Fate, Hubris, and Truth: The Downfall of Oedipus and Othello

I wrote this college paper in 2013 in my sophomore year. Originally posted on Academia.edu.

 


Fate, Hubris, and Truth:

The Downfall of Oedipus and Othello

by Corey Olszewski

The tragedy of Oedipus and Othello’s fates lies in their search for truth and their personal excesses of pride. However noble their efforts, however honorable their reasons, their excessive pride blinds them to the truth of reality in favor of the truths that they wish to be.

Oedipus and Othello share many of the same qualities. Both are men of high esteem in their worlds; one is a king, and the other is a general of renown. Both have achieved success through their own cunning, merit, and tactical genius. They are both self confident in their personal abilities, intelligence, and wisdom professionally and personally. While this pride at first presents as self-confidence, both ultimately lead to tragic ends in their pursuit of truth. Some commentaries conclude that both men suffer from a tragic flaw (Lawton. 1-2). That flaw is excessive pride.

Oedipus, unaware of his true parentage, unknowingly murders his father, King Laius, at a crossroads and marries Laius’ wife – his own mother, Jocasta – when he assumes Laius’ vacant throne. Thus, even before the beginning of the story, the prophecy has already been fulfilled. The actual tragedy lies not in the fulfillment of the prophecy itself, but in the damage that the truth of it does to Jocasta, the kingdom that he loves, and himself.

Oedipus, caught up in his previous success over the Sphinx, refuses to listen to anyone concerning the prophecy. Oedipus brushes off the prophet Teiresias when he tells Oedipus that “the accursed polluter of this land is you” (Oedipus the King. 421). Oedipus, rather than seeking out the truth of Teiresias’ claim, accuses Teiresias of falsehood and threatens him.

Dianne Trumbull, in her article “Hubris: A Primal Danger”, postulated that it was not simply pride that undid Oedipus, but specifically hubris. She differentiates between pride and hubris as “related emotional states that drive different goal-directed responses in moral decisionmaking” (349). In other words, it wasn’t simply that Oedipus was prideful, but that his excessive pride – hubris – kept him from listening to anyone, specifically Teiresias and Jocasta, concerning the truth about what happened on the crossroads. His decision making was altered because of his excess of self pride. Instead of trying to find out the truth for the good of his kingdom (as defeating the Sphinx was), his mission became one of personal obsession.

In the end, Oedipus’s hubristic search for truth leads him to discover that Laius’ murderer was, in fact, himself. Even when Jocasta pleads with him to abandon his search for truth so that they may continue to live in peace, he can not do it:

OEDIPUS. I will not be convinced I should not learn
               the whole truth of what these facts amount to.

            JOCASTA. But I care about your own well being—
               what I tell you is for your benefit.

            OEDIPUS. What you’re telling me for my own good

               just brings me more distress.

            JOCASTA. Oh, you unhappy man!

               May you never find out who you really are! (Oedpius the King. 1276-1284)

The actual truth makes Oedipus gouge out his eyes in grief, drives his wife kill herself, and leaves his kingdom in turmoil. If Oedipus had dropped the matter, as his wife had asked, they could have continued to live and rule their kingdom in peace.

Ian Johnston, in his lecture “Fate, Freedom, and the Tragic Experience”, writes that “the story of a hero who challenges or encounters fate and has to respond… can force us to confront some basic truths about life and about how what we like to believe rests on some fundamental assumptions” (5). Oedipus’ fundamental assumption was that the truth, no matter what, had to be revealed, regardless of who it hurt. Unfortunately, this meant that he was the one who would suffer. This is not only true for Oedipus, but also Othello.

 

Othello's_Lamentation
William Salter. Othello’s Lamentation. Oil on canvas, ca. 1857. Pressly, W.L. Paintings in the Folger Shakespeare Library, 55.  CC BY-SA 4.0

Othello, mislead by the poisonous Iago, is maneuvered into killing his beloved wife for infidelity. When Iago posits that Desdemona is unfaithful to him, Othello, rather than defending her, listens to Iago’s twisted truths. Othello’s tragic fate is tied directly to his overblown pride and his unwillingness to see the actual truth, only the truth he believes in. He believes in his own abilities to find the truth so fully that Iago exploits him masterfully, making Othello believe in his lies as perfectly as if they were truth.

The truth that Othello ends up accepting is based on his fundamental assumption that women are untrustworthy. In “Moral Mistakes, Virtue and Sin: The Case of Othello”, Jean Porters asserts that “Othello’s fault — his credulity — turns out to be both based on and qualified by a set of beliefs about the characteristics of women and at least some kinds of men” (29). Ergo, Othello’s fundamental assumptions and beliefs about women make his search for truth skewed. He sees what he wants to see, not what is.

Even though Othello loves Desdemona fiercely, and considers her his most prized possession, he does not trust her. As Othello laments “O curse of marriage, that we can call these delicate creatures ours, and not their appetites!” (Othello. 3.3.268-270), it becomes clear that Othello’s untrustworthiness of women has soured his opinion of marriage as well. Because of his prideful tragic flaw, he disregards any notion that Desdemona is innocent.

In conclusion, Oedipus and Othello’s tragic fates are not due to prophecy or predestination, or even chance. Their prideful excesses, and misconceived fundamental assumptions about the truth are directly responsibility for their tragic ends. Oedipus, of his own free will, pursued his investigation without stopping to think about the consequences for himself, his queen, and his kingdom, bringing his house to ruin. Othello, because of his arrogant assumption that women are ruled by their passions and are thus uncontrollable if given too much leave, assumes the worst about Desdemona instead of trusting her as he ought to. Othello and Oedipus’ pride, their hubris, is what leads them, and those close to them, into ruin.

Works Cited:
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. Ian Johnston. Handout. Composition II: English 1302. (Professor Lawton) Tarrant County College. Fort Worth. March 2013. Web.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Handout. Composition II: English 1302. (Professor Lawton) Tarrant County College. Fort Worth. March 2013. Web.
Lawton, Rachel. “Brief Commentary About the Plays.” Handout. Tarrant County College. Fort Worth. n. d. Web.
Johnston, Ian. “Fate, Freedom, and the Tragic Experience: An Introductory Lecture on Sophocles’s Oedipus the King.” Lecture. Handout. Composition II: English 1302. (Professor Lawton) Tarrant County College. Fort Worth. n. d. Web.
Porter, Jean. “Moral Mistakes, Virtue and Sin: The Case of Othello.” Studies in Christian Ethics 18.2 (2005): 23-44. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 April. 2013.
Trumbull, Dianne. “Hubris: A Primal Danger”. Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes 73.4 (2010): 341-351. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 April. 2013.
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