What is the nature of divine justice in "Oedipus the King"?  Are the gods fair or unfair?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The question of divine justice is important in reading Oedipus Rex. One problem with thinking about this question, though, is that we must not impose modern religious ideas upon the Greek text, and we also must avoid looking at the text through the lens of sophisticated Greek philosophical thought. Instead, we should think about whether the gods in the play acted in a way consonant with the common religious beliefs of the period.

To us, Oedipus is condemned to a horrible destiny due to the acts not of himself, but of his father Laius. In this way, he is condemned through no real fault of his own. He does everything possible to avoid harming his stepparents and is a good ruler who genuinely cares about Thebes. Although one could argue that he is somewhat arrogant, he is really in an impossible situation. If he does not seek out the murderer, the whole city will suffer. To us, this seems grossly unfair.

On the other hand, Laius fully deserves his punishment and the way Greek gods punished people who violated the bonds of hospitality did include destroying entire families. Thus the acts of the gods in condemning Laius were not unusually cruel by standards of the period. Moreover, as we discover in the play Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus eventually does find peace and redemption.