20 April 2018
The Tragedy of Oedipus Rex: Predestination and Personal Accountability
The ancient Greeks believed that their gods could see into the future and that only certain people could access that information. Soothsayers, oracles, and seers were in high demand. But at the time of writing Oedipus the King; Grecian intellectuals were questioning the legitimacy of oracles and traditional gods. Sophocles conveys that curiosity through Oedipus Rex. The Greeks believed that the gods were intrinsically tied to a man’s existence. Although man is in control of their own choices, fate may dictate where those choices take them. And even though Oedipus and those around him consider him to be a victim of fate, Oedipus’ actions show that he is ultimately responsible. Oedipus realizes that he lead himself towards his own demise. Through Oedipus Rex, Sophocles explores themes of personal accountability, hubris, and ignorance.
Before the start of the play, Oedipus has left home to escape a prophecy that states he will marry his mother and kill his father. This would seem to be a noble attempt; but does his choice really matter? This leads to the theme of predestination. Predestination as defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “…the belief that events in life are decided in advance by God or by fate and cannot be changed”. In the age of ancient gods is Oedipus in control of his own fate? It is the question of fate vs. free will. The answer is both yes and no. Prophecies are entwined with fate; events are preordained, but there are ways to lead toward a prophecy. Oedipus denounces the prophecy when he first hears it from the oracle Loxias, in his original home of Corinth, saying he is a stranger to the Gods. His reaction here gives the impression that he does not believe in fate. But his later decision to escape from Corinth juxtaposes this belief. Obviously, he is afraid of what the gods will do and questions whether or not his choices matter. Sophocles ultimately leaves this question ambiguous opting to answer in a more indirect way through Oedipus and his flaws.
Sophocles uses Oedipus Rex as a lens to examine the shortcomings of hubris, one of his tools is the motif of blindness; Teiresias the blind but all-seeing prophet, Oedipus’ blindness, whether intentional or not, to his situation, and Oedipus eventually blinding himself in the end. The motif of blindness is a commentary on how Oedipus’ flaws led him down this path. In the beginning, he says “I see -how could I fail to see …” (Sophocles 70) toward the middle he states, “… how terrible- to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees” (Sophocles 359) and at the ends he laments, “Darkness! Horror of darkness…” (Sophocles 1384-85). Sophocles uses symbolism in conjunction with imagery to convey the motif of blindness. He also subtlety uses the setting of the crossroads as a metaphor to show that there was a choice. Nothing inherently made Oedipus kill king Laius.. When he reaches the city of Thebes he is offered another choice, to become king and marry Jocasta or move on. Although this choice is not as blatant as the one before it, it still is significant. Oedipus should have been trying to avoid taking on such a responsibility after receiving the prophecy. Yet through his pride, he pushes himself closer. After he is told about his true heritage he still does not let it go. He knows that Laius is his father but he must know his mother identity. He is faced with a choice again towards the end of the play. Again Sophocles uses the motif of blindness, he could continue living in ignorance not knowing his mother’s identity but his own insistence is his downfall. Jocasta warns him of this “I beg you-do not hunt this out- I beg you” (Sophocles 1122). Oedipus does not listen to his wife thinking she is concerned about money his arrogance, another flaw, rearing its head “Keep up your heart, Jocasta. Though I’m proved a slave, thrice slave, and though my mother is thrice slave, you’ll not be shown to be of lowly lineage” (Sophocles1125-29). Sophocles also uses tragic irony to convey the inevitable outcome of Oedipus’ fate, “the character believes to be acting in his interest, while in fact his heading for his downfall”( Cornillon and Dorlodot 9).
In the end, Oedipus undoing is by his own hand he blinds himself ” But the hand that struck me was none but my own” (Sophocles 1401-02). He understands that it was through his free will that he blinded himself. The most obvious reason that Oedipus is responsible is that he has come to terms with his fate and taken accountability for his actions. His grief is his alone. Even though destiny may have played a part in it he takes responsibility in fulfilling it. Oedipus is not the only one to blame for this tragedy; Lauis and Jocasta in their arrogance believed that they could evade fate. Having been warned of the prophecy before, they should have taken as many preemptive measures as possible. They should have seen to it that baby Oedipus was truly dead. But Oedipus does not blame his parents only himself.
Oedipus is an inherently prideful man. His arrogance and stubbornness are the driving forces behind the fatal decision. He allowed his ego to lull him into a false sense of security. He should have been actively avoiding murdering anyone, but his hubris led him to his destruction. His choices led him toward the prophecy, “Oedipus is human, all too human, so that character, temperament and disposition form a significant factor in the way he reacts to situations” (Gillett and Hankey 1). Like a stone skipped across a pond he causes a chain reaction. Sophocles knew that actions have consequences. These actions might not immediately affect the consequence but comeuppance is near. If only Oedipus had thought things through and humbled himself before the man in the road. He would have not committed patricide and incest, and he might have been able to prolong his fate.
Caruso, Gregg D. Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Lexington Books, 2013. EBSCOhost, proxygsu-gwt1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=601934&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Cornillon, Claire, and Soline de Dorlodot. Oedipus the King by Sophocles (Book Analysis): Detailed Summary, Analysis, and Reading Guide. BrightSummaries.com, 2016. BrightSummaries.com. EBSCOhost, proxygsu-gwt1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1379964&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Critical Casebook.” Oedipus the King. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2010. 909-47. Print.
“Definition of “predestination” – English Dictionary.” Predestination Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2018.
Gillett, Grant and Robin Hankey. “Oedipus the King: Temperament, Character, and Virtue.” Philosophy & Literature, vol. 29, no. 2, Oct. 2005, pp. 269-285. EBSCOhost, proxygsu-gwt1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ibh&AN=19711566&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Joshua, Waggoner. “One Voice Too Many: Echoes of Irony and Trauma in Oedipus the King.” Humanities, Vol 6, Iss 4, P 86 (2017), no. 4, 2017, p. 86. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3390/h6040086.
Martinez, Inez. “Re-Reading Sophocles’s Oedipus Plays: Reconceiving Vengeance as Cultural Complex.” Journal of Jungian Scholarly Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, Jan. 2012, pp. 1-23. EBSCOhost, proxygsu-gwt1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=97407420&site=eds-live&scope=site
Nassaar, Christopher S. “Tampering with the Future: Apollo’s Prophecy in Sophocles’s Oedipus the King.” ANQ, vol. 26, no. 3, Sept. 2013, pp. 147-149. EBSCOhost, proxygsu-gwt1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=89705189&site=eds-live&scope=site.