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The Role of Fate in Oedipus the King

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Human civilization has passed through a number of epochs, and each was characterized by its own set of values and rather distinctive interpretation of reality. Thinkers of all times have been interested in people’s role on the earth and the universal laws which rule their existence. The author of Oedipus the King, Sophocles, did not only leave his record as the work of art but also enabled contemporary readers to judge about the Ancient Greek way of thinking. Based on a popular myth about Oedipus, the play focuses on the tragedy of a human who cannot rule his life and has to obey the severe destiny prepared by gods.

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When analyzing the text, it is essential to say that the originality of the story was not the point to be appreciated by the public, because, obviously, it was known to most people. The play was intended for the theatre in the first place, and its role was not to educate or entertain but to guide a person through an intense emotional experience. The final goal was to provoke grief about the tragedy of Oedipus and acceptance of his fate which would lead to acceptance of one’s own fate too. Believing that a person could do nothing to change the destiny was a typical belief in the epoch of Sophocles. Staging a tragedy with a common message might have been intended for several purposes. First of all, it would glorify gods and reinforce their position; secondly, it would give some relief to people in their troubles and losses. The same story by Oedipus was used by other authors too; therefore, the personal attitude of Sophocles was meaningful, as well. Yet, it is essential to point out that an ancient Greek tragedy was not a free form, and that it had to comply with aesthetics and poetic, common to all authors.

In order to see what was unique about Sophocles’ version, it is essential to have a closer look at the techniques, which he applies with the purpose of conveying his ideas. First of all, the purity of the genre should be pertained too. Unlike modern drama, it was impossible for the story to be a little tragic, a little comic, and a little dramatic all at once. Instead, one line or emotion had to be followed, so the tragedy had to be excessively tragic, which would seem a grotesque to the contemporary audience. This is why, in order to make his message sound clear, Sophocles’ description of Oedipus’ story was not confined to one or two tragic events of his life but gave a picture of total tragedy. The character was not to be sad; he had to be entirely shattered by his grief and inevitability of fate. According to Sophocles and other representatives of the genre, it was the only way to make a person obedient to the will of gods. In case Oedipus had relied on at least a faint hope, the idea of the author would not have been achieved.
Generally, there are two polar philosophical and religious approaches determining the role of a person in relation to his own life.

The first one states that a person is free to choose, and that he or she is a master of his own life. The second one claims that no one can cheat one’s destiny and no efforts will make it change. Besides, there is a moderate point of view, which is somewhere in between the two extremes. However, it is not Sophocles’ idea to be moderate; his task is to convey an idea that a person is absolutely helpless and desperate in the face of destiny dictated by gods. This is why he describes a number of horrific events that prove his point and leave no space for doubt. One can believe in coincidence, when one or two events come true, but it is impossible to remain uncertain when a whole number of them occurs.

The plot of the play and its development unravels the story of Oedipus from his birth to becoming a king. He was saved from death as an infant by a miracle, because his father Laius was frightened by an ominous prophecy, warning that his son was going to kill him and marry to his own mother. Thus, the work of fate is revealed in the play not only in relation to the main character but to other characters, as well. The author demonstrates how their fates are tightly related to each other, and how they are unable to prevent their common tragedy. So, it is obvious from the very beginning that Oedipus is not killed as a child because he has to grow up and fulfill the god’s wicked plan for him. No matter how hard he tries in the future, every path leads to the fulfillment of the horrible prediction. When he grows up, he meets his true father on his way to his native city and accidentally (or rather by fate) kills him. By resolving the riddle of Sphinx threatening the city, he gains the authority among the citizens. He is highly respected for his wisdom; and, eventually, marries Jocasta having no idea that she is his mother. So, it seems like he thrives and achieves enormous success, but this only happens so because he is blind to his own destiny. Throughout his life, he is stubborn enough to believe that his fate is in his own hands, and this is what gods cannot forgive.

An interesting aspect of fate as understood by ancient Greeks is an idea that it is not related to justice in any way. In this way, it makes destiny even more horrifying and irrational as no one can foresee the will of god. No doubt, ancient Greeks seemed to live in the world that appeared to be less secure compared to the later Christian culture. In Christianity, the guidelines are quite clear how to make one’s fate better. If one behaves in a righteous way, he or she is rewarded while a sinner is being punished. This makes life more assuring and ordered, even though hopes do not come true – one can always expect for a better life after death. It is not the case with Oedipus and other characters of the play; they will never understand why they have deserved their fate. It is only relevant to Oedipus’ father who wanted to get rid of his own child as, only in his case, the gods’ will looks morally justified. In case of Jocasta and Oedipus, the decision is utterly irrational, and this is what makes destiny more horrifying.

It is worth pointing out that the role of an oracle is a crucial one in the play, because oracles serve as messengers of gods. Everyone comes to oracles, but no one originally believes them, because they predict tragedy. This loss of faith might be one of the aspects that would cause gods to punish people in order to remind them how powerful they are. In this context, Oedipus blinding himself is essentially symbolic; he does it to himself, when he finds out that he has killed his father and got married to his mother.

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He cannot bear the truth; however, his blindness is not only a sign of despair but also of his intention to be obedient to gods. In fact, he accepts the fact that he used to be blind before, when he was too self-confident and refused to see the truth. In the end, his physical inability to see anymore only reinforces the author’s idea of people’s inability to see the future. Jocasta is also blind to the truth, so she says to Oedipus: “So don’t concern yourself with prophecies./ Whatever gods intend to bring about/ they themselves make known quite easily”(Sophocles). Thus, she has to be punished too, which she does to herself dying. Yet, the paradox about Oedipus is that it is controversial in terms of whether he needs to fight destiny or not. One way to approach it is that it takes exceptional courage to oppose to gods even though the fate is inevitable:
Is Oedipus a coward? Does he not show that impetuous, arrogant bravery which may seem the cause of his downfall? Yes, and many times. But his prideful drive, facing up to enemies and obstacles in his way, is no more than a shell, a shield covering what all the while moves him and shapes his character: the choice of fearful flight with no expected refuge, the choice to sever himself off from the inseparable, to run away from that which in running is still carried along -- his self to be, his own future” (Adamczewski 44).

In conclusion, it is worth saying that Oedipus’ tragedy is an illustration of the ancient Greek vision of reality, life laws and people’s interaction with gods. The author underlines that even if a person lives a noble and worthy life, he or she cannot avoid a terrible fate prepared by gods. The reasons for this are not to be sought in justice or injustice. Instead, one should accept the fact that the motifs of gods can never be visible to humans and accept one’s own fate with dignity and respect to the gods.

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