Compare the central question
Three literary works, two of which are plays from 2,500 and 400 years ago and one of which is a modern novel – all appear to deal with an issue of control – mainly, how much control do we have over our own fate, and how much over the actions of others? - Compare the central question introduction?? A secondary question is, how much does hubris cause one’s downfall?
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is the quintessential Greek tragedy. Oedipus’ parents are told by the Oracle of Delphi that their son will ultimately grow up to murder his father and marry his mother; they abandon him on a hillside, but he is rescued by a shepherd who gives him over to the King of Corinth, who in turn raises Oedipus as his own. When Oedipus discovers his own prophecy, he flees the home of his adoptive parents – not realizing that he is adopted – and in his determination to avoid his fate, walks squarely into it. The implied moral here is that fate is fate, and whatever the gods decree will happen, regardless of attempts on the part of we puny mortals to avoid it. On another level, the issue of hubris – foolish pride and conceit – enters. In an early “road rage” incident, Oedipus kills the man who denies him the right-of-way, unaware that it is his biological father. Cocksure and confident, Oedipus goes on to defeat the Sphinx who has held the kingdom of Thebes in bondage, claiming the crown and the queen – ignorant of the fact that she is his own mother. (One can only imagine that despite the fact that she must be at least 13-15 years older, she’s still quite alluring.) It is also Oedipus’ pride that drives him to discover the identity of Laius’ murderer.
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The dramatic irony in this play stems from the attempts of all parties concerned to thwart fate. Initially, Jocasta and Laius attempt to kill their son; later, thinking Polybus and Meropé are his parents, Oedipus flees Corinth. There is also irony in their attitudes toward oracles and the gods; in one scene, Jocasta is attempting to comfort Oedipus:
“Then thou mayest ease thy conscience on that score.
Listen and I’ll convince thee that no man
Hath scot or lot in the prophetic art.”
Yet in a later scene, Jocasta is discovered praying fervently to the gods she herself so recently mocked.
Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is essentially a soap opera. As anyone who has watched more than a few episodes of daytime TV can attest, most “soap” storylines are about the attempts of characters to control and manipulate the lives of other characters. The story also involves characters who fall in love, despite their determination not to. In Act II, Scene I, lines 204-208, Benedick adamantly declares:
The savage bull may, but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull’s horns and set them in my forehead, and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write ‘Here is good horse to hire’ let them signify under my sign ‘Here you may see Benedick, the married man.’
In other words, Benedick mocks the idea that even whose who “party hearty” will eventually settle down to domestic life. A warrior himself, he engages in a “merry war of words” with Beatrice. His own hubris – his pride – draws him into what amounts to a competition with her as he is determined to fall “horribly in love with her” (Act II, Scene 1, line 207) in response to hearing the discussion between Claudio and Don Pedro of how she desires him – in short, “let’s see who can fall in love the deepest and most quickly!” Thus, his own egotism leads him into a marriage he to which he had previously sworn he would never submit.
George Orwell’s 1984 is closer to Oedipus Rex than Much Ado, yet is unlike either of them. Winston Smith lives in a society that is a modern neo-conservative dream come true – in which every vestige of freedom, creativity, individuality, sexual expression is harshly repressed by the state (in the neo-conservative version of the U.S., this would be accomplished by unregulated, for-profit multi-national corporations and enforced by a evangelical extremist Christian version of the Taliban – but the results would be the same). Winston is frustrated by this, recalling a time when things had been different. Eventually, he commits an act of rebellion by engaging in an affair with Julia, but all the time, he is convinced they will be caught and punished. From the time he first starts keeping a diary, he knows he is doomed.
Unlike the first two works, Winston Smith is not attempting to escape his fate – on the contrary, he is resigned to it as he opens his diary in Chapter 1:
…if detected, it was reasonably certain that it would
be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years
in a forced labor camp.
Nonetheless, he will rebel against his society – even if only in a way normal people would consider “small” –for as long as he is able.
Even when tricked into joining O’Brien’s “Inner Circle,” Winston accepts what is in store:
You will have to get used to living without results and
without hope. You will work for awhile, you will be caught
and you will die (145).
Another bit of irony here is their determination to meet again in a “place without darkness.” Most would consider this heaven, or at least a better world. In fact, Winston and O’Brien do meet again in a “place without darkness,” which turns out to be a prison in which the lights are kept on constantly.
In Oedipus Rex and Much Ado, mortal men attempt to avoid fate out of pride and their own efforts, which ultimately prove fruitless. In 1984, Winston has no illusions – he will attempt resistance, but knows that ultimately, such resistance is futile. It would indeed seem that “toys are us, for the gods to play withal.”