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Does fate exist. Are our lives planned out for us. Or do we truly create our own destiny. I dont have the answers to these questions while others might claim to; a self-help book may say one thing, while a religious leader says another. People discuss, debate, and argue over questions such as these. Not everyone will come to terms with each other, so it is a relief that such an argument will not be made here. Instead, we are going to travel back to a time where fate was not an intellectual, religious, or personal battle; it was just accepted as a part of life. The question instead was could one outwit their fate? Could one change their destiny? The play Oedipus the King goes back to a time where fate and prophecies were parts of everyday life. One may not like where their life was going, but it would eventually become what it was destined to be. This is certain in King Oedipus' case. Despite his efforts to change his fate, he inevitably follows the script of his life that was written for him at his birth. The same prophecy that caused his parents to sentence him to death at birth caused his tragic death in the end. Fate was the major theme that intertwined all the major events in his life; from the day he was brought into the world until the day he left it.
The play Oedipus the King does not begin at its chronological beginning; it starts towards the end because this is where Oedipus would learn the truth about his life from beginning to end. The chronological beginning was Oedipus' birth when King Laius heard from the oracle that he would die by the hand of his son. When Jocasta, Oedipus' wife, revealed this to Oedipus she said,
An oracle came to Laius one fine day
(I won't say from Apollo himself
but his underlings, his priests) and it said
that doom would strike him down at the hands of a son. (Sophocles, 784-787)
When Laius found out that the son he had bore would be the one to bring about his death he ordered his wife, also Jocasta, to put their newborn to death instead. This was the first instance where a character attempted to change their fate. Laius believed that if he were able to dispose of his son he would live. Jocasta, however, was unable to murder her own child. Instead she ordered a servant to do the dirty work for her. This servant took pity on the child and brought him to Corinth where the childless King Polybus and his wife, Merope, raised him as their own.
Fate conversely was not escaped. Laius thought that he could outwit fate, that perhaps what the oracle said had been more of a warning, not necessarily set in stone. But in the end, the very steps that Laius took to protect himself would be the same steps that had allowed for the prophecy to be fulfilled, as if fate knew what would happen all along.
Oedipus learned about the prophecy that was made about him at his birth when he maked a trip to Delphi to ask the oracle about his fate. The oracle told him,
"You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring
a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see---
you will kill your father, the one who gave you life?" (Sophocles, 873-875)
He feared that the prophecy would come true if he did not act to avoid the outcome. Just like his father, he also attempted to outwit fate. The only problem was that he believed his birth parents were King Polybus and his wife, Merope. In order to preserve the lives of the people whom he believed were his parents he ran far away from Corinth, to Thebes, where the play took place.
Nevertheless, fate played a large part before the play even started, with King Laius and Queen Jocasta attempted to change their fate by declaring death for their only son, which led to Oedipus finding out his own fate and fleeing for Thebes. Each of these instances are crucial to the plot and both portray to the readers that what you are destined to be will not change, no matter what steps you take to avoid fate.
In the beginning of the play, the reader also quickly finds out that the people of Thebes are hurting. The priest even said, "Thebes is dying" (Sophocles, 31). He confronts Oedipus telling him of all the troubles that the people were having, the cattle were dying, the crops were failing, women died during childbirth, the children were born dead, and there was plague. Couldn't Oedipus do something to save the people (Sophocles, 31-55)? The priest tried to motivate Oedipus to action he said, "Act now-we beg you, best of men raise up our city! / Act, defend yourself, your former glory" (Sophocles, 57-58). The people wanted Oedipus to fix Thebes, but first Oedipus had to figure out what was causing their suffering.
I acted at once. I sent Creon,
my wife's own brother, to Delphi---
Apollo the Prophet's oracle --- to learn
what I might do or say to save our city. (Sophocles, 81-84)
Creon came back with the news that they needed to banish the man who killed King Laius in order for Thebes' suffering to stop. He revealed that the murderer was somewhere in Thebes. Oedipus, however, did not yet know that his birth father was actually the murdered King Laius. While he and Creon discussed what would be done about the murderer Oedipus foreshadows his own fate when he said,
Whoever killed the king may decide to kill me too,
with the same violent hand-by avenging Laius
I defend myself. (Sophocles, 158-160)
He did not know that by avenging Laius he would actually cause his own destruction. He also said,
I speak out now as a stranger to the story,
a stranger to the crime. If I'd been present then,
there would have been no mystery, no long hunt
without a clue in hand. (Sophocles, 248-251)
He unknowingly was not "a stranger to the story" (Sophocles, 248). He was the one who brought about his father's death, yet there was a mystery to be solved, and a long hunt to be had. But what they were hunting for was actually fate, which would reveal that Oedipus was destined to be the murderer all along.
As if things were not already bad enough for Oedipus, he cursed the murder. He believed that whoever committed the crime deserved the most terrible fate. He still did not have an inkling at this point that the murder that he was cursing was himself.
Now my curse on the murderer. 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 cruse myself as wellâ€¦ 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! (Sophocles, 280-287)
â€¦why, our seed
might be the same, children born of the same mother
might have created blood-bonds between us
if his hope of offspring hadn't met disaster-
So I will fight for him as if he were my father. (Sophocles, 296-301)
He had no idea that the curse would only affect one person, himself. He was the murderer and an intimate of the house. He was the life that would carry out the prophecy.
Creon brought in the blind seer, Tiresias, who would be able to see the truth about Laius' death. Oedipus demanded and forced Tiresias to tell him whom the murderer was using threats and insults to make him speak. Tiresias told him, "You are the curse, the corruption of the land" (Sophocles, 401)! Oedipus called him a liar, not wanting to believe the truth. However, Tiresias was the one who knew the truth, he knew that Oedipus was "blind to the corruption of [his] life," (Sophocles, 471) because he refused to accept his prophetic words as truth.
Jocasta stepped onto the stage sometime latter and revealed the prophecy that Laius was given long ago. The one where he found out that his son would be the one who would lead to his destruction.
so the report goes at least, was killed by strangers,
thieves, at the place where three roads meetâ€¦ my son-
he wasn't three days old and the boy's father
fastened his ankles, had a henchman fling him away
on a barren, trackless mountain. (Sophocles, 788-793)
This gave Jocasta peace of mind because she interpreted it to mean that no human could actually predict the future accurately, since she knew that Laius could not have been killed by her dead son like the prophecy said. But this was all Oedipus needed to trigger a memory that he once thought of as insignificant. He realized the truth; he was the one who had killed King Laius all along.
Oedipus told about how he heard his fate from the oracle at Delphi and to save his parents he ran from Corinth to Thebes, so that he would never have to live out the life that the oracle prophesized. He then told them his version of how he murdered Laius out of self-defense (Sophocles, 870-898).
The only prophecy that was left to be fulfilled was his fate to be coupled with his mother. Which did not take long to be revealed. When the messenger came back with news of Polybus' death it brought relief to Oedipus because the prophecy had not come true, his father did not die by his hands. But the messenger explained to him that he was not actually Polybus' son. He had been a gift to the king from the messenger because he had found him, and the shepherd that gave the messenger the child was a servant of Laius. Jocasta was the one who figured out the mystery first. Her murdered son was actually alive! He had been given to the shepherd to be killed, but he took pity on him, gave him to the messenger, who gave him to Polybus. Oedipus, her husband, was also her son! She begged Oedipus to call off the search for the truth; now knowing that fate had not been outwitted. But he continued to search for answers, which he eventually found.
I stand revealed at last-
cursed in my birth, cured in my marriage,
cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands! (Sophocles, 1310-1312)
The truth created more pain then either one of them, Jocasta or Oedipus, wanted to live with.
In the end, Jocasta flung herself on the marriage bed that had caused the prophecy to be fulfilled, mourning all that had taken place there. She then hung herself; her body suspended for Oedipus to find. The next moment, he gouged out his eyes, as if in an attempt to be blind to the truth like he once was. Oedipus was left to face life blind, yet with his eyes wide open to the truth. He also was left to live out the curses he placed upon himself; this was his inevitable fate. As the curtains closed on the stage of Oedipus the King, the reader realized that the script of Oedipus' life had been written for him before his birth, revealing that fate always prevails in the end.