Oedipus Rex

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Fate vs. Free Will Theme Analysis

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Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
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The ancient Greeks believed that their gods could see the future, and that certain people could access this information. Prophets or seers, like blind Tiresias, saw visions of things to come. Oracles, priests who resided at the temples of gods—such as the oracle to Apollo at Delphi—were also believed to be able to interpret the gods' visions and give prophecies to people who sought to know the future. During the fifth century B.C.E., however, when Sophocles was writing his plays, intellectuals within Athenian society had begun to question the legitimacy of the oracles and of the traditional gods. Some of this tension is plain to see in Oedipus Rex, which hinges on two prophecies. The first is the prophecy received by King Laius of Thebes that he would have a son by Queen Jocasta who would grow up to kill his own father. The second is the prophecy that Oedipus received that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Laius, Jocasta, and Oedipus all work to prevent the prophecies from coming to pass, but their efforts to thwart the prophecies are what actually bring the prophecies to completion.

This raises a question at the heart of the play: does Oedipus have any choice in the matter? He ends up killing his father and marrying his mother without knowing it—in fact, when he is trying to avoid doing these very things. Does he have free will—the ability to choose his own path—or is everything in life predetermined? Jocasta argues that the oracles are a sham because she thinks the prediction that her son would kill her husband never came to pass. When she finds out otherwise, she kills herself. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus has fulfilled his terrible prophecy long ago, but without knowing it. He has already fallen into his fate. One could argue that he does have free will, however, in his decision to pursue the facts about his past, despite many suggestions that he let it go. In this argument, Oedipus's destruction comes not from his deeds themselves but from his persistent efforts to learn the truth, through which he reveals the true nature of those terrible deeds. Oedipus himself makes a different argument at the end of the play, when he says that his terrible deeds were fated, but that it was he alone who chose to blind himself. Here, Oedipus is arguing that while it is impossible to avoid one's fate, how you respond to your fate is a matter of free will.

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Fate vs. Free Will Quotes in Oedipus Rex

Below you will find the important quotes in Oedipus Rex related to the theme of Fate vs. Free Will.
Lines 1-340 Quotes
Here I am myself—
you all know me, the world knows my fame:
I am Oedipus.
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker)
Page Number: 7-9
Explanation and Analysis:

In the play’s opening lines, Oedipus introduces himself with this flourishing pronouncement. He accentuates how all those he speaks to would already know of him.

Oedipus’s language is a somewhat jesting take on a traditional character introduction. First he declines to give his name, saying just “I am myself,” which stresses the singularity and importance of his identity. Then, saying “you all know me,” he establishes that this “myself” needs no introduction for the priests in his attendance. When he qualifies this point saying, “the world knows my fame,” he expands his notoriety beyond just the immediate group to refer to a more universal renown. Only at the end of the passage does he finally speak his name, implying that it is relatively less important than the social identity constructed through his prestige. Sophocles immediately establishes the fact that Oedipus is already a celebrated hero: this tragedy will tell not of his epic ascent but rather of his tragic fall. These lines also have a second layer of significance directed toward the audience: at Sophocles’ time, Greek citizens would have been well acquainted with Oedipus’s story, so when Oedipus says “you all know me,” he is referring to both characters in the play and real viewers outside of it. Though modern readers or theater-goers come to the story of Oedipus primarily through Sophocles’ work, the myth was already an important part of Greek culture and mythology by the time Sophocles was writing. This fact is important to keep in mind when analyzing how Sophocles designs the dramatic action: the actual conclusion of Oedipus’s story would already be known for a Greek audience, and thus the merit of the play came from how it could best treat the tension leading up to that realization.

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If ever, once in the past, you stopped some ruin
launched against our walls
you hurled the flame of pain
far, far from Thebes—you gods,
come now, come down once more!
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 186-189
Explanation and Analysis:

The chorus enters suddenly into the play’s action. They beg the Gods to come to aid the city as they have before.

A chorus’s role is essential in every Greek tragedy: they function as an analog for the audience within the play—a general public that watches the events unfolding and helps articulate their significance to the actual audience. Here, the chorus has a specific identity: members of the city of Thebes who specifically wish for their city to be saved. As a result, they are not entirely omniscient—they haven't yet heard Creon’s news from the oracle, in this case—but will gain information as it is explained to the public of Thebes.

Even as the priests ask Oedipus, a mortal man, for help, the chorus members turn their pleas to higher powers, directly imploring the gods to “come now, come down” to their aid. This language showcases the Greek belief that the gods intervened directly in human affairs and could take on corporeal bodies to do so. Intriguingly, the chorus’s plea makes references to past interventions with the lines “if ever, once in the past” and “once more!” These references imply that the gods have directly changed the fate of Thebes before—and that those past events signify that they have a continued obligation to do so. Thus the chorus’s speech points to the intimate relationship between divine and mortal realms, which in turn means an intimate relationship between fate (the will of the gods) and free will (the will of humans).

Thebes, city of death, one long cortege
and the suffering rises
wails for mercy rise
and the wild hymn for the Healer blazes out
clashing with our sobs our cries of mourning—
O golden daughter of god, send rescue
radiant as the kindness in your eyes!
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 211-217
Explanation and Analysis:

The chorus continues to lament the current decrepit state of Thebes. They narrow their earlier general call for help from the gods to one toward a specific deity (seemingly Artemis, a daughter of Zeus, although she is only one of a litany of gods and goddesses called upon by the Chorus).

Sophocles’ language here is highly lyrical: that Thebes is deemed “city of death” shows how horrifically it has been affected by the plague, and the phrase “one long cortege” presents it as a single funeral procession for its demise. The next two lines put into parallel “suffering rises” and “wails for mercy rise,” playing on the term “rise” to mean both increasing and lifting through the air toward the gods. The chorus then describes their own laments and the role they play in the cacophony of Thebes: a mix of ”wails for mercy,” “wild hymn,” and “cries of mourning.” Thus we have the combination of horror and entreaties for aid, being described by the very public performing the acts themselves. Before, the chorus’s request for help was addressed to a general divine realm, but they ask here specifically for “the Healer.” This speaks to the greek belief that specific gods played particular roles on earth and in heaven—and that each was bestowed with a set of properties to be called upon when needed. The references to “kindness in your eyes” also bears noticing considering the importance of vision throughout the play. Indeed, the salvation of Thebes will come through “eyes”—yet its radiance will be the cruelty that gouges out Oedipus’s eyes in order to absolve the city of its crime.

Now my curse on the murderer. Whoever he is,
a lone man unknown in his crime
or one among many, let that man drag out
his life in agony, step by painful step—
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker)
Page Number: 280-283
Explanation and Analysis:

Having learned that the plague is a punishment for the murder of Laius, Oedipus here condemns the killer. He spitefully demands that his life be drawn out in extended pain rather than lived freely or ended quickly.

For an audience familiar with the Oedipus story, these lines unwittingly predict the tragic hero’s fate. Oedipus highlights how the actual identity of the murderer does not matter to him, whether he has committed many crimes before or whether this is his first. The phrase “unknown in his crime” implies that the murderer may not even be aware of what he has done, which is the precise situation in which Oedipus finds himself. That Oedipus’s curse demands he “drag out his life in agony” speaks to a certain type of vengeful cruelty: the victim is not supposed to merely receive punishment or death, but rather experience a torturous decline (as Oedipus himself will).

This passage brings up a point of much contention in analyses of this play: does Oedipus bring his fate upon himself? Here, the protagonist seems to have cursed himself and demanded his own torturous death—which would make the play’s plot his own fault. In this case, Oedipus is not just at the whims of destiny and the gods, but rather lives a tragic life due to human action and free will. The tension between these two poles—fate and human agency—remains a central problem to the play, and it begins already in this famous curse.

Lines 341-708 Quotes
Did you rise to the crisis? Not a word,
you and your birds, your gods—nothing.
No, but I came by, Oedipus the ignorant,
I stopped the Sphinx! With no help from the birds,
the flight of my own intelligence hit the mark.
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker), Tiresias
Page Number: 449-453
Explanation and Analysis:

Tiresias and Oedipus begin to fight, each insulting the other about the way they have been negligent of Thebes. Here, Oedipus reprimands Tiresias for not having intervened when Thebes was previously crippled by the Sphinx.

Oedipus juxtaposes the roles of divine and human intervention. He aligns Tiresias with “your birds, your gods”—the first which stands for auguries (observing the actions of birds to predict the future), the second which explicitly links him to the divine. But Oedipus claims ”nothing” came from this spiritual realm, whereas it was “Oedipus the ignorant” who was successful. His ignorance is set in contrast with the “help from the birds”—the foresight permitted by reading divine signs—and Oedipus thus implies that his “own intelligence” has merit even if it is not derived from divine prophecy. He was able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx through his own mental acuity alone, without the aid of the gods.

Oedipus's statement is actually quite blasphemous, for it elevates his human intelligence above divine providence. Again, he displays himself to be deeply proud, assuming that his previous accomplishments have given him a status that cannot be challenged by others, even the gods. This fault speaks, itself, to the limits of Oedipus’s “intelligence,” for while he may be shrewd and clever, he has no wisdom when dealing with others and thus cannot prevent his fate.

No man will ever
be rooted from the earth as brutally as you.
Related Characters: Tiresias (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 488-489
Explanation and Analysis:

Tiresias speaks these condemning lines as his argument with Oedipus escalates. He predicts that Oedipus will suffer a horrifying end to his life.

This language is actually remarkably similar to that used by Oedipus earlier in the play. Recall that Oedipus cursed the murderer of Laius to “drag out his life in agony, step by painful step,” which highlighted the way the killer would die slowly and in agony. That Tiresias evokes, similarly, the way Oedipus will die “brutally” reiterates how they are actually speaking about a single person: Oedipus is the murderer of Laius, whom he himself has cursed. Tiresias’s pronouncement is thus less a new prophecy than a reiteration of what Oedipus himself has already brought into motion.

It is a typical technique of Sophocles to have characters make similar pronouncements about people or events that they believe to be different, but are actually the same. It creates a dramatic irony in which the audience knows that Oedipus had cursed himself, just as Tiresias curses him here—even when Oedipus is unaware of this equivalence. The technique also further blurs the lines between human action and fate—for here Tiresias seems, as a divine figure, to bring about Oedipus’s destiny. But he only does so after Oedipus’s aggression has forced Tiresias to do so.

Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich,
he will grope his way toward a foreign soil,
a stick tapping before him step by step.
Related Characters: Tiresias (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 517-519
Explanation and Analysis:

After pronouncing that Oedipus will suffer a terrible end, Tiresias tells this riddle about the killer of Laius. He describes the pitiful way the killer’s life will end.

As is characteristic in the play, the elements of the prophecy will be easily recognized by anyone who knows the Oedipus story. “Blind who now has eyes” refers to the way Oedipus will gouge out his own eyes once he learns of his crimes, while “beggar who now is rich” foretells how he will fall swiftly from king to vagrant. As before, Tiresias uses Oedipus’s own language—“step by step”—from the king’s earlier curse on the killer of Laius. Here, Tiresias uses the phrase more literally to refer to the way Oedipus will, once he is blinded, move slowly away from Thebes as an outcast.

That Tiresias has left Oedipus with a riddle recalls the hero’s own triumph when he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. In a sense, Tiresias is offering a second test to Oedipus’s character: perhaps if he were able to solve this relatively straightforward riddle, he could avoid his fate. That he cannot do so speaks to how extensively Oedipus has been blinded by his pride—to the point that he cannot perform the same task that garnered him acclaim in Thebes to begin with. Sophocles thus renders Oedipus's tragic downfall the result of not just any character flaw, but rather one that undermines his defining heroic characteristic: intelligence.

Lines 709-997 Quotes
Listen to me and learn some peace of mind:
no skill in the world,
nothing human can penetrate the future.
Related Characters: Jocasta (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 780-782
Explanation and Analysis:

Jocasta gives this consoling speech after Oedipus recounts his interaction with Tiresias. She claims that prophets have no real knowledge of events to come, and that Oedipus therefore should not be disturbed by what Tiresias has said.

These lines make a sharp division between the human and divine realms: Jocasta associates “skill” with “human,” both of which contrast with the providence of the “future.” Much like Oedipus praised his intelligence over the bird auguries of Tiresias, Jocasta claims that human skill can only affect the current state of affairs and cannot “penetrate” or enter any zone beyond that of the present. Though this appeal might strike some as disheartening, it would grant “peace of mind” to Oedipus and Jocasta by denying the significance of the prophecies they have heard thus far. That is to say, it would allow them to exist in their human realm without the anxiety that they should change their actions to respond to the unique “skill” of Tiresias.

It is important to clarify here that Jocasta is not denying the existence or providence of the gods. This is not an atheistic passage, but rather one that sharply delineates between divine and earthly realms. Her claim is that mediums such as Tiresias do not actually bridge the gap between the two realms, but rather exist fully in the human one—and thus have no unique access to the divine.

Great laws tower above us, reared on high
born for the brilliant vault of heaven—
Olympian Sky their only father,
nothing mortal, no man gave them birth,
their memory deathless, never lost in sleep:
within them lives a mighty god, the god does not
grow old.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 957-962
Explanation and Analysis:

Jocasta and Oedipus have just finished discussing the significance of the prophecies that each has received. When they depart, the chorus offers a chilling and complex speech about the state of the gods in Thebes.

Their first move is to aggrandize the gods and stress their omnipresence in human affairs. That “Great laws tower above us” indicates that a different and more powerful set of rules exist in the divine realm—ones that would supersede the relatively minute human regulations. Indeed, “no man gave them birth,” thus directly contrasting the power of Oedipus as a human king with the divine rulers who exist entirely independently of him. After a series of somewhat heretical exchanges between Jocasta and Oedipus, this passage firmly reinstates the importance of the gods for the chorus, and thus for Thebes society.

A particular emphasis is placed on how these rules and their creators are eternal and immune to decay. The chorus fixates on how they are “nothing mortal,” “deathless,” and “the god does not grow old”—which contrasts with the ephemeral nature of humans and their laws. Part of their entitlement thus comes from the way they are immune to the current state of Thebes and the eventual fate of Oedipus.

Lines 998-1310 Quotes
They are dying, the old oracles sent to Laius,
now our masters strike them off the rolls.
Nowhere Apollo's golden glory now—
the gods, the gods go down.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 994-997
Explanation and Analysis:

After first contending that the gods are everlasting and all-powerful, the chorus rapidly shifts positions here. They claim that given the current state of Thebes, the relative power of Oedipus, and the potential falseness of the prophecies, the gods may in fact be in decline.

To substantiate this point, the chorus directly inverts their earlier descriptions: if before, the gods were deathless and immortal, here we learn the oracles “are dying.” This formulation is both literal and metaphoric, for it refers to their increasing lack of importance in Thebes society, due to the perspective of “our masters.” Indeed, this lack of adherence to old prophecies extends to more than just prophets such as Tiresias—for it even applies to “Apollo’s golden glory.” The gods themselves are deemed to be in decline: they “go down” in public interest and in perceived relevance.

The chorus implies that a massive societal shift has taken place in the way of Oedipus’s rise to power: a movement away from the providence of religion and instead toward a more secular orientation. By repeatedly praising human intelligence and disparaging prophecy, Oedipus has already shown this to be his personal belief system—and the chorus has affirmed the actions and ideas of their ruler. Thus Thebes seem to have arrived at a complex and pivotal decision: if the prophecies about Oedipus prove untrue, it would cause them to see the gods as “down,” and gravitate toward an increasingly secular society.

Man of agony—
that is the only name I have for you,
that, no other—ever, ever, ever!
Related Characters: Jocasta (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 1176-1179
Explanation and Analysis:

Jocasta has just concluded that Oedipus is her son and she repeatedly implores him not to continue his investigation. When he refuses to do so, she screams this at him.

This passage plays on the way that Oedipus introduced himself at the play’s onset: recall that he selected not to use his name at first, but rather implied that all should know him based on his fame. Here, Jocasta similarly replaces his name, but instead with the epithet “man of agony,” thus foreshadowing how this will be Oedipus’s new legacy by the play’s end. Beyond condemning him to a life of misery, Jocasta’s language also subtly wipes away his identity. Replacing his specific name with this generic term denies the coherence between Oedipus's current royal position and his actual identity. Jocasta implies that he will hold “no other” title or identity in the years to come, and that this identification with agony with be permanent: “ever, ever, ever!” Thus Sophocles uses Jocasta’s moment of realization—called in Greek tragedy an anagnorisis—to demonstrate the pending end of Oedipus’s identity as it is currently defined.

If you are the man he says you are, believe me
you were born for pain.
Related Characters: A Shepherd (speaker), Oedipus, A Messenger
Page Number: 1304-1305
Explanation and Analysis:

When interrogated by Oedipus, the shepherd at first resists his attempts to procure information. Yet eventually the shepherd gives in, condemning Oedipus to his terrifying fate.

These lines articulate an important new position on the role of fate in Oedipus’s destiny. Whereas other characters or critics may believe the tragic action occurred due to a mixture of destiny and human folly, the shepherd clearly attributes what will occur solely to a pre-determined narrative. That Oedipus was “born for pain” implies that his life's torment began precisely at the moment he came into the world: his later actions thus would only fulfill this pre-designed path, rather than carving a new one. This point builds on Jocasta’s claim that his name is “man of agony”—which makes his identity similarly equivalent to pain—and reiterates the power of the gods and fate to control each moment in human affairs. Thus Sophocles moves at this crucial moment in the tragedy to highlight the role of destiny over human action.

Lines 1311-1680 Quotes
"...is there a man more agonized?
More wed to pain and frenzy? Not a man on earth,
the joy of your life ground down to nothing
O Oedipus, name for the ages—"
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 1331-1334
Explanation and Analysis:

Having now learned of Oedipus’s history and fate, the chorus renounces their earlier adoration of him. They reflect on the way Oedipus has shown himself to be predestined to a doomed and painful life.

This passage is a striking turn in the perception of the chorus, which had previously refused to accept claims or prophecies that told of their king’s fate. Here, they adopt the language of other accusers: he is “agonized” and “wed to pain and frenzy”—thus permanently associated with these horrific qualities. As before, he is singular and famous—but this is no longer due to heroism, and instead because of his tragic fate. That the chorus says, “O Oedipus, name for the ages” demonstrates that this fate will be recorded and maintained for eons to come: thus they already predict the writing of Sophocles’ play and the other ways that this story will enter Greek cultural history (and Western culture in general). Even at this point, however, the chorus still displays a level of sympathy for their ruler. Instead of calling Oedipus “man of agony” in the disparaging tone of Jocasta, they choose “man more agonized,” which forefronts the pain he must be enduring. They also make mention of the previous “joy of your life,” and even maintain the use of his name, “Oedipus.” This continued sympathy reiterates how the chorus functions as an analog to the audience—for it reacts with a similar emotional and caring mindset that an observer of the tragedy might have.

My destiny, my dark power, what a leap you made!
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker)
Page Number: 1448
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Jocasta has committed suicide and Oedipus has blinded himself. In response, Oedipus bemoans his fate and how rapidly it has deteriorated.

That Oedipus refers to his “destiny” as a “dark power” implies that he locates both positive and negative qualities in fate. By this moment in the tragic action, he could very well see destiny as entirely antagonistic, yet the use of the term “power” implies that it has served as a source of potential in the past. Indeed, we know of his destiny’s power from the way he was able to save Thebes from the Sphinx—and yet it is also “dark,” for it carries the terrifying opportunities that have caused the play’s tragic action to unfold as it has.

Oedipus articulates that shift with the phrase “what a leap you made!” implying that a decisive change took place between the positive and negative sides of his “destiny.” He continues, then, to question the poles of human agency versus divine fate—for while he may stress the role of “destiny,” he also possesses it with the key pronoun “my,” and implies with the “leap” image that even destiny itself may change course.

Take me away, far, far from Thebes,
quickly, cast me away, my friends—
this great murderous ruin, this man cursed to heaven,
the man the deathless gods hate most of all!
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker)
Page Number: 1477-1480
Explanation and Analysis:

Oedipus continues to disparage his fate and to speak of madness and darkness. He then asks to be thrown out of Thebes.

In contrast to his earlier proud position as a king, Oedipus has descended to the lowliest role of beggar and outcast. He thus rejects the city he had saved and ruled and affirms that he was “cursed to heaven” or fated to this end. Oedipus further reaffirms the importance of the “deathless gods,” which had previously been said to be in decline. Yet as with his blindness, Oedipus insists upon acting decisively and taking control of his fate: he speaks in commands to others and curses himself—as if to preempt the curses and judgments of others. In an odd way, then, he seems to be defending his own minute quantity of human agency up to the very end of the play.

One should note, however, that the passage recreates, in an odd way, the first moments of Oedipus’s life—when as a baby he was cast away from the city. A circular narrative like this affirms how his destiny was set to begin with: both because it repeats a similar motif and because it shows how inescapable his destiny as an outcast must be. Though he may have been able to avoid it as a young baby, his fate eventually returned. Thus we see at the play’s end a complicated negotiation of fate and agency, in which the structure of the tragedy reaffirms the power of destiny even as the hero seeks to carve out a space for his own control.

Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 1683-1684
Explanation and Analysis:

After Creon has dealt with Oedipus’s fate, they both depart the stage to leave only the chorus. The chorus ends the play with these lines that reaffirm the power of the gods to dictate each action of man.

Once more, the chorus functions as a way to explain the morals and meanings of the tragedy to the audience. Their perspective has changed radically over the course of play—from full-heartedly supporting Oedipus, to questioning his position, and finally to condemning him to his fate. Here, they extrapolate from the specific example of Oedipus to offer a more broad-reaching comment on humanity. They take their king as proof that none can escape the control of the gods, and that their earlier skepticisms of divine control were unwise.

As a result, men can only “keep our watch and wait the final day,” implying that observation and submissiveness are the only possible responses to destiny. Oedipus’s proud attempts to escape or challenge his fate are deemed foolhardy, and thus any active attempt to shift one’s life will ultimately fail. The chorus’s next line is far darker, however, for it says that no one will be “free of pain” until death. This seems to imply that being bound by destiny is by definition a type of pain—and that watching and waiting will similarly bring pains that can never be fully eluded. Sophocles’s final lesson extracted from Oedipus is thus a cautionary and dark one: none can escape the providence of the gods, and therefore one must accept a life of pained predestination.