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Fate Vs Human Agency in Oedipus Rex

The intrinsical link between Oedipus' character and his fate.

?Oedipus is a good King, but he instigates his own undoing?. Do you agree?

Sophocles? Oedipus Rex, written around 430BC, is typical of the Greek tragedy style theatre of the time in that it presents the audience with Oedipus, a good man, and encourages them to lament his tragic downfall. In order for the play to have this effect, Oedipus is clearly depicted as a good King. He is held in high regard, illustrated by the Theban Elders who declare in the first stazimon ?Never?will I consent/To think him other than good?, and his qualities that would have been deemed noble by the audience are consistently highlighted. Whether Oedipus instigates his own downfall is a much debated and for the most unsettled topic among critics, Sophocles leaving the audience with a rather ambiguous answer as to exactly what causes Oedipus? downfall. Was it his hamartia, his own choices and actions made through his fatally flawed agency? Or was it simply fate, determined by forces outside of human control? Perhaps the strongest argument suggests that fate and character are two intrinsically linked factors, so as Oedipus? character as well as forces outside his control contribute to his final tragic outcome.

Oedipus is clearly portrayed as a well intentioned and, as the Chorus (representative of his people) recognise him, the ?honoured King? of Thebes. He is held in high esteem by his people who obviously trust in his leadership by approaching him with a desperate need of saving from the ?city?s affliction?. He is even referred to with the reverential label of ?the first of men?. As a man of action he seeks to save the city of Thebes for a second time, having already saved it once from the Sphinx, and tells his people ?I would willing do anything for you?, demonstrating the responsibility he undertakes as King. He is pious in his advice seeking, first calling on the House of Apollo for answers and next summoning the oracle Teiresias. Even his earlier efforts to evade the prophecies (that he is to kill his father and marry his mother) as the story tells show only how seriously he regards them, and even went to the extreme of fleeing from whom he thought to be his parents. Oedipus? unwavering determination to seek the truth of his birth would have been considered a noble ambition; Socrates, an important philosopher at the time, famously supposed that ?the unexamined life is not worth living?, and after the truthful revelation the Chorus reflect this in saying, ?It would have been better to die than live in blindness?. It is important to recognise that Oedipus? greatest sins - that make him a ?shedder of father?s blood, Husband of mother?- were committed in metaphoric ?blindness?. Upon learning of them he is reduced to humbleness (saying of himself there is ?no man so damned? as opposed to his previous acceptance of being ?the first of men?), and taking responsibility for them he grotesquely blinds himself, ?Not by [Apollo?s] hand? but his own. This, as well as his final act of self-exile, demonstrates his respectable and worthy character.

Possibly Oedipus? greatest hamartia is also associated with his nobility of character: his relentless resolve to search for truth. This invariably contributes to his downfall. As the wise Teiresias bemoans, ?To be wise is to suffer?, such as Oedipus discovers in his exposure of his true identity to which he cries ?Oh Light (a metaphor for ?truth?)! May I never look on you again?. Throughout the play, Oedipus insists on continuing his journey of self-discovery, exclaiming, ?I must pursue this trail to the end?, despite being warned against it on three occasions. This incremental repetition, whereby first Teiresias attempts to dissuade him from his journey for knowledge, followed by the Shepherd and later a despairing Jocasta, highlights Oedipus? own agency fuelled by his strong determination. In turn, it is this persistence that brings him success in his quest for truth and thus reveals the ?vile? truth of his sins and leads to his tragic downfall. The audience knows from the start that Oedipus is an incestuous parricide although to the characters in the play he enjoys ?happiness earned with justice?. Yet it is only when he uncovers it to both himself and his people that it becomes ?too terrible for eyes to see? and ?calamity, death, ruin, tears and shame? are surfaced. Teiresias? wisdom ?When ignorance is bliss, ?tis folly to be wise? certainly must apply to Oedipus in his immovable decision to obtain knowledge.

As Sophocles presents the audience with Oedipus, a great man ? indeed one proposed to be the highest of all men ? whose actions have ignorantly and unintentionally fulfilled the oracles? prophecies which lead to his eventual downfall, it suggests that another force outside of human control is at work. The story tells that Oedipus has unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother, despite both his own and his parents? attempts to evade the prophecies. Jocasta, who sceptically lives under the impression that ?no man possesses the secret of divination?, and Oedipus, who believes ?the letter of the oracle is unfulfilled and lies?dead?, both become all too aware they were mistaken in their judgements. This pattern is also inherent in the form of the play, where at the beginning the truth is not apparent to the characters (excepting Teiresias, of inhumanly knowledge), the events leading up to action are seen to be a product of chance and the prophecies are doubted by Oedipus and Jocasta. At the play?s closure, the truth has taken on crystal clarity and there is doubtless support for the legitimacy of oracles (despite the Chorus? earlier comment ?that one knows more than another no man can surely say?) and it is suggested that to humans ?the future is all unknown? and they are blind to the order behind what fronts as ?chance?. Oedipus ironically calls himself ?the child of Fortune? and discovers how true and foreboding his claim really is, the mortified Chorus later enquiring, ?What demon of destiny with swift assault outstriding has ridden you down?? Their final reflection ?Behold, what a full tide of misfortune swept over his head, then learn that mortal man must always look to his ending? comments on the general significance to mankind of Oedipus? outcome, suggesting that there is a frightening insecurity to human life which is controlled by a force outside of our reach. In this way, it is possible to assert that Oedipus? undoing was not by his own accord but by ?that Law which leaps the sky?.

There is legitimate evidence to support the argument that Oedipus? human agency was the cause of his downfall, as well as for the argument that fate determined his demise. However, rather than one seeming more probable than the other, they do - almost paradoxically - co-exist. Although Oedipus does finally recognise the power of the gods and his subordinate and powerless status in face of them, he does not blame or curse them for his tragedy yet claims to be ?unwittingly self-cursed? and self-inflicts himself in punishment. He passively questions, ?What fate has come to me?? and declares, ?Apollo has laid this agony upon me? but ?not by his hand; I did it?. This suggests that his character and his fate are essentially inseparable aspects.

For Oedipus? ultimately fatal flaw to be his unfaltering dedication to the truth, a noble quality, it only reinforces his admirable - if humanly ignorant - nature that is implied by the other characters. His faults and misjudgements certainly do contribute to his undoing, although one must recognise that Sophocles writes of a man who is not only ruined through his own fault but by fate, the reason the Chorus ?will call no mortal creature happy?.

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