Tragedies in Oedipus the King, written by Sophocles

Is man free to mould his own destiny, or is he a mere thread on the spool of life the Fates, the three female deities of Greek Mythology, cut? Can in fact man, determine his life based on his own free will or will he be subject to the web that is weaved for him?  The force, which controls the path of man, has been a long survived question.  This inquiry remains unanswered, yet consist of many explanations. Plato and Aristotle both felt that a world in which fate ruled completely could not be a good world. In such a realm, man could not be held responsible for his actions. Whether good or bad, he could not therefore be blamed. This idea was supported by their fellow Greeks and can be seen in the tragedies of ancient Greece such as Oedipus the King, Antigone, and Medea. Life is seen as a fate determined by the person and their choices rather than by the gods. This path the character takes, is often directed by the character’s flaws or the great error he makes, often leading to his downfall.

Oedipus the King, written by Sophocles, starts off describing the famine, disease and poverty stricken Thebes. The town is in ruins because of a great error made by Oedipus. He had followed the specific prediction of the oracle he had originally tried so hard to change. This error being he killed his father and married his mother. Due to his character flaws, he had made decisions that soon led to his inevitable destruction. Upon meeting the King of Thebes at the crossing of three roads, his arrogance and temper resulted in the death of Oedipus’s father, the King of Thebes.  Passing through the City of Thebes, he ended up marrying Jocasta, his mother. Both are puzzled with who murdered King Laius. They send for a prophet, yet because of Oedipus’s lack of patience and blindness, he is unable to listen to the words spoken of Tiresias, the blind prophet. Oedipus had then, because of his temper, condemned the man who killed King Laius and said that what was going to happen to him would be worse than death. In reality he had damned himself and shunned himself away from the very city he had thought as his own. The truth is soon revealed, which leads to the death of Jocasta and the pity and remorse the chorus feels for Oedipus as he suffers from what he finally learned to be true.

An additional tragedy written by Sophocles, Antigone, expresses the same opinion of fate being determined by the character. Creon, Antigone’s uncle, had gone against the gods and refused to bury Polyneices. This refusal was due on behalf of his pride. He wanted to support those who defended Thebes and in return, disregard those who were against his city. Yet this unwillingness to bury Polyneices, obeyed Creon’s law rather than the law of the gods, thus soon to become a great mistake on Creon’s behalf. Later, finding out that Antigone was behind the forbidden burial of her brother, Creon ordered her captivity and slow death. Tiresias, the blind prophet, once again enters to tell Creon of the great error he had made. Creon, like Oedipus, was unable to learn from the words spoken of the prophet, due to his pride and overbearing ego. This in return, resulted in the death of Creon’s son as Tiresias had stated from before, “A corpse for a corpse the price, and flesh for flesh- one of your own begotten.” Enlightenment was later seen by Creon, yet it was too late. Only his exile remained.

Medea, written by Euripides, is another Greek Tragedy that represented the power man had over his life. Jason, the husband of Medea, determined his fate and downfall specifically because of his faults. His greediness lead to his power hungry mind. He wanted the prestige and domination that he could have, being the heir to King Creon. Jason then left his wife for King Creon of Cornith’s daughter, disregarding all that Medea had done for him. He abused his love with Medea, which clearly caused her madness. She in turned poisoned Jason’s new bride and killed his two sons. Jason, once of an arrogant and overly self-confident nature, was now left without anyone.

Throughout history of human thought, man has struggled with the question: is man a meaningless pawn on a chessboard controlled by universal forces, or does he have power on his own fate based on the decisions he makes?  Both, Plato and Aristotle, acknowledged the existence in the universe of certain laws of the gods that must be obeyed, yet they were not willing to give all of the power of one’s fate to these universal forces. If they had, no room would be left for free will, while man would have no responsibility of their own actions.  The followers of Plato and Aristotle inevitably included the philosophers’ ideas in their writings. Looking at the downfalls of Oedipus, in Oedipus the King; Creon, in Antigone, and Jason, in Medea, fate is a product of character, not planned by the gods, but foreseen due to the character traits of each individual person.

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