Classics of Western Literature

The myth of Oedipus revolves around a man destined by the gods to suffer the most horrible fate. Oedipus’ story takes place, for the most part, in the city of Thebes in northern Greece. When he was still in his mother’s womb, Oedipus’ parents Laius and Jocasta asked the oracle of Apollo about their unborn child.

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The oracle’s reply was terrifying, that the boy would grow up to marry his mother and kill his father. Because of this horrifying omen, Jocasta and Laius did what many people with unwanted children did in Greek times. They had the baby’s feet spiked and ordered a faithful herdsman who worked in the mountains near Thebes to carry the child off into the wild and abandon it. With this, they thought they had sidestepped fate but, in fact, their actions proved to be a part of it’s unfolding. The herdsman felt pity for the helpless baby so, instead of leaving it to rot in the wild, he handed it over to another herdsman from the neighboring city of Corinth. This man, in turn, gave it to his king and queen, Polybus and Merope, who were childless and raised Oedipus as their own. Thus, the boy grew up in Corinth believing himself the natural-born offspring of the royal family, until one day when he heard from a visiting stranger that he wasn’t the legitimate son of Polybus and Merope. After his parents refused to tell him one way or the other, Oedipus stormed off to Delphi to demand the truth of Apollo.

As before, the oracle delivered its gruesome verdict on his fate. Stunned by the revelation that he was destined one day to marry his mother and kill his father, he vowed never to return to Corinth but instead headed down a different road leading out of Delphi and ended up eventually near Thebes. As he approached the city, he came to an intersection where three roads converged, and encountered a man riding along the path who refused to give way. Their quarrel quickly escalated to violence, and thus he knocked the man out of his wagon, ultimately killing him. When he reached Thebes, Oedipus discovered a city under siege. A horrendous monster called the Sphinx was choking the city off from the rest of the world. It refused to let anyone pass who couldn’t answer its riddle: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?” Being naturally quick-witted, Oedipus figured out that the answer was Man, who crawls when young, walks upright as an adult and uses a cane in old age. Oedipus entered Thebes a triumphant savior, winning both throne and queen. His wife was, the newly widowed Jocasta, and as was later revealed, his own mother. When the full truth about Oedipus’ birth at long last came to light and she realized that through her actions her son-and-husband had committed unspeakable acts, Jocasta killed herself. Soon thereafter, blinded and forlorn, Oedipus went into exile from Thebes.

Long before this tale was told, Homeric audiences evidently listened to the tales of Oedipus’ tragedy. While the full story of his anguish doesn’t appear in Homer as such, he recounts the myth briefly when Odysseus visits the Underworld and sees Oedipus’ mother and wife Jocasta, whom he calls Epicaste, among the ghosts of the dead. This “story nugget” that Homer tells gives the very basic life-situation of Oedipus and Jocasta, but Sophocles made those lines into a full-fledged drama. Therefore, the basis of the myth is recounted to some extent in Homer’s “The Odyssey.”

“Oedipus the King” is structured as a prologue and five episodes, each introduced by a choral ode. Each of the incidents in the play is part of a tightly constructed cause-and-effect chain, assembled together as an investigation of the past. Sophocles develops the drama in terms of irony; the disjunction between what seems to be true and what is true. Knowing the outcome of the action, the audience savors the ironic moments from the beginning of the play to the end. Part of the tremendous sense of inevitability and fate in the play stems from the fact that all the irrational things have already occurred and are therefore unalterable. The main themes of the play are fate and free will (the inevitability of the oracles’ predictions), people’s willingness to ignore painful truths (both Oedipus and Jocasta clutch at unlikely details in order to avoid facing up to the apparent truth), and sight and blindness (the irony that the blind seer Tiresius can actually “see” more clearly than the supposedly clear-eyed Oedipus, who is in reality blind to the truth about his origins and his inadvertent crimes). The most apparent theme in Oedipus the King, Sophocles clearly depicts the Greek’s popular belief that fate will control a man’s life despite of man’s free will. Numerous characters from other works of literature have succumbed to the power of fate and the character of Oedipus from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is a prime example of the vast power of fate within literature. Sophocles effectively depicts the wrath of fate as he portrays how Oedipus fell victim to fate and his efforts to disregard fate were futile. The ancient Greeks believed that their gods could see the future, and that certain people could access this information. Prophets or seers, like blind Tiresias, saw visions of things to come. Belief in Greek philosophy is the belief that someone’s fate is pre-determined and unchangeable. The Greeks believed that fate should be accepted because it ultimately cannot be avoided.

The oracle delivered to Oedipus a self-fulfilling prophecy that he would kill his own father and marry his mother. Oedipus’s ignorance of the prophecy ultimately leads to his destruction. Oedipus leaves the house of his adoptive parents, Polybus and Merope, hoping to avoid the prophecy coming true. Oedipus uses his free will to take this action but doing so leads up to his prophecy coming true. Oedipus’s destiny is predetermined at birth by the gods. Having his life pre-determined by fate leaves little space for free will to intervene to change that. Oedipus’ journey in search of Laius’ murderer has merely helped the prophecy become reality. His ignorance, pride and remorseless quest for the truth ultimately contributed to his destruction. An explicit example can be seen when Oedipus was told (after threatening Tiresias), that he was responsible for Laius’ murder. Oedipus became enraged and called the blind prophet a liar. Oedipus thought he could overcome the gods, but in fact, his every action moved him closer to his destiny.

Oedipus is ignorant to the fact that by searching for the killer he is sealing his own fate. Not knowing he was the murderer, Oedipus had now cursed himself. “Whoever he is, a lone man unknown in his crime or one among many, let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step – I curse myself as well… if by any chance he proves to be an intimate of our house, here at my hearth, with my full knowledge, may the curse I just called down on him strike me!”

During the play a key line is said by the character Tiresias, the local prophet. When called upon by Oedipus, Tiresias states, “Wisdom is a dreadful thing when it brings no profit to its possessor”. This is a very significant statement. It clearly defines the situation Oedipus puts himself through. Oedipus’s lust for knowledge and thirst for admiration by his subjects spells his own demise. Through constant pressuring by Oedipus, Tiresias reveals Oedipus was the one who killed Laius. It seems Oedipus brought upon his own fate through the pestering of Tiresias. The unaccounted factor is the reason for Oedipus’s actions. Fate is responsible for a series of plagues that have engulfed Thebes and have situated Oedipus in a scenario where he must find the killer of Laius to undo the plagues. The forcefulness of Oedipus is fueled by fate ensuring Oedipus has a viable reason to obtain knowledge no matter the consequence.

For Oedipus, finding the truth becomes somewhat of an obsession, and it is far more important than what that truth might actually reveal. It seems as if the more facts that are uncovered about the murder of Laius, the more determined Oedipus becomes, perhaps still unconvinced about his own possible implication in the death of Laius (even though he remembers killing a man at a crossroads). Oedipus displays his characteristic brilliance and overconfidence in what he regards as his heroic search for the murderer of Laius. He pursues the mystery relentlessly, confident that its solution will yield him the same glory he enjoyed when he answered the riddle of the Sphinx. Oedipus’ self-assurance that he has taken care of his fate blinds him to it and begins the fall that will end in his literal blindness. Thus he becomes the victim, rather than the conqueror, of fate.

Oedipus is relentless in his pursuit of the truth, and his determination is commendable. There is nothing that compels him to act in this way, instead he freely chooses, to initiate the chain of events that will ultimately lead to his downfall. Oedipus may be a victim of fate, but that does not mean that he had no free will. The oracle inspires a series of specific choices, freely made by Oedipus, which lead him to kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus chooses not to return to Corinth after hearing the oracle, just as he chooses to head toward Thebes, to kill Laius, to marry and to take Jocasta specifically as his bride; in response to the plague at Thebes, he chooses to send Creon to the Oracle for advice and then to follow that advice, initiating the investigation into Laius’s murder.

We know Oedipus ‘ fate even before he does, and there is no suspense about the outcome itself, instead, the audience anxiously awaits Oedipus to reveal his fate unto himself in his desperate quest to rid his city of the terrible plague. In Oedipus the King the theme of fate is a crucial element that carries throughout the entire tragic play. No matter what, you cannot escape your fate and predetermined destiny. Oedipus’ life was predetermined from birth and was given tragic life by the Gods. Oedipus had a good conscience; he cared deeply for the people in his life and protected them. He was very empathetic, smart and a dependable man who lived his life with great integrity. He was an honest man with strong moral principles and lived a righteous life. He found it difficult to live anything less than a righteous life; when he realized what had become of his life, his guilty conscience consumed him. Fate came out victorious in the end. In the Greek vision fate cannot be altered or cheated. Even the gods cannot change fate. Instead of claiming one victim, many were ruined. If Jocasta had not tried to cheat fate, perhaps King Laius would be the only death. Instead King Laius and Jocasta are both dead, Oedipus is ruined and his children are cursed by this incestuous pollution. Fate is a force not to be reckoned with.

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