In Oedipus the King by Sophocles, Oedipus is responsible for the tragedy of his downfall. Fate and free will are two opposing ideas that Sophocles seamlessly blends into the play. Sophocles ultimately leaves it up to the audience to interpret the reality behind this argument. Oedipus is presented with a series of choices throughout the play, and his arrogant and stubborn nature push him to impulsively make the wrong decisions, the decisions that ultimately lead him to his downfall. While Oedipus and those around him consider “fate” the source of Oedipus’ problems, Oedipus’ decisions show the audience that it is he who is responsible.
Sophocles is able to drive his message about the pitfalls of human arrogance through Oedipus’ fatal flaws and the use of metaphorical and literal blindness. Perhaps the most obvious reason Oedipus is responsible is that by the end of the play Oedipus has taken responsibility for his actions. Oedipus states, “Now loathed by the gods, son of the mother I defiled coupling in my fathers bed, spawning lives in the loins that spawned my wretched life. What grief can crown this grief? It’s mine alone, my destiny-I am Oedipus! ” (Sophocles 1492). Oedipus clearly declares that he defiled his mother, he coupled with her in his father’s bed.
The grief is his alone. Even though he may believe that this was his destiny, he takes responsibility for fulfilling it. Oedipus has no trouble seeing the error of his ways by the end of the play, as he states, “… I was so wrong, so wrong” (Sophocles 1557). Although Oedipus takes responsibility, he is not the only person to blame. Ultimately, the blame could fall on Jocasta and Laius, Oedipus’ biological parents. The couple was warned that their child was cursed early on, but instead of having Oedipus killed and actually seeing it through, they carelessly had baby Oedipus pinned down on a mountain.
Jocasta and Laius never actually made sure that Oedipus was killed. Oedipus references this at the end of the play: “If I’d died then, I’d never have dragged myself, my loved ones through such hell” (Sophocles 1487). Oedipus’ encounter with Laius at the crossroads reveals a great deal about Oedipus’ character and fatal flaws. In this crucial scene, Oedipus reveals his temper and lack of self-control that sets him on the road to fulfilling the prophecy of his fate. One could even say that Oedpius simply shows a face of ancient road rage. Dr.
George Eppley asserts, “Had there been a newspaper account of this violent event, the banner headline might have read, ‘Road Rage Kills King Laius and Bodyguards. Murderer Sought'” (Eppley 48). Nothing forces Oedipus to kill Laius; there is no accident. The location of a crossroad for this scene is metaphorical of Oedpius’ choice. Oedipus could have chosen to ignore the dispute and end it peacefully, but he instead lashes out. The use of crossroads as a setting throughout literature and film alike has shown to be symbolic of the unknown outcomes of a group of choices.
Some might recall the last shot of the Robert Zimeckis film Cast Away, in which Tom Hanks stands at the center of a crossroad, forced to make a physical and metaphorical choice about his life. Sophocles utilizes that symbolism in this scene. The literal setting of a crossroad serves also as a figurative crossroad in Oedipus’ life, the point in which Oedipus can veer away from the fateful prophecy or begin fulfilling it. Because he gives in to his quick, impulsive temper, Oedipus chooses the latter. When Oedipus arrives at Thebes, he is presented with yet another choice: to become the king and to wed the queen, or to move on.
Once again, Oedipus’ choice puts him one step closer to fulfilling the prophecy. Oedipus is not forced into marrying Jocasta, this is simply his decision. Fate is not responsible. Regarding fate versus free will, E. R. Dodds says this about the play: “… we are not entitled to blame Oedipus either for carelessness in failing to compile a handlist for lack of self control in failing to obey its injunctions. For no such possibilities are mentioned in the play, or even hinted at… “(Dodds 40). Dodds then goes on to say, “Oedipus does what he can to evade his destiny” (Dodds 41).
What Dodds fails to recognize is that Sophocles’ motif of blindness throughout the play seems to be a direct reference to Oedipus’ flaws. From the very beginning when he declares, “I see- how could I fail to see… ” (Sophocles 70) to the middle when he realizes, “[h]ow terrible- to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees! ” (Sophocles 359) to the end when he laments, “[d]ark horror of darkness, my darkness” (Sophocles 1450) sight and blindness, the absence of sight, are literal and figurative motifs in the play.
Oedipus can attribute his figurative blindness throughout the play to his hubris and arrogance. It is because Oedipus is so quick-tempered and arrogant that he is blind to his own mistakes that lead him to his demise. Sophocles’ use of blindness in the play gives the reader/audience more insight into Oedipus’ flaws, and Oedipus’ flaws are what cause him to fulfill the prophecy. Therefore, Sophocles, in a complexly roundabout way, does in fact hint at the possibility that Oedipus was simply careless. To counter Mr.
Dodds’ argument, Oedipus has plenty of opportunities to make a better choice, he is just blind to those opportunities because of his flaws. To fully understand Sophocles’ message, the play must be analyzed objectively as well as textually. What is Sophocles trying to say to the audience about human nature? If it truly is an inescapable fate that gets Oedipus where he is, then no point can be made about the danger of arrogance, hubris, and temper. If Oedipus really had no way out of his “fate”, if he truly was on some sort of rail, then his flaws are essentially rendered obsolete.
If it is solely fate that takes care of Oedipus’ life, then the subtext of Sophocles’ point through Oedipus is that no man really has free choice; no man can learn from his mistakes because he is trapped inside of a one-track life, a life that is governed by something other than himself. Instead of leaving the reader with this message, Sophocles leaves the argument of fate versus free will far more ambiguous. By the end of the play, two facts remain: Oedipus’ downfall is prophesized, and Oedipus does fulfill the prophecy.
The truth of the matter is that Oedipus’ choices are what led him to fulfill the prophecy. If the play is viewed in this light, then Oedipus’ hubris becomes far more consequential, thus giving the play further meaning. While Sophocles never blatantly states, “What happens to Oedipus is a result of his own choices,” the subtext of the play is rife with evidence that nobody is more responsible for Oedipus than Oedipus. Through Oedipus, Sophocles shows the audience the consequences of carelessness in decision-making and the adversity that is often spawned from inflated ego.
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