Oedipus the King: A Tragedy of Fate
In his essay, On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex, E. R. Dodds states that, ‘Certain of Oedipus’ actions [parricide and incest] were fate-bound; but everything that he does on the stage from first to last he does as a free agent’ (42). The goal of this essay is to show that Dodds is wrong, and that Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is a tragedy of fate, not character.
E. R. Dodds' Viewpoint
This is how Dodds explains what he means when he says that ‘[c]ertain of Oedipus’ actions were fate-bound’:
'Even in calling the parricide and the incest “fate-bound” I have perhaps implied more than the average Athenian of Sophocles’ day would have recognized. As A. W. Gomme put it, “the gods know the future, but they do not order it: they know who will win the next Scotland and England football match, but that does not alter the fact that the victory will depend on the skill, the determination, the fitness of the players, and a little on luck.”'
'That may not satisfy the analytical philosopher, but it seems to have satisfied the ordinary man at all periods. Bernard Knox aptly quotes the prophecy of Jesus to St. Peter, “Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” The Evangelists clearly did not intend to imply that Peter's subsequent action was “fate-bound” in the sense that he could not have chosen otherwise; Peter fulfilled the prediction, but he did so by an act of free choice.' (42)
In other words, according to Dodds, to the average Athenian, the gods were no more than football pundits predicting the outcome of a match based on knowledge accrued in the past and present, and no more omniscient than Christ needed to be to foretell how someone he knew well (Peter) would conduct himself in a particular situation.
But when Oedipus receives the oracle that says he will kill his father and marry his mother in the future, there is nothing either in his past or in his present to suggest that he will ever commit such acts. Only an omniscient deity who knows the future can make such a prediction – and if the future can be known, it is predetermined.
The oracle of Apollo is also unlike the prophecy of Jonah. The Holy Bible relates that Prophet Jonah told the people of Ninevah that their city would be destroyed in forty days (Jonah 3.1-4). The people of Ninevah repented of their sins (5-9), so God forgave them, and did not destroy their city (10).
Oedipus the King opens with Oedipus asking a group of people why they are occupied in prayer and worship (1-6); many prayers are said to the gods (158-228, 898-941, 951-956) by various characters as the play progresses. But the possibility that prayer might avert or might have averted Oedipus’ terrible fate is never raised.
That, and the fact that the oracle itself forms a link in the chain of events that leads to Oedipus’ downfall, suggest that the gods themselves are fate-bound.
Comparison with the Witches' Prophecies in Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'
Oedipus does not react to the oracle that tells him that he will commit parricide and incest (817-821) with a start, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth does when the witches tell him that he will be king (I.iii.52), which indicates that the oracle does not articulate his innermost desires.
Unlike Macbeth, who agonizes over whether or not to kill King Duncan (I.vii.1-29), Oedipus never doubts that parricide and incest are always wrong.
Far from trying to prevent the witches’ prediction from coming true, Macbeth is unsure whether or not to leave things to fate: ‘If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me’ (I.iii.152).
Oedipus, by contrast, tells us that after hearing what fate held in store for him he ‘fled where nevermore mine eyes might see / The shame of those dire oracles fulfilled’ (824-825).
Having resolved to never return to Corinth, Oedipus migrates to Thebes where, as double insurance against the oracle’s coming true, he finds himself a wife and starts a family.
Even when he learns that the man he thinks is his father is dead (992), and that he is now king of Corinth, he declares in a heartbeat that as long as his mother lives, he will not go home (1039).
Despite all his efforts to avoid his awful fate, Oedipus ends up fulfilling Apollo’s prediction.
Laius receives an oracle that says his son will kill him (737), and sets about trying to keep it from coming true. He cannot kill his son because doing so would be sinful.
But he can abandon his infant, who is not yet three days old (744), on a lonely mountainside where he will be exposed to cold, hunger, and predator attacks (745), and he does.
As a further precaution, he has his son’s ankles pierced and pinned (746), even though it is impossible for a baby that is not even three days old to crawl to safety.
In spite of all these measures, he dies at his son’s hands (1229).
The only way Oedipus the King can be interpreted as a tragedy of character is if we can show that Oedipus’ downfall is caused by something other than his parricide and incest.
To that end, there have been many valiant efforts. E. R. Dodds, for example, believes that it was the discovery of Oedipus’ unwitting crimes, and not the crimes themselves, that caused Oedipus’ downfall, and that it was Oedipus’ goodness, and not a flaw in his personality, that brought about this discovery (43).
W. H. Hewitt argues Oedipus’ crime is to try ‘to outsmart the gods’ (44), while R. Drew Griffith argues that the ‘murder of Laius might justify part of Oedipus’ suffering’ (195).
Hindsight is Always 20/20
Hindsight is always 20/20, so it is easy to add to Oedipus’ list of crimes. For example, one could argue that he cares too much for the opinions of others: had he not allowed himself to be troubled by the rumours concerning his paternity in Corinth (813-814), he would not have consulted the oracle about his paternity (814-815).
Likewise, one could argue that Oedipus’ downfall is brought about by his belief that the use of torture is legitimate: if he had not used violence against the Shepherd (1188), he would not have found out about his (Oedipus’) origin (1229).
However, no character on stage says anything to support any of these theories. Moreover, Oedipus blinds himself because he cannot bear to face his parents in the next world, which suggests that no longer being able to live in blissful ignorance of his sins is the least of his worries.
When Oedipus relates how he killed an elderly man and several other men, no one on stage condemns him. Killing a man in self-defense is all very well, it seems, unless the man in question is a king.
It is impossible to see how accepting his fate (committing parricide and incest) would have helped Oedipus avoid his fate (committing parricide and incest).
Pride and Anger Responsible for Oedipus' Downfall?
Most common, of course, is the theory that Oedipus’ downfall is brought about by his pride and anger. That theory is not tenable: Oedipus does not kill his father and marry his mother because he is proud and rash, and his downfall does not come about for any reason other than the fact that he killed his father and married his mother.
Futility of Trying to Escape Fate
Moreover, if the very act of trying to avoid the fulfillment of an oracle can become a vital link in the chain of events that leads to its fulfillment, it is obviously futile to try to prevent such a chain from ever forming.
This means that critics who say, for example, that Oedipus should have adopted non-violence and celibacy after hearing the oracle, are missing the point. In such a case, among many other scenarios, Oedipus might have ended up killing Lucas and marrying Jocasta because of temporary amnesia brought on by a stroke, a stroke that might have been avoided if he had been married and had someone to look after him.
At any rate, he would not have been able to escape his fate.
What Will Be, Will Be
After Jocasta declares that she, for one, will ‘count all oracles as things of naught’ (889), the chorus voice their distress, and pray to Zeus to not let this trespass hide from him (935) if he deserves the name of sovereign ruler (932-933).
Here, the chorus seem to be both inside and outside the play: on the one hand, it is as if they no longer regard Oedipus and Jocasta as real people whose lives will be ruined if the prophecy comes true; on the other hand, the play matters to them, and they do want it to show that Zeus deserves the name of sovereign ruler.
Sophocles, however, has already written the ending of Oedipus the King; likewise, the gods have already written the ending of Oedipus the King. The chorus’ prayer is, therefore, unnecessary: what will be, will be.
Critics' Wishful Thinking
In his aforementioned essay, Dodds bemoans the fact that his students, a minority of whom expressed the view that Oedipus the King was a tragedy of destiny (37), ‘could read this great and moving play [Sophocles’ Oedipus the King] and so completely miss the point’ (38).
He is not alone in his way of thinking. ‘Time after time,’ mourns Kurt Fosso, in an essay titled ‘Oedipus crux: reasonable doubt in Oedipus the King’, ‘my main obstacle in teaching Sophocles’s Oedipus the King was my students’ pre-packaged conviction that the play was only a drama of fate with perhaps a dash of hubris.’
Possibly, these two professors - Dodds and Fosso - are themselves guilty of wishful thinking: they would like a work of genius like Oedipus the King to be a tragedy that shows human beings, not gods, in charge of life. Sophocles, however, seems to have had other ideas.
Dodds, E. R. “On Misunderstanding the ‘Oedipus Rex’” Greece & Rome 13.1 (1966): 37-49. Web.
Fosso, Kurt. “Oedipus crux: reasonable doubt in Oedipus the King.” 22 June 2012. Web. 3 July 2016.
God. The Holy Bible
Griffith, R. Drew. “Asserting Eternal Providence: Theodicy in Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” Illinois Classical Studies 17.2 (1992): 193-211. Web.
Hewitt, W. H. “The “Oedipus Tyrannus”: Sophocles and Mr Vellacott.” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory 23 (1964): 43-50. Web. 4 July 2016
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (Arden Shakespeare: Second Series). Ed. Kenneth Muir. 2nd Edition: Arden Shakespeare, 1997. Print.
Sophocles. Bartleby2015. Sophocles. 1909–14. Oedipus the king. Vol. 8, part 5. The Harvard classics. 1993. Web. 4 July 2016.