Fate and Gods
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The Greeks believed in fate and the gods, and the plays unfolds in such a way that it seems that Oedipus had no choice but to succumb to his fate. One can say that there was nothing the characters could do to escape what had been fated for them: as told by the seer of Apollo, who is privy to information from the gods themselves. If life is seen in this light, it can be argued that people have no free will and are bound to the paths that have been charted for them by higher beings i.e. the gods. This would mean that whatever a person does, he/she cannot escape his/her own fate. Humans would then be nothing but toys or objects owned by the gods who play with them according to their whims. Sophocles brings out the characters as people in power, who have influence and the will to choose anything they want. Jocasta and Laius are royalty and as a result are in control of their lives in almost every aspect. They are the rulers of their kingdom and therefore they are not obligated to adhere to any other person’s rule or command - they are at the top of the command chain or so it seems. However, the revelation of the seer that the son that they have borne is set to kill his father and marry his mother is something that does not fit them well. This message coming from the seer can be seen as a direct message from the gods concerning their fate. They try to change this fate using the power at their disposal: ordering the death of the infant. This is a choice that can only be made by someone with considerable power and is a direct challenge to the fate that has been handed down to them by the gods. This was their attempt to change the fate.
However, even though seemingly not by direct influence of the gods, the story pans out in such a manner that what had been predicted comes into being. The herdsman does not kill the baby out of the goodness of his heart and the guilt that he knows he will have afterwards. His actions, and also those of the messenger in facilitating the arrival of Oedipus in the household of Polybus, are not driven by external influence or compelled by the gods, but rather are a result of their own human nature of compassion and kindness. The death of Laius from Oedipus’ hand was also not an extraordinarily deviation from the norm, since at that time Oedipus did not know that this was his father. The confrontation between them was as the one that happens between enemies who do not know each other and are fighting for the very fact that they have come to a misunderstanding. Even though the seer had said that Oedipus would kill his father, and this had been interpreted as it would have been a conscious choice, it comes to pass albeit without even Oedipus himself knowing what he has done. The other part of the prophecy, regarding the marriage to his own mother, also happens in ignorance as both of them do not know the truth of their pasts.
The actions of Oedipus and also the other characters in the play show that it is not necessarily the gods’ making an effort to make sure that their will is carried out, but rather an unfortunate occurrence done out of ignorance. It cannot be said that there was no way in which Oedipus’ fate could have been averted, the fulfillment of the prophecy was a result of a string of coincidences.
The play ends with Oedipus experiencing a dramatic catharsis, or cleansing of his spirit. This is a stylistic device of Greek literature that was used to show an extreme change in emotion or point of view of a person. The king, who had been confident and fearless about the fact that he was trying to uncover information that had been kept secret for a very good reason, is now devastated and remorseful. He gouges out his eyes in the ultimate show of his remorse and willingness to punish himself for the abominable actions that he has done out of ignorance.
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