Oedipus Rex, written by the Greek playwright Sophocles, tells the story of the titular King Oedipus, who reaches the status of King of Thebes only to become embroiled in an investigation into the murder of the previous king, Laius. Over the course of the play, he is informed of a prophecy in which he is said to kill his father and marry his mother; despite the inevitable nature of this prophecy, Oedipus refuses to believe it. However, once he is told that he was the one who killed King Laius unknowingly in a raid some time ago, he learns that he has married his mother Jocasta. Jocasta ends up hanging herself, and Oedipus blinds himself with her golden pins and asks for exile. Oedipus Rex deals heavily with the theme of free will vs. fate, exploring the possibilities of defying the whims of prophecy and the gods. Despite being a human being and ostensibly in control of his own fate, Oedipus represents the kind of man whose fate is decided by the gods; no matter what he tries to do to stop it, it will inevitably come true.
In order to properly understand the effect of Oedipus Rex on the Greek people, it is necessary to know the nature of Greek society and drama at the time. Prior to the works of Sophocles, most Greek drama took place between two actors and a chorus; the two actors would perform the majority of the characters, while the chorus would narrate the action and espouse the morals of the play. With Sophocles’ works, however, he would insert a third actor into the staging, allowing for a greater emphasis on the characters and the action of the plot than its overt moral message (Hochman 487). In this way, Sophocles’ works would revolutionize the way drama was performed in Greece.
Many of Sophocles’ plays were performed at playwriting competitions, wherein Greece’s best playwrights would produce their new works in order to be judged for their quality. In 468, Sophocles scored his first victory at the Dionysian dramatic festival, defeating noted playwright Aeschylus (Hochman 487). This would turn out to be one of many competitions that Sophocles would win, establishing him as a trendsetter and major cultural force in Greek drama.
Some events and themes in Oedipus Rex mirror real-life events that were occurring in Athens during the time. For example, Kousoulis et al. claim that the plague in the play is reminiscent of a plague that had recently struck Athens, providing a somewhat recognizable setting for the audience to follow. Also, there is a certain amount of intertextuality going on with Oedipus Rex, as the tale of Oedipus had already been introduced in story and fable, and appeared in Homer’s The Odyssey. To that end, the character of Oedipus was familiar to Greek audiences, thus making this story something they were already invested in.
Oedipus Rex’s story deals greatly with fate and foresight; prophecy is a substantial element to the play’s themes and action. The prophecy King Laius hears about his son being fated to kill him long before the events of the play by an oracle, much as Oedipus learns from his oracle Tiresias that King Laius will have died by his hand. To that end, Laius attempted to give away the child on a mountainside; in keeping with the play’s position that fate cannot be tampered with, the gods use his own preventative measures against him: “So then Apollo brought it not to pass / The child should be his father's murderer” (Sophocles 994). Because of that, it is clear that Sophocles’ depiction of fate is absolute; nothing one can do will change it, and may even become self-fulfilling.
When it comes to Oedipus, his own stubbornness matches his father’s; though at first he believes in Tiresias’ ability to prophesy (“Blind as you are, you can feel all the more what sickness haunts our city”), he steadfastly refuses to accept Tiresias’ prophecy that he was the one who killed Laius (Sophocles 972). To this, Tiresias merely says, “Well, it will come what will, though I be mute” (Sophocles 1047). Here, the prophet is much more confident in his ability to see the future than in Oedipus’ ability to combat it, making Sophocles’ point that fate is far stronger than free will.
Many have adapted Oedipus’ lesson to mean that his fate was the work of free will; while he was given the prophecy, his own internal choices brought it about, and the prophecy depended on conditions that required him to take independent action (Miller 229). By the end of the play, Oedipus learns the value of respecting fate when he learns that he did, in fact, kill his father, and that Jocasta is his mother. While he does make the choice to pursue his lineage through this investigation, he is merely following the hands of fate as per Tiresias’ prophecies. The line between free will and predetermination can be difficult to differentiate; however, given the strong presence of the gods in the realm of Sophocles’ plays, and Laius’ prophecy also being true, it is much more likely that Sophocles intended Oedipus to be a cruel victim of fate. This is also supported by the fact that, in his follow-up play Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus comes to the realization that he is not to be blamed for events that were out of his control due to fate (Hochman 487).
Relating to Oedipus’ tragic nature, Sophocles adhered to many of Aristotle’s concepts of tragedy that he outlined in his work Poetics. First among these is the idea of perepetia, which is "a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity” (Aristotle 1452a). In essence, this is a twist or discovery that changes the way in which the characters relate to and understand the world. Aristotle even links this to Oedipus Rex: “The finest form of Discovery is one attended by Peripeteia, like that which goes with the Discovery in Oedipus” (1452a). In the play, perepeteia occurs when Oedipus finally discovers the prophecy King Laius received about him, and that he was the son that had been sent away to prevent it. This changes the atmosphere of the play, and the fortunes of its protagonist, from good to bad, and reveals the tragic nature of his character.
The second concept Aristotle described is anagnorsis, where a character in a tragedy makes a crucial discovery in which the character understands all they need to for the sake of dramatic action. This is described by Aristotle as "a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune" (1452a). It is also said that anagnorsis is what brings about peripeteia, as in Oedipus Rex when he learns the story of the prophecy from Jocasta. That is the anagnorsis that gives the audience the change in the plot and the understanding of their world.
The third concept of tragedy is hamartia, in which the character makes a tragic mistake and suffers greatly for it. Hamartia Oedipus’ hamartia is his desire to solve the mystery of the prophecy and King Laius’ death, despite everyone telling him to let it go. If he had listened to them, it might be possible that he would not have ended up in the dire straits he experiences at the end of the play. However, there is nothing he could have done to prevent this, as his natural curiosity about his parentage could have in no way prepared him for the answers he receives.
The final concept of tragedy is catharsis, in which all of the emotions and tensions of the play or a character are purged, allowing them to be restored and renewed. This is more for the audience’s sake than for the characters, as the character’s own tragic ends bring about catharsis for the audience upon reflection and understanding.
In conclusion, Sophocles uses all aspects of Aristotle’s concepts of tragedy to deliver a surprising and shocking commentary on free will vs. nature in Oedipus Rex. By telling a familiar tale in his unconventional three-actor staging, linking it to contemporary events and investing the audience in these characters, Sophocles explores the tragedy of a man who cannot escape his fate. While free will is something that may have played a factor in whether or not he would have ended up blinded and exiled, it is more likely that Sophocles desired Oedipus to be treated to the will of the gods, just as his father did; their rejection of their gods’ will makes their stories even more tragic.
Aristotle. Poetics. Oxford University Press, 1968.
Hochman, Stanley (ed.). McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama: Vol. 1. VNR AG,
Kousoulis, Antonis A., Economopoulos, Konstantinos P., et al. “The Plague of Thebes, a
Historical Epidemic in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.” Another Dimension 18(1) (2012).
Miller, Patrick Lee. “Oedipus Rex Revisited.” Modern Psychoanalysis 31(2) (2006), p. 229.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Filiquarian Publishing, 2006.