The question of free will and the role of fate in humanity’s collective existence has long been a topic explored by authors and thinkers throughout history. Over many centuries, humans have questioned their own existence and what this means, as well as what has the capacity to change our lives. One of the most prominent themes in the famous tragedy Oedipus the King by Sophocles is the influence of fate in determining the actions of each character. Traditionally in Greek philosophy, fate is predetermined and there is nothing that people can do to alter or sway the outcome of what fate decides for them. The Greeks were of the opinion that fate itself is unavoidable and thus, one should avoid attempting to change what is destined for themselves. Throughout the entirety of Oedipus the King, fate ironically facilitates the ultimate downfall of Oedipus. Furthermore, fate itself plays a large role in how many of the other main characters’ stories unfold. In this story, the gods have already declared what Oedipus and Jocasta’s life will bring and what fate will cast upon them. The entirety of their existence is predetermined, and the main narrative unfolds from Oedipus’ attempts to deny this fate himself. As a result, the concept of fate and its existence greatly alters the entirety of Oedipus’ life and many other characters throughout the story.
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The Greeks prominently believed that fate existed outside the realm in which we live and thus, it has a capacity for altering our existence that exceeds our own interpretation or comprehension. The Greeks believed that fate was used by the gods as an extension of their own will and that fate itself controlled how they interacted with the world around them. The Greeks believed that “oracles” were selected by the gods to tell of their decisions and to inform people of their fates. The most famous oracle in Greek history is that of the oracle at Delphi, which allegedly spoke for Apollo and interacted with the humans to propagate Apollo’s will. (Ahl, 22) In Oedipus the King, Oedipus is predetermined by fate that he is to kill his father and marry his mother. He receives this information through two different messengers and the oracle at Delphi, both informing him of fate’s proclamation for himself. When this occurs, he panics and falls into a state of disillusionment. The messengers tell him that long before he was born, it was decreed that he would kill his own father and eventually take his mother as his wife. (Ahl, 28)
Oedipus sets out to make this proclaimed fate something that he avoids entirely, and he openly attempts to not only avoid this predetermined existence but to change it as well. In his attempts to redefine his own fate, Oedipus leaves everything behind and runs from the existence that he knew so well. He even goes so far as to not tell his parents that he’s leaving so that they couldn’t deter him, and also so that he doesn’t hurt them in the long run. (Dawe, 82) Yet, fate still alters the course of Oedipus’ life tremendously and this action actually brings him closer to the predetermined outcome that the oracle gave him. While on his journey to the city of Thebes, he crosses paths with another man and the two come into conflict over who have the right of way at an area where three different roads intersect. The conflict comes to a violent head and Oedipus rashly kills the man that he has the encounter with there. As it was proclaimed, Oedipus’ father was to “die a victim at the hands of his own son.” (Belfiore, 176)
Ironically, this man turns out to be Oedipus’ actual father. As the story progresses, the reader learns that the parents that Oedipus had known all of his life were actually adoptive parents and that the man who he killed here is actually his own father. This catalyzes the series of events which Sophocles uses to illustrate the inescapable nature of fate itself. Despite his attempts to avoid doing so, Oedipus’ actions directly lead to him fulfilling one attribute of the prophecy early in the narrative of the play. In this regard, fate affects his father as well as it was predetermined that he would be killed by his own son. (Dawe, 84) The odds of them meeting each other randomly along the road is something that would appear as merely chance, but Sophocles frames the story in a way that gives prominence to fate as the defining factor for why this occurred.
Fast forward several years and the plot starts to develop quickly, showing many signs that Oedipus is fated to fulfill the role that is set forth by the oracle. Oedipus’ character throughout the story is one who possesses an expansive intellect and a penchant for confidence. He manages to solve a riddle from the Sphinx earlier in his life. It is during this time that he inadvertently fulfills the second part of the prophecy. As a reward for solving the Sphinx’s riddle, Jacosta is given to Oedipus as a wife. When the story begins, Oedipus sends Creon to consult with the oracle of Delphi over the plague that has taken Thebes, and he returns to inform Oedipus that the plague is caused by some sort of curse since the former king Laius’ murderer was never discovered. (Smith, 29) Oedipus then consults with a blind prophet by the name of Tiresias about what it all means, and Tiresias only informs Oedipus that he should discontinue his search. This enrages Oedipus and Tiresias is forced to tell Oedipus that he is in fact the one who murdered the king. Oedipus then believes that there is collusion between the prophet and Creon, and Oedipus attempts to execute Creon before the chorus is able to convince him that Creon deserves to live. (Smith, 29) Jocasta, in an attempt to comfort Oedipus, tells him that Laius was predetermined to die by his son’s hand but this never occurred, as he was killed at a crossroads by bandits.
As Jocasta recounts this story, it brings a sense of worry to Oedipus and he summons the last remaining witness of the event before him. As he continues to investigate the story, Oedipus discovers that his parents weren’t his parents at all and that Laius was his true father. This in turn makes Jocasta his own mother. Fate plays a prominent role in this exchange, which eventually leads Jocasta to kill herself and Oedipus to cut out his own eyes. (Smith, 32) Fate is inescapable in this story and it permeates into every aspect of life that the characters experience. It is an undeniable force that manages to alter the lives of each character, including those that have a thorough grasp on their own lives, such as Oedipus. Despite every advance that he makes to ensure that he doesn’t fulfill the prophecy, it still ends up occurring and he kills his father and marries his mother. Fate shapes the entirety of the narrative in this story and is at many times the prominent antagonist to the characters, who are all anxiously attempting to ensure that this prophecy doesn’t fulfill itself. Even when these characters are convinced that it hasn’t been fulfilled, it’s revealed that it has and the characters are shaped by the events that unfold as a result of fate.
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