In Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King, fate and free will play a central role, around which all characters revolve and knit their lives, one way, or another. On the one side, there are characters that play along with what their society demands, meaning they accept that fate drives people in a pre-determined path, where no deviations are possible, or have a meaning. On the other hand, there is Oedipus, who strongly advocates his right to have free will and the freedom to express himself, and drive his life where he wants.
Oedipus’ actions eventually led to his destruction, making it seem that fate had indeed curved a certain trail in life for him that no matter how fiercely he tried to escape, it was impossible to escape; however, he gave a good fight. To Sophocles, the cosmos was ruled by mysterious and powerful fates and every human being that decided to live on their own terms, defying fate, was doomed to self-destruction. That being said; Oedipus appears as the personification of god-defiance, in a world where the gods ruled. Bottom line is that, as showcased in Oedipus the King, humans could not live for long, if they chose to live a life entirely on their own terms, because eventually, they would have to face the consequences of their actions. Fate is not always friendly, and this is a notion clearly depicted through the lines of the play.
The Chorus reflects the societal beliefs of their time. For that reason, the Chorus appears unable to act decisively, as opposed to Oedipus, who is determined to go against what is written for him by fate. They seem to want to do something, yet, are fully aware of their limitations and, driven by fear of what lies in front of them -the unknown, they just do nothing. Perhaps, this is the reason why their questions are full of terror and typically address their fates with full acknowledgement.
“My fearful heart twists on the rack and shakes with fear.
O Delian healer, for whom we cry aloud
in holy awe, what obligation
will you demand from me, a thing unknown
or now renewed with the revolving years?
Immortal voice, O child of golden Hope,
speak to me!” (185-191)
Their words express a number of things, except from fear, such as hopes and hesitation. They want to believe in the goodwill of gods, but, on the other hand, they know well that gods may not be there, and, distinguished by lack of free will, the Chorus just sits back and watches Oedipus as he takes action and acts against his fate (Johnston, 2004). The Chorus also appears with lack of assertiveness and self-confidence that could actually fuel any significant action when crisis strikes in Oedipus the King, and they are only left clueless as to what to do, and powerless to do anything drastic.
Furthermore, the Chorus looks concerned when things spark up between Oedipus and Tiresias, and try to ease the spirits of them both. Although they do realize that Oedipus’ quick judgment might have led to a misinterpretation of Tiresias and Creon’s words, they never criticize Oedipus for it, because they have come to terms that if any conclusive action has to be taken, Oedipus is the only one that can move on with it (Johnston, 2004).
Jocasta appears too afraid to confront her fate, which is why she seems to have strongly embraced a viewpoint, according to which fate does not matter. She urges Oedipus to let go of his investigation about his fate, because, to her mind, fate does not exist, and pushes him to just live the moment.
“Why should a man whose life seems ruled by chance
live in fear—a man who never looks ahead,
who has no certain vision of his future.
It’s best to live haphazardly, as best one can.” (1161-1164)
Of course, with her carpe diem viewpoints, she just wants Oedipus to be someone else: a person with no courage, when Oedipus is, in fact, a man with a deep thirst to act as he pleases, without anyone telling him what to do, how, and when. Her struggle to persuade that the prophecies are not true are depicted throughout the play, until the audience finally realizes that Jocasta was, in fact, too full of her fate. It was the prophesy she was so eagerly trying to say she did not care about that eventually made her kill herself. Probably, out of guilt for the unbearable truth.
Jocasta believes that nothing can be foreseen and that a man should live only the present day. However, no matter how hard she wanted to believe that, she actually lived her entire life trying to prove the prophecy wrong. Her course of actions, as she was acting out of seemingly free will, led her to exactly where fate had in stock for her. In other words, Jocasta spent her entire life trying to avoid something from happening, when, in fact, her decisions only got her closer and closer every day to what was meant to be. And, her perceptions about life (that fate does not exist), were nothing else but camouflaged fear for her own fate.
Oedipus is a hero of his time that tries to stand up to his reputation for knowledge and free will. He is a character that does not seem obliged to act the way he does from beginning to end of the play, although he, just like Jocasta, initiates a chain of events that reveal his true fate in the end (Johnston, 2004). He is a man that has been dealing with his fate from the earliest of his life, and even though he is informed that he is fated to murder his father and marry to his mother, he strongly refuses to accept that as his destiny. For that reason, he freely decides upon his actions and follows a specific path in life, while moving around, so to avoid the inevitable. In other words, he has chosen to “construct a life in which what he has been told will happen will not happen” (Johnston, 2004). In his eyes, he has achieved his goal, to a certain point. He believes that his actions had made him wise and that he has successfully challenged his fate. To Oedipus, a man should not accept a fate so unwelcome, as his, or a fate that is morally repulsive (Johnston, 2004).
Oedipus feels very confident in his abilities to change things around and what was assigned to his life. All the mysterious powers that control the entire world are manageable, as he believes. In his own mind, he has confounded his fate. However, he demonstrates a profound persistence to investigate on the prophecy; the very same prophesy that he confronts every chance he is given. His free will, actually drives him to dig deeper and deeper in the mystical paths that lead to what the prophecy was all about. He appears obsessed to find out the truth about who is the murderer and incestuous man because, to him, finding the truth surpasses what truth might reveal (Johnston, 2004). For that reason, he pushes everybody around him -Jocasta, Creon, the oracle, Tiresias, the shepherd, and the messenger- for any information considering his beginnings, only to move fast forward to his downfall.
Manifestations of Free Will and Fate in Oedipus the King
Free will and fate play equal roles in Oedipus the King. King Laius and Queen Jocasta knew about the prophesy that that their son will become the king’s murderer, which is why they had ordered the shepherd to take the newborn boy of theirs and let it die out in the fields. The shepherd chose differently and decided to offer the baby a chance to live a happy life somewhere outside the city of Thebes. It was not long before the King and Queen adopted the very child they had asked the shepherd to kill some years ago, named Oedipus. This is a perfect example of how fate and free are interwoven with one another. The shepherd, out of free will, chose to disobey the King and Queen’s order to kill the baby. However, by letting Oedipus live, the shepherd played a role in fulfilling the prophecy and allowing Oedipus to meet his fate.
Oedipus, on the other hand, went on a quest to find out his true parents, after he found out that Polybus and Merope were not his real parents. He went to the Delphic oracle to find out the truth regarding his life, and he received no answer as to who were his real parents. Instead, he was given the same prophecy that his real parents had received upon his birth. Knowing this, and without knowing that Merope and Polybus were not his real parents for sure, he took off and promised never to return to Corinth, so to prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled. It was his free will that brought Oedipus to the oracle and it was also his own free will that made him leave Corinth with small likeliness to return again. Leaving the place, seemed safer to him. However, everything he decided with free led Oedipus to his fate.
Later on, Oedipus met King Laius, and without knowing he is his real father, he killed the King. It was Oedipus’ free will again that proved his fate truthful. The same thing had happened earlier when Oedipus encountered the Sphinx and solved her riddle. His decision to confront the Sphinx made him King of Thebes, where he did not only take his father’s throne, but also married to his mother. It seems that everything he did out of free will, only brought him closer to granting truth to the prophecy in regards his fate.
Human will and fate play a vital role on Oedipus the King. All events in Oedipus’ life were the outcome of his free will and decisions. However, his fate was predetermined. Other characters were given a more passive role, accepting there is no sense going against what is written by the gods, while others showed a strong resistance in accepting fate, and lived for the moment. Oedipus himself was a fighter. He wanted to prove the prophecy wrong so much and be the master of his own future, when, in fact, each decision he was making was only taking him a step closer to his true fate.
One could say that free will exists through fate because although fate is determined, it is free will in Oedipus the King that determines how one reaches fate. In other words, humans make their own decisions, but fate is there to brutally punish those that decide to confront the mystery of life.
Johnston, Ian (2004), Fate, Freedom, and the Tragic Experience: An Introductory Lecture on Sophocles's Oedipus the King. Vancouver Island University. Retrieved March 22, 2014 from: https://records.viu.ca/~Johnstoi/introser/oedipus.htm
Sophocles (420 B.C.), Oedipus the King. Translated by Ian Johnston. Retrieved March 22, 2014 from: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1hbfmJ6HyVor1zw0YwebCrvppNzXhxTx08BAP6IkSX9c/preview