The events in Oedipus the King, written by Sophocles, show an underlying relationship of man’s free will existing within the cosmic order or fate which the Greeks believed guided the universe in a harmonious purpose. Man was free to choose and was ultimately held responsible for his own actions. Both the concept of fate and free will played an itregal part in Oedipus’ destruction. Although he was a victim of fate, he was not controlled by it. Oedipus was destined from birth to someday marry his mother and to murder his father. This prophecy, as warned by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi was unconditional and inevitably would come to pass, no matter what he may have done to avoid it. His past actions were determined by fate, but what he did in Thebes, he did so of his own will.
From the beginning of this tragedy, Oedipus took many actions leading to his own downfall. Oedipus could have waited for the plague to end, but out of compassion for his suffering people, he had Creon go to Delphi. When he learned of Apollo’s word, he could have calmly investigated the murder of the former King Laius, but in his hastiness, he passionately curses the murderer, and in so, unknowingly curses himself. “Upon the murderer I invoke this curse- whether he is one man and all unknown, or one of many- may he wear out his life in misery or doom! If with my knowledge he lives at my hearth, I pray that I myself may feel my curse.” (pg. 438; lines 266-271)
In order for Sophecles’ Greek audience to relate to the tragic figure, he had to have some type of flaws or an error of ways. This brought the character down to a human level, invoking in them the fear that “it could happen to them.” And Oedipus certainly is not one without flaws. His pride, ingnorance, insolence and disbelief in the gods, and unrelenting quest for the truth ultimately contributed to his destuction. When Oedipus was told (after threatening Teiresias), that he was responsible for the murder of Laius, he became enraged and calls the old oracle a liar. He ran away from his home, Corinth, in hopes of outsmarting the gods divine will. Like his father, Oedipus also sought ways to escape the horrible destiny told by the oracle of Apollo. The chorus warns us of man’s need to have reverence for the gods, and the dangers of too much pride. “If a man walks with haughtiness of hand or word and gives no heed to Justice and the shrines of Gods despises- may an evil doom smite him for his ill-starred pride of heart!- if he reaps gains without justice and will not hold from impiety and his fingers itch for untouchable things. When such things are done, what man shall contrive to shield his soul from the shafts of the God?” (pg. 452; 975-984)
Oedipus’ unyielding desire to uncover the truth about Laius’ murder and the mystery surrounding his own birth, led him to the tragic realization of his horrific deeds. Teiresias, Jocasta and the herdsman tried to stop him from pursuing the truth. Take for example a part of the last conversation between Jocasta and Oedipus. After realizing that the prophecy had came true, Jacasta begs him to just let the mystery go unsolved for once. “I beg you- do not hunt this out- I beg you, if you have any care for your own life. What I am suffering is enough.” (pg. 461; 1158-1161) Oedipus replies, “I will not be persuaded to let chance of finding out the whole thing clearly.” (pg. 461; 1166-1167) He is unable to stop his quest for the truth, even under his wife’s pleading. For it is in his own vain that he must solve the final riddle, the riddle of his own life.
Upon discovery of the truth of his birth from the herdsman, Oedipus cries, “I who first saw the light bred of a match accursed, and accursed in my living with them, cursed in my killing.” (pg. 465; 1300-1303) Oedipus knew that his fate had indeed come to pass and feels cursed by it. The chorus then sings an ode on the sorrow of life and the tragic fate to which even the most honored, like Oedipus are ultimately subject. “What man, what man on earth wins more happiness than a seeming and after that turning away? Oedipus you are my pattern of this, Oedipus you and your fate! Luckless Oedipus, whom of all men I envied not at all. (pg. 465; 1305-1311)
At the end of this tragic story, when Oedipus gouges out his eyes, the chorus asks him what god urged him to blind himself. Oedipus replied, “It was Apollo, friends, Apollo, that brought this bitter bitterness, my sorrows to completion. But was the hand that struck me was none but my own.” (pg. 467; 1450-1453) He claimed full responsibility for his actions. Oedipus was guilty of killing his father and marrying his mother, but perhaps the true sin lay in his overzealous attempt to raise himself to the level of the gods by trying to escape his fate. The chorus chants about how in prosperity, he was envied by all men, he was honored highest above all honors, and how he won happiness by pride (by slaughtering the Sphinx, and by trying to deceive the god’s will.) But, how ultimately, Odipus was judged for it, causing a reversal of fortune in his prosperous life.
The fact that Oedpius’ motives for killing his father, Laius, and wedding his mother, Jocasta, it does not take away from the horrific nature of the crimes. When he tears at his eyes with his Jocasta’s broach, Oedipus is accepting the full burden of his acts and knew that he must be punished for his sins. Therefore the last act of destruction was caused by Oedipus’ free will, but his tragic fate came about because of the nature of the cosmic order ( that every sin must be punished) and role of the gods in human affairs.
The chorus concludes this tragedy by warning the Greeks, that the only way to happiness is through humility and respect towards the gods, (qualities which Oedipus lacked, and ultimately led to his destruction.) They also warn not to take anything for granted, or suffer a fate like that of Oedipus. ” You live in my ancestral Thebes, behold this Oedipus,- him who knew the famous riddle and was a man most masterful,- not a citizen who did not look with envy on his lot-see him now and see the breakers of misfortune swall him! Look upon that last day always. Count no mortal happy till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain.” (pg. 470; 1643-1670)
Filed Under: Literature, Sophocles
Fate and Free-Will in Sophocles' Oedipus the King
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Fate and Free-Will in Sophocles' Oedipus the King
In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, the themes of fate and free will are very strong throughout the play. Only one, however, brought about Oedipus' downfall and death. Both points could be argued to great effect. In ancient Greece, fate was considered to be a rudimentary part of daily life. Every aspect of life depended and was based upon fate (Nagle 100). It is common belief to assume that mankind does indeed have free will and each individual can decide the outcome of his or her life. Fate and free will both decide the fate of Oedipus the King.
Both sides of the argument can be greatly supported. The Greeks believed in the idea that personality of the individual greatly affected his or her life (Nagle 120). Their personality was what decides their own free will. A wise man will make good decisions in his life; an ignorant and stubborn man won't be so fortunate. The character traits of a person have a certain positive or negative affect on the choices that he or she makes. For Oedipus, one of these attributes was the desire for knowledge and truth about his own existence. This driving force in the play led to the truth of his origin. This ties in with his own aspect of free will. His free will is based on his drive for knowledge.
Throughout the entire play, Oedipus pushes Tiresias, Creon, Jocasta, the oracle, the messenger, and the shepherd for information regarding his beginnings. Each one of these characters in some way or form refused to give him a thorough answer. As he draws closer to the answer, another character tries to stop his journey. Oedipus continues moving onward even though others request he didn't. "Oh no, listen to me, I beg you, don't do this....Listen to you? No more. I must know it all, see the truth at last " (Sophocles 195). His desire for truth kept pushing him to continue his search, ultimately leading to his downfall. The entire time Oedipus had the capability to discontinue the plight. However he made the independent decision to continue.
Another instance where choices directly linked Oedipus to the prophecy was at the crossroads. Oedipus demonstrates an important trait in his character, stubbornness. This trait is visible when Oedipus reacted to the man pushing him aside at the crossroads.
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Fate Sophocles Oedipus Entire Play Negative Affect Character Traits Driving Force Jocasta Messenger Tiresias
"the one shouldering me aside, the driver, I strike him in anger! ....I killed them all--every mother's son!" (Sophocles 189). In ancient times when a caravan was coming down the road they usually pushed you to the side. Oedipus didn't like this and flipped out, killing all of them. It was his stubbornness that caused this to happen. His personality led to the decision to kill the caravan and unknowingly, his father too. If he were a wise and content man, then his decision would have differed.
When Oedipus defeated the Sphinx by solving the riddle, he could have refused to take the missing king's throne. He could have also declined to marry the former king's wife, unaware that the queen was his own mother. He accepted both of these without any regrets. If his decision was different it might have altered the course of events in the future. His personality made sure that the decisions went the way they did. These choices were made by Oedipus with his own free will, his own decisions. He didn't have to accept these gifts, but did none the less. These conclusions would lead to his own demise, but they were his own mistakes, not fate.
Free will can also be found in the actions of Jocasta and Laius. The choices they made were not made by their own judgement, but rather reactions to a situation that neither of them was prepared to deal with. Upon hearing the prophecy that foretold the future sins in their household; they made a harsh decision out of fear. They had little Oedipus sent to die at the foothills of a mountain. This reaction seems very cruel, but back in ancient times it was very natural. Being that an oracle foretold the prophecy, Jocasta and Laius responded as any Greek parents would. They solved the problem by removing Oedipus from the equation, but in the end their decision wasn't the right one.
This leaves the readers of the play to wonder what might have happened if Jocasta and Lauis never sent Oedipus to die as an infant. Would the prophecy still have taken place? It seems that it wouldn't have, because Oedipus wouldn't have engaged in the misled wandering after he left his adopted home. Oedipus would have had no reason to fulfill the prophecy, but that is another question that we don't know. On the other hand, if Oedipus didn't listen to the prophecy suggested to him in Corinth, he never would have returned to Thebes to carry out his destiny. All these instances can be looked at that free will was the deciding factor. Was it really? Fate can also be looked upon in every instance, equally a strong argument against free will.
Oedipus' desire for knowledge can also be looked at by the standpoint of fate. He was born with his own stubbornness. The Gods themselves made him that way and it can not be changed. No matter what his decisions were, their gift to him will lead to the path they gave him. He can't escape the fate the Gods have given him. He kept pushing farther and father, but it just led to his downfall. Nothing he could have done would have stopped that. The prophets make this clear in their prophecies throughout the text. All the premonitions they say come true. They can't be avoided because the Gods made you with your personality and it controls your life. Ultimately they control you.
When Oedipus reaches the crossroads, it was fate that led to the events that took place. "Short work, by god-with one blow of the staff" (Sophocles 189). This quote reveals that the gods did play apart in the events that took place. Oedipus' prophecy was to kill his own father. Unwillingly because of his stubbornness Oedipus struck down and did indeed kill his father. Because the gods gave him this trait, his fate was unavoidable. The traits of Oedipus would generate the right sequence of events that would eventually lead to his prophecy coming true. Oedipus' personality was the cause of the events. His free will blended in with the fate given to him by the gods. All together it was fate that decided these actions.
The prophecy given to Lauis and Jocasta is also another example of unavoidable fate. Even though it wasn't there own choices to get rid of their son, their reaction to the prophecy set up the events for the future. If they never sent Oedipus to die at the mountainside, he most likely never would have killed Lauis at the crossroads. Their reaction was to a message given to them by the Gods. The Gods dictated what was going to happen. They told the prophet to give out the prophecy. Leading to the vanquishing of little Oedipus. All along every action leads to ones fate in life.
The greatest show of fate in the text is when Oedipus gauges his eyes out with the golden clips. He does this in reaction to the events that take place. Oedipus was aware that he alone was responsible for his actions and gauged his own eyes out. That is the free will standpoint on the issue. Oedipus was at the same time not responsible for his actions. The gods controlled his personality and therefore controlled the outcome of his life. If Oedipus realized this he might not have taken his own sight. The gods use their power to provoke human's free will. They were responsible for the demise of Oedipus, but in the same time convince the human that it was there fault.
Free will and fate can be related to every aspect of Oedipus the King. The gods who control fate manipulate the thinking and concepts in human's free will. Ultimately fate is what overcomes all. It may not seem like it, but free will was given to mankind by the gods or God. So in turn the gods decide the fate of everybody when they created man. It was already decided and can not be changed. One can still argue the position that free will is more dominant, but if you relate to creation and how the gods made man, fate overcomes.
In Oedipus the King, Sophocles made it clear to his fellow Greeks that mankind has the ability, even with prophecies and oracles, to make choices free from influence of divine forces. He also shows that fate does play a part in human's lives too. They tie into each other for a direct balance. Overall, fate is the divine power that controls free will and determines one's life.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Abrams, Brendan. Sophocles and Fate. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999.
Ehrenberg, Victor. "Sophoclean Rulers: Oedipus." In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex, edited by Michael J. O'Brien. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Fagles, Robert. "Introduction to Oedipus the King." In Sophocles' The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. Robert Fagles. NY: Penguin, 1984. 131-53.
Sophocles. "Oedipus the King" The Three Theben Plays Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1991.
Nortwick, Thomas. Oedipus: The Meaning of Fate and Free-Will. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.