With millions of plays available just at one’s fingertips, modern society has the unique opportunity of being able to read any form of text that could date back thousands of years. Many times, because of the different dialects and time periods, the style of writing can confuse modern audiences and the main message authors wanted their audience to understand may not get across. Oedipus Rex and Endgame are two completely different types of plays that were written more than 2000 years apart.
While many people may not see a correlation between the two types of plays, they both have one thing in common- the mportance of understanding the time period. Knowing background knowledge about when plays were written can help future audiences comprehend the intended message of the author. Back during the 5th century BC, Greek culture flourished and was an era where philosophers sought out to understand how the world works. During the 400’s BC, Athens was considered the center of the Greek world as they had the most power over any other city.
Writers such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes produced many literary masterpieces that are still being read today that fall into the categories of drama, ragedy, and comedy (Silberman, 1996). More specifically, with Sophocles, when he wrote Oedipus Rex, he was influenced by the Greek philosophy that surrounded the idea of trying to understand the world around them. Within the tragic play, fate is a theme (just like in many of the other tragedies) that questions the idea of the order of nature.
The whole play is filled with ironies such as verbal, tragic, and situational ironies that emphasize the twist of fate around the protagonist (Dems, 2012). Also, looking at the text itself, it is obvious that what was occurring around Sophocles had an impact on his literature. Furthermore, there was a rivalry between Athens and Sparta that lead to the Peloponnesian War in 431. During this time period, a severe plague hit Athens killing not only their leader, Pericles, but also one third of the population in Athens (Hellenic Adventures, 2003).
Similarly, the story of Oedipus Rex revolves around the fact that the city of Thebes is hit by a plague which leads Oedipus into researching a way to save his city. Additionally, Sophocles is well known as a great playwright because of how he changed the way plays were written. Plays used to be in a trilogic form that had three tragedies in one rama. He eliminated this and just wrote one complete story. By looking at the history of the play, it helps modern audiences get a better grasp for what the author wanted his particular audience to understand about his play.
Many of the time, when modern audiences are reading plays written in the past, they can perceive the wrong message the author wanted to portray. In regards to Oedipus Rex, the text is based on the prenotation that the story told was already well known to the audience. This creates a tension for the audience because they already know what is going to happen next before the characters on stage. In addition, this allows for Sophocles not having to go much into depth with explaining everything that is occurring in the story.
By having the audience know the story, they are able to experience the dramatic irony in the play. The first type of irony, verbal, is shown in the hero’s speeches. As shown in the play, Oedipus in the beginning of the play states, “And I curse the doer, whether he worked alone or evaded us with accomplices” (Sophocles, 2010, p. 252-253) unknown that he is cursing himself. Also, tragic irony is already known by the audience and is often shown by the actions the characters take. Oedipus, for example, tried to avoid the prophecy by leaving his family in Corinth not knowing he is adopted.
Lastly, situational irony looks at the predicted outcome and what actually happens (Dems, 2012). In this case, the prophecy becomes true when Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother. Based on the idea that the audience is fully aware of the story of Oedipus, this allows Sophocles to create tension that without the audience knowing the story, would have not made the play as powerful as it is. In tragic plays written during the Golden Age, fate is questioned continuously. Many times, modern audiences look t it as Oedipus being controlled by the fate that is laid out before him.
In actuality, Sophocles wanted to emphasize that the oracle is a self-fulfilling prophecy- the prophecy doesn’t make him do what is predicted but he causes the events to occur to fulfill it. Similarity, according to E. R. Dodds in his article “On the Misunderstandings of Oedipus Rex”, he argues that, “the immediate cause of Oedipus’ ruin is not ‘Fate’ or ‘the gods’- no oracle said that he must discover the truth.. it lie in his own weakness; what causes his ruin is his own strength and courage” (Dodds, 1966, p. 183). The whole idea about fate is evolved around the time period that it was written.
Writers and philosophers sought out to understand how nature worked and the relationship with the people and the gods. This gave the idea that the gods didn’t completely control everyone’s life but they had a say in their own destiny. Additionally, by understanding the complete tragedy in the specific time period, this inspired the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud, to come up with his theory of the Oedipus Complex. This theory explains that when a human is young, they have a strong urge to kill the same gender parent and want to be with the opposite gender arent.
In his book, Interpretation of Dreams, he states that, “Oedipus Rex is capable of moving a modern reader or playgoer no less powerfully than it moved the contemporary Greeks… his fate moves us only because it might have been our own, because the oracle laid upon us before our birth the very curse that rested upon him” (Freud, 1913, p. 52). Grasping the idea of fate within the Greek culture, allows modern audiences to understand the message Sophocles was intending for all audiences to gain from watching or reading his play.
Likewise, such as in Oedipus Rex, it is an important concept that modern udiences take time to do research about the time period of a particular piece to help explain what the author wanted their audience to understand. Next, jumping from 400 BC, in the play Endgame which was published in 1957, it is important to comprehend the time period and a little bit into the author’s history to get the main message correctly. The author, Samuel Beckett, was born in Ireland in 1905 and lived throughout World War II.
Due to him having an Irish citizenship, he was able to stay in the neutral country of France as a citizen. During the war, he fought in a resistance movement until his group had been rrested by the Gestapo where he went into hiding until the end of the war. After the war, he wrote a number of plays that were influenced on his views on the world after experiencing the war (Esslin, 2016). For instance, Theodor Adorno, in the article “Trying to Understand Endgame”, stated that, “After the Second war, everything was destroyed, even resurrected culture, without knowing it; humanity vegetates along,. n a pile of ruins which even renders futile self-reflection of one’s own battered state” (Adorno, 1982, p. 122).
In the play, it is referenced many times that there is no life outside of the room that Hamm nd Clov live in. When Hamm was looking out the window, he states that, “Nothing stirs” (Beckett, 2009). This gives to the idea that they are alone, trying to live day by day similar to how Beckett viewed the world after living through war. Moreover, Beckett’s style of writing was different than other authors and was often referred to as “Theatre of Absurd” by Martin Esslin (Biography, 2015).
This writing focused on human despair and the lack of understanding that humans have about the world through dark humorous ways. His plays avoided goals and often referred to the fact that our desire is our source of misery. He believes that life is meaningless and that we just live each day happily by keeping ourselves busy so we don’t focus on the inevitable death that we each will face. Additionally, he was an agonist and was quoted saying, “Even if God were to exist, he would make no difference; he would be lonely as as enslaved, and as isolated as man is, in a cold, silent, indifferent universe” (Biography, 2015).
Even when talking about his spiritual views, it shows that his idea on how the world works was influenced by living throughout the war. Throughout Endgame, Beckett makes many allegories to the concept that umans are living a meaningless life through humor. When Nell says, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” (Beckett, 2009) when talking to Nagg about Hamm’s misery, it is an example of tragic comedy. Beckett doesn’t try to force comedy in the play but believes that humor is a way that humans make life more bearable.
In Endgame, the story revolves around Hamm and Clov’s life and their depiction of life. Modern readers, when first picking up the text, may read it and be confused on the meaning that Beckett is trying to convey. First, looking at the motifs and symbols used throughout the play as well as Beckett’s past ight add a deeper understanding of the play than just reading the text itself. First, Beckett used to be an avid chess player in his childhood and throughout the war.
He was fascinated with the fact that chess had a strict set of rules yet it also allowed a lot of freedom. The title of the play, Endgame, also has a meaning in chess which is that the outcome is already known. Just like in chess, the Hamm and Clov keep doing the same routine until their endgame in life, death. Just like in the game of chess, there is the idea that humans are both free and not free and in the end doomed (Moss, 2013). As shown in the play, Clov states in the beginning, “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished…
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap” (Beckett, 2009). Clov is alluding to Beckett’s philosophy in life, life is a cycle. He is saying that each grain is a day and that the days start to add up over the years. The beginnings and ends seem to fuse together which supports Clov’s original comment. There never seems to be no end in sight and that life is very repetitive until death can finally end it. In conclusion, when looking at any text, in specifically
Oedipus Rex and Endgame, knowing when the play was written can help bring some understanding about why the play was written a specific way and the main theme. Sophocles and Beckett’s plays revolved around what was happening at that specific time period. Considering the time period which it was written, the author’s biography, themes, and plot can help with the understanding of a modern audience’s analysis of the plays. Whenever in doubt about the meaning of a specific play, one should always do research about the time period which can inspire them into seeing the text in a new light.