Professor Keefer's Literature
Zachary Papazahariou's Webfolio
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
It is not the tragic subject matter of the text which is of primary interest but rather the manner in which the plot is developed. As we discussed in class, the story line progresses as if the reader is "unpeeling an onion."
The tale of King Oedipus is well known. An enraged Oedipus unknowingly slays his father (Laiusq, King of Thebes) and supplants him as monarch and as husband to his own mother (Queen Jocasta). As each successive "layer of the onion" is unpeeled, Oedipus is brought a step closer to realizing the true nature of his actions. Foretold in prophecy and initiated by his anger, the downfall of Oedipus comes to fruition as all facts gradually come to light.
This "enlightening" starts with the revelations of a blind prophet named Tiresias. Though sightless, Tiresias can "see" the truth. He argues with Oedipus " you have your sight, and do not see . Yea, you are ignorant ."(Sophocles, 15). Understandably, Oedipus is enraged at the prophets accusations and fatally insists on investigating the murder of King Laius.
In Aristotles Poetics, it is stated that a tragedy must be complete having a beginning, middle and end. Of equal importance " the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good or from good fortune to bad."(Aristotle, 15).
The impetus for the downfall of Oedipus, "Known far and wide by name" (Sophocles, 1), is his anger. Enraged he slew King Laius and in anger he hastily pursued his own ruination. From the aforementioned recriminations of Tiresias to the conflict with his brother-in-law Creon (his ill temper again displayed "Tempers such as yours most grievous to their own selves to bear, .(Sophocles, 25); through the revealing exchanges with his wife/mother Jocasta and her slave (whose pity saved the infant Oedipus), damming insight grows in a logical sequence, all the while fueled by the Oedipal rage. Realizing the heinous nature of his actions, Oedipus blinds himself in a fit of anger and remorse now, as Tiresias, he can see.
In an age where popular entertainment is apparently guided by the maxim "more is better" (see the body count in any popular "action thriller") and "special effects" dominate, Oedipus Rex achieves its climax in a refreshingly concise and intelligent manner. "For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus."(Aristotle, 24).
In 1500 years will The Phantom Menace be as revered?
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
It is clear Hamlet can be interpreted from a multitude of perspectives on numerous levels. I cannot quite grasp Mr. Bloom's contention that this is a work of near biblical importance nor can I accept his allusions to Jesus or the Buddha. "Hamlet remains apart; something transcendent about him places him more aptly with the biblical King David, or with even more exalted scriptural figures."(Bloom, 384). My immediate response is that when Mr. Bloom shuffles off this mortal coil, I don't believe Billy Shakespeare will be waiting with a pint of ale.
Professor Schechner's enjoyable production increased my appreciation of the value of wardrobe and inflection of voice. Prior to this performance I did not see Polonius as a buffoon (as portrayed by Mr. Shapli), nor the incestuous nature of Ophelia's familial relationships (Ms. Cole's ability to transform from coquette to lunatic was shocking). Doubtless there are near as many interpretations of Hamlet as there are Shakespearean aficionados.
My own expertise lies in the political arena. I believe Hamlet could be construed as a treatise on aggressive, imperialist behavior.
Throughout the Dramaturgic Analysis of Hamlet Prince of Denmark the indecisiveness of Hamlet is noted. He does not immediately seek vengeance but continually schemes, rants and raves (both in his rational and insane moments). Whether cowardice, caution, or simply indifference dominate his persona is unclear - what is clear is his distaste for his own behavior: "How stand I then, That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd, And let all sleep, while to my shame I see The imminent death of twenty thousand men (sic)." (Shakespeare, 116).
The impending doom of the twenty thousand men alludes to a campaign waged by Fortinbas, the Prince of Norway. Though the battleground is said to be of little value, Fortinbas is warring on principles of honor and the subsequent expansion of Norway.
An enraged Hamlet mistakenly slays Polonius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent to their inconsequential deaths only when he is inspired by pirates to save his own life. These murders involved no elaborate schemes but were simply enacted. Yet with all his planning, his opportunities, his justification, why can he not kill Claudius?
The portrayal of the pirates as "merciful thieves" (Shakespeare, 124) and the fact that warlike Fortinbras succeeds in Poland and obtains the Kingdom of Denmark by play's end - may be a commentary on decisive, imperialistic behavior. Hamlet and all save the scholarly Horatio lie dead due to inaction.
A dying Hamlet states "On Fortinbras, he has my dying voice." (Shakespeare, 152). Fortinbas is thus rewarded with Hamlet's adulation (considering his disdain for his contemporaries - quite an accomplishment), and by the acquisition of new lands.
In my mind, Shakespeare clearly condones strong aggressive action to further one's ends - a viewpoint more in line with the burgeoning British Empire rather that the teachings of the Buddha or Christ.
Whereas the extent of my poetic appreciation lies in a decided distaste for Dante and a zest for limericks concerning Nantucket - it behooves me to discuss a poem that my limited capacities can grasp. Fable by Nina Cassian is just such a poem. I view this piece as Ms. Cassian's perspective on life (a "sentence" or an obligation), death, and sadly, the fact that most people do not appreciate the beautific nature of existence.
I understand the first stanza as a depiction of man's earthly plane as a sort of testing ground for "angels" - a place where beings are concerned with the development of spirit, "to master imbalance."
The second and third stanzas I interpret as the transformation of the ethereal spirit to a corporeal state. The "angel plummeted" and thus left spiritual beauty in a quest for purity.
The angel,s descent is clearly painful: " feathers carbonized, his sole wing impotent, dangling." Though the cost of corporeal existence is dear, I believe Ms. Cassian sees this as an obligation which must be met, a "sentence."
The final sentence is the saddest. The nature of this newly formed being is mundanely categorized. The "people" fail to see its purpose and its intrinsic beauty; by extension, they have lost their own missions, their own true value. They have forgotten God.
The second poem was written by an astonishingly brillant N.Y.U. student hoping to receive an "A" in an introductory literature course taught by a fascinating (and underpaid) professsor.
12/2/97 is the date that this author spent approximately six minutes dead.
He had minored in theology and had developed a healthy scepticism concerning all religions. The author had laughed at so called "near-death experiences -" believing them either fantasy or resultant of a chemical secretion of the frontal lobe in times of catastrophic distress.
This erstwhile pillager of the business world, this glorified "strett hustler" discovered upon his demise that as the "people" of Fable he had lost his way, his appreciation, his God.
12/2/97 is a somewhat pedestrian attempt to broadly express this experience and explain his longing for completion of this "experiment." When the "obligation" is paid and the "sentence" is fulfilled I want to go home.
A clear brightness.
Beautiful, warm, serene.
Pure, so pure.
Outside of me.
It's not time.
It's not time
The focus of A Tale Of Two Cities concerns the impetus and fervor of 18th century European socio-political turmoil, its consequences, and what Dickens presents as the appropriate response of an enlightened aristocracy and just citizenry.
The tale opens with Dr. Manettte having spent the last 18 years of his life in the Bastille - innocent of all crimes save his disdain for the base actions of a French Marquis. The heinous nature of his confinement induced a madness remedied only by the devoted love of his Lucie.
We next encounter these characters five years later attending the trial of Charles Darnay - a nobly born French immigrant who relinquished his station rather than partake in the barbarous class structure of 18th century France.
The beautiful and virtuous Lucie Manette is admired by both Sydney Carton and his repugnant legal partner, C.J.Stryver. It is the inherently ethical Carton, not the aristocratic (and bellicose) Stryver who realizes that marriage to Charles Darnay would bring the greatest happiness to Lucie. Their bliss is short lived however,as the honor bound Darnay returns to Paris.
His prosecution is propelled by a vengeful and newly empowered Madame Defarge a "patriot of the revolution" who utilizes the revolutionary "People's Tribunals" to redress grievances committed by the Evremonde clan. Aided by her cohort (aptly given the code name of "Vengeance") retribution, not justice, is her sole concern. " I have this race a long time on my register, doomed to destruction and extermination."(370).
This savage character - "Madame's resolute right hand was occupied with an axe, and in her girdle were a pistol and a cruel knife"(244) - exhibits an anger so resolute and ferocious that its like may be comparable only to newly divorced female students here at N.Y.U. - but that is simply my experience.
Dickens does not portray Madame Defarge and her compatriots as morally bankrupt but rather depicts their inevitable creation in the oppressive aristocratic class structure of 18th century Europe. A Tale Of Two Cities is written in a perfectly linear progression of this theme. It initially portrays the oppressive nature of the aristocracy (the imprisonment of Dr. Manette, the accidental death of a child and the trite response of the Marquis - among other graphic illustration) which leads to the fervor of revolutionary assassins seeking justice. These zealots empty the Bastille and destroy all remnants of the oppressive regime in freedom's name, yet as products of this abusive system there is a hatred latent in their persona. These "patriots" recreate the system which they so despised - " the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old " (404); as Madame Defarge, they no longer seek justice but vengeance. The graphic depictions of mob bloodlust hammer this point home.
European aristocratic society is not doomed however. Carton redeems his wasted existence by sacrificing his life for the life of Darnay and thus insures the happiness of his beloved Lucie. This redemption brings honor to his name for generations to come. Charles Darnay's renouncement of his Family's ill gotten wealth results in his ultimate happiness. The implication is clear: the wastrels of the British aristocracy may yet redeem their virtue and save their love (Mother England) by pursuing societal equity and justice. It is only the noble pursuit of justice which can produce a society of the just. The hatred latent in oppressive societies results only in socio-political turmoil and the manifestation of evil.
Dickens harkens to the moral fiber of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton as a necessity for the preservation of British society and European aristocracies in general. The heroism displayed by these two characters would avert the horrors of a mob inspired rebellion in England - thus such sacrifices would be - to paraphrase Dickens, a far, far, better thing to do.
1. Dickens, Charles.A Tale of Two Cities. England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1970
Ulysses by James Joyce
Though I realize that Ulysses is a masterful paradigm of innovative techniques (or so the faculty of N.Y.U. would have one believe) - it is the conflicting natures of Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus which I find of primary (if not sole) interest.
Dedalus is a disillusioned, Jesuit trained academic with literary aspirations. His academic pursuits have led to a symbolic burning of his wings (his emotional detachment) as he rose to "the enlightenment of the Sun." He tolerates neither the abusive Buck Mulligan nor the condescending Oxonian Haines (the coinhabitants of Martello Tower) and feigns interest in the citizenry of Dublin.
Buck Mulligan is a cynical man of action. He mocks Dedalus' beliefs and intellectual prowess. Whereas Dedalus fears water (perhaps symbolizing baptism) - Mulligan once saved a drowning man. Mulligan "plunges into life" while Stephen meekly questions existence and his place in reality. Mulligan can ingratiate himself to the "peasantry" (see the encounter with the unpaid Milk woman) while Dedalus broods on Irish history and appears the elitist.
Stephen has been "blinded by the Sun" and lives in a shapeless world. His feelings of guilt (primarily concerning his mother's hideous death and the abandonment of his sisters to poverty) coupled with his sense of estrangement necessitates a continuous introspection as recourse. His relentless pursuit of absolute truths (a concept dear to the Aristotelian Jesuits) clarifies little and fuels his discontent. As a teacher he is uncaring - oblivious to the inadequacies of his students. As an employee he is held in light regard. "You were not born to be a teacher, I think To learn one must be humble" states the schoolmaster, Mr.Deasy (35). His literary views are scorned by his contemporaries and he is not considered a poet of any promise.
Yet Dedalus is a hero of a different ilk. Stephen is a sincere "thinker" and as such is diametrically opposed to Mulligan - "the man of action." He considers the import of his actions and grieves his perceived sins - Mulligan hides in cynicism.
Stephen is stumbling towards his goal of self-enlightenment despite societal conventions and his own inadequacies. Though displaced and disempowered by the "usurper" Mulligan (23) - he struggles onward.
Ulysses battled the gods and his own character flaws to regain his kingdom and his happiness. Stephen Dedalus has embarked on his own odyssey in search of intellectual freedom - a freedom which society's Mulligans and Deasys can hardly aspire.
1. Joyce, James.Ulysses. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Far Darrig in Donegal by Letitia Maclintock
Though I am uncertain as to the exact meaning of a "Far Darrig," (a bizarre tale perhaps) - I was nonetheless immediately entranced by this short story. The prospect of being powerless in uncertain circumstances and to then discover one's weakness in his own environment - is frightening.
The traveling tinker, Pat Diver is a common man who seeks only a night's shelter. Forced to bed in an ordinary barn he encounters four extraordinary men in a hideous act. Though hidden, he is summarily acknowledged and enlisted as a participant with threat of heinous reprisals should he perform his duties imprecisely. Failing to do so - he seemingly escapes to a drain, hides, again is nonchalantly discovered, and is again enlisted by the four men and warned of the consequence of failure to properly complete his tasks. A third time he escapes and is discovered yet again - this time at the site of a newly dug grave. Finally he is saved by a cock's crow that prompts the men to depart - telling Diver the grave was his own.
What gives this tale a nightmarish quality is the climax. Months after the grave site incident, the tinker encounters one of the men at an innocuous fair. An extraordinary being, a being that can invade the ordinary life of an ordinary man, a creature that is relentless, is the stuff of nightmares.
1. Maclintock, Letitia. The Book of Irish Weirdness. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1997.
Back to syllabus for Intro to Lit
Back to Keefer home page