Tragedies of Imprudence

Foreshadowing is a classical element of tragedy. It generally consists of a character telling the main protagonist, early in the play, of the dramatic events that shall ultimately happen to her. This technique plays two functions. First, it permits to set the tragic tone of the story, through a recurring idea of predetermination and of a lack of free-will. Second, it unambiguously clarifies the stakes of the play for the audience. In this essay, we shall have a look at certain instances of foreshadowing in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (1975/2002), before drawing parallels with instantiations of foreshadowings in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which will lead us to offer a brief reflection on the tragedy as a, or the genre in which foreshadowing takes place.

The foreshadowings in Death and the King’s Horseman come in the form of warnings by two characters whom Elesin comes across in the market. While the romantic plot of Elesin has not yet started unfolding, the Praise-Singer utters a seemingly uncalled-for request for prudence:

Praise-Singer: They love to spoil you but beware. The hands of women also weaken the unwary. (Soyinka 2002, 10)

Without this statement, the audience can presume the marriage subplot only later, when it is explicitly discussed. It is Iyaloja, maternal figure of the market, who gives a second hint, again as a warning. The element of motherhood is particularly important here, as the conversation, which starts as a sort of praise of Elesin by Iyaloja, slowly turns into almost a parody of a mother warning her inattentive son:

Iyaloja: … As if the timelessness of the ancestor world and the unborn have joined spirits to wring an issue of the elusive being of passage… Elesin!

Elesin: I am here. What is it?

Iyaloja: Did you hear all I said just now?

Elesin: Yes. (Soyinka 2002, 23)

Iyaloja does not express her premonition explicitly. It is first through analogies that she discusses the future challenges Elesin will encounter:

Iyaloja: The living must eat and drink. When the moment comes, don’t turn the food to rodents’ droppings in their mouth. Don’t let them taste the ashes of the world when they step out at dawn to breathe the morning dew.

Elesin: This doubt is unworthy of you Iyaloja. (Soyinka 2002, 22)

Elesin dismisses her worries. Iyaloja becomes more explicit and attempts, again, to bring to Elesin’s and the audience’s attention the possible event of a disgraceful departure on his part:

Iyaloja: You wish to travel light. Well, the earth is yours. But be sure the seed you leave in it attracts no curse.

One more time, Elesin denies completely, thus reinforcing his character as careless and reckless:

Elesin: You really mistake my person Iyaloja. (Soyinka 2002, 23)

The tragedy par excellence, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex too betrays the playwright’s interest for the technique of foreshadowing. The structure is also similar regarding the organization of the play. As in the case of Soyinka’s play, the foreshadowing occurs in the first act of Oedipus Rex. The whole discussion with Tiresias could be considered as an example of foreshadowing, in virtue of his role as a prophet, but we shall here focus on another case of foreshadowing. Unlike in Death and the King’s Horseman, this prediction comes from the mouth of the tragic hero himself. This time, the presage is more implicit, with the hero uttering a sentence, meant in a particular way, while the audience may recognize another possible meaning – a second meaning that will return to haunt the speaker himself. Discussing with the choral leader on how to find the murderer of Laius in order to end the plague, Oedipus realizes that:

Oedipus:

… And if my hearth is ever shared by him and I have guilty knowledge that it is, I call these curses down upon myself. … Besides, it’s I who gained the powers that were his and share his marriage bed and fertile wife, and if he hadn’t come to grief, there would have been the bond of common children too, but fortune dealt his head a fatal blow. (Mulroy 2011, 18)

The irony is that it is precisely him, Oedipus, who will ultimately receive the “fatal blow” on the head, and, moreover, from his own hands:

Choral Leader:

Meanwhile the brooches never ceased to rise and fall. He struck his eyes so many times his face was soaking wet with blood and poured from them, and not a sprinkling here and there, a blinding storm, a hurricane of gore. (Mulroy 2011, 78)

In Oedipus Rex, the technique of foreshadowing may be interpreted as an emphasis on the tragic helplessness of Oedipus. Not only is he subjected to a severe fate, but even when things are made clear to him – more: uttered by his own voice – he is still unable to recognize the risks he is undergoing. The foreshadowing is not only an announce of the moral dilemma that the hero will face, as in Death and the King’s Horseman, but also an initial announce, completed by a final confirmation, of the lack of power of the character to determine his own destiny.

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If foreshadowing is such a core ingredient of the tragedy, it is because tragedies are, perhaps necessarily, tragedies of imprudence. An element of fate or cultural predetermination already seals much of the destiny of the hero. But a small interval of free-will is left to him, giving him the possibility of slightly alleviating the tortured path to his end.

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These few instances of foreshadowing reveal that this technique is of central importance in the making of the tragic hero’s character. Through a premonition or a presage, the character gets to hear – and sometimes even to utter – the description of a set of actions or of moral choices that he perceives as futile and irrelevant, while the climax of tragedy and irony will make of him the main agent behind them. If foreshadowing is such a core ingredient of the tragedy, it is because tragedies are, perhaps necessarily, tragedies of imprudence. In both of the aforementioned plays, an element of fate or cultural predetermination already seals much of the destiny of the hero. But a small interval of free-will is left to him, giving him the possibility of slightly alleviating the tortured path to his end. But Elesin and Oedipus, because of their lack of prudence, miss the opportunity, and thus acquire their properly tragic character.

References

Image courtesy: Theatre Face

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