Sophocles took the power of fate over human lives very seriously, but he also believed strongly in freedom and human dignity. In Oedipus Tyrannus, both freedom and fate are major factors in the life of Oedipus and those around him. Sophocles never really clears up this apparent contradiction, any more than any of us completely understand how freedom and fate operate in our own lives. While Sophocles seems to accept the importance of fate, he is also suggesting that human freedom and a person’s character and personality all play an important role in deciding how a person will work out their fate. Sophocles seems to be saying that if Oedipus weren’t so hot-headed or so hungry for the “truth,” he might have arrived at his fate with much less horror and messiness. Whether Oedipus could have avoided his fate entirely Sophocles leaves as an open question, a question that is the essence of the play’s theme, and one of the great unanswered questions about life in this world.
Oedipus’ first major decision was to leave Corinth after being told by Apollo that he will kill his father and marry his mother. But his two chief character traits constantly get him into trouble: his hot-headedness, and his brutally courageous honesty and hunger for truth. Not long after leaving Corinth, he gets into a fight with Laius, and kills him. One can ask, was this really necessary? The conflict on the road seems to have been an issue of pride between Laius and Oedipus, as to who would give way first. Don’t many people manage to get through life without the need to kill someone, even in self-defense? Sure, Oedipus could have chosen a lifestyle which did not lead to confrontation. But he was born the son of a king, Sophocles is saying, and such a meek lifestyle was not in his nature.
Over and over, it his own nature that Oedipus keeps stumbling over. A plague has struck Thebes, and Apollo declares that Laius’ murderer must be found for the plague to lift. When Tiresias refuses to tell Oedipus what he knows, Oedipus accuses him of conspiring with Creon for his throne. Tiresias, when pressed, finally tells Oedipus the truth: “I say that the murderer you seek is you…living in abomination, intimate with nearest and dearest” (362-367). But Oedipus cannot connect this accusation with what he thinks he knows about himself, and he is too self-righteous to cautiously think about Tiresias’ horrible disclosures. Oedipus is a young man, and he has not yet learned the potentially hurtful power of truths and secrets, especially truths that cannot be corrected. As Tiresias puts it, “It is a hateful thing to know when nothing can be gained from knowledge” (316-317). Had Oedipus taken a position of humility with respect to the gods and his own problems, he may have benefited from much sympathy, comfort, and help from Tiresias and Creon. Instead he antagonizes them in his reckless ignorance. One can call this fate, or character, and perhaps they are different names for the same thing.
When Oedipus shares this incident with Jocasta, she tries to reassure him by telling him of the prophesy that Laius would be slain by his son, who was abandoned to die, and that in fact the prophecy had not come true, since Laius was “killed by strangers” (715). Oedipus starts becoming nervous, since he now remembers being involved in such an incident “at a place where three roads meet” (716). Further details emerge, and he confesses to such a killing, now clearly afraid that he is indeed Laius’ murderer. Oedipus summons the servant who survived the attack, hoping he will confirm the original story that it was a group of bandits rather than a single killer. Oedipus still does not suspect the second awful part of the prophecy, that he is in fact the son of Laius.
Meanwhile, a messenger arrives from Corinth relating the death of Polybus. Oedipus is relieved, “And here am I, who never raised a hand against him” (968). But the same messenger soon gives him the bad news: “Polybus is no relation of yours” (1016). And what is worse, Oedipus was a child abandoned by a servant of Laius, and raised by Polybus. Yet Oedipus still does not make the connection that he is Laius’ son. As he tells Jocasta, “Even if my mother was a slave… you would still be noble” (1062). As the shepherd appears, Oedipus gets the horrible truth out of him, that he received Oedipus from Jocasta to be left to die, that he took pity on the child and gave it to a man from Corinth to take far away, so that he might live.
As the full horror of the truth is understood by Oedipus and Jocasta, Oedipus goes looking for her in a rage. Why? What did she do that he didn’t? Didn’t she also act in ignorance? One can argue that he was angry because his parents abandoned him to die, but that was mainly King Laius’ decision to avoid the prophecy that he would be killed by his own son. Was this an evil decision on Laius’ part? Did Jocasta have any choice in the decision? I believe one can conclude that even after the murder of Laius and his incest with Jocasta, both Oedipus and Jocasta might have lived out their lives in peace and sadness. Oedipus’ blinding himself was at least as much self-hatred at hounding his mother as at everything that came before.
The story of Oedipus was a very ancient legend by the time Sophocles wrote this play.
Sophocles knew that he was dealing with an era of raw and primitive moral and religious absolutes. Therefore, for us to carelessly apply modern notions of freedom and fate to this story may not be appropriate. It is natural for us, as modern readers, to connect the idea of fate with the idea of justice. In most of our literature, and in movies, we are used to seeing people “get what they deserve.” While we admire Oedipus’ nobility and martyrdom, we don’t need to conclude that he “got what he deserved,” that justice was done in any sense. While the gods had a clear purpose in focusing on a character like Oedipus, Sophocles did not feel the need to explore what that purpose was in the play.
So, the question remains: was Oedipus free to shape his own life, or was his fate determined in advance? Perhaps the Greeks did not feel that they needed to choose between freedom and determinism. The Greeks may have believed that a person’s fate may ultimately be determined, and yet his actions within the boundaries of that fate might be free. Perhaps our modern ideas of free will are not so very different from that of the ancient Greeks. If we combine our most up-to-date notions about genetics, personality, and culture, we pretty much come up with the same mysterious, ambiguous mix that Sophocles used, but was smart enough not to try to explain or justify.
It is striking that the arguments about fate and free will in this remarkable play are no closer to being settled today than they were in Sophocles’ time. Is the universe determined, or is there room for free will in it? If so, what exactly does free will mean, and what is its relationship to the system of determinism which clearly governs the behavior of clouds and billiard balls? We can’t answer these questions much more confidently than could the Greeks, which is why Oedipus is as fresh and disturbing today as it was two-and-a-half thousand years ago.
But our feelings are with Oedipus, and we understand how his otherwise admirable qualities drive him to his doom. Along with Tiresias, we want to warn him to “let sleeping dogs lie.” But we know it’s no use. His character is his fate. The gods in this story laid down some pretty awful guidelines for this family. Within these guidelines, Oedipus might have achieved some different, perhaps gentler results. Nowhere in the play does Sophocles imply that Oedipus’s detailed course of action on this terrible day was foretold by the gods.
You have to wonder about these gods, though. Wasn’t the original prophecy itself responsible for all this horror? After all, if Laius had not been told his son would kill him, he and Jocasta might have raised a loving, fine son who would inherit a peaceable kingdom. It was the fear implanted in Laius by Apollo that led to the series of panicked and tragic actions by these poor humans. One can only conclude that the ancient Greeks were burdened by rather cruel and pitiless gods, and if there is a Judgment Day in Greek myth, a good lawyer would have no trouble defending this decent man, Oedipus.
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