In Oedipus the King, are human beings presented as prisoners of fate?
Sophocles’ Oedipus the King doesn’t simply depict a man who discovers, to his horror, that he is powerless to direct his own life. Rather, the play offers an example of how individual human beings can find ways to assert their independence within the limits determined by their destiny. Fate certainly shapes characters’ lives in the play, but it does not determine them completely.
Prophecies consistently come true in Oedipus the King, which proves that fate is a real force in the world of the play. However, the paths humans take toward their pre-determined destinations remain for them to choose, as do the attitudes they adopt toward the gods’ decrees. Long before the play opens, Laius and Jocasta left their son for dead to thwart the terrible prophecy that he would someday kill his father and marry his mother. Similarly, when Oedipus learned of his fate, he fled Corinth, assuming that the prophecy applied to Polybus, the man he believed to be his biological father. In Oedipus the King, however, when Oedipus learns that it is he who must be cast out to save Thebes from the plague, he immediately agrees to submit to the decree and leave the city. His decision seems partially motivated by an intense sense of shame and horror, but throughout the play Oedipus has demonstrated his commitment to his people, and his choice of exile seems equally driven by his desire to see Thebes spared. The early choices he and his parents made may have been foolish and arrogant, but his final choice affords him a measure of tragic dignity. Sophocles’ play asserts that humans have the freedom to determine the quality of their own characters, if not always the outcomes of their lives.
Sophocles foregrounds the issue of human freedom by setting the play long after the initial prophecy has been fulfilled. When the play opens, Oedipus has been living happily with Jocasta and their four children for many years. The people of Thebes revere him as a wise and brave leader, a man who “lifted up [their] lives” by defeating the Sphinx. Except for the arrival of the plague, Oedipus seems to have a happy, prosperous life. By beginning the play here, at the height of Oedipus’s success, Sophocles not only makes Oedipus’s fall more dramatic and extreme: He also shows that the crucial issue is not whether the prophecy will come true—it already did, long ago—but how the great Oedipus will personally handle the revelation of his crimes. Tellingly, no gods appear in Oedipus the King, only humans. No divine figure forces Oedipus to seek out Laius’s murderer or subsequently cast himself out of Thebes. The oracle from Apollo represents the only divine influence in the play, and even then several levels of human messengers stand between the god’s words and Oedipus’s ears.
Perhaps most telling, Oedipus himself doesn’t see himself as powerless. From the beginning, Oedipus has an overwhelming sense of his own, individual power, as indicated by his constant use of the first-person pronouns I and me. “I am the land’s avenger,” he claims at one point. “I came by, Oedipus the ignorant, / I stopped the Sphinx!” he exalts. Oedipus is a man of vigorous action, as demonstrated by the way he relentlessly pursues the truth, even as it becomes clear the truth may implicate him. When he finally learns that he unwittingly fulfilled the very prophecy he spent his life trying to avoid, Oedipus does not submit to the gods or surrender his agency. He does their bidding—he “drive[s] the corruption from the land”—but he takes the situation one step further by deciding to blind himself first. When the Chorus asks what “superhuman power” drove him to commit such a horrible act, Oedipus exclaims, “The hand that struck my eyes was mine, / mine alone—no one else— / I did it all myself!” Oedipus does not seek to escape his punishment, but he does assert his right to exact that punishment as he sees fit. Even as he is brought low, Oedipus refuses to relinquish power over his own life and body.
Oedipus was saddled with a terrible curse through no fault of his own. In this sense, his fate is arbitrary. His actions, however, are not. Oedipus cannot escape the specific points of the prophecy, but that prophecy only determines the limits of his freedom. Within its scope, he is free to act as he chooses. In this sense, Oedipus resembles his daughter Antigone, who must decide whether to exercise her personal choice and bury her brother, Polynices, despite the fact that the law will certainly condemn her to death. Though Oedipus the King and Antigone were written over two millennia ago, they continue to offer us models of how individuals can and must exercise their freedoms of choice, even in the face of such powerful forces as law, fate, or the gods.
Greek tragic dramas are based on myths and are representations of human dilemmas, which often formed on conflicts between men and gods. The Oedipal myth was transformed into a compelling theatrical work, “Oedipus Rex”, by Sophocles. As conventional in Greek tragedies, Oedipus is portrayed as a heroic protagonist, led to his downfall by his tragic flaw, ‘hubris’, error of judgement, ‘hamartia’, and most importantly, fate. Symbolism reflects Oedipus’ entrapment by fate and foreshadows his future. Tension is built up in the audience through dramatic irony and released at the ‘catharsis’, which also arouses pity and fear. All these dramatic elements are characteristic of ancient Greek tragedies.
Oedipus displays qualities of a classic Greek tragic hero. Arrogance and short-tempered determination form his hubris. His heroic self-pride is shown in his announcement, “The world knows my fame: I am Oedipus.” Oedipus’ hamartia is his decision to seek the truth of his birth and Laius’ death, disregarding advice from Tiresias to desist. Determination drives Oedipus to act upon his decision as he orders Tiresias to speak out. Oedipus’ short temper is conveyed in his immediate response to Tiresias’ unwillingness to speak, raging at the elderly, respected prophet, “You scum of the earth, you’d enrage a heart of stone.” This same short temper had led Oedipus to unknowingly slay his father in the ‘road rage’ incident, where Oedipus’ anger was sparked to a murderous extreme simply because he was pushed aside.
Arrogance led Oedipus to believe he could escape fate. Like his parents, Oedipus was presented with fearful prophecies. Laius and Jocasta attempted to avoid these prophecies by killing their son. As in most Greek tragedies, the gods prevail and their son lives. Oedipus as a young man believed he could escape this horrific fate by leaving who he believed to be his parents. Fate directed him to his home town where he is destined to murder his father and marry his mother. However, the very quality of Oedipus’ hubris, his arrogance in defying fate and prophecy, is the same quality that enabled him to earlier confront and defeat the Sphinx and save an oppressed city. This theme of human paradox is carried in many Greek dramas.
“Oedipus Rex” is notable for its use of dramatic irony, able to be employed effectively due to the familiarity of audiences with the Oedipal myth. The first instance of dramatic irony occurs when Oedipus claims to the citizens of Thebes and indirectly the audience, “you can trust me.” This is dramatically ironic as the audience, aware of the sin he has unknowingly committed, experience difficulty in drawing trust for the king, but later pities Oedipus’ innocent determination to help Thebes “drive corruption from the land…root it out!” Most irony is developed in Oedipus’ pursuit of Laius’ murderer, inadvertently pursuing himself. This irony is emphasised by Oedipus’ persistence of the matter, summoning and interrogating Tiresias and encouraging the citizens to speak out. Oedipus’ firm belief that those who raised him were his biological parents is also ironic. Dramatic irony involves the audience and encourages viewers to feel sympathy for Oedipus before the fatal truth of his birth is revealed.
The structure of “Oedipus Rex” reflects that of an Greek tragedy. Tension accumulates in the audience as the truth of Oedipus’ birth dawns on the shepherd and Jocasta. The anagnorisis marks the point at which the heroic protagonist, Oedipus, previously in ignorance, gains knowledge of the truth. This revelation of the truth is the emotional climax of the play, preceding the catastrophe, at which Oedipus blinds himself. The peripeteia is the reversal of situation from good to bad, and in “Oedipus Rex”, closely follows the anagnorisis as Oedipus’ previous strong state is hurled into a world of confusion and guilt. The end effect of his earlier actions is the denouement, where guilt and horror drive him to gouge out his eyes. This action provokes fear and horror in the audience.
The catharsis, an essential part of tragedy and marks the play out as a classical Greek tragic drama, refers to the emotional discharge by the audience at the finale. The audience is relieved of tension and emotion accumulated throughout the play. Oedipus’ exile, separation from his daughters, and blind state arouse pity in viewers. The chorus reflects the audience’s thoughts in the play, crying, “I pity you but I can’t bear to look.”
Symbolism is a dramatic element used to reflect Oedipus’ situation and foreshadow his future. Oedipus’ name, ‘swollen foot’ symbolizes the confinement and constraint of his movements by Apollo’s prophecy to Laius. Numerous references are made to eyesight and vision. Although famed for his clear-sightedness and quick comprehension, Oedipus is blind to the truth. Tiresias is blind, but sees the truth. He symbolizes the state Oedipus will become after gaining insight – blind, but with knowledge.
Choral odes offer close commentary on the action of the play, acting as a mediator between gods and men and between the characters in the drama and the audience. The chorus, a traditional element of Greek tragedy, clarifies the situation to the audience and enables greater understanding of the play and philosophical values within it. For example, following Creon’s final words, the chorus comments on Oedipus’ fate, “now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.”
To Aristotle, a Greek tragedy critic, tragedy must arouse the emotions of fear, wonder and awe. He believed the best type of tragedy to involve reversal of a situation, recognition from a character, and suffering through a complex plot. “Oedipus Rex” satisfies all these characteristics and can therefore be considered a great example of an classical Greek tragic drama.
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