Are Willy Loman and Oedipus Rex true tragic heroes?

Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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The tragic hero should be the kind of hero in whom we can all see ourselves, and whose struggle we identify with. Neither Oedipus nor Willy is such a character: both are so hell-bent on following what is shown to be a clearly mistaken path of action that we cannot share in their suffering or misfortune. I do not believe that we cannot see or identify with either Willy or Oedipus' character. I think that both characters show both the best and worst aspects of humanity. Oedipus especially has admirable qualities that we as an audience would aspire to.

It is interesting to note the opening: it is the only surviving Sophocles' play to open with such a mass dramatic scene. This was more common in dramatists such as Aeschylus' work. Sophocles' openings were usually more quiet and private. The scene opens with Oedipus addressing Thebes, and shows a paternalistic side to Oedipus. Firstly, the staging would have helped to enhance this paternalism - Oedipus is on the stage, raised above the orchestra where the chorus would stand, speaking down to them dominating the space.

He refers to Thebes as 'My children' which suggests that although he is an authority figure, he is concerned about his people, and is compassionate. It is rare in Greek tragedy for rulers to address their people in this way. In the rest of his opening speech Oedipus is comforting and devoted. A modern audience would especially admire Oedipus for this, and this would help us identify with Oedipus. The ancient Greeks would also have likened him to their great, grand, ruthless but democratic leader Pericles - which would have increased their identification.

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Oedipus also has a degree of empathy: 'You suffer; yet, though sick, not one of you Suffers a sickness half as great as mine' This empathy shows a humane caring side despite his elevated status he is not at all different from his people. This suggests that although Oedipus is treated almost god-like, he can identify with the average person. This helps with the audience's identification with Oedipus. Towards the end the audience see Oedipus' large capacity for love and affection - even after his downfall. He loves his daughers: 'But my unhappy daughters, my two girls,

Whose chairs were always set beside my own' This beautiful insight into the relationship between Oedipus and his daughters shows Sophocles' uncanny ability to express emotion, and would appeal to the audience, we can all identify with familial love. Oedipus is determined in his struggle, and as an audience we identify with this - as normal average human beings we have to be determined in order to overcome struggles in life. He constantly struggles to find the truth of his identity: 'Stop! Who were they? Who were my parents? Tell me! '

I must ask: how is wishing to know the truth surrounding a mysterious background deemed as 'hell-bent'? Surely that is what everyone strives for in life is the ancient Greek aphorism: Know Thyself. Every common person can identify with this; it is not confined to the great and mighty. Oedipus' language here is exclamatory and conveys a note of desperation - the audience can obtain a sense of his real burning desire to know himself. Oedipus also has characteristics in himself that we can identity with - not because they are admirable, but because they are flaws, which all of mankind possess.

The audience can see a glimpse of arrogance and vanity, when he says 'Whose fame is known to all' but to contemporary Greeks pride was not at all a weakness. However, to a modern audience, Oedipus would seem arrogant here, and this perhaps shows a more unappealing side to humanity. It begins to emerge that Oedipus has an unrelenting quest for knowledge, and is no pushover: 'But if you keep silent, if any man Fearing for self or friend shall disobey me' The audience glimpses of how impatient and inquisitive Oedipus actually is, as he poses a quick fire of questions towards Creon, e. g. : 'Where was he murdered?

In the palace here? Or in the country? Or was he abroad? This could perhaps provide a good argument for the above statement - that Oedipus is 'hell-bent' on following this mistaken path of action. However, I feel that everyone at some point is determined to follow something mistaken, and it is how they deal with their error that really determines their heroism. This is what the above statement ignores; the tragic hero isn't determined by the events leading to their downfall, but more so how they respond to these events. There is a marked change in Oedipus, his tone changes one of irritability: 'Why, what is this?

Why are you so despondent'. Throughout the quick dialogue with Teiresias the audience are shown a less controlled Oedipus: 'But to withhold your knowledge! This is wrong Disloyal to the city of your birth. ' There is a repetition of negatives here, and a critical accusatory tone. Oedipus is now more exclamatory 'You villain! There is a constant questioning by Oedipus, and the flow of speech between the characters is more fragmented and jagged than previously. This is achieved by the use of many hyphens and short sentences: 'You do not know- therefore I am the villain! This again creates a much more chaotic and less controlled side to Oedipus - he is not perfect which I actually feel helps us to empathise with him, and consequently are more able to share in his misfortune. Teiresias appears to try and stop Oedipus' misguided path of action in the same way that Biff tries to stop Willy 'I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you' - but both Oedipus and Willy are too strong of characters to be swayed. 'This crime was planned and carried out by you' which shows the irrational side to his character, and the simple absurdness of it all.

I think Oedipus' anger is pardonable with Thebes in great danger; he cannot get to the core of the mystery when Teiresias refuses to speak. Also, the refusal is incriminating; and it was not unknown for a king to be plotted against, so I could argue that Oedipus is not completely irrational. Greeks were accustomed to taking the oracle's words with a grain of salt, the oracle had not supported Athens in either the Persian or Peloponnesian War, and so I think a contemporary audience would be able to identify more with Oedipus at this point, and we may not see much Oedipus in ourselves, The concept of oracles is very foreign to us.

There are however, some parts of the play were we cannot share or identify with Oedipus' suffering - simply because it is so far removed from what we know. For example, Oedipus' downfall is extremely intense. The language and imagery in describing this terrible downfall is rich and evocative: 'Showers of black rain and blood-red hail together' is said by the messenger in describing how Oedipus has blinded himself; he also speaks of the 'common storm' of the husband and wife. Oedipus also despairs 'Oh cloud of darkness abominable. This graphic storm metaphor is used extensively throughout the play, and conveys to the audience the catastrophic disharmony between man and nature caused by chaos in the royal house of Thebes. The Greeks had a dangerous freedom in their open society - which could perhaps be a reason why Oedipus is so 'hell bent' on following this mistaken path. Each individual is un-accommodated and alone - with nothing to confine him. It adds unique terror to the Greek tragic vision - we can see from the devastating downfall of Oedipus that the gods were unpredictable - no Greeks expected perfect justice from them.

In modern society, most people trust the goodness of their God and abide under the shadow of the Almighty. From this viewpoint I feel that a modern audience could perhaps not share so much in Oedipus' suffering, because they don't expect it. But in his downfall we also see strength in Oedipus - and this is where we feel relieved or uplifted, and the completion of the catharsis. When Oedipus returns to the stage blinded, the audience know that he has passed through the dark night of the soul and has survived the worst.

At this stage Oedipus joins the chorus in a lyrical exchange, a kind of duet that begins with an outcry of pain and suffering 'Alas! alas! and woe for my misery' . In joining the chorus in song meter, he expresses with a new level of emotion and sympathy with humanity. This is in stark contrast to his previous commanding distance and he can now identify and stand beside mere mortal man - which he is himself. I think this is one of the most important parts of the play with regards to Oedipus being presented as a hero.

We can identify with him because even if he did pursue a 'hell-bent' path he made it out alive - and can now empathise with the rest of humanity. A tragic hero must encounter a tragedy - or else they are not heroic, and I definitely can say Oedipus encounters a tragedy. Oedipus does not flinch or hide away from what he has dome - he speaks clearly 'And she that bore me has borne too my children'. This admittance and courage shows the endurance of the human spirit, Oedipus transcends suffering. The audience will feel a degree of optimism for humans - all is not lost in Oedipus Tyrannus.

Oedipus, unlike before, now accepts his destiny 'My fate must take the course it will' and accepts it quietly and calmly. The audience do not see the common self-pity of the protagonist in this tragedy unlike others - e. g. Lear in Shakespeare's King Lear. Oedipus remains a tower of strength. Oedipus here highlights the best qualities found in humans. Aristotle stated that it is the quality of the hero's response to the peripeteia and the manner in which he confronts it that determines his essential worth as a tragic hero and gives him ultimate tragic status.

Oedipus, in coming through the dark night of the soul, confronts his destiny with courage and bravery. This is echoed in Willy Loman, who never gives up his dream of success for him or his son Biff. To imply that Oedipus is on a hell-bent path suggests that fate has victimised him. I believe this is not true - Oedipus could have left the plague in Thebes, he could have left the murder of Laius un-investigated and he could have not pressed Teiresias or the herdsman for the truth. However, his piety, justice, and desire for knowledge meant that he must.

And thus it is his character that has caused the tragedy - his good and bad qualities - his human qualities - and so thus I find that we do share his suffering and misfortune. Willy is a product of the optimistic post war society, and he has a real burning desire to sell and succeed: 'Goddammit, I could sell them! ' This is admirable, and shows an iron determination as well as joyous enthusiasm in Willy's character, and so one could argue that like Oedipus' iron determination, Willy has aspects in his character that highlight the best in humanity.

He has a real sense of competition, and acknowledges that the 'competition is maddening! ' Willy doesn't accept this competition with defeat - he presses on - he even states to Biff: 'Never leave a job till you're finished'. I don't see how striving till the very end, regardless of how successful you are in monetary terms, is considered 'hell-bent'. Willy loves his family: 'The man who never worked a day but for your benefit' and I feel that the audience would definitely share in his suffering and misfortune - millions of people today strive to provide for their families.

Willy is an admirable in his determination for success for his family: 'I get the feeling that I'll never sell anything again, that I won't make a living for you, or a business for the boys'. The audience feel a sense of pathos, Willy is striving for a better life for his family, and his struggle is against a mighty and powerful force, that ultimately leads to his demise - quite like the gods in Oedipus Tyrannus. Like Oedipus, although he cares for his family deeply, his drive to preserve his personal dignity and honour surpasses their need, and this could perhaps explain why he chooses to kill himself - leaving Linda with nothing.

External forces such as consumerism also shape Willy's way of thinking, and would have affected millions of people in that period in America. Consumerism was a major force in the late forties, with families having more disposable income and industry and economy booming, consumer products were churning out faster than ever before to meet the demand. This is demonstrated in Death of a Salesman: 'there's nine-sixty for the washing-machine. And for the vacuum cleaner there's three and a half' speaks Linda in Act One, and Willy laments how 'we should've bought a well-advertised machine'.

Arthur Miller denounces consumerism through Willy: 'Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it's broken'. A contemporary audience should be able to identify with this, that Willy has an up-hill struggle against a corrupt society. Willy's mistaken path is not entirely his own doing, but the above statement does not consider these external factors in shaping Willy's destiny. Willy lies unthinkingly - it is almost like an automatic reaction.

The audience can see though; Willy's later hesitance, stuttering and pauses 'Well, I - I did about a hundred and eighty-gross in Providence' showing the extreme discrepancy between his dreams and his reality. This shows his insecurities behind the bravado 'I'm fat. I'm very - foolish to look at, Linda'. These poignant moments show the deep-seated insecurities within Willy - and I think the audience will be able to identify with Willy at these times - and sympathise with him. Although Willy may be deluded and lie unthinkingly, we can see that he is not completely deluded though, and in this strange metaphor 'The woods are burning! Willy is realising that his dreams are going up in smoke. This is juxtaposed with the realist vernacular that occurs throughout the play, and suggests this line is of great importance - that Willy is aware that his path is mistaken. However, it suggests that at this stage, he must continue to follow it to retain a sense of personal dignity. This shows the complexity of Willy's decisions, and I feel the above quote trivialises them somewhat. Willy is tired and exhausted - this is made clear in the stage directions: 'Even, as he crosses the stage to the doorway of the house, his exhaustion is apparent.

He unlocks the door, comes into the kitchen, and thankfully lets his burden down'. This staging helps to enhance the realism of Willy's character, and the audience can see visually as well as from the dialogue this man's exhaustion. This very humanistic portrayal of Willy would strike a note with the audience, and I feel that we can share in his suffering, and that he is not following this mistaken path for trivial reasons - he genuinely wants to be better. We can also see in Willy the worst in ourselves - this man has many flaws.

There are no attempts to idealise Willy - he is perhaps an anti-hero, and Arthur Miller states that this tragic process is 'not beyond the common man'. As an audience, we should be able to identify with Willy's suffering and misfortune even more than Oedipus', as it is not so far removed from our own selves. Willy can be rude and dismissive 'Don't be a pest Bernard! What an anaemic', his language here being vulgar and childish. He can also be intensely angry at the people who love him - he is seen on stage as 'exploding at her' (Linda).

He also betrays Linda's trust in his affair with the woman - which, in memory time - comes back to haunt him: '[The WOMAN'S laugh is heard. ] Willy: Shut up! Willy's interior is explored through the use of memory time. Willy often reverts into episodes of memory time when reality becomes too hard to bear. From a psychological point of view, it shows that Willy is perhaps trying to repress the pain he is feeling. This enables the audience to see a more rounded view of Willy's situation, and we are shown his mental suffering graphically, which increases our sympathy for this character.

The staging in Oedipus Tyrannus is much simpler and relies mostly on the dialogue - and so a modern audience may not be able to identify as much with Oedipus, as we do not see such detail into his mind. Other characters also highlight Willy's suffering; Linda says 'He's been trying to kill himself'. Is Willy finally giving in to his failure? We see however, later on in the play, that his attempts to kill himself are not because he is admitting failure, but to gain i??20,000 in life insurance in order for Biff to become successful: 'It's twenty thousand dollars on the barrelhead.

Guaranteed, gilt-edged, you understand? ' he tells Ben in a fictional episode. Ben uses the sinister metaphor: 'The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy' to describe Willy's suicide. This is perhaps a point in the play were I do agree with the expressed view 'hell-bent' on following a mistaken path. Willy has such determination that he will end his own life to secure some sort of success. I feel that here the audience would find it hard to identify with this - most of us would never go this far, and I think most of us would realise how success is not the most important thing in life.

For Willy though, it is what he has based his whole life on, and like Oedipus, he wants to preserve that honour. Miller states that the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing - his sense of personal dignity'. This perfectly describes Willy, and so, even if we cannot perhaps identify specifically with his struggle, we are still in the presence of a tragic hero. We could ask however, does Willy need to lay down his life for his personal dignity?

It doesn't matter what we think, because for Willy, this is the only way to. I feel that Willy's path is certainly more hell-bent than Oedipus' in that Willy never gains self-knowledge or approaches an anagnorisis of what he truly is, Biff sadly states in the Requiem 'He never knew who he was'. Whereas Willy dies perhaps in vain, Oedipus survives the dark night of the soul, and accepts his destiny. This could be why audiences more readily see Oedipus as a tragic hero whom we can see the best and worst of ourselves in.

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Are Willy Loman and Oedipus Rex true tragic heroes?. (2017, Jul 11). Retrieved from

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