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“Oedipus Rex” Tragedy Play by Sophocles

Becoming one of the most well-known Greek tragedies, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is a sophisticated playwright masterpiece. Written in 430 BC, exploring so many aspects of the human condition, the play’s themes are applied through the centuries. In the tragedy, Oedipus is ultimately responsible for his demise, even though fate uncontrollably brought him to certain circumstances, it was through free will that he chose to act so that he could escape the prophecy, ironically leading to its fulfilment and the conclusion of his rule.

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The concept of fate was a popular motif in Greek tragedies. At this time in history, Greek gods were a pantheon of worship, while the oracles were their incarnations on Earth. Prophecies were highly sought after as the oracles believed to be carriers of ultimate wisdom. In the play, Oedipus, wanting to know the truth about his parentage, describes going to the oracle of Delphi, and receiving the prophecy, “I would be my mother’s lover/…and be his murderer whose seen I am” (794-796). Before the play’s events, King Laius received a prophecy that his son will murder him. Therefore, when Oedipus was born, he was sent to be killed, and only by fate did he survive and find a home in Corinth. Both men tried to escape their prophesized fate, driven by fear. When Oedipus does arrive at his homeland, he is greeted and made the king. Oedipus marries Jocasta, his biological mother, without realising what he is doing. By attempting to escape the prophecy, Oedipus fulfilled it fully, ending up where he was fated to be.

The exploration of free will in Western philosophy began with ancient Greeks. At the time, determinism was a popular philosophy, a belief that nothing is random and there is a reason (known as logos) behind each event and action. The projected chain of events was already predetermined and predicted such by the prophets. Thus, followers of both blind religious belief and reason were convinced that the events transcribed were meant to happen. Although Oedipus does have a choice, it is a choice that is already predetermined, not by him, but by the Greek gods that were believed to control people like puppets. In comparison to theater, where the playwright has full control over the characters, they are puppets that cannot ultimately make their choice despite the illusion that they can. It strongly contradicts the modern outlook on free will, where even in religious communities, a person is ultimately responsible for the choices he makes. These decisions are judged based on morality and have consequences one way or another. When looking at Oedipus Rex from a modern perspective, the plot is a situation that is very morally ambiguous. Oedipus as a human is in a terrible situation without at first knowing the horror of his position. The ultimate choice for Oedipus came at the crossroads, a symbol for decision-making in literature. Giving in to anger, he killed King Laius, the biological father. Then upon arriving at Thebes, Oedipus made a choice to settle down and become king, taking Jocasta as his wife. At this point, he sealed his fate, long before the start of events in the actual play.

In Greek tragedies, the hero often possesses a tragic flaw, known as hamartia. In dramatic literature, this device is used to achieve catharsis. The character’s downfall, from being king to losing everything he had, blinding himself, and being banished, is an extent of that catharsis. It serves the purpose of bringing out emotion and morality in the audience. Oedipus’ tragic flaw was perhaps his hubris, excessive pride and arrogance. Evident in by the fact that he chooses to assault and kill King Laius over an incident on the road, the choice that ultimately set him on this path. From the very first lines of the play, we see his hubris, “I, Oedipus, a name that all men know” (8). The hubris that Oedipus exemplifies can be tied in with free will. He attempts to unravel more and more about the past and the mystery of Laius’ death, that it becomes his undoing. Despite many pleadings from Jocasta and hidden warnings from the Chorus, Oedipus persists, because in his hubris as a great king and slayer of the Sphinx, he believes in his innocence. “With clues like this within my grasp, give up? Fail to solve the mystery of my birth” (1061-62)? While the common idiom “ignorance is bliss” can be applied here, according to Greek reasoning Oedipus did the right thing by taking the path of knowledge and self-exploration. In the end, Oedipus concedes, that despite all the circumstances in his life being fated, it is he who chose to blind himself as punishment for his deeds. A true moment of free will throughout the whole play, but also an example of his hubris perhaps, for it seems like Oedipus is attempting to portray himself as a martyr, fated to the life of misfortune.

Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is a complex play, meant to evoke and challenge the audience’s sense of morality when analysing its characters. It presents a confrontation between fate and free will. Although affected by fate, Oedipus is responsible for his personal downfall, because of the actions he committed through free will, his persistence to uncover the horrors of the past, and ultimately his hubris which led to the demise. Oedipus is not bound by destiny, but rather the knowledge of his fate which drives him upon the set path.

Work Cited

Kirszner, Laurie G., and Stephen R. Mandell. Portable literature: reading, reacting, writing. Boston, MA, Cengage Learning, 2016.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, December 21). “Oedipus Rex” Tragedy Play by Sophocles. https://studycorgi.com/oedipus-rex-tragedy-play-by-sophocles/

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"“Oedipus Rex” Tragedy Play by Sophocles." StudyCorgi, 21 Dec. 2021, studycorgi.com/oedipus-rex-tragedy-play-by-sophocles/.

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