The Greeks believed that too much power entrusted in one person was dangerous. They were the first democratic society in a tumultuous world of kings and emperors, and they were proud of their ideology. Considering their fervent believe in rule by many, its not surprising that many Greek dramas revolve around an individual hero or a king’s fall from power because of pride or some other personality flaw. Well-known characters in some of the greatest Greek tragedians’ plays illustrate this idea. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, the title character is a returning king who behaves arrogantly and thoughtlessly.
He is murdered by his wife and his kingdom falls apart. Sophocles’s character Oedipus ends up killing his father, losing his kingdom and his wife and mother, and becoming a blind, wandering outcast for the rest of his life. Jason in Euripides’s Medea deserts his family for a new marriage which he hopes will further his station, but his old wife kills his new wife and his children, ending his hopes for a shining future. The evolving theme of an individual’s weakness and subsequent downfall supports the Greek’s democratic system, where no individual becomes too powerful.
Agamemnon is a great warrior, but not a great family man. On his way to the Trojan war, he sacrificed his daughter to the gods so that his ships would be able to arrive safely and swiftly. This is an especially rotten thing to do because the war is being waged to reclaim just one woman, Helen. It is hard to justify killing ones own daughter so that somebody else can get his wife back. However, war is what he is good at, and if he didnt sacrifice his daughter he would be letting down an entire army. From his point of view, he doesnt have much of a choice, and he does realize that killing his daughter was cruel.
The fact that he recognizes and regrets, at least a little bit, his crime makes Agamemnon seem more like an ill-fated man than a bad man, which shows that the gods are naturally inclined to be prejudiced against those who hold power. He goes on to wage war and destroy innocent lives, angering both the people and the gods. The chorus predict his downfall: The gods fail not to mark those who have killed many. The black Furies stalking the man fortunate beyond all right wrench back again the set of his life and drop him to darkness (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 461-466).
He does come to a bad end in an ironic twist as Agamemnon, the sacrificer, becomes the victim when his wife Clytemnestra murders him. Agamemnons arrogance and weakness, symptoms of too much power, become obvious when he finally returns home from war. His wife greets him effusively and delightedly, but he says that her speech to him, like his absence, was too long (915- 916). Then he mocks her idea of placing rugs before him to walk on, saying that his reputation is strong enough without resorting to womanish tricks like walking on purple carpets.
He feels he must boast in front of his wife, the one person who should not need convincing of his greatness. This shows how he loses some common sense in his preoccupation with the prestige of his name. Agamemnon then shows off his “booty” from the war, Cassandra. This is very disrespectful to his wife and shows again that Agamemnon is thoughtless and cruel. He throws Cassandras presence in his wifes face, asking her to conduct her graciously within (950-951). All this behavior shows Agamemnon in an unfavorable light. He doesnt show any kindness to his wife, whom he hasnt seen in a decade; in fact he makes fun of her.
He doesnt stand up for his principles and he is careless by parading his mistress in front of his wife. He isnt acting like a very good king, and his people arent impressed by him. The fact that he survived the war when many other heroes didnt may have made him more grating, because the chorus has hinted that he was well-liked before he left. The people, however did condemn his decision to kill his daughter. He made an individual choice which affected many in a negative way, and this could only happen in a system when a king is allowed to make a decision which sickens his people.
In a democracy this never would have happened. At the beginning of the Sophocless book, Oedipus is presented to us as being extremely arrogant. His city is in the midst of a mysterious plague which can only be lifted when a murderer is exposed and destroyed. Oedipus claims that he, who solved the riddle of the sphinx, will quickly put the matter to rights. Any good Greek should know the dangers of hubris, but Oedipus is a bit of a braggart: “And justly you will see in me an ally, a champion of my country and the God” (Oedipus Rex, 135-136).
He makes a show of humility before the gods in front of his people, saying, “…to put compulsion on the Gods against their will- no man can do that” (280-281). He is a success and he knows it, but he tries to play the role of a humble man. His true feelings, however, become evident when Tieresias delivers his prophecy. It is one that Oedipus doesn’t like, and accordingly he refuses to believe it, essentially denying the truth of the gods. Oedipus claims repeatedly to be pious and honorable before the gods, but he denies that they could possibly be working against him.
He is too wrapped up in his concern about his crown. This is representative of Sophocless belief that a king is constantly obsessing about his rule and his power. After hearing Tieresias’s prophecy, he immediately accuses Creon of trying to usurp his throne, revealing what is really on his mind: power. Oedipus is obsessed with the idea that he is a perfect king, and he actively ignores many warnings that he shouldnt continue to pursue the murderer. Tieresias warns him, Jocasta warns him, and the old shepherd warns him, but he brashly ignores them all.
It is not that he is a bad man; his motive is both self-less and selfish. He wants to save his city, but he also wants glory and vindication. He believes that he, one man, can be everything. Sophocles is pointing out that this isnt true. No king, no matter how hard he tries, can be a perfect ruler. The gods will not have any one man become so powerful, and the nature of power itself is to corrupt. Oedipuss fall is terrible. He exposes himself as his fathers murderer and his mothers lover. He has committed two of the sins which the gods consider the worst.
Guilt-stricken, he gouges out his eyes: To this guilt I bore witness against myself- with what eyes shall I look upon my people (1384-1385). His wife and mother, Jocasta, hangs herself. He is cast out and his children, the products of incest, will be shunned. He has lost his kingdom completely. He is punished by the gods because he tries to achieve perfection, which is not for man to do. He is so full of himself that he believes he can be like a god. Sophocles felt that no one man should or could aspire to be so powerful, and he presented the story of Oedipus in a way that makes the idea of a king seem very foolish.
A king is more preoccupied with his own status than the general good of the people, and the people suffer because of his weakness. At the end of the book, Creon takes over, but the Greek audience, who is familiar with the story in Sophocless trilogy, knows that he too will become arrogant and corrupt. It is another reminder of human weakness, and why an individual shouldnt hold absolute power. Great peoples tempers are terrible, always having their own way, seldom checked, dangerous they shift from mood to mood. How much better to have been accustomed to live on equal terms with ones neighbors… Greatness brings no profit to people.
God indeed, when in anger, brings greater ruin to peoples houses, says the nurse in the beginning of Euripidess play Medea (119-130). She is foreshadowing the theme of the story and Euripides is voicing his message plainly through her. He uses the play to show that when men attempt to become powerful, or in Jasons case, attempt to become heir to a throne, they forget what is truly important and will suffer loss because of it. As the nurse so bluntly put it, the gods punish those who aspire to individual greatness. The bulk of the play deals with the consequences of Jasons ambition to be great.
He has abandoned his wife and children in order to marry Creons daughter and join the royal family. His first wife, Medea, is a powerful woman who has no place to go, so she becomes desperate. She immediately begins plotting against the lives of her husband, his bride, and his father-in-law the king. Her reactions illustrate how easy it is to upset a nations stability when its entire system of rule can be overthrown by the deaths of a king and his children. In this way, because it is much less stable, monarchy is presented as obviously inferior to democracy.
Creon, hearing rumors that she is talking about killing him, approaches her and threatens to banish her. She begs for one more day, and is given it, and thus an opportunity to follow through with her plans, by Creon, who doesnt want to look like a cruel king. There is nothing tyrannical about my nature, and by showing mercy I have often been the loser. Even now I know that I am making a mistake, he says (Euripides, The Medea, 332-330). A king must worry about appearances, and Creon is forced to make a poor decision so that he doesnt appear to lack concern for common people.
Jason comes after Creon, and displays many more human weaknesses. He lies and says that he is remarrying for the good of Medea and the children, so that they too may be royalty. His excuses are obvious, even to the chorus. Medea in her anger kills Creon and his daughter, and then kills her own children, only to cause Jason more pain. The people are left without a ruler, and Jason has lost both his family and his aspirations of greatness. Jason brought all of this upon himself because he loved the idea of become royalty more than he loved his wife and children. This is a major flaw of a system of monarchy.
In a democracy, individuals cant assume absolute power, and so the people arent preoccupied and distracted by the idea of becoming king themselves. They dont strive for control and plot against one another, forgetting their responsibilities. All these intrigues or a monarchy are left behind in the democratic system. Humans cant be perfect, and therefore no one person should have power over an entire nation. Greek dramas showed that even great heroes have weaknesses, and inevitably fall from power, often having a negative impact on the lives of their people as well.
The characters of Agamemnon, Oedipus, and Jason, all remarkable and once-great men, each fall from their power into death or despair. They had become too powerful, too arrogant, and too ambitious, and so the gods cut them down. This pattern of kings falling from power because of weaknesses and character flaws is very common in Greek dramas. The Greeks were proud of their democratic system, and their dramas reflected their belief that their society, ruled jointly by representatives of the people, was best in a world full of unstable and dangerous monarchies. The gods despise men who rise too high and seek to become too great. So do the Greeks.