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Old Friday, June 08, 2007
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Default Oedipus Rex: Character is Destiny

“Oedipus Rex” is a tragedy of fate. The crucial events in the play have been pre-determined by fate or the gods. Man seems helpless facing the circumstances which mould his destiny. King Laius was told that his own son by Jocasta would kill him. Laius did everything possible to prevent such a disaster. Once Jocasta gave birth to a son, Laius had him chained and handed him over to a trustworthy servant with strict orders that the child be exposed on. Mt. Cithaeron and allowed to perish. But the servant, out of compassion, handed over the child to a Corinthian shepherd who passed him on to the Corinthian King. The child grew up as the son of the King and Queen of Corinth and later killed his true father, Laius, in complete ignorance. Apollo’s oracle was fulfilled even though Laius and Jocasta took the extreme step to escape the fate foretold by the oracle.

Oedipus had also to submit to the destiny which Apollo's oracle pronounced for him. He learnt from the oracle that he would kill his own father and marry his own mother. He, too, tried his utmost to avert a terrible fate and fled from Corinth. His wanderings took him to Thebes, where people were facing a great misfortune. King Laius had been killed and the city was in the grip of the Sphinx, who was causing a lot of destruction because nobody was able to solve her riddle. Oedipus solved the riddle and put an end to the monster. Oedipus was joyfully received by Theban people as their King and was given Laius’s widow as his wife. Thus, in complete ignorance of the identity of his parents, he killed his father and married his mother. He performed these disastrous acts not only unknowingly, but as a result of his efforts to escape the cruel fate which the oracle at had communicated to him.

It is evident that the occurrences which bring about the tragedy in the life of Laius, Oedipus, and Jocasta are the work of that mysterious supernatural power called fate or destiny or be given the name of Apollo. This supernatural power had pre-determined certain tragic events and even informed the human beings in advance. These human beings take whatever measures, to avert those events; and yet things turn out exactly as they had been foretold by the oracles. Oedipus has done nothing at all to deserve the fate which overtakes him. Nor do Laius and Jocasta deserve the fate they meet.

According to Aristotle the tragic hero is a prosperous man who falls into misfortune due to some serious defect or hamartia. No doubt that Oedipus is an able ruler, a father of his people, a great administrator and an outstanding intellect. His chief care is not for himself but for the people of the State. The people look upon him as their savior and worshipped him. He is also a religious man in the orthodox sense. That such a man should meet the sad fate is unbearably painful to us.

Oedipus is not, however, a perfect man or a perfect King. He does suffer from a hamartia or a defect of character. He is hot-tempered, rash, hasty in judgments, easily provoked and somewhat arbitrary. Though in the beginning his attitude towards Teiresias is one of reverence, he quickly loses his temper and speaks to the prophet in an insulting manner accusing both him and Creon of treason and showing a blind suspicion towards friends. His position and authority seem to be leading him to become a tyrant. Creon has to remind him that the city does not belong to him alone. Even when blinded he draws the reproach:

“Do not crave to be master in everything always.”

All this shows that Oedipus is not a man of a flawless character, not completely free from faults, not an embodiment of all the virtues. His pride in his own wisdom is one of his glaring faults. His success in solving the riddle of the Sphinx further developed his inherent feeling of pride. There is in him a failure of piety even. Under the influence of Jocasta, he grows sceptical of the oracles. Thus there is in him a lack of true wisdom which took him on the verge of becoming an impious tyrant.

If Oedipus had not been hot-tempered, he might not have got entangled in a fight on the road and might have not been guilty of murdering his father. Similarly, if he had been a little more cautious, he might have hesitated to marry a woman old enough to be his mother. After all there was no compulsion either in the fight or in his marriage. Both his acts may thus be attributed to his own defects of character. All at once it has to be accepted that the decree of the oracles were inescapable. Even if Oedipus had taken the precautions, the prophecy was to be fulfilled. The oracle’s prediction was unconditional; it did not say that if Oedipus did such and such a thing he would kill his father and marry his mother. The oracle simply said that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. What the oracle said, was bound to happen.

If Oedipus is the innocent victim of inescapable doom, he would be a mere puppet and the play becomes a tragedy of destiny which denies human freedom. Sophocles does not want to regard Oedipus as a puppet; there is reason to believe that Oedipus has been portrayed largely as a free agent. The attendant in the play insistently describes Oedipus’ self-blinding as voluntary and distinguishes it from his involuntary murder of his father and marriage with his mother. Oedipus’ actions were fate-bound, but everything that he does, he does as a free agent – his condemnation of Teiresias and Creon, his conversation with Jocasta to reveal the facts, his pursuing his investigation despite the efforts of Jocasta and the Theban shepherd to stop him, and so on. Oedipus, freely choosing a series of actions, led to his own ruin. Oedipus could have left the plague to take its course but his pity over the sufferings of his people forced him to consult the oracle. He could have left the murder of Laius uninvestigated, but his love of justice obliged him to inquire. He need not have forced the truth from the reluctant Theban shepherd but he could not rest content with a lie. Teiresias, Jocasta, the Theban shepherd each tried to stop Oedipus, but he was determined to solve the problem of his own parentage. The direct cause of his ruin is not fate; no oracle said that he must discover the truth. Still less does the cause of his ruin lie in his own weakness. His own strength and courage, his loyalty to Thebes and his love of truth causes his ruin. All this shows him a free agent.

In spite of the facts that Oedipus is a free agent in most of his actions, still the most tragic events of his life – his murder of his father and his marriage with his mother – had inevitably to happen. Here the responsibility of fate cannot be denied. The real tragedy lies in the discovery of truth, which is due to his own traits. If he had not discovered the truth, he would have continued to live in a state of blissful ignorance and there would have been no tragedy and no suffering. But the parricide and the incest were pre-ordained and for these fate is responsible.
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Default clarification on oedipus rex

Oh dear, you contradicted yourself. The note starts with the declaration: “Oedipus Rex” is a tragedy of fate. This was what drew my attention to the post, for I disagreed with that sentence. Later on, you offer the corrective yourself: If Oedipus is the innocent victim of inescapable doom, he would be a mere puppet and the play becomes a tragedy of destiny which denies human freedom. Sophocles does not want to regard Oedipus as a puppet.

Here's a way out of the confusion: is Oedipus Rex the play a tragedy of fate? No, as you show toward the end of your post, Sophocles is concerned with showing Oedipus as a free agent. Bernard Knox in his introduction to the Fagles translation gives us a reason for Sophocles' motivation: he lived in an age of skepticism much like ours (an age exhibiting the "failure of piety" you point out), where ancient prophecies and the authority of gods were under attack.

Now, is the myth of Oedipus a tragedy of fate? Most certainly, yes! Let's remind ourselves that Sophocles' play does NOT concern itself with the events of the myth that take place before Oedipus goes about his business of ridding Thebes from the plague. So your first three paragraphs are not, strictly speaking, about the play, but about the myth. True, the play does depend on the myth, but if you dwell on the myth too much, you end up abandoning Sophocles' vision. I notice the bias in your answer. Let me explain. There is nothing in the play that condemns Oedipus for being rash and arbitrary, either for his murder of Laius' (in the play, the only testimony is Oedipus', and he says that he merely "retaliated in good measure"), or for his behaviour with Creon and Tiresias. You also said "easily provoked", which couldn't be further from the truth. Think about it: you take it upon yourself to avenge a murder, and someone tells you, in a public gathering, that you yourself are the murderer you seek! His frustration may be a little too expressive, but it is certainly not out of line!
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