what they learned only too late. Pride is deadly.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama. Ed. X. J. Kennedy. 5th ed. New York: Harper, 1991. 1046- 1133.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama. Ed. X. J. Kennedy. 5th ed. New York: Harper, 1991. 999-1039.