Philosophy and literature have always tried to resolve the age-old conflict between free will. In fact, some philosophers believe that a human being is devoid of such gift as free will; such belief is often called fatalism. Our ability to cope with the overwhelming forces has always been disputed.
It seems that we will never be able to answer the question, whether all events are predetermined or not. Overall, it is just a matter of opinion. Probably, it would be prudent not to go to the extremes; a person always has the right to choose, and this allows him to overcome the vicissitudes of life.
As far as literature is concerned, it is quite possible to say that the tragedy “Oedipus the King” is arguably the most prominent work exploring this issue. It is based upon the myth of Oedipus. Sophocles’ plays are usually considered landmark examples of ancient Greek tragedy. Certainly, Sophocles is the author of many other famous tragedies like for instance “Ajax”, “Hermione”, “Troilus”, however, literary critics pay extra attention to “Oedipus”.
Certainly, there is no need to summarize the plot of the play, the main character kills his father and marries his mother. The question arises what lies behind this seemingly simple structure. The core of the play is the conflict between the overwhelming force and the human being. The author describes the attempts to deceive fate (whether it is possible at all), to change the predetermined course of actions.
We can ask ourselves a question whether Oedipus deserves his fate or not, but first, it is of crucial importance for us to ascertain whether the main character is a helpless puppet or not. At first glance, it may seem that he has no chance to avert the disaster. Probably, we should give this matter some consideration, because without it we will not get a clear idea of his personality.
First, it should be taken into consideration that the Delphi oracle only predicts future events; he does not make it happen. In addition to that, the oracle gives Oedipus the chance to choose. For example, no one compels Oedipus to kill his father, Laius, besides, his decision to take Jocasta as his wife is not in the least predetermined by some high power.
Thus, we can say that the main character can be held responsible for some of his actions. On the other hand, it should be borne in mind that Oedipus did not know the person, whom he had killed; moreover, he did not know that Jocasta is his mother. Perhaps, this is the key motif of the play, the conflict between fate and free will. It seems that even so, the author remained unresolved.
Speaking about Sophocles’ attitude to the main character, we should say that the author takes compassion on him, however, we can also observe that slight touch of irony. Naturally, it is not some kind of mockery, but the play contains several moments, that is a bit sardonic.
For example, Oedipus is desperately trying to find the murderer of Laius, but in fact, he is looking for himself. He is trying to ascertain, the cause of the plague that Olympic gods inflicted on Thebes, being unaware that he is the cause of this calamity.
If we analyze the relationships of the main character with the blind prophet Tiresias, we may also see the authors ironic attitude to the king. Oedipus doubts whether a blind (physically) man can know the truth, he does not know that unlike him Tiresias is perfectly sighted (mentally).
Moreover, at the very end of the tragedy, Oedipus chooses to blind himself. Probably, Sophocles constantly stresses this idea to show the so-called irony of fate. Even the plot of the play is slightly ironic. For example, the prophecy itself triggered such a course of action. If the main characters had ignored it, the tragedy, itself would have never occurred.
If we try to analyze the relationships between Oedipus and other characters, especially with Creon and Tiresias, we may arrive at the conclusion that the main character has a very strong desire for power.
When Creon tells Oedipus, the truth it seems to the main character that tries to organize a conspiracy against him. At first glance, it may seem that Creon is simply trying to help the king, that his main priority is the well-being of Thebes; however, at the very end of the play it becomes obvious that Creon also wishes to seize power. Thus, it is quite possible for us to say that there is some rivalry between them, although it is not explicitly stated by Sophocles.
It is worth mentioning that even the name of the play is to a certain degree symbolic because it can be translated into English as “Oedipus the Tyrant”. In ancient Greece, this word meant the ruler, whose authority lacks the sanction of law. On the one hand, Oedipus is the rightful successor of the throne, on the other hand, he is the usurper, who killed his father and seized the power. This is also one of the most controversial issues in the play.
Another recurrent theme in the play is the interplay between vision and blindness. It can be interpreted in the metaphorical and literal sense. For example, Oedipus is renowned for his foresight and the ability to predict the course of actions; he is considered a very prudent ruler; in fact, he is the one in the dark.
In spite of all his sagacity and all his efforts to avert the disaster, prophesized by the oracle, the tragedy, Oedipus is unable to see, that he is making it happen. As we have already mentioned, he is contemptuous about Tiresias, believing that he is lying or probably mistaken.
The word blindness in this case can be interpreted from various points of view, like physical and mental blindness. The two characters, Oedipus and Tiresias represent this interplay. It should be mentioned that Tiresias actually knows the truth but the king or the tyrant (as it would be better to say) does not believe him. Probably, the main message that the author wants to convey is that every human being can be mistaken in his judgment. Moreover, we should never disregard the opinion of other people and we should never be one hundred percent sure because it is the most blatant mistake we can make.
At the very end of the play, when Oedipus discovers the truth he prefers to blind himself, unlike his mother and wife, who committed suicide. The question arises why the main character did not follow her example. In fact, suicide could have given him oblivion, which he needed so much. There can be several explanations for this fact. First, one should bear in mind, that Oedipus is a very strong person, unlike his wife, who preferred death.
Again, we are able to see the interplay between physical and mental blindness. It seems to him that blindness can actually give him peace of oblivion. Perhaps, Oedipus believes that ignorance is blissful and physical blindness is some kind of an escape for him. In addition to that, we may suppose, that Sophocles blinds his character in order to show that the transition from physical to mental blindness.
Overall, Oedipus produces an impression of a very strong person, who has to fight against insuperable odds and suffers defeat. Moreover, he is the person who is desperately trying to discover the truth and in the meantime, he always remains in the dark.
Additionally, he is trying to avert the disaster and cause it at the same time. Perhaps, Sophocles wants to tell us that our actions can have a great number of consequences. We should understand that there is a golden mean between fate and free will. Oedipus always tried to prove that he was the master of his life. As we can see, this self-confidence doomed him to failure. It will not be an exaggeration to say that Oedipus is the most controversial figure in the history of Ancient Greek literature and mythology.
Sophocles, Stephen Berg, Diskin Clay. Oedipus the King. Oxford University Press US, 1978.