The Question Of Fate Versus Free Will In Oedipus The King
Are people determined or do we have free will? This great question is most evidently discussed in Oedipus the King, a play written by Greek tragedian Sophocles. Oedipus the King places the main character, Oedipus, in an uncertain situation in which he is not limited by fate, but rather limited by the knowledge of his fate. Such a situation led to the dramatic change of Oedipus’ character throughout the play, turning him from an arrogant and heroic king to a tyrant in denial, to, finally, a humbly doomed man. This play effectively relays Sophocles’ belief that fate, determined by higher powers, will control a person’s life no matter how much free will exists.
The beginning of the play depicts Oedipus as a confident and valiant ruler, and he knows it. Oedipus was extremely confident, as evident in the situation alluded to at the beginning of the play when he solves the riddle of the Sphinx. Even though he is not a native Theban, that didn’t stop him from answering the riddle, despite its threat of death to anyone who fails to answer correctly. ‘Tis only a man like Oedipus, with the utmost self-confidence, who could have such courage as to answer the riddle of the Sphinx. His success in freeing the city from the evil reign of the Sphinx by answering correctly led him to be a favorite of the people, as shown when he is described as the “Noblest of men” (Prologue.1). His actions, used to benefit the city as a whole, are treated as a gift from the gods, and Oedipus is even viewed as a higher figure, as observed when the priest states “You are not one of the immortal gods, we know; Yet we have come to you to make our prayer” (Prologue.35-36). He seems to assume the role of authority that normally belongs to the gods. Regardless, the people place their hopes in Oedipus whom they view as a noble hero who saved their city. From his prideful attitude, it is evident that Oedipus has his head in the clouds, unallowing him to see the ground beneath him. This proves to be true when Teiresias, a prophet of Apollo, claims “I say you are the murderer whom you seek”, but Oedipus disregards it as infamy which Teiresias can go on mouthing forever (1.144,145,150). Though Oedipus is the true murderer, his limited knowledge of his fate prevents him from realizing it, so he believes he is using his free will to ignore it in an attempt to overcome his fate.
The reign of the almighty Oedipus, however, doesn’t last too long because he starts to turn into a man in denial as he begins to suspect the actions of his own past. He says “How strange a shadowy memory crossed my mind, Just now while you were speaking; it chilled my heart” as Jocasta recounts the story of her husband’s murder (2.201-202). Despite the damaging evidence surrounding him, Oedipus is not quick to blame himself for what he has done. Oedipus repeatedly disregards what messages he gets, denying he is the murderer. He even attacks the messengers, blaming them for the murder, shown when he fires back “You planned it, you had it done, you all but Killed him with your own hands” to Teiresias (1.128-129). As Oedipus questions his actions, he also question his fate. “Ah, If I was created so, born to this fate, Who could deny the savagery of God? O holy majesty of heavenly powers!”, he exclaims, questioning his control over his life (2.301-304). As he dives deeper into denial of his role in the murder, the role of his fate seems to take over, ommitting the chance of him breaking free from it. His aforementioned exclamation questions the gods, thus leading Oedipus to finally start to realize his fate.
The overwhelming evidence presented against Oedipus through the play leaves him no choice but to admit his tragic fate. He becomes humbled with the pain of knowing his truthful reality. “Where is a man more miserable than I?”, he questions (2.290). Oedipus finally condemns himself, continuing with “I, Oedipus, Oedipus, damned in his birth, in his marriage damned, Damned in the blood he shed with his own hand!” (4.72-74). No longer is he a noble and heroic figure, but rather a defeated and cursed man. No longer does he feel so divine and powerful. No longer does he feel as if he has anything valuable to offer to the Thebans. He is facing the consequences of his actions, the very actions he indeed did himself. “Evil not done unconsciously, but willed. The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves” relays the fact that Oedipus did not unconsciously commit his wrongdoings, but he was willed to do them as part of his fate (Exodus.8-9).
In the end, Oedipus was a victim of his own tragic fate. He was unaware of it in the beginning of the play, allowing him to be a heroic individual who saved the city of Thebes from the Sphinx. He later transitioned into a questioning man who was skeptical of his fate, but he finally took the blow and succumbed to the inevitable. Oedipus’ character change throughout the play demonstrates that he had a predetermined will, but that his lack of knowledge of it prevented him from realizing it, thus making him think that he had free will. Even though he tried to challenge his predetermined fate, the gods who set it up evidently won. It is through this theme that Sophocles asserts that gods are more powerful than men, thus limiting a human’s free will.
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