University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Jim Garrett
Journey to Self-Knowledge: An Analysis of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet
Journey to Self-Knowledge: An Analysis of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet
Hamlet and Oedipus Rex are plays about characters in power who do not know themselves. The plays are journeys for Hamlet and Oedipus to find self-knowledge and truly accept their identities. The Allegory of the Cave, written by Plato, is a fantastic analogy for the actions of the main characters Hamlet and Oedipus. In The Allegory of the Cave, there are prisoners at the bottom of a cave. The prisoners are forced to look forward at a wall, and behind them there is a partition that they cannot see over. Beyond the partition there are guards and a fire. The guards use their hands and tools to make shadows, which the prisoners see. Above the guards is an opening to the world and sun. The cave represents various levels of knowledge. The prisoners believe that the shadows in the cave are reality because it is all they know, but they are blind to the truth. Some of the prisoners try to escape the cave and realize that the shadows were a lie, but before they reach the opening the sunlight blinds them. They are now reluctant to leave. This explains that the light or truth is too harsh or realistic for some. Finally, a prisoner leaves the cave and reaches full knowledge (Plato). Oedipus and Hamlet follow different paths of The Allegory of the Cave; Oedipus is the prisoner who is completely blinded by the shadows, while Hamlet attempts to escape, but is reluctant due to the harsh light. Even though Oedipus and Hamlet have different Allegory of the Cave journeys, they eventually accept the true meaning of their identity and person. Sophocles uses irony and questions in the passage between Oedipus and Tiresias to emphasize Oedipus' blindness towards his identity. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses logos and imagery in Hamlet's scene with Claudius praying to show Hamlet's reluctance to kill Claudius and by extension accept himself. Next, Sophocles uses metaphors to demonstrate that Oedipus accepts who he is and that he was once blind. Finally, Shakespeare uses allusions to the Bible and a metaphor to explain that Hamlet has reached his own version of acceptance.
Oedipus, similar to the prisoners in The Allegory of the Cave, is blind to the truth. In the play, Oedipus is on a quest to find the killer of Laius, the late King of Thebes, to save the city from a plague, but Oedipus is blind to the truth of who really killed the king. Along this journey for truth, Oedipus talks to a blind prophet, Tiresias, about who killed Laius. In this exchange, Oedipus, not pleased with the answers of Tiresias, mocks his blindness and says he is not a good prophet. In response, Tiresias says, You are a king. But where argument is concerned I am your man, as much a king as you. I am not your servant, but Apollo's. I have no need for Creon to speak for me. Listen to me. You mock my blindness do you? But I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind: You can not see the wretchedness of your life, nor whose house you live, no, nor with whom. Who are your father and mother? Can you tell me? You do not even know the blind wrongs that you have done them, on earth and in the world below (Sophocles, 22). Sophocles uses questions to allude to the truth of the murder of Laius and Oedipus. When Oedipus was young, he received a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, but he does not believe it came to fruition. Tiresias asks Oedipus if he knows who his parents are. Oedipus thinks that the King and Queen of Corinth are his true parents, but Jocasta and Laius, the Queen and former King of Thebes, are his real birth parents. Sophocles uses this question to let the reader realize the truth of Oedipus's identity. Tiresias also asks the rhetorical question "You mock my blindness do you?" This question adds an element of irony. Tiresias is physically blind, so he cannot physically see the world. However, Tiresias' posing of the question suggests that Oedipus himself is blind in a way. Oedipus cannot see the truth; Oedipus does not realize that he fulfilled the prophecy by killing Laius and marrying Jocasta. Tiresias points out the irony that Oedipus is mocking him for his physical blindness when Oedipus is suffering from the much worse blindness to knowledge. The idea of being blind relates to The Allegory of the Cave. Oedipus is like one of the prisoners in the cave. He only sees the shadows on the wall that he is the son of the King and Queen of Corinth, and he did not kill Laius. Oedipus cannot fathom the truth of his situation. Oedipus does not really know who he is or what is happening, and he must still break free from the chains of ignorance to reach knowledge.
Hamlet knows his truth, unlike Oedipus, but he is unwilling to act on his truth. The ghost of the late King Hamlet tells Hamlet that his brother, Claudius, killed him by poisoning him. The ghost asks Hamlet to avenge him by killing Claudius. However, Hamlet seems reluctant to do so. Hamlet is inches away from killing Claudius while he is praying but delays the kill. Hamlet explains his thinking, Now might I do it (pat,) now he is a-praying, and now I'll do't [He draws his sword]. And so he goes to heaven, And so am I (revenged)… And am I then revenged to take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and seasoned for his passage? No. Up sword, and know thou a more horrid hent [He sheaths his sword]. When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, or in th' incestuous pleasure of his bed, at game, a-swearing, or about some act that has no relish of salvation in't—then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, and that his soul may be as damned and black as hell, whereto it goes (Shakespeare, 3.3.77-100). Shakespeare uses Hamlet's logos and imagery to show his reluctance. At first it seems like Hamlet only delays his kill because he wants true revenge and sending Claudius to heaven while he is praying would not suffice. However, the logos of Hamlet's argument proves otherwise. In Hamlet's reasoning, he first decides to not kill Claudius because he wants him to go to hell. However, Hamlet continues, "No. / Up sword, and know thou a more horrid hent." In this line of reasoning, Hamlet explains that killing Claudius just as he is in general, sending him to hell, would not be horrid enough. He must kill him while he is committing a terrible act like in "incestuous pleasure of his bed." Shakespeare also uses imagery to describe Hamlet's indecision. There is imagery of Hamlet drawing his sword and preparing to kill Claudius, then talking himself out of the act and sheathing the sword. Although these are minor, the vivid details show Hamlet's reluctance to act. Hamlet seems open to the possibility of killing Claudius at first, but quickly shelters back into delaying the act. The idea of reluctance relates to The Allegory of the Cave. Hamlet is like the prisoner who is trying to escape the cave. He knows the truth of the scenario that Claudius killed his father, but Hamlet is frozen with indecision. It does not matter whether Hamlet commits the murder or not, but the indecision he shows through his language and the imagery of him unsheathing and sheathing the sword suggests that he does not know who he is. Hamlet has not accepted his identity and is lost in inaction just like the prisoners reluctant to escape the cave but unwilling to go back into its shadowy depths. Eventually, Oedipus realizes the truth about who he is. After many conversations with various characters, Oedipus finally realizes that he fulfilled the prophecy given to him; he married his mother, Jocasta, and killed his father, Laius. After Oedipus sees Jocasta's suicide, which was motivated by the realization of the truth, he inflicts his own punishment. The Second Messenger says, "For the King [Oedipus] ripped from her [Jocasta's] golden brooches… raised them and plunged them straight down into his eyeballs" (Sophocles, 69). Sophocles uses vivid imagery to describe the scene of Oedipus blinding himself. The use of "golden brooches" is important because it is a metaphor for light and knowledge. Oedipus finally has knowledge, the golden brooches, but the pain of not knowing sooner causes him to inflict a self-punishment, which is blinding himself. Oedipus says, "But the blinding hand was my own! How could I bear to see when all my sight was horror everywhere" (Sophocles, 72). The idea of blindness and sight is a metaphor for knowledge. Oedipus accepts that he was closed off to the truth and it was his own fault for the chaos that he caused. Additionally, Oedipus no longer wants to be able to physically see since his lack of sight for knowledge led him to this point. Blindness, sight, and knowledge directly ties into The Allegory of the Cave. Oedipus now knows that he was once one of the prisoners at the bottom of the cave blind to truth, but now he has escaped the cave to reach full knowledge. Outside of the cave Oedipus inflicts a punishment on himself for being in the horrid situation in the first place. However after, Oedipus acts with a new poise making sure his children and Thebes succeed after he leaves.
Hamlet eventually accepts himself as well. There are several events that help Hamlet accept such as his viewing of Fortinbras' army, but Hamlet expresses his acceptance only after the conversation with the Gravedigger and the realization that Ophelia is dead. At the scene of Ophelia's funeral, Hamlet says, "This is I, / Hamlet the Dane'' (Shakespeare, 5.1.270-271). This line is powerful. It represents how Hamlet has truly accepted his name and identity. He is content with who he is and has a new path. Later when talking to Horatio after Ophelia's funeral, Hamlet says, "In my heart there was a kind of fighting / … let us know /, our indiscretion serves us well/ when our deep plots do pall; and that should learn / us / there's a divinity that shapes our ends" (Shakespeare, 5.2.4-11). The line about fighting within Hamlet's heart is a metaphor for his earlier indecision of whether to kill Claudius. However, Hamlet continues his speech by saying that some of his indecision helped him along his journey, and now he has more clarity. Shakespeare uses an allusion to Christianity to express Hamlet's newfound knowledge. Hamlet believes that there is a "divinity," the Christian God, that is helping him on his journey. Hamlet has finally escaped the cave; he has accepted that he cannot control everything and by extension he has accepted his own identity. Hamlet acts with more clarity until the end of the play where he, Laertes, Claudius, and Gertrude all die in an eventful chaos. During the final stages of the play, Hamlet acts with his self-knowledge and acts with decisiveness.
Hamlet and Oedipus both have journeys that align with The Allegory of the Cave. Hamlet is the prisoner who is trying to escape but is deterred by the sharp light. Hamlet acts with indecisiveness even though he knew that Claudius killed his father. Eventually, Hamlet escapes the cave, accepts his own identity, and acts with clarity. Oedipus, on the other hand, is one of the prisoners at the bottom of the cave who is completely blind to reality. Oedipus does not realize the prophecy came true. Eventually, Oedipus realizes the truth about the prophecy and escapes the cave. The plays end in tragedy, which begs the question of if self-knowledge is valuable. In short, yes. Hamlet and Oedipus accept their identities at the end of the play, and both characters act with purpose after their new realizations. Oedipus willingly blinds himself as punishment for being blind to reality for so long and for committing the acts he did. Oedipus also acts with his children and city in mind showing that he changed for the better. Hamlet acted with confidence in the late stages of the play, and the array of deaths was not directly caused by Hamlet's new knowledge. Oedipus Rex and Hamlet along with The Allegory of the Cave teach us that finding knowledge of oneself is difficult, and people are often reluctant to do so, but it is important to try to escape the cave to truly know one's purpose and accept who they are in order to live a more fulfilling and impactful life.
The True American Dream: An Essay on A Raisin in the Sun and Death of a Salesman
The True American Dream: An Essay on A Raisin in the Sun and Death of a Salesman
The United States was founded with the idea of American Exceptionalism at its core; it could prosper; it could be different; it could set an example for other countries. From this idea of American Exceptionalism, a new idea arose: the American Dream. James Truslow Adams coined the term "American Dream" in 1931, explaining that anyone could reach their aspirations and goals. This open-ended idea quickly morphed into American materialism. People viewed the American Dream as purely succeeding materialistically, forgetting other aspirations such as family and education goals. Even though Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman are about different socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds, both plays challenge American materialism. Furthermore, both plays view American materialism as detrimental to people and society. A Raisin in the Sun and Death of a Salesman criticize American materialism similarly through house sets and characterization.
The house is central to American materialism. For most people, buying a house is the single most expensive and important purchase in their lives. A house is the culmination of someone's hard work and reward in the material world. Hansberry and Miller critique American materialism through explaining the sets of the houses in their respective plays. In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry describes the Younger family's apartment. She explains that the Younger family tries to cover up all of the worn down furniture and parts of the house. The couch is covered in doilies and couch covers, and furniture is moved to cover beaten carpet. Hansberry continues, "Weariness has, in fact, won in this room. Everything has been polished, washed, sat on, used, scrubbed too often. All pretenses but living itself have long since vanished from the very atmosphere of this room" (Hansberry, 788). The apartment and all its furniture represent materialism, so the furniture being worn out and decaying corroborates that materialism is bad. The decay over time suggests that materialism may have been a desirable thing at one time, but it never lasts. Hansberry says that only the action of living remains, which means that materialism drains family and the house of relationships over time. The Youngers house also suggests that American materialism is not what it seems. Hansberry writes, "The single window that has been provided for these 'two' rooms is located in this kitchen area. The sole natural light the family may enjoy in the course of a day is only that which fights its way through this little window" (Hansberry, 788). The small window that lets light shine into the house represents materialism. The fact that the window is so small and barely lets light into the room suggests that materialism is not as satisfactory as it seems. Focusing solely on materialism does not fulfill someone's life the way having multiple things in life like family can, which is similar to how a small window cannot fill a room with as much sunlight as many windows. The small window also suggests that African Americans have less opportunities than whites to excel and gain material value.
Miller also uses the Loman house as a way to criticize materialism in Death of a Salesman. Throughout the play, Willy's sample cases are in the middle of the house. All the characters have to move around the large sample cases. The sample cases being in the center of the house suggest that Willy never stops being a salesman because he brings a part of his work to his house. Furthermore, the sample cases being an obstacle in the house means that Willy as a salesman and more broadly materialism interfere with family relationships. The sample cases show that Willy cares about materialism more than his family even though Willy wants to be a good father. Miller also critiques materialism through the house set itself. Miller describes the house set as just enough to be real. There is a table with chairs and a refrigerator in the kitchen, but nothing else. The bedroom only has a brass bedstead and a chair. The house is very bare. The house itself is partially transparent in places. Miller continues and writes, "An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality" (Miller, Death of a Salesman, 11). The dream that Miller describes is the American Dream or more specifically American materialism. The house as Miller describes represents Willy's brain (Miller, Introduction, 23). Miller's description of the bareness of the house suggests that materialism has failed in a couple of ways. First, the bareness represents how the house is not a home. The house only has the necessities showing that family comes second in the mind of Willy. The bareness of the house also shows that materialism is not fulfilling. It leaves a lot of empty space in one's life. Finally, the transparency of the house and its bareness suggest that American materialism is a fleeting dream that does not have a place in reality.
Hansberry and Miller also use characterization of the protagonists to show their pessimistic views on materialism. In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Lee is obsessed with the idea of owning a liquor store to better his family's economic status. Although Walter Lee has a noble goal of trying to better his family financially, he focuses too much on this materialistic need instead of what is good for his family. When Mama Lena and Walter Lee argue over what to do with the life insurance money, and Mama Lena says that Walter Lee will not receive the money, Walter Lee says, "You run our lives like you want to. It was your money and you did what you wanted with it. So what you need for me to say it was all right for? So you butchered up a dream of mine—you—who always talking 'bout your children's dreams" (Hansberry, 824). Walter Lee only thinks that the money should go to him for his liquor store. He does not think about Beneatha and the tuition for her education or the family in general as Mama Lena wants to buy a home. Walter Lee is purely focused on his own materialistic goals. Later Mama Lena is convinced to give some of the money to Walter Lee. Walter Lee uses all the money besides the money Mama Lena uses to pay for a new home and gives it to his friend to invest in the liquor business. Walter Lee's friend disappears with all the money. Walter Lee's focus on materialism leads him to make a bad decision and let his family down. Not only does Walter Lee let his family down, but he does not achieve his goal in the end. Hansberry views materialism in a pessimistic manner because it disrupts family and ultimately it leads to failure.
Miller also expresses his pessimistic view of materialism through Willy in Death of a Salesman. Willy's main goals in life are inherently materialistic. Willy wants to be a successful salesman, and he wants his son, Biff, to be a successful businessman. Willy is only focused on how well his family can do financially. Even in the end, Willy thinks that giving money to Biff is more important than having himself in Biff's life. Willy contemplates suicide in an imaginary conversation to his brother Ben, Willy says, "A man has got to add up to something…You gotta consider, now. Don't answer so quick. Remember, its guaranteed twenty-thousand-dollar proposition" (Miller, Death of a Salesman, 125-126). Willy decides to commit suicide in the end for one last sale of his life to give his family and Biff twenty-thousand dollars through life insurance. Willy does this with a false sense of hope in materialism. In reality this gesture is empty as Biff does not want the money, he only wants his father's love, and the insurance company is not likely to give the money as Willy committed suicide.
Although Hansberry and Miller have a pessimistic view on materialism, they have an optimistic view on how to escape materialism. The authors suggest that family relationships are a way out of materialism. In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Lee decides to keep the home his mom bought instead of selling it so that they could be more financially stable. In this interaction Walter Lee says, "We called you [Lindner] over here to tell you that we are very proud and that this is—this is my son, who makes the sixth generation of our family in this country, and that we have all thought about your offer and we have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it… We don't want your money" (Hansberry, 849). Hansberry thinks that family relationships are more important than any material goal. In Death of a Salesman, Willy commits his last act of suicide with love for his son. Miller explains, "In terms of his [Willy's] character, he has achieved a very powerful piece of knowledge, which is that he is loved by his son and has been embraced by him and forgiven" (Miller, Introduction, 34). Even though Willy committed suicide to help his son materialistically, he did it out of love for Biff. Walter Lee breaks free from materialism through his family, and Willy almost breaks free from materialism as he realizes his son loves him. In the end, both plays still show the optimism of family and its role in limiting materialism.
A Raisin in the Sun and Death of a Salesman both critique how America is too focused on materialism. Materialism, a construct developed by humans to show how someone is above another, should not be the focus of peoples' aspirations. Materialism is merely a golden shell; it appears precious and desirable on the outside, but it is hollow and meaningless at its core. Both authors suggest that the United States needs to shift its American Dream from one of materialistic aspirations to a broader one of its true meaning of creating a rich life. There should be a shift from a focus on materialism to a plethora of things including creating relationships with others. This does not mean that people should forget all of their material goals, but they should not take preface over family or other more meaningful things. In doing so people can move away from a shell of a life to one that is full to the brim with experiences and love.