Oedipus the King by Sophocles is the story of a man who was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. The story continues in the tradition of classic Greek plays, which were based upon the Greeks’ beliefs at the time. The ancient Greeks believed that their gods decided what would ultimately happen to each and every person.
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Since those gods destined Oedipus to kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus’ life was definitely fated. However, the gods only decided where Oedipus’ life would eventually lead; they never planned the route he would take to get there. All the decisions that Oedipus made in order to fulfill his destiny, and the decisions he made after the fact, were of his own free will, and were largely shaped by his mien.
Probably the most relevant examples of the exercise of free will are in the events which lead up to the play and which fulfill Oedipus’ prophecy. When Laius and Jocasta hear of their newborn son’s fate, their first instinct is to kill Baby Oedipus. But they cannot do the deed outright; they instead make the choice to pin his feet together and leave him on a mountainside. This turns out not to be the best choice for them, but at least it was a choice. Perhaps the most barefaced example of free will is in the murder of Laius and his men—not so much the murders themselves but the circumstances surrounding the murders. This is how Oedipus describes the incident to Jocasta:
Making my way toward this triple crossroad I began to see a herald, then a brace of colts drawing a wagon, and mounted on the bench…a man, just as you’ve described him, coming face-to-face, and the one in the lead and the old man himself were about to thrust me off the road—brute force— and the one shouldering me aside, the driver, I strike him in anger!—and the old man, watching me coming up along his wheels—he brings down his prod, two prongs straight at my head! I paid him back with interest! Short work, by god—with one blow of the staff in this right hand I knock him out of his high seat, roll him out of the wagon, sprawling headlong— I killed them all—every mother’s son! (884-98)
Talk about road rage! Oedipus is pushed out the way by a wagon, and he retaliates by killing almost everyone in the wagon, including his father! Sure, Oedipus was destined to kill his father anyway, but the manner in which he did so gives an insight into his demeanor. Oedipus could have killed his father in any number of ways, but to do so in a fit of rage set off by so seemingly trivial of an event is just not rational. Murder may not have been as big of a deal at that time, but if Oedipus had tried that in today’s world, he would have either been executed or have been spending the rest of his life in a mental institution. This incident goes to show that Oedipus is a very rash and impulsive man, and this carries over into his administration and decision-making.
As king of Thebes, Oedipus is a very short-tempered leader who thinks, and sometimes even rules, by the seat of his pants. When Oedipus learns of the plague over Thebes, he chooses to root out the source and eliminate the scourge over his city. This is all well and good until Oedipus starts hearing things he does not like. When Creon sends for the blind prophet Tiresias, the same prophet who told Laius and Jocasta what would happen to Oedipus, and Tiresias tells Oedipus that he, in fact, is the source of the plague, Oedipus is infuriated and assumes that Creon is conspiring to overthrow him and is using Tiresias as the tool. He says:
O power— wealth and empire, skill outstripping skill in the heady rivalries of life, what envy lurks inside you! Just for this, the crown the city gave me—I never sought it, they laid it in my hands—for this alone, Creon, the soul of trust, my loyal friend from the start steals against me…so hungry to overthrow me he sets this wizard on me, this scheming quack, this fortune-teller peddling lies, eyes peeled for his own profit—seer blind in his craft! (433-42)
Oedipus later chooses to chew out Creon much in the same way as Tiresias. The whole time, Creon and Tiresias—not to mention the Chorus, which represents the general population of Thebes—plead with Oedipus to stop his accusations and consider the possibility that they are right. If at this point, Oedipus would just choose to review the facts, he would have no choice (no pun intended) but to concede. Oedipus himself chose to see an oracle many years before and was told that he would kill his father and marry his mother. On his way to Thebes, he chose to kill four men, and after choosing to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, he married the queen, who was not only old enough to be his mother, but was also widowed not long before. Still, after all of this evidence, Oedipus chooses not to accept the chance that he is the source of the city’s plague. This stubborn attitude in choosing to accuse others for problems that he created is a function of Oedipus’ self-righteous and impetuous character. Later on, when Oedipus confronts Creon, who calmly explains why he would not want to be king and therefore would not have any motive to dethrone Oedipus, and who gives Oedipus the means to prove Creon’s innocence, he says, “Time alone can bring the just man to light; / the criminal you can spot in one short day” (688-89). The leader of the Chorus says, “Good advice, / my lord, for anyone who wants to avoid disaster. / Those who jump to conclusions may be wrong” (690-91). As the story progresses, Oedipus finally starts choosing to believe that there might be some truth to the prophecy and that his life really is fated. Jocasta says:
Fear? What should a man fear? It’s all chance, chance that rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark. Better to live at random, best we can. (169-72)
Throughout most of the play, Oedipus exercises his free will by choosing not to believe that he is the cause of his city’s problems. This is not the end of free will in the story, however; in fact, it is only the beginning.
Oedipus and Jocasta’s reactions to finding out the truth are prime examples of choice in Oedipus, not only because of the extreme decisions being made, but also because of the complete absence of fate from this stage of the story. When the truth is revealed, Jocasta is the first to react; she hangs herself in the bedroom. Later, her husband/son finds her, takes her body down, and then proceeds to tear his eyes out with her brooches. His self-inflicted physical blindness is compensation for the figurative blindness Oedipus had been afflicted with for so long. As he works, he cries:
You, you’ll see no more the pain I suffered, all the pain I caused! Too long you looked on the ones you never should have seen, blind to the ones you longed to see, to know! Blind from this hour on! Blind in the darkness—blind! (1406-10)
Not only were Oedipus and Jocasta’s reactions to the truth very extreme and passionate, they were also completely their own. Since the very truth that caused Oedipus to choose to blind himself and Jocasta to choose to commit suicide was the fact that Oedipus had fulfilled his destiny, anything that happened after the fact would be outside the realm of the prophecy since it was already fulfilled. There was no prophecy that predicted Oedipus would poke his eyes out and Jocasta would hang herself. The people involved were completely responsible for their actions. Technically, everything that happened in the play was outside the realm of the prophecy since the prophecy was fulfilled before the story even started, so therefore, there is no fate in Oedipus the King!
Free will is abound in Oedipus the King; any character who makes a decision of their own accord is a testament to that. Even Oedipus, whose life was fated from the start, made many decisions, ranging from how to fulfill his destiny to how to punish himself after finding out he had indeed murdered his father and married his mother, and most of which were shaped largely by his personality.
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