Compare and Contrast: Othello and Antigone

The tragedies of ancient Greek authors are distinguished by an in-depth analysis of human relations and dualism of human nature, which is in conflict with itself and with encirclement. On the examples of some Greek tragedies, we can find out that human personality does not consist only of virtues or evils, but instead of a mixture of both which as a result create a conflict. The tradition set by Ancient Greek drama was continued during the Renaissance period by such famous play writers as William Shakespeare and Lope de Vega. Of course, the more significant contribution was made the plays of William Shakespeare which are often called encyclopedia of humanities life, depicting virtues and evil on the hand with love, hatred, betrayal and other issues which are universal for people of all times and nations. The drama of Sophocles and Shakespeare will be actual and immortal, even though that the humanity changes dynamically but the nature of the man had not changed at all through its long history. In most of the ways, we remain the same as we did four hundred years ago or as we were in Bible times. And Hamlet’s question of “to be or not to be?” will puzzle a lot of generations that will live in future.

Analysis of major characters of Antigone and Othello
Analyzing and comparing two tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare (Antigone and Othello) we can outline some common themes: the position of women in Ancient Greece, in Medieval Italy, the problem of social prejudices and bigotry, the issue of personal conflict. These themes are mutually correlated in Antigone and Othello, and they can be discussed from different aspects. Also, we can notice that both authors have a lot of similar points in approach to the construction of the conflict in tragedies.

In the tragedy of Sophocles, Antigone the niece of the king Creon demonstrates the actions, which are worth admiration and respect especially nowadays. She neglects the order of the new king and buries her brother according to Greek customs. This deed is very symbolic as she demonstrates regard to her brother and the will of gods. Antigone is arrested by the guardians of the king Creon and is sentenced to death in jail. But she is confident in her innocence and is faithful to her ideals:

“I’ll come to recognize that I’ve done wrong.
But if these people here are being unjust
may they endure no greater punishment
than the injustices they’re doing to me.”
(Sophocles, Antigone 1040)

As she is unwilling to accept such a shameful penalty she commits suicide:

“Look on me, you lords of Thebes, [940]
the last survivor of your royal house,
see what I have to undergo,
the kind of men who do this to me,
for paying reverence to true piety.”
(Sophocles, Antigone [940])

Such behavior is not usual for a woman in Ancient Greek society, where the woman had to be submitted to man and society’s laws. But in this case, Antigone neglects social orders and breaks the regulations set by the king Creon, to fulfill her holy duty of burring her brother. The will of gods, the intention of dead family members and respect to moral and family norms and customs is off the primary value for Antigone. She understands that by doing it she signs her death penalty, but this decision has a higher value than her life. On Antigone’s example of self-sacrifice, Sophocles wanted to show the triumph of virtues over social vices and personal fears as anyway evil punished, as at the end of the play king Creon who sentenced Antigone to jail is alone as all his family members die. Such epilogue is very symbolic.

Self-sacrifice of Antigone witnesses about her noble and patrician nature. Antigone wasn’t classical heroine of Greek tragedies and cannot be called a beautiful woman like her sister Ismene, whom she envied. Antigone was a boyish-looking lady, but her inner char and her inner beauty attract men. She could make them sympathetic, even she could make them subordinate to her order, and she could make them fear her. It’s very unusual for Greek women, and that’s why Sophocles endowed Antigone with such qualities to highlight her moral qualities and virtues.

Desdemona, the heroine from the tragedy is Othello is a different person. She is the apparent embodiment of woman of Medieval Italy: calm, submitted to husband, dependent and faithful. She lacks such qualities as the reason, independent thinking, and willpower. In her behavior, Desdemona is very similar to Antigone’s sister Ismene, who is very beautiful but who at the same time lacks independence and willpower. As a result of her naïve behavior and trustfulness, she becomes a victim of Iago’s manipulations and dies. Her too friendly relations with Casio would be suspicious anyway as it wasn’t a natural behavior for a married woman to spend time with other men, and she had to consider it, but instead, she thought it could take place. We can also outline that her decision to marry Othello may be regarded as the demonstration of courage and devotedness to a beloved person, but at the same time considered as the demonstration of levity. Even though that she took this decision and tried to convince her father of her free will:

“My noble father, / I do perceive here a divided duty” [I.iii.179–180], it seems that she wasn’t ready for such serious changes in her personal life.

Othello and Desdemona, of course, knew what consequences would their marriage have, but none of them was ready. As a result instead of doing the best to save the union, mutual trusts and love both of them started to alienated one from another after the marriage on the island of Cyprus. Desdemona appears at the beginning of the play a very independent and mature lady who can defend her love and her marriage, but her independence ruins after her marriage as she turns into a submitted wife of a jealous husband. Her inability to prove innocence and her inability to avoid the situation which took place with Casio and which was exaggerated and played over by Iago led to her tragic end. It becomes evident at the end of the play that Desdemona was ready for her murder, and she didn’t want to protest against it:

“O, who hath done this deed?” Desdemona’s final words are, “Nobody, I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell” (V.ii.133–134)

The main hero of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, also is in the deep conflict with himself and society. At this point, he is very similar to Antigone. They both are noble, kind-hearted and very decent persons. Their main problem is that despite their high moral qualities and respect they had in society, they were both unable to resist societies evils and manipulations and as a result, both of them die. Neither Antigone, nor Othello was typical for their time: Antigone wasn’t a beautiful looking lady, but she had strict moral principles and was respectful to Greek family customs. (That’s why she is often compared to Jane D’Ark)

The central theme of Othello is the life of a personality, which is different from the rest of society as he is Moor, a person with dark skin. Even though that he is a nobleman, a person of high moral principles and with the feeling of duty he cannot be accepted by society as he is different. It becomes the main reason of the scandal after his marriage with Desdemona as he is accused of witchcraft and magic. The marriage of Othello and Desdemona was “against all rules of nature”. The society didn’t accept the marriage because of several reasons: there was no precedent of Moor being an equal nobleman in the city of Venice, Moors were not equal members of Venice society, society of Venice had racial prejudices and that’s why Desdemona as a representative of this society could not fall in love with Othello as it contradicted the common sense according to the beliefs of Venetians. If to be objective we would agree that nothing can prevent Othello from the marriage on beautiful young lady: as he is noble, rich, and a military officer who also highlighted his social position. But the skin color was one which prevented even though that Othello is sure at the beginning of the play that:

“OTHELLO: My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly.
Othello 1.2.31-2”

Othello is a classic example of Shakespeare’s play where good fights against evil, where the action ends with the triumph of universal human values. That’s why the touched theme of racism in Othello witnesses about profound humanism of William Shakespeare. English society of Elisabeth I had an image of black people only as of slaves; the portrait of an educated and nobleman of African heritage was something ridiculous. Shakespeare, in fact, described Othello in a manner which made him the most decent and noble character of the tragedy: as he represented good morality and loyalty, while Iago a white man is described as the most vicious and mean person. Shakespeare described Othello as a personality and hero who didn’t even think about realizing his ambitions through dirty and immoral schemes. Iago visa versa sees betrayal as the only mean to achieve his purpose and to revenge.

Sophocles used the similar method making his heroine a boyish-looking young woman Antigone, whose moral purity dominated over her appearance. And Antigone’s beautiful looking sister is portrayed as an empty-soul person, who is too afraid to protest against the norms set by King Creon.

Unexplained rage of king Creon results not only in the death of Antigone but the death of his family. His punishment is solitude at the end of the play. Creon is a hostage of the throne; he is the victim of the power he embodies as he became a slave of his illusions. Creon is interested in social order and stability, but methods he uses to achieve it only describe him as a tyrant. The request to execute Antigone is also illogical and cruel. In many respects, we can state that Creon is a victim of the circumstances, which he created himself. In the similar situation is Iago, who was a faithful lieutenant of Othello and a reliable friend in the past but after Casio’s promotion he began to hate his boss and plan revenge, which has no explanation. The words Iago uses speaking about Othello are the best proof of cruel views and personal hatred towards Othello:

“IAGO: Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe!
Othello 1.1.87-88”

As Iago doesn’t have any real reason to start to hate Othello, he invents his one even knowing that it’s not true but convinces himself in it: that Othello sleeps with his own wife. Understandably it was more than untrue, but it gives Iago a solid background for hatred and opens a horizon for motivation. He not only hates his master but moreover has an open anger to him which borders with absurd: “hell and night / must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” (I.iii.397-98). These words are not only funny irony and exaggeration used by Iago but they also dispose of his prejudices as he refereed Othello tonight and hell, to a personification of Satan, but in fact, this position is taken by him from the very beginning of the play.

The image of Othello as of a noble and generous person who is more human and liberal than his surrounding was not typical for the society based on stereotypes and prejudices where “strangers” remained to be “strangers” till the rest of their life. From the other side, we can say that Othello became the hostage on the island of Cyprus where he stayed with his encirclement. He was a military man, and he has a need in being a defendant, but in Cyprus, he had the life of the civilian, which wasn’t typical for him as he wasn’t used to it. It resulted in the number of problems as he wasn’t able to manage his family life, to protect him from Iago’s manipulations and find out betrayal from the side of Iago and his wife. It’s very similar for military men who not very used to hypocrisy realities of civil life. The same is the situation of Antigone who was brought up in Greek moral tradition and who was not ready for the society where high morals and family duty where not followed al the time. Othello and Antigone were strangers in their epochs, and probably they would be strangers in the modern world where the domination of evils still takes place. On the tragic examples of these two heroes, Sophocles and Shakespeare wanted to show the way personal and social virtues have to be like, and that triumph of good will always take place.

Sophocles, Antigone
Goheen, Robert F. The Imagery of Sophocles’ Antigone: A Study of Poetic Language and Structure. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951. W&L
Hogan, James C. A Commentary on the Plays of Sophocles. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. W&L
Shakespeare, W. Othello
Davison, P. (1988) Othello: An Introduction to the Variety of Criticism Hampshire: Macmillan Press

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