Oedipus the King: Free Will or Fate?

Oedipus the King: Free Will or Fate?

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Oedipus the King: Free Will or Fate?


A common debate that still rages today is whether we as a species have free will or if some divine source, some call it fate, controls our destiny. The same debate applies to Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. Does Oedipus control his actions, or are they predetermined by the gods? It’s that question that makes Oedipus a classic, and many different people think many different things.

With all the oracles and talk of prophecies, its obvious that there is some divine intervention in Oedipus. But how strong is it, and how much control does Oedipus really have? Fate, or divine will, manifests itself in a number of ways. First, in Oedipus at Colonus, there is the oracle at Delphi that tells Oedipus’s parents and then himself that he will kill his father and marry his mother. It does end up happening, proving divine intervention occurs. Later, the prophet Tiresias tells Oedipus exactly what the oracle did, making himself another example of divine will, that is, the gods speak through him.

Divine intervention is abundant in Oedipus at Colonus, too. In it, Oedipus tries to gain sympathy for himself by saying all the sins he committed in the previous play were the work of fate, thus proving the point of divine intervention in Oedipus the King. There are examples of divine intervention that are only in Oedipus at Colonus, like all the prophecies from the oracle. First, it is said that the city Oedipus is buried in will be blessed forever. Second, it is told that whoever has Oedipus on their side for the war will win. Lastly, it predicts that Oedipus’s sons will kill each other in battle. All three prophecies come true, thus proving the existence of divine intervention.

Divine intervention is definitely present, but free will has its place too. Before the play even starts, Oedipus makes the choice to leave his “parents” and move to Thebes. He then chooses, though ruled by anger, to kill an old man blocking his path, who later is discovered to be his real father, King Laius. Sure, it was fate that made Oedipus kill his father, but free will that made him kill Laius that day, in that way.

After discovering she married her son, Jocasta makes the choice to kill herself. Nothing intervened or predicted her death, it was her choice.

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In Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone makes the choice to stick with her father through his hard times, and help him travel the land. Another example of free will is Theseus’s decision to be kind to Oedipus and to let him stay in Athens. His good will pays off, because of the prophecy that the city that buries Oedipus is blessed. All of these are examples that free will does exist in the play, but to what extent?

I believe that Sophocles believed in both fate and free will, but really that man has free will, it just exists within fate and the limitations that go along with it. So man makes his own choices, but not if they go directly against fate. That is, fate exists, but ultimately man makes his own decisions and bears the responsibility for them. The ending is already determined, but free will decides how one gets there. Choices made along the road are yours and yours alone, but the gods have already decided where you’re going.

Ultimately, Oedipus’ real mistake isn’t killing his father and marrying his mother, its trying to go against the gods and fate. That is why he’s cursed in Oedipus the King, and in Oedipus at Colonus he learns from his mistake, accepts his fate, and dies peacefully.
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