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The present paper deals with the inexorability of fate in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. This author conveys the message that people cannot influence their future because everything is predetermined by God’s will. The sequence of particular events and actions from Oedipus’ life is depicted in the piece of literature to prove this idea. Thus, Sophocles states that those attempts that people make to avoid some events from happening in the future only advance them and result in severer consequences. Furthermore, the given research tries to explain why people in ancient times believed in rough fate and their inability to influence it. Then, the questions of what aspects of human life and to what extent they depended on the supreme powers will be answered. By focusing on Oedipus the King and its details, the paper demonstrates beliefs and ideas that both were popular in Ancient Greece and find their manifestation in the modern world.
The question of whether people can influence their lives has always been challenging. Many prominent thinkers tried to present and prove their points of view concerning the given issue. Some of them stated that people could shape their lives with their decisions and actions, while others mentioned that the supreme forces predetermined the future of every person. Among all these philosophers, Sophocles deserves specific attention since this Ancient Greece tragedian created a significant piece of literature on the given topic. His Oedipus the King depicts the inexorability of fate and its relationship to knowledge, political power, and civic life through a sequence of interconnected events. In the tragedy, Oedipus kills his father, has children with his mother, and deprives himself of vision, which demonstrates that people cannot escape what is predetermined for them.
Oedipus is King of Thebes, and he wants to discover why his kingdom suffers from the plague. He sends Creon, his brother-in-law, to the oracle to ask for advice. Creon brings unpleasant news stating that the nation will suffer from this curse until they find a murderer of Laius, their former ruler. Oedipus wants to discover who the murderer is, but Tiresias, a blind prophet, soon makes an unexpected announcement, stating that Oedipus is “the foul pollutant in this land” (Sophocles 27). Oedipus does not have trust in the prophet’s words, and he is supported by Jocasta, his current wife. While she was Laius’ wife, she mentions that some of such prophecies have not come true and provides a specific example. A few years ago, Laius was told that he “would be killed by a son who would be given birth” by him and Jocasta (Sophocles 42). Thus, they decided to have the child killed, and the prophecy was canceled.
Even though that information should have been pleasant for Oedipus, he does not like it. It is so because when he was a child, an older man told him that Oedipus was adopted and that he would kill his biological father and sleep with his biological mother. The situation becomes even more tragic when Oedipus recalls that he murdered a stranger, which is similar to the description of Laius’ death. In spite of Jocasta’s objections, Oedipus decides to reveal the secrets of the past. In a while, Jocasta finds out that Oedipus, with whom she has children, is her son. This discovery is horrifying for her, and the woman kills herself. Soon, Oedipus also understands that the prophecy has come true and that he is the source of the curse for the kingdom. This terrible information makes him put out his own eyes. Furthermore, blind Oedipus is exiled from Thebes to free the nation from the plague.
The information above demonstrates that people take responsibility for their actions and decisions. Once Oedipus discovers his identity and what he has made to his parents, he decides to blind himself as a kind of punishment. The notion of responsibility is essential for the theme under consideration because it shows that people suffer from adverse consequences when they try to escape their fate. In addition to that, the given topic indicates that people’s attempts to change their future can have a negative meaning for others because the citizens of the kingdom experience the plague epidemic. It means that Oedipus blinds himself to assume responsibility and free the population from it.
Even though Oedipus the King is considered by many to be a story about unethical decisions and actions, it presents the theme of fate and humans’ inability to change their lives. Sophocles was an evident fatalist, and it influenced the tragedy under consideration significantly. This piece of literature demonstrates that people cannot change their future irrespective of how hard they try. It is supported by the fact that Laius wanted to kill his son to prevent him from committing the murder and that Oedipus tried to escape having children with his mother. The two men did their best to avoid their destiny, but they failed, which is an example of a fatalistic worldview.
The author has included two significant phenomena in his tragedy, and they are worth mentioning. Firstly, Sophocles stipulates that individuals cannot choose their identities. They are predetermined by the supreme forces, while people can only choose either to define them or not. As for Oedipus the King, Danze mentions that pity motivates the main character to identify his self-recognition (565). Even though Oedipus understands that his revealed identity of a murderer and foundling results in particular social stigma, he tries to neutralize his negative image by punishing himself (Dugdale 421). However, this harsh action fails to influence Oedipus’ fate, and he has to suffer from the adverse consequences of his fortune. It shows that once a person commits an action, he or she will inevitably face some results. Thus, Sophocles conveys a message that individuals cannot hide from the outcomes of their actions and decisions. However, these consequences cannot make satisfaction for the previous sins.
Secondly, it is necessary to comment on hamartia and its role in the tragedy. Thus, the phenomenon refers to an error made due to inadequate knowledge, and this error results in negative consequences (Glassberg 201). In this case, both Oedipus and Jocasta have false information regarding their identities, which leads to unethical situations. This information indicates that people cannot make the right decisions when they do not know everything about an issue. While it is often impossible to know everything, people are subject to making mistakes. In other words, people make decisions, these decisions can have an impact, but the incomplete nature of human understanding makes the effects of actions unpredictable.
It should be mentioned that incomplete knowledge makes it impossible for people to change their future. Even though their actions seemingly alter their destiny, the final outcomes demonstrate the opposite. On the one hand, the central conflict of the tragedy emerged because Laius found out unpleasant information about his son. That news forced him to make some decisions to avoid tragic events in the future. All the following situations, including Laius’ death and the fact that Oedipus marries Jocasta, prove that knowledge can be detrimental under certain conditions. Thus, the author emphasizes the prophecy and its consequences to show how the present information can influence people and their lives.
At the same time, Sophocles conveys a distinction between the information from the prophecy and that from personal experience. The difference refers to the fact that personal experience can present a part of the information that would show the possibility of changing the future, while the prophecy describes those events that will finally happen. Furthermore, Laius demonstrates a firm belief in the unlimited power of knowledge. Once he is told the prophecy, he does not question its truthfulness and credibility. It means that his character is used to depict that the issue of destiny was of crucial significance for many people in Ancient Greece.
On the other hand, Oedipus represents a different approach to knowledge. Once he is told the same prophecy, he does not believe that it is true. Consequently, he does his best to deny the unpleasant prediction. In this case, Oedipus becomes a seeker of truth without drawing attention to the fact that it can have negative consequences for him. In pursuit of knowledge, the ruler makes horrifying discoveries that are detrimental to him. It is possible to state that experience means symbolic death for Oedipus since when he finds out the truth, it becomes difficult for him to keep living with his mother. Thus, Sophocles describes these events to indicate that it is not safe to look for the answers when people are not ready to accept them. Therefore, the truth shocks Oedipus, but he finds the power to bear the responsibility.
Even though the two characters above have different attitudes toward the prophecy initially, it comes true for each of them, and they fail to escape their shared fate. The description of events from the lives of Oedipus and Laius supports Sophocles’ idea that individuals can try to change their destiny, but it will not influence the final outcomes. People can handle knowledge differently, but it does not mean that information always results in some benefits.
Similar to knowledge, the issue of political power and its relationship to fate influence characters differently in Oedipus the King. Thus, Laius seems to be an arrogant and despotic ruler who is ready to kill his own son to preserve his power. One can say that these selfish interests made him try to prevent the prophecy from happening rather than other benevolent intentions. As has been stated previously, Laius’ attempts did not allow him to preserve power, save his life, and preclude the adverse events described in the prophecy. Finally, Oedipus kills Laius and deprives him and accepts his power as a ruler.
By contrast, Oedipus is born in a royal family, and he should become the subsequent ruler of the kingdom. However, Laius tries to prevent it, and the boy grows up far from the throne, and he seems to have no chances to become the king. An occurrence plays its role, and Oedipus kills his biological father and starts living with his mother, who is currently his wife. He thinks that these events are accidental, but it has been proved there were results of the destiny. That is why Oedipus becomes the king, even despite the fact that he did not look for political power. Thus, the events concerning political power prove that fate is also unavoidable when it comes to political power. Even when people do not want something to become true, they cannot do anything to influence the given state of affairs. It suggests that the Greeks believed that the gods chose their rulers. In other words, if it was a person’s destiny to become a ruler, he or she would gain political power irrespective of external conditions.
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Finally, Jocasta’s civic life has been significantly influenced. She had a husband, Laius, but their shared desire to cancel the prophecy has led to his death and severe problems for her. As soon as Jocasta finds out that Oedipus is her supposed-to-be-dead son, she cannot bear this tragedy, and she commits suicide. These events indicate that people are powerless to influence anything in their fate. Furthermore, a civic sphere stands for the most crucial aspect of human life since problems in the given area make people kill themselves. It is an interesting example in a way that Jocasta commits suicide in a private sphere. It indicates that she tries to hide from the public to avoid blames. In other words, the Greeks paid specific attention to their civic image, and Sophocles demonstrated that this image was shaped by the supreme forces rather than the people themselves.
The tragedy demonstrates that the Greeks believed in the supreme forces and their immeasurable impact on human life. That is why Sophocles describes prophecies, oracles, and other spiritual elements of that historical epoch. Furthermore, the tragedy indicates that people are minor elements in the whole world and that they can only witness what they are supposed to experience in their lives. In other words, people cannot fundamentally alter their destiny because of the fact described above. Last but not least, the events from Oedipus’ life show that people should not behave like gods and should not try to shape their future. All such attempts can have the opposite meaning resulting in adverse consequences, and the fates of Oedipus, Laius, and Jocasta prove this thought. It refers to the fact that the civic life of the characters suffered a lot because of their attempts to change their destiny.
Oedipus the King by Sophocles is a significant Greek tragedy since it covers an essential topic. It refers to fate and its unavoidable nature for individuals. The author uses emphasis to present the sequence of a few details that are detrimental to the future of his characters. It is exciting that a single prophecy influences three lives and break them once these characters decide to change their fates. Sophocles indicates that the inexorability of fortune is an unchanged phenomenon, and when people try to influence it, they approach them and create even more problems. People can influence their destiny, but they cannot significantly change it, which means that their political knowledge, civic life, and what they know is predetermined. As a result, the Greek philosopher uses his piece of writing to show that people only witness those events in their lives that they are supposed to experience. Any attempts to alter upcoming events will result in severer consequences for people and their lives. Thus, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King conveys the message that the supreme forces predetermine people’s future and that individuals cannot influence their destiny.
Danze, Teresa M. “The Tragedy of Pity in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.” American Journal of Philology, vol. 137, no. 5, 2016, pp. 565-599.
Dugdale, Eric. “Who Named Me?: Identity and Status in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.” American Journal of Philology, vol. 136, no. 3, 2015, pp. 421-445.
Glassberg, Roy. “Uses of Hamartia, Flaw, and Irony in Oedipus Tyrannus and King Lear.” Philosophy and Literature, vol. 41, no. 1, 2017, pp. 201-206.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King and Other Tragedies: Oedipus the King, Aias, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus. Translated by Oliver Taplin, OUP Oxford, 2015.