The Power of Fate in the Oedipus Trilogy

Categories: Oedipus The King

Fate is clearly defined as, “the will or principle or determining cause by which things, in general, are believed to come to be as they are or events to happen as they do” (Merriam Webster). Throughout the play Oedipus Rex, Oedipus shows his best effort in avoiding the prophecy that said he will one day kill his father and marry his mother. In his effort and making his own decisions, Oedipus ends up fulfilling the prophecy through a series of events and refuses to believe so.

His frustration plays a part in his hamartia, or fatal flaw, and the truth about the prophecy is finally brought to his attention. Although Oedipus makes his own decisions, he is a victim of fate because his prophecy predetermined his future, his tragic flaw caused him to fulfill the prophecy, and he is blinded by the truth.

Out of one hundred and twenty of Sophocles’ plays, only seven are still being read to this day.

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Throughout careful consideration, the tragedy Oedipus Rex, written around 420 BC, has been deemed as his most exceptional and compelling plays of Greek tragic drama. The classic tragedies of Sophocles were intended to appeal to people at all levels of Athenian society. As such, his works delivered messages on multiple levels. In addition to the semi-religious messages found in the drama concerning the character and proper behavior, meant for the masses, for those in the know (gnosis=knowing), the situation presented in Oedipus the King was meant to reflect Gnostic beliefs on the nature of the Godhead.

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The play originates when Oedipus, who was born in Corinth and a stranger to Thebes, became king of the city after the murder of king Laius, long before the plot of the play begins. Oedipus had been newly proposed as the king of Thebes soon after his success in defeating the Sphinx and granted the city freedom. Oedipus answered the Sphinx’s riddle and thereby saved Thebes from destruction. This setting-up of Oedipus as a kind of model is already inherent in the tragedy itself, almost a premonition of its own future canonical status. In his very first speech he refers to himself as “I, Oedipus, whose fame is known to all the world” (8); near the end, he demands to be sent away to “this mountain which is famed as mine—my own Cithaeron” He also offers to grant the citizens of Thebes their desires as Oedipus referred to in the text of the play, “What feelings bring you to me—fear of desire? You can be confident that I will help. I shall assist you willingly in every way. I would be a hard-hearted man indeed if I did not pity suppliants like these” (Sophocles). Oedipus proves his intentions are pure as he wants to aid the city in any way he possibly can.

Throughout Oedipus the King, Sophocles ensures the theme of fate versus free will repeatedly appear over the course of the play. Oedipus’ parents attempt to argue their free will in order to avoid their son’s prophecy. The myth of Oedipus tells of King Laius, who heard a prophecy that he would have a son who would someday grow up and kill him. Upon hearing this prophecy, King Laius ordered his servant to take his infant son, Oedipus, out to the woods to be killed. However, the servant took pity on the child and handed him over to a sheepherder to raise. Their plan is obstructed when fate intervenes when a Shepard spares Oedipus’ life. Oedipus’ fate throughout the play has been decided by the prophecy which contributes to his destruction, “Without your knowledge you’ve become the enemy of your own kindred, those in the world below and those up here, and the dreadful feet of that two-edged curse from father and mother both will drive you from this land in exile. Those eyes of yours, which now can see so clearly, will be dark” (Sophocles). Just as it was prophesied to Oedipus’s parents, Jocasta and Laius, that their son would unknowingly grow up to kill his father and marry his mother.

Apollo is aware Oedipus is guilty of killing his father so when Apollo asks for Laius’s killer to be found, Oedipus will find himself. Oedipus’ pride is emphasized when he searches for Laius’ killer to stop the plague; he wants to find the killer and protect himself. Oedipus relentlessly begins the long search to find the killer, ignorant to the fact that it is he himself and that his fate is closing upon him.” Oedipus is ignorant to the fact that by searching for the killer he is sealing his own fate. Through Oedipus’ efforts to find the killer, he summons the blind prophet Tiresias to his palace for the question. Oedipus’s decree condemning the murderer of Laius replicates Athenian legal procedure for investigating and prosecuting a homicide. It sets in motion a series of perlocutionary consequences that cause the edict to recoil on its author, who turns out to be that murderer. Tragedy, it would seem, not only echoes the performative language of law, but exposes its fallibilities as well. The scene between Tiresias and Oedipus is the first scene in the play to demonstrate strong conflict; audience members see Oedipus’ temper for the first time. Before this scene, Oedipus has acted calmly but loses patience when Tiresias refuses to reveal the identity of the killer. Tiresias’s confidence in the prophecy while Oedipus’s free will falters: Hear me out. Since you have thrown my blindness at me I will tell you what yours don’t see: what evil you are steeped in. You don’t see where you live or who shares your house. Do you know your parents? You are their enemy in this life and down there with the dead. Oedipus, who issued a decree that turned out to have more impact on its author than any other citizen in Thebes, believes by search for Laius’s killer he is using his own free will but that is not the case. Oedipus compulsively continues his search for the murderer despite the warnings he receives. It is through his own questioning that he discovers that fate has had its way after all, and that he is the one guilty of the murder of Laius, and that his wife, Jocasta is in fact his mother.

Oedipus’s ignorance of the prophecy ultimately leads to his destruction. Oedipus leaves the house of his adoptive parents, Polybus and Merope, hoping to avoid the prophecy coming true. Oedipus uses his free will to take this action but doing so leads up to his prophecy coming true. ( maybe add like “according to greek culture “ or something if that sort so it sounds like not opinion ) Oedipus’s destiny is predetermined at birth by the gods. Having his life predetermined by fate leaves little space for free will to intervene to change that. Discovering he is the killer, Oedipus blinds himself and is exiled from Thebes.

While Oedipus himself may exemplify the tragic fall, his play is in several ways untypical of Greek tragedy. To begin with, no other tragedy is so obsessed with reconstructing the past. Most are set at the time of the catastrophic turn of events, whereas in OT the events have already happened long before. The play is made around their discovery. It is permeated with the language of finding, exposing, throwing light, revealing. The plot is driven by Oedipus’ quest to unveil knowledge: first to find out who is the person who killed the former king, Laius,2 and hence caused the plague; and then, arising out of that and displacing it, the search for his own parentage. So the revelations are disclosed by working backward from the known world of Thebes to his killing of Laius, to his childhood, to the journey he made as a baby, and finally back to the house and bed of his parents.

This search for knowledge is even reflected in his name. Traditionally this was derived from oid-, meaning “swelling”, and pous, meaning “foot”, a reference to the mutilation of his feet as a baby. This is alluded to at line 1036, but in the play itself there is a more prominent connection made with a different set of oid- words meaning “know” and with pou meaning “where”.3 Oedipus has to find out and know where he really is.

His life-story seems to have been a series of random events and choices which have generally turned out very well But it turns out that, on the contrary, his journey since birth has taken a very particular shape: his life has been a circle, or, more accurately, an irregular circuit. It began and ended in the same place: the womb of Iocasta. As the chorus expresses it, with a touch of slightly macabre fascination, “you have made the voyage twice / into one engrossing harbour” (1207–8). And the beginning and completion of his life-route both passed through the very place where the play is set, the space in front of the royal palace at Thebes. He was carried out across here as a two-day-old baby; and he returned triumphantly across that space to become the husband of the queen who lives there in the palace.

After his fatal meeting there with the old man, who is in fact his father, Oedipus continued on the mountain road to Boeotia, and so to Thebes. Here he defeats the Sphinx, and as a reward, marries the widow of the recently murdered king.

While there is this compelling shape to Oedipus’ life-story, that does not necessarily mean that is all the work of higher powers imposing their will on helpless human pawns. There are, however, features of Sophocles’ fashioning of the myth that have encouraged a widespread notion that Greek tragedy, and OT in particular, is all about Fate with a capital F. To put it simply (too simply to do justice to some of the highly metaphysical discussions), this approach maintains that everything is predetermined, either by the gods or by other inscrutable powers; and the point of the tragedy lies in watching the struggling humans act out what has to be. Oedipus is then seen as the supreme exemplar of this cosmic condition: he is a great man, who heroically defies his fate, and refuses to be crushed by it—even though he can still never avoid it in the end.

Humans live their own lives, then, with only rare interventions or interferences from outside superhuman powers. And yet they always (of course) end up doing what the gods have determined, or the oracles have foretold, or the curses have called down. And in tragedy—unlike mundane reality—oracles, seers, dreams, curses, and suchlike always prove to be valid. So it creates a world in which it makes sense to say that human affairs are “double-determined” or “overdetermined”; that while the two (or more) causations interact to some extent, one does not subsume the other(s)

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The Power of Fate in the Oedipus Trilogy. (2020, Nov 24). Retrieved from

The Power of Fate in the Oedipus Trilogy

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