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4. The Tragic Hero – or Tyrant?
About this Lecture
In this module, we think about the concept of the 'tragic hero', arguing that the central figures of tragedy are better understood not as heroes (a word that is never used of any living character in tragedy) but as tyrants. In particular, we think about the Athenians' experience of tyranny in the sixth century BC, attitudes towards tyranny in the fifth century BC, and the set of characteristics that all tyrants were thought to have (e.g. shortness of temper, obsession with wealth, sexual perversity, suspicion of those around them, etc.) almost all of which are embodied in the character of Oedipus himself.
In this course, Professor Richard Seaford (University of Exeter) explores Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus. We begin by thinking about the plot of the play, focusing in particular on the Aristotelian concepts of reversal and recognition, as well as the tightness of the plotting more generally. After that, we think about other versions of the Oedipus myth, and how these compared to the version written by Sophocles. In the third module, we think about the links between Sophocles' play and Sigmund Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex, before thinking about the Greeks' own attitudes towards incest. In the fourth module, we critique the idea of the 'tragic hero', making the case that the central characters of tragedy are better understood not as 'heroes' but as 'tyrants' – and we go to think about contemporary attitudes towards tyrants and tyranny in fifth-century Athens. After that, we think about the presentation of fate and free will in the play, focusing in particular on the important concepts of hubris and of the unity of opposites, before turning in the sixth and final module to the idea of Oedipus as a completely different kind of hero to those the Greeks were most used to – a hero who defeats the monster not by force, but through the sheer weight of his intellect.
Richard Seaford is a professor of the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter in England. He is the author of academic books, especially on ancient Greece, and has penned over seventy academic papers.
His work on Athenian tragedy and religion has led him to investigate the historical conditions for the radical development of Greek culture in the sixth century BC (sometimes called the origin of European culture), and to argue that a crucial factor in this development was money: the advanced Greek polis of this period was the first society in history that we know to have been thoroughly monetised.
Money and the Early Greek Mind. Homer, Tragedy, Philosophy (Cambridge 2004) explores the socio-historical conditions that made this first monetisation possible as well as its profound cultural consequences, notably the invention of 'philosophy' and of drama.
The investigation is taken further in several recent papers, for instance in ‘Money and Tragedy’ in W. V. Harris (ed.), The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans (2008). His most recent book is Cosmology and the Polis: the Social Construction of Space and Time in the Tragedies of Aeschylus (Cambridge 2012). In 2005-2008 he was awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust. For 2013-4 he was awarded an AHRC Fellowship for a comparative historical study of early Indian with early Greek thought.
Cite this Lecture
Seaford, R. (2019, January 24). Sophocles: Oedipus Tyrannus - The Tragic Hero – or Tyrant? [Video]. MASSOLIT. https://www.massolit.io/courses/sophocles-oedipus-tyrannus-seaford/the-tragic-hero-or-tyrant
Seaford, Richard. "Sophocles: Oedipus Tyrannus – The Tragic Hero – or Tyrant?." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 24 Jan 2019, https://www.massolit.io/courses/sophocles-oedipus-tyrannus-seaford/the-tragic-hero-or-tyrant