In Oedipus the King, are human beings presented as prisoners of fate?
Sophocles’ Oedipus the King doesn’t simply depict a man who discovers, to his horror, that he is powerless to direct his own life. Rather, the play offers an example of how individual human beings can find ways to assert their independence within the limits determined by their destiny. Fate certainly shapes characters’ lives in the play, but it does not determine them completely.
Prophecies consistently come true in Oedipus the King, which proves that fate is a real force in the world of the play. However, the paths humans take toward their pre-determined destinations remain for them to choose, as do the attitudes they adopt toward the gods’ decrees. Long before the play opens, Laius and Jocasta left their son for dead to thwart the terrible prophecy that he would someday kill his father and marry his mother. Similarly, when Oedipus learned of his fate, he fled Corinth, assuming that the prophecy applied to Polybus, the man he believed to be his biological father. In Oedipus the King, however, when Oedipus learns that it is he who must be cast out to save Thebes from the plague, he immediately agrees to submit to the decree and leave the city. His decision seems partially motivated by an intense sense of shame and horror, but throughout the play Oedipus has demonstrated his commitment to his people, and his choice of exile seems equally driven by his desire to see Thebes spared. The early choices he and his parents made may have been foolish and arrogant, but his final choice affords him a measure of tragic dignity. Sophocles’ play asserts that humans have the freedom to determine the quality of their own characters, if not always the outcomes of their lives.
Sophocles foregrounds the issue of human freedom by setting the play long after the initial prophecy has been fulfilled. When the play opens, Oedipus has been living happily with Jocasta and their four children for many years. The people of Thebes revere him as a wise and brave leader, a man who “lifted up [their] lives” by defeating the Sphinx. Except for the arrival of the plague, Oedipus seems to have a happy, prosperous life. By beginning the play here, at the height of Oedipus’s success, Sophocles not only makes Oedipus’s fall more dramatic and extreme: He also shows that the crucial issue is not whether the prophecy will come true—it already did, long ago—but how the great Oedipus will personally handle the revelation of his crimes. Tellingly, no gods appear in Oedipus the King, only humans. No divine figure forces Oedipus to seek out Laius’s murderer or subsequently cast himself out of Thebes. The oracle from Apollo represents the only divine influence in the play, and even then several levels of human messengers stand between the god’s words and Oedipus’s ears.
Perhaps most telling, Oedipus himself doesn’t see himself as powerless. From the beginning, Oedipus has an overwhelming sense of his own, individual power, as indicated by his constant use of the first-person pronouns I and me. “I am the land’s avenger,” he claims at one point. “I came by, Oedipus the ignorant, / I stopped the Sphinx!” he exalts. Oedipus is a man of vigorous action, as demonstrated by the way he relentlessly pursues the truth, even as it becomes clear the truth may implicate him. When he finally learns that he unwittingly fulfilled the very prophecy he spent his life trying to avoid, Oedipus does not submit to the gods or surrender his agency. He does their bidding—he “drive[s] the corruption from the land”—but he takes the situation one step further by deciding to blind himself first. When the Chorus asks what “superhuman power” drove him to commit such a horrible act, Oedipus exclaims, “The hand that struck my eyes was mine, / mine alone—no one else— / I did it all myself!” Oedipus does not seek to escape his punishment, but he does assert his right to exact that punishment as he sees fit. Even as he is brought low, Oedipus refuses to relinquish power over his own life and body.
Oedipus was saddled with a terrible curse through no fault of his own. In this sense, his fate is arbitrary. His actions, however, are not. Oedipus cannot escape the specific points of the prophecy, but that prophecy only determines the limits of his freedom. Within its scope, he is free to act as he chooses. In this sense, Oedipus resembles his daughter Antigone, who must decide whether to exercise her personal choice and bury her brother, Polynices, despite the fact that the law will certainly condemn her to death. Though Oedipus the King and Antigone were written over two millennia ago, they continue to offer us models of how individuals can and must exercise their freedoms of choice, even in the face of such powerful forces as law, fate, or the gods.