The Cycle of Heroic Virtue in Samson Agonistes and Oedipus Rex

Essay by eayazCollege, UndergraduateB+, April 2004

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Samson and Oedipus, protagonists of two prominent works of Western literary canon, have dominated many intellectual discourses for centuries. Countless analyses of Oedipus' plight have been made, the most well-known being that of Sigmund Freud, while Samson's actions have been reinterpreted in various ways ranging from that of a martyr to that of a relentless terrorist. However, all those interpretive readings analyzed only the identity of the heroes or their actions. Oedipus's "particular nature" from Freud's point of view focused merely on the 'personality with instinctive drives', while scholars like Hill or Carey only paid attention to the ethical dilemma of Samson: whether he is a regenerate deliverer or degenerate revenger. In general, they all neglected the interplay between action and heroic identity, which is crucial to comprehend the relevant tragedies. This interplay propels the question whether the protagonists were heroes by themselves, thus acting virtuously or the virtuous actions turned the protagonists into heroes.

The answer, on the other hand, involves a rather cyclic, interdependent relationship that exists between the deeds and individuality of the heroes. This cycle, which we might call "heroic virtue cycle", divulges in fact the essential teaching of the texts that is tightly connected to the relevant historical contexts.

To understand this cyclic connection, first it is necessary to highlight the initial events that proved Oedipus and Samson were heroes. Both have saved their community from severe crises: a plague initiated by Sphinx and the rage of the Philistines, respectively. They demonstrated great intellectual or physical aptitude by solving the riddle and defeating the Philistines. Hence, their society started respecting them as virtuous, illustrious characters, evident in the speech of the priest, a significant person in Sophocles' era: "Oedipus, our greatest power...we rate you first of men" (16, 41) Oedipus is the role-model, the...