Comparison of Beowulf and Oedipus Rex
Length: 1176 words (3.4 double-spaced pages)
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Comparison of Beowulf and Oedipus Rex
Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon folk epic written by an unknown author. It was written sometime during the eighth century. Oedipus Rex is an Ancient Greek tragedy written by the playwright Sophocles sometime around 430 BC. Although the two works were written during two different time periods, in two different places, and are different kinds of literature, they contain many similarities in the manner in which they depict a hero and the depiction of government.
Beowulf tells the story of one of the most heroic men of Anglo-Saxon times. The hero, Beowulf, is able to use his super-human physical strength and courage to put his people before himself. He encounters terrifying monsters and the most brutal beasts, but he never fears the threat of death. Beowulf is the ultimate epic hero who risks his life countless times for great honor and for the good of others. Oedipus Rex is a tragic play, which discusses the tragic discovery of Oedipus--that he has killed his father, and married his mother. He is self-confident, intelligent, and strong willed. Ironically these are the very traits which bring about his tragic discovery. Oedipus gains the rule of Thebes by answering the riddle of Sphinx.
The two heroes, Beowulf and Oedipus, are very similar in some aspects and also quite different in others. The first similarity in the depiction of hero is that both heroes are of aristocratic birth. Beowulf is the cousin of Higlac, who is King of the Geats. Oedipus is the adopted son of Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth. Furthermore, his real parents are Laius and Jocasta, King and Queen of Thebes. Another similarity is that both heroes end a period of suffering by abolishing a monster. Beowulf ends the suffering in Herot by killing the monster Grendel. "A prince of the Geats, had killed Grendel, / Ended the grief, the sorrow, the suffering / Forced on Hrothgar's helpless people / By a bloodthirsty fiend." (lines 482 - 485) Oedipus is responsible for ending the Sphinx's reign of terror upon the city of Thebes. He does not physically kill the monster as Beowulf does; he merely answers the Sphinx's riddle. When he does so, the Sphinx kills herself. A third similarity is that both heroes are challenged by another character in the story.
Beowulf is challenged by Unferth, and Oedipus is challenged by Tiresias. When challenged, both heroes arrogantly boast about their accomplishments. "No man swims in the sea / As I can, no strength is a match for mine." (lines 253 - 254) Beowulf goes on boasting to Unferth, "Nine was the number / Of sea-huge monsters I killed. What man, / Anywhere under heaven's high arch, has fought / In such darkness, endured more misery or been harder / Pressed?" (lines 294 - 298) When challenged by Tiresias Oedipus says, "Tell me when you ever played the prophet straight? Or why when the she-dog Sphinx of riddles sang, you never spoke a thing to break that spell? …But I, the Oedipus who stumbled here without a hint, could snuff her out by human wit." (page 38) A difference between Beowulf and Oedipus is that each has different qualities that qualify him as a hero. Beowulf is classified as a hero because of his physical strength and bravery. "Beowulf, Higlac's / Follower and the strongest of the Geats-greater / And stronger than anyone anywhere in this world." (lines 131 - 133)
Beowulf comes to help the Danes in a time of need. This shows him as a dignified example for all human beings, classifying him as an epic hero. Oedipus is not classified as a hero because of his physical strength but rather because of his mental strengths. He uses intellect to solve the riddle of the Sphinx. Many of the most intelligent men of Thebes have been killed trying to answer the riddle, but Oedipus proves his intelligence superior to theirs. Moreover, Oedipus differs from Beowulf as a hero in that his traits that give him riches and power ultimately lead him to his tragic ending. Thus, Oedipus is classified as a tragic hero. The way in which the two heroes differ most is in their downfalls. Beowulf dies heroically while fighting a dragon. After his death, the Geats mourn his loss, "The Geats stayed, / Moaning their sorrow, lamenting their lord." (lines 539 - 540) When the truth about Oedipus is disclosed, even though he was once their hero, the people of Thebes loose all respect for him. The Chorus says, "A man both lost in make and mind, we wish that we had never known you." (page 76)
In both works the form of government is a monarchy. Hrothgar is the King of the Danes and Oedipus is the King of Thebes. The first similarity in the depiction of government is that both rulers feel the anguish of their people. After Grendel raids Herot and kills all of the people there, Hrothgar is overcome with grief. "Hrothgar, their lord, sat joyless / I Herot, a mighty prince mourning / The fate of his lost friends and companions." (lines 66 - 68) "…Twelve winters of grief for Hrothgar, king / Of the Danes, sorrow heaped at his door / By hell-forged hands." (lines 84 - 86) Likewise, when the people of Thebes tell Oedipus of their pain he says, "You are all sick - yet sick, not one so sick as I. Your pain is single; each to each it does not breed. Mine is treble anguish crying out for the city, for myself, for you." (page 25) Another similarity between the two kings is that both are well respected by others. Beowulf shows respect to Hrothgar by agreeing to leave his weapons outside Herot. The people of Thebes show Oedipus respect by referring to him as "holy sovereign." One difference between the two rulers is that Hrothgar is always rewarding his men. He builds his warriors a great mead-hall and divides the spoils of their victories in war among all. Oedipus is not always shown as being so kind unto his people. Another difference is that in Oedipus Rex the queen, Jocasta is ever present throughout the story. She plays a main role in the play. On the contrary, in Beowulf, little is seen of Hrothgar's queen, Welthow. A final difference between the two rulers is how each becomes king of his land. Hrothgar becomes king because his ancestors were royalty. On the other hand, Oedipus becomes king by ridding Thebes of the Sphinx and getting the people's support.
Hero and government are two examples of the many common threads shared by Beowulf and Oedipus Rex. These common ideas are both similar and different throughout the two works. Even so, the two works were written for two entirely different purposes. Beowulf was written to be recited by professional poets or “scops”. The scops would entertain the warriors and more importantly, inspire them the night before of battle. Oedipus Rex was written to educate the Greek people. Through Oedipus Rex and other tragedies, the Greeks learned several moral lessons and were reminded of the power of the gods.