As described in an earlier post (“teenagers’ questions”), students prepared for their December exams by studying the intersection of self-perception and wisdom in the literature we read during the first semester. These two responses rose to the surface, and I have not edited them for this posting. The essays impress and encourage me.
As both Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex progressed, both plays’ main characters became more aware of themselves and how their life impacted those around them. Each reacted differently to this awareness, causing them to have different answers to President Anwar El Sadat’s question, “This is the image I have had of myself… Now, as the landscape of my life unfolds before my eyes, can I claim that this image… has been realized?” (1)
At the beginning of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus has no idea of his origins or what he has truly done. His self-perception changed dramatically throughout the play as he began to understand what he really had done. He first saw himself as a great king who ruled over Thebes: “Her [the Sphinx’s] riddle wasn’t the sort / just anyone who happened by could solve: / prophetic skill was needed. But the kind / you learned from birds or gods failed you. It took / Oedipus, the know-nothing, to silence her. / I needed no help from the birds. / I used my wits to find the answer. / I solved it—the same man for whom you plot / disgrace and exile, so you can / maneuver close to Kreon’s throne” (472-80). He believed he had saved Thebes and was their great ruler. This is how he perceived himself until his true colors were revealed. As the play progresses on, Oedipus found out that he was not a great of a leader, as he once believed. He took responsibility of his actions and did not try to see him as someone that he wasn’t: “And once I’ve brought such disgrace on myself, / how could I look calmly on my people?” (1570-1) These thoughts continued on as the play neared the end with him finally giving himself the punishment he believes his new self deserves: “Expel me quickly to some place / where no living person will find me” (1629-30).
Macbeth had a different approach to assessing his contemptible deeds in Shakespeare’s play. After his realization of his murderous act, he believed it would be best for him to try to forget what he had done and what he had become: “To know my deed, ‘twere best not to know myself” (2.2 76). He did not want to become what his actions proved him to be and thought it would be best to pretend nothing happened. Macbeth perceived himself as a great ruler who could do no wrong and wanted to continue to believe that. As the play continues on, Macbeth became less and less aware of whom he was and what his purpose was: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more: it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5 17-27). At that point he did not understand what he had become or who he was anymore. Life seemed to have no use to him anymore, but he never admitted what he had done was not worth getting to the position he ended in. Even at his death, he still tried to hold onto his past self, not believing what he had become: “I bear a charmed life which must not yield / To one of woman born” (5.8 12-13). Macbeth’s perception of himself may have changed throughout the play, but he tried to see himself still as a great king until the end.
The difference between these two characters was their realizations of who they were. Oedipus began as a great leader who was admired for his wisdom and strength at the beginning of Oedipus Rex: “Oedipus, we need now the great power / men everywhere know you possess” (48-9). Everyone in Thebes looked up to him and his great power. Once he realizes what he had done in the past, he understood the consequences of what he had done and how he had to take responsibility for it: “He [Oedipus], children, saw nothing, knew nothing. / He fathered you where his own life began, / where his own seed grew. Though I can’t / see you, I can weep for you” (1682-85). Oedipus never stopped loving the people he ruled and was brave enough to leave them because he believed it was the best for them. Macbeth came to the realization of his actions in his own mind: “Methought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more: / Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep” (2.238-9). He continued to be haunted by himself throughout the play, but never truly understood the consequences of his actions. Macbeth continued to believe the ends justified the means of his actions, thinking he was helping everyone around him: “To be thus is nothing, / But to be safely thus” (3.1 49-50). He differs from Oedipus in the way he responded to the realization of what he had done with his life. While Oedipus took responsibility of his previous actions, Macbeth continued to be in denial and believed he was still in the right for what he had done.
Oedipus would answer President Anwar El Sadat’s question much differently than Macbeth. Both would say how they realized what their life looked like, but Oedipus’s answer would be much more truthful. He understands what his actions were much more than Macbeth did and handled the consequences of them. Macbeth continued to fight and tried to prove to himself that he was right and should be in power. This difference in their answers makes Oedipus the much wiser man in comparison to Macbeth. He behaves in a much more composed fashion when looking upon what he has done and overall understands his purpose and who he is much more than Macbeth does.
Macbeth and Oedipus
In Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex”, both main characters find themselves in a horrible position; Macbeth realizes that his kingship will end, and Oedipus realizes that he is the source of the plague upon his kingdom. The difference between these two men shines here, because of their next actions. Oedipus redeems himself by banishing himself, but Macbeth continues his onslaught. Thus, Oedipus is wiser than Macbeth, because Oedipus rectifies his horrible deeds while Macbeth does not. However, they both end with a guilty conscience.
In “Macbeth”, Macbeth realizes mistakes, and how difficult it would be to rectify his actions at this point. However, he continues his onslaught at the expense of his nation. Even before this point of no return, Macbeth contemplates turning around: “We will proceed no further in this business. / He [Duncan] had honored me of late, and I have brought / Golden opinions from all sorts of people / Which would be worn now in their newest gloss / Not cast aside so soon” (1.7.31-5). Macbeth sees his horrible future, and wants to prevent it entirely by not going through with the plan of murdering the king. The fact that Macbeth went through with the plan anyway shows his lack of wisdom, because even though he saw how horrible his life would become, he continued with the plan. Later in the play, Macbeth performs many atrocious actions, such as the murdering of Macduff’s family: “The castle of Macduff I will surprise; / Seize upon Fife; give to th’edge o’th’sword / His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate should / That trace him in his line. No boasting like a fool; / This deed I’ll do before this purpose cool …” (4.1.149-53). Macbeth performs horrible actions; he murders Macduff’s wife and children, just so he could keep his position as king. After this, it would be nearly impossible for Macbeth to return to the position he was before, because he has performed too many horrible deeds. Towards the end of the play, Macbeth realizes he is trapped: “They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly, / But bearlike, I must fight the course. What’s he / That was not born of woman? Such a one / Am I to fear, or none.” (5.8.12-3). Macbeth here realizes that he is beyond the point of no return, and instead of backing down and accepting defeat, he continues his onslaught in an attempt to stay King. Macbeth, although given many opportunities to back down and rectify his actions, refuses to do so. This only broadens the horrible landscape that is Macbeth’s life, and even though Macbeth sees it, he does nothing to stop it.
In “Oedipus Rex”, Oedipus realizes that he is the evildoer in his kingdom, and redeems himself by curing the plague by means of banishing himself. Leading up to this moment, Oedipus says to his people, “I do pity you, children. Don’t think I’m unaware. / I know what need brings you: this sickness / ravages all of you. Yet, sick as you are, / not one of you suffers a sickness like mine” (69-71). Oedipus professes his love for his people. Oedipus keeps this in mind even when he realizes he is the source of the plague, and does the right thing in the end for his people. Just before Oedipus is confronted by Tiresias, a messenger of the Oracle at Delphi, Tiresias explains who the killer of the past king is: “You think he’s [the killer you hunt] an immigrant, / but he will prove himself a Theban native, / though he’ll find no joy in that news. / A blind man who still has eyes, a beggar who’s now rich, he’ll jab / his stick, feeling the road to foreign lands” (540-53). This foreshadows Oedipus’s fault, as Oedipus fits the description given by the oracle. This is the first instance of which Oedipus is given clues as to whom the killer is. Even though he does not believe he is the disease at first, he still does the right thing later on. When Oedipus finally realizes who he really is, he says: “Expel me quickly to some place / where no living person will find me” (1629-30). Oedipus does the right thing when finding out he is the source of the plague by banishing himself. Oedipus realizes and sees all of the wrongs of his life in one great picture, and accepts them and redeems himself by curing the sickness at his expense.
Both Oedipus and Macbeth have wronged themselves and others around them in their respective plays, and have reaped the consequences of guilt. For instance, after Macbeth has slain Duncan, he says: Methought I heard a voice cry, ‘sleep no more: / Macbeth does murder sleep ‘, the innocent sleep, / Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care, / The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, / Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, / Chief nourisher in life’s feast” (2.2.38-43). Macbeth is torturing himself by what he has done. Macbeth only furthers his guilt by not rectifying this guilt of his; if only he had come clean and stepped down would this guilt be relieved of him. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus says: “And once I’ve brought such disgrace on myself, / how could I look calmy on my people?” (1570-1). Oedipus here is also experiencing guilt for what he has done, as he cannot look at his people like the strong ruler he once was. Oedipus feels this guilt, but stops it by rectifying his actions and redeeming himself for them. In the end, they both suffer for their actions; Macbeth dies and Oedipus becomes a lonely wanderer. However, Oedipus is wiser than Macbeth, because he came clean in the end while Macbeth did not. This wisdom was beneficial for Oedipus because though he did not escape with vision or wealth, he did escape with his life. Macbeth, on the other hand, suffered the consequence of a tragic death.