AP Literature and Composition / Period 7
24 October 2012
The Tragic Destiny of Oedipus
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is one of the most well- known tragic plays in existence. Oedipus, the King of Thebes, is the victim of a curse in which he must suffer the tragedy of his own unchangeable fate. The tragic heroism of Oedipus befalls him because of his heroic qualities and his loyalty to his Thebans and to himself. His unchangeable destiny affects so many others throughout the play. These others’ subsequent suffering that Oedipus brings upon them helps contribute to the tragic vision of the work as a whole.
Many provide insight on the fact that the gods or the fates destined Oedipus to kill his father and marry his mother; but, despite such questions, Sophocles answers them by implying that “it is bound to happen (Dodds).” In other words, Oedipus cannot evade his destiny. In spite of these differences in opinion, “all agree about the essential moral innocence of Oedipus (Dodds).” The question then is raised that if Oedipus is innocent to his “tragedy of destiny (Dodds),” is he simply a puppet to the gods’ will? The Greeks were predestined to “die on their appointed day (Dodds),” but this did not make them slaves to their destiny. “The gods know the future, but they do not order it (Dodds).” This leads readers to be fascinated by the path of destruction that Oedipus takes of his own free will. Nobody tells him to discover the truth. He has to. He is the king. His fate is sealed from his own “strength and courage, his loyalty to Thebes, and his loyalty to the truth (Dodds).” This following of loyalty caused others in his path to suffer it. Oedipus, in search of his destiny, kills a man who, unbeknownst to him, happens to be his own father and King of Thebes. This is essential because Oedipus is supposedly innocent to his tragedy of destiny. One can infer, then, that Laios’ death is of the will of the gods, not his own son. But then, if the gods do not order the future or man’s destiny, is the death of Laios the fault of Oedipus? This precise loyalty to truth leads Oedipus to marry his mother and kill his father, but everyone agrees that Oedipus is innocent. The fact that he does all these things without knowing what his tragic destiny holds in store for him, is tragic in and of itself.
Sophocles invokes a certain “ritual expectancy” which prepares his audiences to see his plays as “imitating and celebrating the mystery of human nature and destiny (Fergusson).” A direct view on the theme of the story would reveal the “changing image of human life and action (Fergusson)” in the Festival where Sophocles presents his plays. Unlike some plays whose characters “find no light in their suffering” and are bereft of “any objective moral or cosmic order (Fergusson),” Oedipus Rex illustrates both a literal meaning and a deeper understanding of meaning. By understanding and interpreting the play’s tragic rhythm, its “shifting situation, [and] the changing and developing characters and their reasoned or lyric utterances (Fergusson),” the suffering of the characters that Oedipus affects is revealed. Both Oedipus and Jocaste become jubilant over the thought that they had beaten Oedipus’ fate, but they are essentially pawns to the oracles that were right all along. The dramatically ironic occurrence of that which they tried to avoid (i.e. Oedipus marrying his mother) is revealed to be futile for one cannot change their tragedy of destiny. They both even show their ironic disbelief in oracles. Jocaste tells Oedipus that the oracles are powerless in order to make him feel better. In later lines, she prays to the very gods she just denounced. Oedipus becomes joyous when he learns of his pseudo- father’s death because it revealed to him that the gods and oracles were fallible. Despite this, Oedipus will not go back to Corinth just in case the prophecy still came true. Their calm...