Oedipus: Free Man or Destinies Puppet?

Ancient Greek theater can be considered the mother to many plays and even influences literature to this day. Some of the most prominent plays came from a festival held in Greece that pitted playwright against playwright. One of the authors of the plays that would happen is called Sophocles.

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He is considered by some to be the best playwright of his time. Many make that assumption due to the fact that he was extremely successful in these competitions. In fact, he won first place more than any other competitor. Sophocles’ has had many plays made, but possibly one of his most famous works is Oedipus the King. Many elements within the play are special and cause this work of literature to fall into a certain category. This category is, of course, a tragedy. A tragedy essentially follows the main character who has a prominent status who then falls from glory. One of the characteristics of a tragedy is the appearance of a foil, character who provides contrast to the protagonist and helps show off their characteristics. One of the foils appearing in Oedipus is Iocaste. Iocaste is a key part in defining not only Oedipus but the play itself. Iocaste amplifies Oedipus’ characteristics and highlights his qualities by directly contradicting him as a character and the decisions he made. However, in the play itself do Oedipus and the other characters make their own decisions or do they simply following a predestined path; I believe it is the ladder.

The play’s plot is driven by primarily one thing: Oedipus’ search for the truth. It is his drive to know more about his past that leads him to his fate and causes so many problems. During this time, Iocaste tells a different story. She is wary of the future that knowing the past will bring. She actively begs Oedipus “to have no more questioning” (Scene 3, 140-141). She is afraid of the truth. Iocaste hears the same prophecy but acts in a completely different manner than Oedipus. Iocaste helps to highlight his acts of bravery of pursuing the unknown by showing just how desperate she is to save them from their fate. Iocaste was trying to hide things out of fear of the outcome and what it would mean for them. Oedipus’ chivalry then becomes more apparent when you see how willing Oedipus is to find the truth, even if it means he must suffer for it, which he does. As Oedipus goes further and further along this path it becomes more apparent that he is just coming closer to fulfilling the prophecy.

Oedipus does end up suffering at the end of the play ( just as the prophecy foretold ), but not before Iocaste does something that really brings attention to just how brave and courageous Oedipus truly is. It is known that Iocaste finds out the truth before Oedipus does. The prophecy came true, for Oedipus killed his father and slept with his mother. When Iocaste finds this truth, she reacts violently. She desperately tries to escape the ramifications and is distraught that she runs into her apartment with “hair clutched in the fingers of both hands” (Exodus, 19). Her reaction, although drastic, is extremely easy to sympathize with. Her whole world has been metaphorically turned upside down. This and the realization that all their predetermined fates were inescapable drive her to suicide. The burden that the truth entails is so heavy that she would rather commit suicide than live with it. Oedipus, on the other hand, chooses to live. He makes sure that he pays for the actions that he made in ignorance. He bears the weight of the truth rather than running from it. Even though he eventually learned that no matter what he did the outcome was always going to be the same.

Jocasta and Laius attempt to get rid of their son but fate triumphs. Oedipus’ fate throughout the play has been decided by the prophecy which contributes to his destruction. According to Alistar Cameron, Oedipus’s fate is not complete before the beginning of the play. Apollo is aware Oedipus is guilty of killing his father so when Apollo asks for Laius’s killer to be found, Oedipus will find himself. Oedipus’ pride is emphasized when he searches for Laius’ killer to stop the plague; he wants to find the killer and protect himself. McHugh states, “Oedipus relentlessly begins the long search to find the killer, ignorant to the fact that it is he himself and that his fate is closing upon him.” Oedipus is ignorant to the fact that by searching for the killer he is sealing his own fate.

Through Oedipus’ efforts to find the killer, he summons the blind prophet Tiresias to his palace to ask him questions. The scene between Tiresias and Oedipus is the first scene in the play to demonstrate strong conflict; audience members see Oedipus’ temper for the first time. Before this scene, Oedipus has acted calmly but loses patience when Tiresias refuses to reveal the identity of the killer. Tiresias’s confidence in the prophecy while Oedipus’s free will falters. “Hear me out. Since you have thrown my blindness at me I will tell you what yours don’t see: what evil you are steeped in. You don’t see where you live or who shares your house. Do you know your parents? You are their enemy in this life and down there with the dead.” (ll. 495–503) Oedipus believes by searching for Laius’s killer he is using his own free will but that is not the case. Oedipus journey in search of Laius’ murderer has merely helped the prophecy become reality. His ignorance, pride and the 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. McHugh points out that Oedipus compulsively continues his search for the murderer despite the warnings he receives. It is through his own questioning that he discovers that fate has had its way after all, and that he is the one guilty of the murder of Laius, and that his wife, Jocasta is, in fact, 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 predetermined by fate leaves little space for free will to intervene to change that. Discovering he is the killer, Oedipus blinds himself and is exiled from Thebes.

In conclusion, Iocaste is an important character in Oedipus the King. She provides a new degree of insight by contrasting his characteristics and decisions. Where she is scared and runs from their fate, Oedipus meets it head on and does his best to uncover the truth. Iocaste cannot deal with the truth and commits suicide rather than living with the consequences. Oedipus falls from glory and lives despite his sorrowful state. Iocaste is a foil for Oedipus and directly contrasts with him to highlight his characteristics. However both characters are unable to escape their fates. This raises a question at the heart of the play; does Oedipus have any choice in the matter? He ends up killing his father and marrying his mother without knowing it, in fact, when he is trying to avoid doing these very things. Does he have free will, the ability to choose his own path or is everything in life predetermined? Jocasta argues that the oracles are a sham because she thinks the prediction that her son would kill her husband never came to pass. When she finds out otherwise, she kills herself. Oedipus has fulfilled his terrible prophecy long ago, but without knowing it. He has already fallen into his fate.

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