Tragedy of Fate or Character

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In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.


The dilemma of human sufferings is a very perplexing one. The question that always agitates our minds is why man suffers. Is he responsible for his sufferings, calamities, and misfortunes for his innate defects: Tragic Flaw; or these are the result of enmity of heavenly forces.

We also find this enigma in almost all great tragedies of Shakespeare. In King Lear, he says:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods

They kill us for their sports.
On the opposite, he says in Julius Caesar:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, for we are underlings.

Sophocles’ play ‘Oedipus Rex’ intensifies this perplexity in particular. Just like a common tragedy, the hero suffers in the long run but the readers cannot decide whether he suffers because of his ill luck or his own misdeeds. If we accept that he suffers because it was his destiny and he was not responsible for his actions, then he cannot be viewed as a tragic figure since he would be a mere puppet of fate in this case. According to Dr. Rhoda Sirlin, Oedipus’ explosive and volatile temper was his tragic flaw. It seems Oedipus’ inability to control his violent anger and extraordinarily suspicious, probing and inquisitive nature lead him to his final doom.

No doubt, Oedipus possesses superior qualities of head and heart. At the very start of the play, he proves that he is a sympathetic and magnanimous emperor of the Thebans. He calls the suffering people as “My Children”. In response to the people’s moaning, he says,

Not one is as sick as I,Each of you suffers in himself alone
But my spirit groans for the city,For myself, for you.
If strength, skill, determination, glory, great deeds of valour, strength and intellect are essential components of a hero, then Oedipus is essentially a great hero. He is one who believes;
There is no fairer duty, Than that of helping others in distress.
No doubt, Oedipus is impetuous and rash like King Lear, Suspicious like Othello and arrogant like Julius Caesar. The way he blasphemes the teachings of Greek gods and his derogatory treatment with Teiresias and his hubris may be responsible for the calamity that befalls him. Despite all these human limitations, indispensable to all human beings, we cannot pin all responsibility of calamity on Oedipus.

A bird’s eye view of the play clearly reveals that Oedipus Rex is a tragedy of fate and not a tragedy of character. His sufferings may be ascribed to the sadistic forces of Nature. How can we impeach him for Parricide and Incest when both these inveterate sins had been prophesied by Oracle even before his birth? As he himself says,

I have been preserved for some unthinkable fate.
At the injustice and cruel nature of gods, he cries out after blinding himself.
If I was created so, born to this fate,Who could deny the savagery of gods. Just like Julius Caesar who says,
What can be avoided
Whose end is purposed by mighty gods.

A perusal of the play substantiates that Oedipus is unfairly accused of parricide and incest. Just like King Lear, he is also, “More sinned against than sinning.” His elevation to the status of the king is not the result of any personal ambition. His matter of marriage to Jocasta is not his own choice. It was just a custom of the Theban society. He killed the king only in self defence which is permitted by and law of justice. Then where is man’s free will that the sages often clamour. How can we attribute both these sins to Oedipus in the presence of his piety and effort to shun these sins? He tells Jocasta that he was afraid of both these sins and wanted to run away from them.

I heard this and fled from that day
Corinth to me was only in the stars,
To a land where I should not see the evil.

Some critics attribute all suffering of Oedipus to...
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