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Fate and free will both play an integral role in Oedipus’ life. In Oedipus, Sophocles points out the old Greek belief that fate cannot be escaped even though a man has freewill and choice. Despites a man free will it is fate that will eventually prevail. But was Oedipus a victim of an inevitable fate or did he create his own destiny through his free will?
Oedipus just like Laius and Jocasta tries to escape his fate by acting on his freewill. Laius had tried to escape his fate by trying to kill the child who was meant to kill him, but does not succeed. Oedipus too tries to escape his fate by running away from Corinth after he was told of the oracle that said he is to “mate” his own mother and “murder” the father who gave him life. Afraid and of course believing the oracle he runs away in order to escape it. But by doing so, he is unaware that he has actually taken a step closer to his own destruction. This is proved when on his way to his new life, he unknowingly kills his own father Laius and fulfills a part of the oracle. He then goes on and takes over Thebes and marries his own mother and hence fulfills the first oracle. However, Laius and Jocasta had a chance which Oedipus didn’t. They were given a warning saying that they should not produce a child. But Laius was overcome by a momentary lust (Oedipus Tyrannus notes- Pg 90) and thus left his son to face the consequence of his action.
Jocasta and Laius can also be seen as a perfect evidence of freewill. It was their choice of action that led to their destiny. Their fate was never certain. They were given a warning but ignored it and went against god’s will. Their choice of action shows that it was freewill that created their destiny. However, we can also say it was their fate because the warning itself had mentioned their fate. Moreover, they get their punishment for going against god; Laius is killed by his own son and Jocasta marries not only her own son but also the murderer of her husband. The play shows that the gods are in control, and not men (www.slashdoc.com). Furthermore, the play can also be looked at as the fate of Laius and Jocasta since they were the one who ignored the oracle and made a mistake. Oedipus just seems like someone guiding them to their fate. Their ill-fate was the punishment for avoiding the warning and acting on their freewill. So, therefore, we can also say that Oedipus was just a victim of his parents curse, “the curse of your mother and father, a double blow” (pg 33 Line -417).
At the beginning of the play, when there is a plague in Thebes, we are told about the new oracle from Creon. He coveys the oracle that in order to get rid of the plague, the murderer of Laius must be found. Here we can say that it is his freewill that’s creating his destiny because Oedipus could have waited for the plague to end and not send Creon to seek help from Apollo, but he does. This shows him acting with freewill and shows that man is reliable of his own actions. However, on the other hand, we can also say it is fate because it was meant to happen. There were two things he could have done; one was to wait for the plague to end and the other to send Creon to seek help from Apollo. But he goes for the one that leads him to his destruction. So we can say that it’s fate and is taking him towards his downfall. He does exactly what a good king should have done but doesn’t realize that he is pushing himself closer to his downfall. Also, after he learns of the oracle, he could have searched for the murderer slowly and quietly but he curses the murderer which in actuality is him cursing himself , ” I also pray that this unknown doer of this deed, whether he acted alone or with accomplices, may wear out his wretched life in abstract misery”(pg 23 Lines 246-278). This symbolizes that freewill is just a road to one’s fate.
The “agon” between Oedipus and Tiresias brings out a lot of Oedipus’s flaws. His harmatia include arrogance, violence, pride and his quest for truth. In this scene Tiresias continuously warns Oedipus not to ask more, but Oedipus does. The scene creates a lot of tension and Tiresias foretells a lot “Now you see clearly but then you will see darkness” (Pg 33 line -419). But Oedipus does not pay any heed to this and mocks Tiresias blindness. We can also say that Oedipus’s harmatia led and contributed immensely to his downfall. Even after hearing a lot, he is still ignorant and is committed in finding the murderer. Here too he could have stopped his enquiry and saved himself but he doesn’t and thinks he is doing the right thing but has no idea of what waits for him. Consequently, he continues pushing himself forward.
Jocasta tries to calm Oedipus down by telling him that “no one who is mortal has the power of prophecy” (pg53 lines-788-789). She also provides an evidence for this by telling him of the old oracle and adds that Laius was not killed by his own son but by robbers and as for the child they had thrown him away with his ankles pinned together. And for the first time realization hits Oedipus, and he cries, “Oh. What a wretched I am! It seems I have exposed myself to a terrible curse, without knowing it.”(pg 55 lines 744-745). But Jocasta assures him that Laius was killed by robbers and not a single man. Even after knowing so much Oedipus is still persistent in finding the whole truth. He now waits for the shepherd who had witnessed Laius murder and calls him he’s only “grounds for hope” (pg 61 lines836). But in reality the shepherd is the one who opens the gate to his ill-fate. The chorus then, in the 2nd STASIMON reminds us that the laws of the land is in the god’s hand and not men “The laws prescribed for these are sublime ,and were given their birth in the clear air of heaven, Olympus” (pg 65 lines 865-867).
While they are waiting for the servant, a messenger comes by and informs that Polybus is dead and later adds that Polybus was not Oedipus’s father “Polybus was no relation of your” (pg 75 line-1016). Just then Jocasta realizes that the oracle has come true, and begs Oedipus to stop his quest. But as always Oedipus doesn’t listen and misunderstands Jocasta. Jocasta leaves calling him an “unhappy man”. The herdsman then comes into the scene and at first refuses to tell the truth. Like Tiresias and Jocasta, he too warns him to stop but Oedipus doesn’t. The herdsman then confirms Oedipus’s identity (that he is Laius’ son) and thus breaks the shield that had been there till now that had kept Oedipus away from his ill fate. Having realized what he has done, Oedipus cries “Oh, oh! The whole truth has come out. Light may this be the last time I look at you” (pg 8 lines 1182- 1123). The chorus then reflects on the illusionary qualities of man’s happiness and the futility of mortal life. Even someone who appeared so pre-eminently successful as Oedipus has shown this by falling victim to terrible suffering. (pg 86 notes). We are then told about Jocasta’s death. Jocasta suicide is purely freewill since her fate was never to die but to marry her son. So her decision to die was not her fate but her choice; her freewill.
At the end of the play, Oedipus blinds himself and when the chorus asks him what had made him do so, he replies, “Apollo, it was Apollo, my friends” (pg 97 lines 1328). “But the hand that struck them was mine” (pg 97 line-1331). He now understands his fate and takes responsibility for his actions and is guilty for killing his father and marrying his mother.
Even though we know that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, we as an audience feel pity for him because he didn’t do anything deliberately. The characters in the play were not fully responsible for their actions. In the play, fate and freewill both worked together towards Oedipus destruction. Every action he took, lead him to closer to his destruction. Thus we can conclude that freewill is just a road that leads to one’s destination. In the end all the oracles are proved right and it is proved that fate is inevitable and humans are controlled by god and despites a man’s freewill, it is fate that prevails.
AS English Literature
Unit 2 – Dramatic Genres
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