The Role of Fate in the Downfall of Oedipus in 'Oedipus Rex'

For the Greeks, `Fate` means the foretelling of what will happen. It is the essential part of Greek tragedies and epics and in the case of `Oedipus Rex` it is not otherwise. As it is shown that the characters of the Greek tragedies are free but their freedom is tied with destiny. In the play `Oedipus Rex` fate plays an important role by controlling the destiny of the characters. It controls the characters, Jocasta, Laius and Oedipus, and pre-determines the major events in their lives. But in carrying out the plot Sophocles has shown that the characters are not altogether puppets in the hands of fate. As they are presented on the stage, they are free agents, freely choosing various actions.

The Function of  Fate in ” Oedipus Rex”

Long before the birth of Oedipus, it was announced from the Delphi that he would kill his father and marry his mother. All human beings through their kindness,intellect,inquiry and all other activities acted only to fulfill this prophecy. Here every character tries o trick the fate but ultimately realizes that the fate can not be tricked. As we have seen pity, cruelty, foresight and bravery have all been employed in trying to circumvent fate and have actually themselves woven into the web of fate. The cruel decision of Laius and Jocasta to expose the babe, the pity of the Herdsman who found it,the decision of Oedipus to give up his life as a king’s son by leaving Coriath- all have played their part in bringing about the fulfillment of the fate.              

The fate controls the character,Jocasta. Jocasta knew what the oracle had prophesied and went on to bear Laius’s child and then attempted to get round the consequences of the fate. She has even been willing to kill the child to forestall the horror of what he may do. She makes her decision and commits herself to a course of action which brings her doom upon her.  

The fate also seals the destiny of the character Laius. He did everything to prevent the fate which had been pronounced by the Delphi. He chained and handed over the child to a servant who passed it to a Corinthian shepherd, who passed the baby to the Corinthian king. The child grew up as the son of  Polybus and Merope,the king and queen of Corinth.Subsequently the child,  Odeipus killed his the father, Laius fulfilling the prophecy of the Oracle.

The fate also has the contribution in bringing about the tragedy in the life of Odeipus. He learnt the terrible prediction concerning him from the oracle and like his parents tried his utmost to avert such a fate. He fled from Corinth, determined never to set eyes on his supposed father and mother as long as they lived. Unfortunately, on the way of his journey, he killed his father ,king Laius, unknowingly. He also married the king’s widow.Jocasta, his real mother, after saving the city Thebes, from a frightful monster,Sphinx,who  was causing a lot of destruction. So the unavoidable fate has made Oedipus do two horrible crimes, killing his father and marrying his mother.

The occurrences which bring about the tragedy in the lives of Laius,Jocasta and Oedipus are the work of fate.All these characters performed the disastrous acts as a direct result of their efforts to escape the cruel fate which the oracle at Delphi had communicated to them. They are informed in advance that they will become the victims of certain shocking events. They take whatever measures they think of to avert those events but things turn out exactly as they had been foretold by the oracle.

According to Aristotle, the tragic hero must belong to a well-known family and his downfall is due to his error or hamartia .In this respect,Oedipus as a tragic hero does not meet the criterion .His downfall is fate- bound. Sooner or later he must fall from his position .It can be argued that his inquisition nature is responsible for his downfall.

But it is hard to say whether his inquisitive nature had originated, if the gods would have not sent a plague in the city Thebes and caused the search for the killer of the king.So in the downfall of Oedipus we see the humbling of a great man by the fate or gods. This treatment is not deserved by Oedipus.It is not a punishment for insolence nor it is due to any fault of judgment in man.The gods display their power because they must . Now it is vain to ask why Oedipus is punished fir sins of which he had no knowledge.Man may not cross question the gods and Oedipus has no such right.

But the argument has its other side. Oedipus is not a flawless person. He has many faults in his character. He is rash,hot-tempered,hasty in  forming judgments, easily provoked and very much inquisitive.Not all of his acts are pre-determined. He is a free agent freely choosing a series of actions which lead to his own ruin. The oracle’s prediction was unconditional; it did not say that if Oedipus did such and such a thing ,he would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus does many things to evade his fate, but unfortunately instead of delaying his acts precipitated his downfall.He failed to understand(blinded by the over-confidence)that not all difficulties are riddles to be solved by the application of pure intellect but that some are mysteries not to be solved at all.

Considering all the facts ,we can say that Oedipus is neither a free agent nor a mere victim of fate. The major events of his life are determined by fate, but his own acts such as fleeing from Corinth, killing an old man, marrying an aged woman,without knowing his whole identity,showing over-confidence and milking the shepherd for information all have contributed in precipitating the disaster.