Fate and free will are two opposing yet connected ideas that play a large role in Oedipus Rex. Fate is the idea in which one’s destiny is predetermined and unchangeable; free will is an opposing concept in which one has the freedom to choose and decide one’s own fate. It seems that fate and free will go hand-in-hand in this tragedy; Oedipus’ parents had the free will to take fate into their own hands.
It is a vicious cycle and one in which the characters make decisions to avoid fate when, in reality, they are laying the groundwork for their own downfall. In Oedipus, an ancient Greek tragedy, fate and free will play a large role in the lives of the main characters and in their interactions with one another, ultimately leading to each individual’s downfall; if alternative decisions had been made, the outcome (their fate) may have been different.
Oedipus’ situation is presented in a manner which is both complex and unsettling, “To the children whom he lives now he will be/Brother and father—the very same; to her/Who bore him, son and husband—the very same/Who came to his father’s bed, wet with his father’s blood” (441-445); at first glance, it appears that Oedipus is the cursed being although this is not actually the case. As Oedipus is a product of his father and his mother, he takes on their burden, their cursed fate. Oedipus’ parents, King Laios and Queen Jocasta, are the true cursed beings as they are scared into taking fate into their own hands.
As they try to avoid their own fate by attempting to take control of the situation by destroying their son, the king and queen are setting themselves up for disaster. Oedipus grows up to learn of his fate and is sent down the disastrous path his birth parents have created for him. If Laios and Jocasta had ignored the prophecy, the outcome of their fate may have played out differently. Here, the audience may conclude that although fate seems to take focus on Oedipus, it is actually his mother and father who possess the inescapable fate; the fate of Oedipus’ parents is played out through Oedipus and he is merely a means to an end.
So, is it fate or free will that is so disabling to this family? There is an inevitable fate burdening Oedipus, and an exercise of free will by his parents which made his fate possible. The outcome may have been bound to happen, but it is all up to the audience to decide which idea is more harmful. If fate is the enemy, then there is no hope for Oedipus or his family, regardless of free will. If free will is the determinant, then one can assume Oedipus’ fate could have been avoided.
In an attempt to portray an alternate outcome, one may vision Oedipus avoiding his fate, but one must also take into consideration the chronology of the play and the torment of their city that called for these drastic measures. One can only imagine that if the prophesy had not been fulfilled, then the family and city may have faced other problems. Oedipus may have had a normal life, free from torment, if his parents ignored the prophecy. It is when his parents took matters into their own hands that the prophecy was able to come true.
It is not as likely that the oracle would have been fulfilled if Oedipus actually knew his real parents, which is why he fled Corinth in the first place. After all, he did everything he thought he could do to avoid his fate as he saw fit; “It was my fate to defile my mother’s bed/ . . . to murder the father who engendered me. /When I heard that I ran away from Corinth” (791-794). As originally stated, fate and free will seem to be linked in this tragedy; however, interesting outcomes may be assessed if each idea is viewed individually.
If free will stands alone and fate is disabled, it may be concluded that Oedipus would have been sent away by his parents as they chose to do, but that this horrible outcome would not play out; he would not kill his father or marry his mother. Also, if fate stood alone with no use of free will, a more interesting situation comes into light; Oedipus would be able to stay in his real home, grow up there knowing his fate, and end up killing his father and marrying his mother. Now, this seems a bit extreme, but the point is to prove that fate and free will go hand in hand.
It is not up to one to decide which is to blame; fate is only inevitable up to a certain point, the point in which one decides to take matters into one’s own hands (free will). Regardless of the fatal outcome that occurs in Oedipus, one may conclude that fate and free will both played vital roles in the playing out of this murderous and incestuous situation. Whether or not other outcomes are plausible, it seems that the fate of Oedipus and his parents is inevitable under the given circumstances. Oedipus, however, had no option but to bear the burdensome fate of his parents; he was an instrument of implementing his whole family’s fate.