The Dramatic Power Of Fate In Oedipus The King
Over the centuries, people have believed in the influence of divine or diabolical power in their lives. One of the most often discussed themes of ancient Greek tragedy is fatalism, the idea and belief that human actions are guided by the hand of fate, destiny, the gods or some other supernatural forces. The ancient Greeks recognized the role of fate and for them it represented a terrifying unstoppable force. Fates was the will of the gods, and unopposable reality. In the play Oedipus The King ( 425 B.C.) by Sophocles (496-406 B.C.), Oedipus is a perfect tragic hero, victim of his fate. As the play starts, the citizens of Thebes beg their king, Oedipus, to lift the plague that threatens to destroy the city. Creon, Oedipus’s brother in law, announces that the oracle instructs them to find the murderer of Laius who was king of Thebes before Oedipus. Only this will end the plague. A blind prophet, Tiresias, accuses Oedipus of killing Laius. Angry, Oedipus orders him to leave. Jocasta, the queen, encourages him to ignore prophecies. However, Oedipus is anxious because just before he came to Thebes he killed a man who looked like Laius at a crossroads. Another worry haunts Oedipus: as a young man, he learned from an oracle that he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Then, Oedipus becomes determined to find out the truth of his birth. Finally, a shepherd reveals that Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta. The prophecy has come true; Oedipus is devastated by his fate. Later, he finds that Jocasta killed herself. Oedipus is suffering so much that he blinds himself so he will no longer look upon the misery he has caused. In the play, it is the element of fate that leads ultimately to the tragic downfall of the characters.
In the play, Tiresias represents the symbol of fate. In scene I, the king asks for Tiresias’ help in finding the murderer, but the prophet refuses. Indeed, Tiresias will be the first character revealing the truth to Oedipus, “This is Tiresias, this is the holy prophet in whom, alone of all men, truth was born “ ( Sophocles 1263). However, at the beginning he doesn’t want to tell the truth, “ Let me go home. Bear your own fate and I’ll bear mine. It is better so: trust what I say” ( Sophocles 1263). Oedipus is furious that someone confronts him. Because he possesses prophetic power, Tiresias warns Oedipus, “ You[Oedipus] weave your own doom, you yourself are the pollution of this country” ( Sophocles 1265). Then, the king is even angrier and accuses Tiresias of taking part in the murder. In response, Tiresias states flatly that Oedipus himself murdered Laius, “ I [Tiresias] say that you [Oedipus] are the murderer whom you may seek” (Sophocles 1264). The double identity of Oedipus as both son and murder of Laius is revealed through this episode. Sophocles expresses his own views on prophecy by showing the double irony of a blind man whocan see the future and seeing a man who is blind to his own past and present and even his own identity, “ You [Oedipus] mock my blindness, do you? But I [Tiresias] say that you, with both your eyes, are blind” ( Sophocles 1264). In the play, Tiresias represents a force, the truth rejected by a proud king. The blind prophet is almost the personification of fate.
Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother and wife, represents the most immediate victim of Oedipus’ fate, after the tragic hero himself. In contrast to Oedipus, Jocasta distrusts the oracles, “ from now on where oracles are concerned, I would not waste a second thought on any” (Sophocles 1277). Indeed, Jocasta believes in fate, “ why should anyone in this world be afraid, since fate rules us and nothing can be foreseen? A man should live only for the present day” (Sophocles 1280). She wants to comfort Oedipus, explaining to him that no one can predict the future:
You will find no man whose craft gives knowledge of the unknowable. Here is my proof: an oracle was reported to Laius once ( I will not say from Phoibos, himself, but from his appointed ministers, at any rate) that is doom would be death at the hand of his own son-his son, born of his flesh and of mine! Now remember the story: Laius was killed by marauding strangers where three highways meet (Sophocles 1273).
Jocasta in contrast to Oedipus, rejects the power of prophecy citing as proof her own experience with the oracle that predicted that her son would kill her husband. Jocasta attempts to reassure Oedipus that he has nothing to fear from oracles. However, Oedipus is determined to find out the truth of his birth and the queen thinks it is ridiculous, “ You are fatally wrong! May you never learn who you are!” ( Sophocles 1282). In fact, she doesn’t want to know. “This talks is a waste of time” ( Sophocles 1282), she wants to forget about it because she is scared secretly. After Tiresias, this is Jocasta’s turn to warn Oedipus. Listening to her, he could have maybe avoided knowing the truth. Jocasta believes that whatever happens will happen by unforeseeable chance. This scene marks a change in the play, it becomes a psychological drama. Now the problem of the play is not only who kill Laius but also what can people know of one another and how cant hey know it. The queen thought she escaped her fate years before. When warned by the oracle that her son will kill his father, Jocasta and king Laius left the baby, Oedipus, in the mountains to die. Unfortunately, she could not avoid her fate and devastated she killed herself, “ and there we saw her hanging body swaying from the cruel cord she had noosed about her neck” ( Sophocles 1288). It is the element of fate that leads ultimately to Jocasta’s tragic downfall.
In the play, fate affects Oedipus the most obviously. Indeed, his ironic ignorance leads him into that hands of fate. For example when he is looking for Laius’ murderer, “ whoever killed king Laius might-who knows?- decide at any moment to kill me as well. By avenging the murdered king I protect myself” ( Sophocles 1259). He wants to find the king’s murderer in order to save Thebes but doesn’t know the consequences of his terrible search yet, “while he was committing an action, its meaning became reversed without his knowledge and through no fault of his” ( Vernant 110). The second example of his ironic ignorance is Oedipus’ determination to find out the truth of his birth, “however base my birth, I must know about it” ( Sophocles 1282). Nevertheless Oedipus can’t be blame for his curiosity, he wants to know where he comes from, “ Oedipus present action is precisely to reconstruct and understand his past” ( Knox 41). Through Oedipus search, the element of fate becomes more and more inevitable, “ it might also be urged that the process of Oedipus’ self discovery starts with his request to the Delphic oracle for advice about the plague, that the plague is therefore the causal factor, and the plague is sent by Apollo, who in this play represents the external factor, fate” ( Knox 9). Also, during his search, Oedipus had many times the opportunity to avoid his fate. For example when a messenger from Corinth tells Oedipus that Polybos, the one he thinks to be his father, died. The people over there wanted Oedipus to be their king, he refused: “No: I will never go near my parents again” ( Sophocles 1279). At this point, Oedipus’ ignorance pushes him in the hands of fate. His determination to find the truth does not help him to avoid his fate “what happens is far more terrifying because it is inevitable” ( Reinhardt 68). In fact, Oedipus’ actions, during the play, put him on the way of his downfall.
The powerful strength of fate throws Oedipus in a deep suffering. In scene IV, this is the climax of the play. All previous actions have moved toward a point of revelation. After threatening the shepherd “ You are a dead man if I have to ask you again” ( Sophocles 1284), he finally reveals the truth “ I pitied the baby, my King, and I thought that this man would take him far away to his own country. He saved him-but for what a fate! For if you are what this man says you are, no man living is more wretched that Oedipus” (Sophocles 1285). In horror, Oedipus discovers that the object of his relentless search is himself. He finally finds out that he is responsible, “ Oedipus is the spectacle of a man freely choosing from the highest motives a series of action which lead to his own ruin” ( Gould 50). Maybe Oedipus would not be so miserable if his adoptive parents, king and queen of Corinth told him what happened in the past, “ Oedipus intentions were good, but the results of his actions were bad, and the explanation for this is that he did not have certain important pieces of information” ( Gould 50). In the play, fate and god’s predictions are bonded, The god’s predictions do have an important influence on the suffering and action of Oedipus. The first prediction, made to Laius, influences him to expose his three-day-old son on the mountain in order to avoid his own predicted death at the child’s hands. The second prediction, made to the son, influences him to turn away from Corinth towards Thebes and inspires in him a fear which he carries always with him, which he must constantly dominate if he is to live as other men do (Knox 40).
The prediction was made twice. Oedipus’ long agony reaches the maximum at the end of the play. Indeed, After so much hope, Oedipus finally discovers that the fate he thought he had escaped forever catches up with him.