14 December 2005
Although the existence of fate is arguable, for believers, one thing is certain: it is impossible to circumvent one’s fate. Although the choices on the road to that fate are every individual’s to make, one’s ultimate destiny is unavoidable.
Such is the premise of Oedipus Rex. Both Oedipus and his mother (who is also his wife), believe that they have escaped God’s prophecy that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. This, as revealed by the end of the play, is not so. Oedipus mistook his father for a stranger and murdered him and multiple servants, in addition to unknowingly marrying the woman who gave birth to him. “It is not from me your fate will come, that lies within Apollo’s competence. As it is his concern (21),” says Teirisias. Oedipus believes he has outwitted the Gods, but, in fact, a mere mortal’s destiny is out of his or her control and is influenced entirely by the Gods.
This idea of fate plays into Sophocles’ tragic vision of Oedipus Rex as a whole. While we have freedom in our lives to make choices, ultimately our fates are determined by the Gods and avoidance is impossible. The Gods cause events that are beyond our comprehension, leaving one to wonder: Why did I deserve this?
This age-old question is one of Aristotle’s elements of a tragedy. Why are we permitted to suffer? We question our fates and the reasoning behind them, but ultimately both knowledge and control are out of our hands.
Oedipus, who serves as a tragic hero in the work, is not the only character in the play that suffers as a result of his unavoidable fate. The townspeople of Thebes are cursed as punishment for Oedipus, and while they remain completely innocent, must pay for his actions.
Oedipus’ downfall is his excessive pride (hubris). While he is benevolent, admirable, and cares greatly for his people, his pride leads him to believe that he has the ability to outwit the Gods and escape his fate. This pride and the belief that he can avoid destiny is what ultimately incurs the wrath of the Gods upon his devastated people.
Oedipus attempts to make good and better the world but, being a tragic hero, his attempts at benevolence are more often malevolent, and his attempts at morality often produce evil.
The tragic hero, by definition, endures brutal suffering with no lack of courage, in addition to fearing nothing. Oedipus accepts the fact that he murdered his father and conceived children with his mother, however torturous these revelations prove to be. He even, in fact, blinds himself by the end of the work, where lesser men would have simply ended their own lives.
Oedipus also causes the undue suffering of Iocoste, his mother/wife. His inborn tragic fate not only causes Iocaste to lose her husband, but also to engage in sexual relations with her son. Iocaste is so distraught over the turn of events that she commits suicide, unable to live with the mess that has been made of her life.
…Then, by that bed
Where long ago the fatal son was conceived—
The son who should bring about his father’s death—
We heard her call upon Laios, dead so many years,
And heard her wail for the double fruit of her marriage… (68)
Iocaste’s suffering contributes to the tragic vision of the work in its entirety because it causes a necessary audience reaction in tragedy: pity. One cannot help feeling a great sympathy for Iocaste, who surely is undeserved of such a wretched fate. Moreover, it causes one to ponder: will my eventual fate be as cruel as Iocaste’s? The fact that Iocaste is a good and innocent person seems to have no impact on the severity of her fate. This in turn makes us all fearful of the path our own lives could take.
Oedipus’ state as a tragic hero is directly related to him murdering his father. Oedipus causes his father, Laios, great suffering when he violently takes his life. Laios is an admirable and upstanding King, seemingly undeserved of such a cruel fate. As is also essential to a tragedy, the reader is forced to contemplate why the Gods would support and allow suffering of such great magnitude.
Oedipus’ realization of his fate sets off a number of events which contribute to the total sense of tragedy in the work. Oedipus causes the undue suffering of his innocent people, his helpless mother, and his loving father. Oedipus Rex, as with any great tragedy, provokes catharsis and thought in all readers. The inherent morbidity and building tensions in the work allow the audience to free their minds, clear their heads, and ponder their own fates. One only hopes that the Gods, real or metaphorical, will refrain from imposing a destiny as cruel as Oedipus’ upon any of us.