Destiny, Fate, Free Will and Free Choice in Oedipus the King

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The Concept of Fate in Oedipus Rex

To the first-time reader of Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex, it seems that the gods are in complete domination of mankind. This essay will seek to show that this is not the case because the presence of a tragic flaw within the protagonist is shown to be the cause of his downfall.

In the opening scene of the tragedy the priest of Zeus itemizes for the king what the gods have done to the inhabitants of Thebes:

A blight is on our harvest in the ear,

A blight upon the grazing flocks and herds,

A blight on wives in travail; and withal

Armed with his blazing torch the God of Plague

Hath swooped upon our city emptying

The house of Cadmus, and the murky realm

Of Pluto is full fed with groans and tears.

The power of the gods seems quite awesome in their ability to inflict great injuries such as these on the population. King Oedipus, seeing Creon returning from the oracle at Delphi, addresses a brief prayer to King Apollo as the ultimate source of assistance in time of trial: “O King Apollo! may his joyous looks /Be presage of the joyous news he brings!” Creon brings to Thebes the message of the gods from the oracle: “Let me report then all the god declared. /King Phoebus bids us straitly extirpate /A fell pollution that infests the land, /And no more harbor an inveterate sore.”

The gods know that Oedipus is a “pollution,” a “sore,” which must be gotten rid of, expelled from Thebes. Charles Segal in Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge supports this view:

In his growing strength Oedipus begins to act as the ritual scapegoat, the pharmakos, the figure who is ritually laden with all...

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...s Rex, edited by Michael J. O’Brien. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Sophocles” In Literature of the Western World, edited by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. NewYork: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1984.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Transl. by F. Storr. no pag. new?tag=public&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&part=0&id=SopOedi


- Spengler, Oswald. “Tragedy: Classical vs. Western.” In Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Woodard. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.

Van Nortwick, Thomas. Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

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