The Theme of Self-Sacrifice in Greek Tragedies

Most Greek plays and writings, especially tragedies, are founded on recurring themes that touches on fate, self-sacrifice, and death. The lead characters in these tragedies are portrayed as individuals who are ready to behave in an extreme manner in an endeavor to avert disasters and misfortunes. A significant number of these misfortunes are prophesies or decrees that are constituent parts of an individual’s destiny.  Some plays have depicted characters who commit suicide on the verge of a disaster, while others depict individuals who opt to maim themselves as punishment for their disgracing conduct. As such, characters in these plays take drastic measures for two reasons: as an endeavor to stave off misfortunes or as punishment for disgracing oneself, one’s family or acquaintances, or the community as a whole (Graves 45).

Antigone and Oedipus the King and Iliad and Odyssey are two plays that feature prominently in the discussions of dramatic works with tragic themes. In Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus the King there is a piece of fiction about a woman named Antigone. Antigone is a daughter of Oedipus who was one the king of Thebes. Antigone is portrayed as a strong-willed woman who fights for what she believes in, irrespective of the challenges that she has to endure. As pointed out earlier, this is typical of most of the Greek tragedies of the time. Antigone disagrees with a powerful man, the king of Thebes.  As the king of Thebes, Creon’s authority is marked by a firm determination and resolution to implement his decrees to the letter. Antigone is aware of this fact. However, like most characters in these kinds of play, she is determined to fight for what, according to her, is right. She does this at her own peril as Creon’s authority, like those of other kings, is unquestioned. The subjects must oblige or risk severe punishment (Butler 88).

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Antigone and Oedipus the King opens with a conflict in which Polyneices and Eteocles are enlisted in opposing armies. Moments later, the audience learns that the two men are siblings and brothers to Antigone. The conflict has escalated into a civil war that is inflicting huge human and material loses to the kingdom of Thebes (Butler 89). As the battle draws to a conclusion, Polyneices and Eteocles kill each other. By that time, Thebes had Creon as its king. The king, to the dismay of Antigone, decrees that the burial of Eteocles be organized with full military honors, while the opposite is to happen to that of his brother Polyneices. According to the king, Polyneices deserves no burial rites, and as such, no ceremony is to take place during his burial. Antigone loves his brother so much that she cannot deny him a decent burial, even after the king has outlawed one for him. This love leads her into defying the king. She violates his orders by planning a burial for his brother with all the rites that she deems necessary. The king, upon learning of Antigone’s disobedience, orders her seclusion from the community. She is then caught and locked in a cave in a disgracing manner.

Antigone remains firm for her beliefs are that such an action was necessary, especially because the man involved was her beloved brother Polyneices. Her heart is at peace with the afflictions that she suffers. Surprisingly, Antigone is being admired by a young man named Haemon. Haemon’s admiration is complicated by the fact that he is a son of King Creon, the sovereign who orders Antigone’s incarceration. Haemon finds himself in a state of perplexity. He has to make a decisive choice between two options that, according to him, are equally favorable. Eventually, he opts to side with Antigone, a fact that he makes public. This dismays the king. This is because, as a father to Antigone’s admirer, he is convinced that the punishment that he had decreed upon Antigone may turn out to be counterproductive. He fears that the relationship between Antigone and Haemon may doom his reign. This fear prompts him to order the release of Antigone in an attempt to appease his son.

The king’s decision to free Antigone comes late as she has already embraced her fate with confidence that her actions have been right. Knowing that the king’s decree is not subject to change, she does not does not blame anyone for her misfortune. Nevertheless, she opts to take her own life by hanging. By so doing, she sacrifices her own existence in an attempt to preserve the memory of Polyneices, her beloved brother. Upon learning of the tragedy, Haemon, her admirer, is overcome by grieve to a point of taking his own life. He opts to sacrifice his life and loyalty for the love he has for Antigone. Incidentally, Haemon’s action dismays his mother so much that her life becomes unbearable without the son. As such, Haemon’s mother, and Creon’s wife, stabs herself to death. In all these instances, the theme of self sacrifice through death is predominant. Characters commit suicide for the love that they have on their family members and their loved ones.

Antigone and Oedipus the King tells of a tragic story that depicts Oedipus, Antigone’s father. However, Oedipus’ actions illustrate a form of sacrifice which is different from that of Antigone and Haemon. Oedipus is born to King Laius of Thebes and his wife Queen Jocasta. Upon his birth, it is prophesied that he, Oedipus, would kill King Laius, his father, and consequently marry his mother. The news horrifies King Laius and Queen Jocasta so much that they feel it would be wiser to get rid of the baby boy. Therefore, in an attempt to avert his early death, the king orders that his son be killed as fast as possible. Queen Jocasta directs a servant to execute the king’s command without hesitation. The servant that Queen Jocasta orders to execute the command cannot bear to kill the boy or just leave him in the woods. The servant is terrified to let the baby die of actions that can be averted. This servant decides to give the baby to a shepherd who lives in Corinth. The shepherd then gives baby Oedipus to another shepherd who is also a native of Corinth. Eventually, the baby is handed over to the king and queen of Corinth, and since they were childless, they embrace the baby as their own.

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The king of Corinth names the baby Oedipus, the name he derives from the condition of the child’s feet and ankles. The child’s feet and ankles were swelling as a result of the injury that its father, King Laius, had inflicted on them when he pinned the heels together. For this reason, the adoptive parents name him Oedipus; a name derived from oedema, which means swelling. The king and queen of Corinth are fond of the boy and they bring him up with care and love that he deserves. When he grows up, Oedipus finds out that it had been prophesied that he would kill his father and, consequently marry his mother. Oedipus loves the king and queen so much that he, actually, mistakes them for his real parents. The terrifying discovery saddens him as he would not contemplate killing the king of Corinth and marry his wife, the queen. In an attempt to avert such a horrible outcome, Oedipus opts to leave Corinth for Thebes, a kingdom that is far away. However, as fate would have it, he meets his father along the way. The two men begin to argue, and Oedipus, tired and depressed, loses his temper. Unintentionally, he kills King Laius, an action that makes him fulfill a part of his destiny.

Unconscious of his action, Oedipus proceeds with his journey.  Along the way, he encounters a Sphinx and, somehow, he solves the riddle. His wisdom amazes the people of Thebes, and as a result, the town dwellers resolve to appoint him the new king, as a show of gratitude. As king, Oedipus is obliged to marry the windowed queen. He then promises to get rid of the plague that afflicts the people of Thebes. His marriage to Queen Jocasta fulfills the prophecy that is proclaimed long before. Once Oedipus is king, the truth comes out. The king and Queen Jocasta find out the truth and everything that has happened. The queen remembers that it had been prophesied, and seeing this as the fulfillment of the oracle, she opts to kill herself in disgrace. Oedipus is saddened, and his tribulations lead him into blinding himself (Brunner 30).

Being blind disqualifies Oedipus as king, and as such, the people of Thebes install a new king, King Creon. Oedipus demands of King Creon to banish him from Thebes as a part of his penalty. His expatriation from the city of Thebes becomes a form of self sacrifice as Thebes is able to get rid of the pandemic that Oedipus himself had brought upon the city. This, in effect, fulfills his promise to the people of Thebes that upon assuming the throne, he would help rid the city of the plague. As pointed out before, Oedipus’ sacrifice is different from that of his daughter Antigone. Instead of committing suicide, he opts to disgrace himself through maiming and banishing from the city. All the same, it is a self sacrifice which, according to Oedipus, served the purpose.

Homer utilizes literature to depict self sacrifice among his characters. His literary works have characters who sacrifice their lives and beliefs for friends, relatives, as well as the people of the city. Examples of these works are Iliad and Odyssey. Iliad is a captivating play whose lead character is an established warrior named Achilles. Achilles is depicted as a man who sacrifices his beliefs and senses of individuality for the sake of his friend’s wishes. Achilles is a feared warrior who, nevertheless, disobeys his king, Agamemnon. The play opens with Achilles’ manifestation of arrogance and selfishness. He refuses to join his fellow warriors in battle, even though he knows that everyone is relying on him. He does this as a show of opposition to the leadership of Agamemnon, who he considers to be an inefficient king. His fellow townsmen are disgraced in battle until Patroclus, his friend, sacrifices his life by taking Achilles place in the battle field. However, Patroclus is no match to Achilles, and unfortunately, he is killed in action.

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Upon learning the news of his friend’s death, Achilles is pained and remorseful for causing great losses to the city as well as the death of Patroclus. The circumstances prompt him to reason unselfishly, thereby swallowing his pride. He vows to oblige to the king’s commands as this would facilitate his plans of avenging the death of his beloved friend, Patroclus.  In this regard, Achilles sacrifices his personality and will, a scenario which necessitated that he give in to the demands of Agamemnon. However, it is worth noticing that even so, Achilles retained the will to execute his plans (Rabinowitz 35). With regard to this, he only altered his procedures in an endeavor to quicken his revenge.

Homer’s other play, Odyssey, is a sequel of Iliad. The play is centered on Odysseus, a Greek hero, and his home coming after the fall of Troy (Powell 69). The long and tiresome journey takes Odysseus ten years since the end of the Trojan War.  Upon his return, Odysseus is disguised as a beggar. By this time, his home is full of suitors, all of whom seek his hand in marriage. The people of the city seem to belief that Odysseus is already dead as it had been quite a while since he was last seen in the city.  Unrecognizable, Odysseus is forced to endure insults, cruelty, and abuses from the suitors. The suitors feel disgraced that the man they have been waiting for is, actually, a beggar. He endures all the rudeness for sometimes before the queen decides to organize an archery contest. The contest gives Odysseus an opportunity of proving himself by emerging the winner of the contest. Odyssey depicts the self sacrifice of a war hero who endures suffering uncomplainingly till an opportunity to prove himself avails.

In essence, almost every Greek hero has had to sacrifice something in one way or another. The most famous Greek plays and tragedies have portrayed the human ability and power to sacrifice. The nature of their sacrifice may differ with regard to the personality of the character in question, but it is clear that all of them possess great will and power to achieve whatever they set out to achieve. They all had to sacrifice one thing or another for the common good of the town or for the betterment of a certain circumstance.

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