Ever since its first production in 430 B. C. Oedipus Rex has inspired a formidable array of critical work. From Aristotle to Terry Eagleton, various critics belonging to various centuries have pondered about it. A sizeable amount has called the play a “tragedy of destiny” (qtd. in Dodds 177). Other schools maintain that Sophocles present Oedipus as a free agent whose individual choices and actions lead him to committing his horrifying crimes. This paper supports the stance that the play is about the inescapability of destiny.
If men search for reasons, logical or moralistic, behind their respective destinies they may find none. Oedipus certainly did nothing to deserve his fate; neither did Jocasta, Laius, Antigone or Ismene. Yet they are all undeniably caught in this appalling web of destiny. The central theme of the play is the tussle between destiny and the free will exercised by human beings. Is man capable of chalking out the trajectory of his life according to his free will or is he “a puppet in the hands of the gods who pull the strings that make him dance” (Dodds 177)?
The role of destiny becomes apparent early enough with the oracular prophecy to Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes, that their son would kill his father. In order to avoid this absolutely unacceptable fate, Jocasta and Laius take the most extreme measure possible. They give away their child to a shepherd asking him to abandon it. They pierce the infant’s feet to ensure that the child does not escape in any way. The rest of the play revolves around the eventualities of this clash between the divine will and human endeavors to avoid it.
The protagonist Oedipus also rejects an oracular prediction and tries to take charge of his life. As discussed in the web article “Notes on Oedipus Rex”, “Oedipus is the ultimate self made man. ” He gains “power and prestige” by outwitting the Sphinx through his intellectual abilities. He becomes the highly esteemed king of Thebes, leads a happy family life, and is a man of integrity, courage and action. “But the play undercuts the notion that we are in control of our destiny, that we are who we say we are. ” Oedipus’s fate persuades us to conclude that it is impossible for man to be in complete control of his life.
Destiny leads us to the chosen path, even if we desire and struggle to wander elsewhere. The concept of free will seems to have been a mere illusion at the end of Oedipus’s journey. Can man change his destiny by rational actions? The answer seems to be no. Oedipus defeats the Sphinx using his reason. Yet it is the same inquisitive character, the belief in searching out the truth, the faith in action as opposed to stoic endurance that propels him to discover the ultimate truth. Both Oedipus and Jocasta dismiss the oracle’s prediction at one point or the other.
Jocasta believes that she has successfully thwarted the prediction through the murder of her son. Oedipus rejoices at his victory over destiny when he hears about Polybus’s death. Yet these triumphs of the human free will are momentary and illusory as is revealed at the end of the play. Why does Oedipus fail in spite of his best efforts to escape his fate? Oedipus is born as the son of Laius of Thebes but is brought up by Polybus of Corinth. These are factors of which he is unaware of, which are beyond his rational control. He hears that he is a foundling.
He investigates the rumor thoroughly. He foster parents deny the allegation. Yet Oedipus is troubled enough to visit the oracle, which doesn’t answer his question but predicts his doomed future. He makes a conscious decision to overturn his destiny and rationally chooses to flee from Corinth. Unfortunately he runs straight into the trap that fate has laid for him. Here Oedipus has exercised his free will. He has decided that his life should not be as the oracle has predicted. Yet he is doomed to fail because he is acting on incomplete information.
He does not know about his actual parentage. One thing that Sophocles seems to suggest is that though man has the ability to make rational decisions and exercise his free will he can never have a complete knowledge about himself or his circumstances. Since he is acting on incomplete information his so called rationally sound decisions will turn out to be mere blunders later. However clever man thinks he may be, there are always enough loopholes for destiny to turn the tables on him. The same mistake happened to Laius and Jocasta. They remain under the illusion that their son is dead.
Sophocles demonstrates how every effort that man makes at each stage is thwarted by the hand of destiny. Moreover he remains blissfully ignorant of it till the very end. Destiny deludes man into believing that he has altered it. By the time the truth is revealed irreparable damages would have occurred. How could Oedipus have averted his fate? Would it have been possible if his parents had disregarded the oracle’s prediction as superstition and kept Oedipus in his rightful home? But this is a characteristically modern thinking which would not have occurred to the ancient Greeks.
As Lowes Dickinson tells us, in those days it was a common practice among the Greeks to consult the oracle in matters relating to personal and public life (21). Hence Laius’s decision to consult the oracle was a logical and appropriate one. Thus his panic on hearing the prediction is understandable. As E. R. Dodds points out, the oracle was unconditional (181). It does not offer any means to escape the fate. It just pronounced the verdict as final. Laius is left with no alternative other than to attempt to overturn the prediction someway himself. Being a father he cannot bring himself to murder his son.
So he hands him over to another to do the deed. Fate works in the form of the shepherd who saves the child out of natural human compassion. The shepherd cannot be blamed either because he does not know why the baby is being abandoned. He acts out of an inherent sense of justice. The couple in Corinth has no idea of all this and they innocently raise the child. The child reaches adulthood. He has to be brought back to his birthplace for the oracle to be fulfilled. The king of Corinth refrains from telling Oedipus the truth. Here again he is let down by destiny.
The oracle deliberately reveals to him his future which motivates him to take the first step to disaster. Fate leads the wandering Oedipus to his own kingdom where he defeats the Sphinx and marries Jocasta. As the critic in “Notes on Oedipus Rex” has observed, from the moment Oedipus learns his fate all his actions are directed towards averting the calamity. Yet paradoxically, each of his actions actually lead him step by step to his fate. So far we have seen how circumstances conspired against Oedipus. The next point that we have to consider is to what extent Oedipus himself is actually responsible for the tragedy.
Did he have a character flaw, akin to Aristotlean tragic heroes? Was he being punished for the fault? Several critics have pointed out that he has a hamartia (Dodds 177). He is hot tempered, aggressive and rash. He reacts on the spur of the moment giving in to blind fury. He is proud and arrogant. He “harbours unjustified suspicions against Teiresias and Creon” (179). The argument that Oedipus was being punished for his unfair treatment of Creon and Teiresias does not really make sense. As Dodds observes Oedipus was an “incestuous parricide” (179) long before he clashes with either of these two.
Dodds also points out that if Oedipus was morally responsible for the crime in any way some other character on stage would surely have asked him to repent (179). But all that we see is sympathy for the noble king. Teiresias, Jocasta and the shepherd try to shield him from the knowledge of the crime. They are willing to suffer the plague that has befallen the city of Thebes rather than banish the king who has unknowingly brought them this misery. The critic in “Notes on Oedipus Rex” has observed that Oedipus should not have fled from Corinth.
The very act of fleeing shows that he is subconsciously guilty. If he is certain that he will never commit adultery or murder why should he run? The concept of destiny has a powerful hold over the human mind. The future is always unknown and the unknown is a source of terror. His very act of fleeing shows that he too is a believer in destiny and fears that the outcome will be brought about somehow even though he would never consciously kill his father or commit incest with his mother. Even though man has a subconscious fear that destiny will beat him he still consciously tries to overcome it.
Thus Oedipus’ act of fleeing from Corinth reveals these two contradictions in human life, fear of the final triumph of destiny and the belief that it can be overcome by his intelligence. “When he kills Laius, it is in legitimate defense against a stranger who struck him first” (Vernant 195). Several critics maintain that it is his rashness that leads to the murder of Laius at the crossroads (Dodds 180). Even if that be true, it cannot be denied that it is destiny that brings Laius to the crossroads at that fatal moment. The timing is the decisive factor here.
Laius undertakes his journey at precisely the same time that Oedipus chooses to flee. And Oedipus is running under the belief that Polybus is his father. In his fear upon hearing the prediction he had not noticed that the oracle did not answer his question about his parentage. He jumps to the conclusion that since it was not denied by either his foster parents or the oracle, the foundling story must necessarily be untrue. If anybody else other than Laius had been present at the crossroads, the calamity could have been averted. His wanderings lead him, ironically enough, to the city of Thebes.
Next he outwits the Sphinx and becomes the King of Thebes. Both these are individual choices but we can see the hand of destiny guiding the choices. His next mistake is his marriage to Jocasta. It must be assumed that the marriage was imposed on him “in order to permit his accession to the throne, as recompense for his exploit” (Vernant 195) There is also another opinion that he was attracted to her. Logically speaking, there is nothing wrong with being attracted to an older woman. It is destiny that the woman happened to be his mother.
Many critics maintain that Oedipus could have averted his fate if only he had been a little more prudent. He already knew that he was in danger of committing parricide and incest. He should have refrained from killing an older man and marrying an older woman, whatever had been the provocation (Dodds 180). As I said earlier, Oedipus is fleeing under the belief that Polybus and Merope are his parents. If he had any suspicion about it he need not have left Corinth. Oedipus is actually innocent, but he is “guilty and contaminated from the religious point of view” (Vernant 195).
A plague descends on the city of Thebes and Oedipus, being a concerned and responsible king undertakes to find remedies. The oracle again makes a fateful prediction and he sets out to find the murderer of Laius. His single minded dedication and inquisitiveness gradually unravels the whole mystery. In “Oedipus Rex: Character is Destiny”, it is pointed out that he should have stopped inquiring when Tiresias refused to speak. But that would have made him an irresponsible king. His duty to his kingdom demanded that he find the murderer. Also it is out of basic human curiosity to learn the truth that Oedipus compels Tiresias to speak.
It looks like foolishness to us because we know the consequences of the enquiry. But Oedipus has no idea of what awaits him. Moreover even if he hadn’t found out the act still remained committed. He had already fulfilled his destiny. Even if Oedipus had been rash, foolish, over inquisitive, parricide and incest seem too heavy a price to pay for these flaws. Logically speaking there is no justice in the fate that is meted out to a “morally innocent” (Dodds 181) Oedipus. The same is the case with Laius and Jocasta. Sophocles does not tell us if they did anything to deserve this fate.
The play thus raises several other questions as well. What is the purpose behind man being the victim of this kind of destiny? Oedipus is being deluded at every step about his real identity. In “Notes on Oedipus Rex” there is a comment that the play becomes “an investigation not so much into who killed Laius (this matter is pretty well wrapped up midway through the plot), but who Oedipus actually is. ” Vernant says that Oedipus is a riddle who in all his dimensions – social, religious, human – is the reverse of what he appears at the head of the city.
The Corinthian stranger is in reality a native of Thebes; the decipher of riddles, a riddle which he cannot decipher; the judge, a criminal; the clairvoyant, a blind man; the savior of the city, its damnation. (193) Oedipus’s final act of blinding himself symbolizes the essential human condition, that is of wandering about in ignorance about its true identity. The search for meaning finally leads to the destruction of human faith and happiness. Man’s quest to find out the truth about himself and delve deeper into the mysteries of existence comes with a severe penalty.
The play illustrates the idea that human reality might actually be just a illusory veneer underneath which might lie a hideous truth. It is true that human actions have their consequences. But it is wrong to assume that our actions alone determine the outcome. Our actions are circumscribed by certain circumstances that are beyond our control. Oedipus’ birth as the son of Laius and his adoption by Polybus are factors that were beyond his control. If he had not been called a foundling by his fellowmen he would never have left Corinth. But other people’s actions are beyond our control.
They act as agents of destiny. What can be controlled is our reaction to the situation. But Oedipus was never fully aware of the truth of his situation. That again is destiny because the truth could have been revealed to him earlier. The King of Corinth or the oracle could have done it. Human actions are limited by and within specific circumstances. Thus we can say that human beings can act according to their free will, but the consequences of the actions are finally controlled by their destiny. And in this case, the oracle does not allow him any chance of escaping his destiny.
He is born to commit parricide and incest. Sophocles illustrates destiny as something that is impossible to avoid even if one tries to prevent it from happening. One way or another, the outcome of ones destiny will be fulfilled. Many people have a significant destiny during their time on earth. We make many choices, and the choices we make may look like the reason for such incident. However, if one is destined to have a specific outcome during their life time, no matter how hard they try to avoid it, the actions they take will eventually make it back to their destiny.
It is like a road with many different pathways, but all of them leading to the same destination.
Bibliography Dodds, E. R. “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex. ” Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy. Ed. Erich Segal. London: Oxford UP, 1983. Easterling, P. E. “Character in Sophocles. ” Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy. Ed. Erich Segal. London: Oxford UP, 1983. Sophocles. “Oedipus the King. ” Century Readings in Ancient Classical Literature. Ed. Grant Showerman, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. , 1925. Vernant, Jean-Pierre.
“Ambiguity and Reversal: On the Enigmatic Structure of Oedipus Rex. ” Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy. Ed. Erich Segal. London: Oxford UP, 1983. Articles from websites Felendler, Sylvia. “Oedipus Rex. ” 19 April 2009 <http://www. nyu. edu/classes/keefer/twenty/sylvia1. html>. “Notes on Oedipus Rex. ” 19 April 2009 < http://www. turksheadreview. com/library/texts/notes-oedipusrex. html>. “Oedipus Rex: Character is Destiny. ” 19 April 2009 <http://lastisland. wordpress. com/2007/10/21/oedipus-rex-character-is-destiny/>.