Friday, 5 April 2013

Is Oedipus a Fool to the gods or a Man of Free Will

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The events in Oedipus Rex written by Sophocles show an underlying relationship of man’s free will existing within the cosmic order or fate that the Greeks believed guided the universe. Fate, controlled by the gods, can be defined as an inevitable outcome or a cause determining events. Although Oedipus was a victim of fate, he wasn’t completely controlled by it. In order for Sophocles’ play to be categorized as tragic, the tragic hero had to have some sort of flaw. The tragic hero’s flaws are the qualities that ultimately lead to his downfall. Fate and freewill play a large role in the rise and fall of the protagonist. The protagonist in the play has to either cause the fall by his own free will or by fate causing it. Without these two elements, there would be no fall of the protagonist in a tragic play and thus the writer’s aim of giving the audience emotions of pity and fear leading them to experience a feeling of catharsis or purgation wouldn’t be achieved and there would be no suspense or action to build up the climax in which case the character flaws of Oedipus work in tandem with fate to take the tragedy to its climax. The major theme explored in Oedipus Rex is that fate and character are intertwined in which case Oedipus is not only fated to perform such detestable acts but it is his very behaviour that leads him to doing these that determines his fate. Thus Oedipus’ fate as well as his hamartia, or character flaws, work as antagonists in this tragedy.

Oedipus is a man of swift action. At the opening of the play we see that this quality makes him an excellent ruler who anticipates his subjects’ needs. When the citizens of Thebes beg him to do something about the plague, Oedipus is one step ahead of them as he has already sent Creon to the Delphic oracle for advice. But later, we see that Oedipus’ habit of acting swiftly has a dangerous side. When he tells the story of killing the band of travellers who attempted to shove him off the three-way crossroads, Oedipus shows that he has the capacity to behave rashly. This rashness is also revealed in the prologue when he publicly swears to find and punish Laios’ murderer which later assists his tragic fall as he lack the prudence to wait and see who the murderer is. Oedipus’ swiftness continues throughout the play as he interrogates Creon, calls for Teiresias, refers to him as a ‘wicked old man’ (line 1), threatens to banish Creon after calling him a ‘murderer’ (line 505), calls for the servant who escaped the attack on Laios as well as the shepherd who was given the baby from Queen Jocasta, rushes to the palace to stab his eyes out on finding out the truth and finally, demands to be exiled.

Oedipus’ erroneous judgemental errors are another major constituent leading to his downfall. For instance, when Oedipus interrogates Teiresias about the murderer’s identity, Teiresias prefers to keep silent as he doesn’t want to be the cause of Oedipus’ ruin. Oedipus on the other hand, interprets Teiresias’ silence as treachery. He labels him a villain and calls him a ‘wicked old man’ (line 1). He also considers him to be a conspirator along with Creon who he calls a ‘murderer’ (line 505). As a result, he fails to heed Teiresias’ advice and warning against continuing the investigation. The accusations he hurls at Teiresias and Creon are completely unjustified. Also, when Jocasta realizes that Oedipus is her real son and that the prophecy has come true, she desperately tries to stop Oedipus from continuing with his investigations as she pleads ‘listen I beg you do not do this thing’ (line 1008). But the adamant ruler pays no heed thinking that she is concerned whether or not he will be of humble birth. Thus, Sophocles shows the defects of an otherwise ideal ruler. An instance of hamartia or character flaw is presented here.

Oedipus not only makes hasty and wrong judgements about the prophet and his brother in law, Creon, but he is also scornful in dealing with an important authority like Teiresias. The aforementioned instances of how Oedipus treats Creon and Teiresias can also be considered when viewing another one of Oedipus’ tragic flaws which lead to his downfall and play a role in Oedipus’ free will being that Oedipus is a proud figure who doesn’t take advice well and possesses traits of being impetuous and short-tempered. Teiresias is reluctant to reveal the dreadful secret that the murderer whom Oedipus is seeking so desperately is none other than Oedipus himself yet Oedipus’ hounding forces him to speak. Although Teiresias speaks the truth, it is only the audience who knows that he is right while an angry and arrogant Oedipus adamantly refuses to believe what Teiresias says and instead, brands him a traitor. He is also arrogant when denouncing Teiresias’ prophetic capabilities. In addition, after realizing the prophecy had come true, Jocasta begs him to let the mystery go unsolved as she cries ‘Everything that I say is for your own good!’ (line 1010). Oedipus replies ‘My own good. Snaps my patience then; I want none of it’ (line 1011). In is in his own vain that he must solve the final riddle of his own life. It is Oedipus’ impetuous and short-tempered nature that lands him in a fight with Laios at the crossroads. The consequence is that he kills Laios. Oedipus has killed his father and thereby fulfilled the first part of the oracle. Fate has played its trick assisted by the very nature of Oedipus.


Oedipus’ character is controlled by fate yet at the same time his impulsive and short tempered nature contributes to his fate. Oedipus’ disastrous outcome wasn’t totally controlled by his free will. The actions leading to Oedipus’ outcome which occurred before he ran away from Corinth weren’t caused by Oedipus’ free will but by other forces controlled by fate. For one thing, his being brought to Corinth and raised by the Corinthian king and queen was due to the actions of the Theban and Corinthian shepherds. Another point to consider is the fact that Oedipus’ free will didn’t have anything to do with him hearing a drunken fool calling him a bastard which lead to Oedipus heading to the Delphic oracle to question his true identity. It also wasn’t Oedipus’ free will that prevented his adoptive parents from telling him the truth about his identity in which case if Oedipus had known the truth, he wouldn’t have run away to Thebes to try to escape his fate. When Oedipus tears his eyes out, he is accepting the full burden of his acts and knew that he must be punished for his sins. Therefore, the last act of destruction was caused by Oedipus’ free will but his tragic fate came about because of the gods intervening in human affairs. Also, when the chorus asks Oedipus what god urged him to blind himself, we notice how he realizes that although the gods control his fate, his free will also contributed to his tragic outcome as he replies ‘the god was Apollo. He brought my sick fate upon me. But the blinding had was my own’ (line 186-187) in which case he claims responsibility for his actions. Initially, Oedipus is portrayed as a responsible king. As we watch the play, we learn that he had previously saved the kingdom from the torture of the Sphinx and thus his impulse of solving riddles came in handy as it served a good cause. However, this good fortune is only an illusion rather than a reality.

Oedipus’ unyielding desire to uncover the truth about Laios’ murder and the mystery surrounding his own birth is a major character flaw that led him to the tragic realization of his horrific deeds. Again, the previous examples can be taken into account in considering Oedipus’ character flaw in which case Oedipus ignored Teiresias and Jocasta who tried to stop him from pursuing the truth as the previous results may be unpleasant but he stubbornly continues on his unrelenting quest for the truth. Oedipus treats Teiresias respectfully at first because he believed that he had the answers to solve the mystery of Laios’ murder. When Teiresias told Oedipus that he was the murderer, he became enraged and calls him a liar. He is unable to stop his quest for the truth even under his wife’s pleading. Oedipus’ impulse to solve mysteries takes him to Delphi to seek the truth about his parentage. It is also the impulse to solve the riddle of the Sphinx that brings him to Thebes where he ends up marrying the widowed Queen Jocasta. By marrying his mother, the second part of the oracle is fulfilled aided by Oedipus’ nature. The persistence of Oedipus is heightened when he attempts to solve the riddle of his own life and yet is denied the truth by the shepherd who pray to Oedipus not to continue digging into the mystery ‘ For God’s love my King, do not ask me any more!’ (line 1100). Although the Theban shepherd is reluctant to talk, Oedipus grills him with questions to the point of threatening him with death if he doesn’t tell the truth as he harshly replies ‘You are a dead man if I have to ask you again’ (line 1101). Due to his unquenchable thirst for solving riddles, Oedipus has brought ruin upon himself and his household but he is also fearless as he doesn’t back down from his quest although he fears the worst. Oedipus expresses his fears about Teiresias’ prophecies and accusations. He then expresses his suspicion of having murdered King Laios. The Corinthian messenger asks Oedipus to take the kingship of Corinth but Oedipus expresses his reluctance as he fears his fate according to which he will marry his own mother.

Another factor ultimately contributing to Oedipus’ destruction is his insolence towards the gods. He ran away from his home in Corinth in hopes of outsmarting the gods’ divine will as he sought ways to escape the horrible destiny told by Apollo’s oracle. Rather than face his fate, he attempts to run from it thereby defying the gods. This is also evident when he remarks ‘Why should a man give heed to the birds that jangle above his head?’ (line 415-416), in which case he refers to the prophetic signs of the gods sarcastically after finding out his presumed father died a natural death and not by his own hands as prophesised. The consequences of defying the gods is hinted throughout the play as the chorus warns us of man’s need to have reverence for the gods and the dangers of too much pride as they remark ‘The tyrant is a child of pride who drinks from his great sickening cup, wreckless and vanity, until from his high crest headlong he plummets to the dust of hope’. The chorus uses figurative language to deepen the meaning of their words and emphacise the consequences of arrogance and pride provoking the ire of the gods in which case if a man steps beyond what is his destiny, he may be struck down. The chorus has also personified pride as the parent of the tyrant and metaphorically compares recklessness and vanity as liquids the tyrant drinks. In addition, the chorus metaphorically compares the tyrant’s good fortune to the crest of a mountain while his downfall is compared to a fall from the crest of a mountain. The chorus conclude this tragedy with their last words of wiseness by warning the Greeks that the only way to find happiness is through humility and respect towards the gods. Thus Oedipus atones for his sinful existence through self-infliction and self-exile. It is through this vain that he discovers humility and reverence for the gods. Earlier in the play, Oedipus is shown to be an impetuous and arrogant man who defies all who don’t agree with him. By the end of the play, a new Oedipus has emerged who has been humbled and who has been accountable for his sins regardless of whether or not he has inflicted them consciously or not. Oedipus was guilty of killing his father and marrying his mother but perhaps the true sin lay in his over zealous attempt to raise himself to the level of the gods by trying to escape his fate. Although Oedipus had taken the prophecy seriously, he would’ve avoided conflicts or interactions with older people. Instead, he acts in a rash manner. In attempting to escape the fate ordained him by the prophecy, Oedipus brought ruin upon himself and the kingdom of Thebes.

Both concepts of fate and free will played and integral part in Oedipus’ destruction. Oedipus’ fate ruined his life and lead him to a horrible death. however, Oedipus took many actions leading to his downfall and carried the seeds of his destruction within himself. Thus, Oedipus’ destiny is engendered by his own character defects. His temper and impetuous nature and his pride as well as his erroneous judgement all contribute to his eventual downfall. These character defects are governed by his fate and in turn aid his fate to take its course towards his destruction.

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