What is the role of destiny in Oedipus Rex?

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Destiny plays a very strong role in Oedipus Rex. The play's central theme is that people can't escape their destinies.

Oedipus tries to evade his tragic destiny, which he learns is to kill his father and marry his mother. When he discovers this is what he is fated to do, he leaves his home in Corinth, not knowing that the parents who have raised him are not his real parents. On the road to Thebes, he unknowingly kills his real father. When he arrives in Thebes, he unknowingly marries his biological mother, Jocasta.

Oedipus has the pride (hubris) to believe he has beaten the destiny the gods assigned to him, as does Jocasta, who knows she was fated to marry her son. When Oedipus learns from the oracle that an unpunished sin is causing the plague in Thebes, it never occurs to him that he could be the cause.

The message the play delivers is that humans can't hope to defy what the gods have decreed.

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What are fate and chance in Sophocles' Oedipus the King.

This is a difficult question because the lines between fate and chance are blurred, it seems to me, in Sophocles' Oedipus the King. The word "fate" is related to the Greek word phemi (pronounced "fay-me"), which denotes something spoken. Thus, when we think of fate in Sophocles' play, we should look to the things spoken by the gods, namely Apollo's oracle at Delphi. This is what is fated to happen to Oedipus:

But when he spoke he uttered monstrous things,

strange terrors and horrific miseries—

it was my fate to defile my mother’s bed,

to bring forth to men a human family

that people could not bear to look upon,

to murder the father who engendered me.

(Ian Johnston translation)

So much for Oedipus' fate. This prophecy is mentioned several times in the play. This is what Apollo has said Oedipus will do.

As for "chance," the most common Greek word for this is tyche (also spelled tuche). Tyche is often translated as "chance," but more literally it denotes something that just happens. For example, if you were walking along and found a dollar bill, that would be considered an example of tyche. In Oedipus' case, he fled Corinth out of the fear that he might kill Polybus and he happened to be on the same road as Laius; Laius struck Oedipus, and Oedipus retaliated.

The problem is that because it was fated that Oedipus would kill his father, we may well wonder whether his ending up on the same road as Laius was fate or was it chance. Technically speaking, it seems to me that fate has to do with the prophecy and chance has to do with Oedipus and Laius happening to be in the same place at the same time. Still, I can see how a person could think that in this case "chance" and "fate" are intertwined.

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What is the role of fate in Oedipus Rex?

To add to the superb answer above...

Fate all too often seems like some nebulous catch-all.  An excuse.  A scapegoat.  Something unforeseen.  Dramatic irony.  All this commentary about "fate catching up with Oedipus," I think, is pandering nonsense.

Fate in Oedipus cannot be confused with punishment or suffering.  Fate is not the Sphinx, or the plague, or suicide, or exile.  This kind of analogy-making is non sequitir, faulty logic.  To permit this is to negate humankind's responsibility and ability to rise above suffering.  To place so much emphasis on fate diminishes the play as a whole.  Fate renders the play deterministic, not a thoughtful craft at all.

Fate is only what Oedipus is thrown into, as it is with all of us: our family, our gender, our blood--that which is completely out of our control.  Obviously, we cannot choose who are our parents, or what genetic abilities or handicaps they have passed on to us.  For Oedipus, it was his crippled leg.  He had no choice in being crippled.

The only fate sealed in the Oedipus trilogy comes when his parents decide to cut his angles and leave him for dead.  This is the dark secret that sets tragedy in motion.  The rest, in my opinion, is a series of choices: some good, most bad.  I don't think it was fate that Oedipus killed his father or married his mother or brought the plague to Thebes or caused Jocasta to suicide or blinded or exiled himself.  These were all choices he made, not the results of fate or oracles or the gods.  Nothing is working behind the scenes--only Sophocles!

Yet, in the end, Oedipus takes responsibility for each of his  choices.  He suffers with dignity.  He does not suicide, like Jocasta.  In the end, he has a kind of victory over these choices, as he is given a sacred burial.  Camus calls him a hero for this.

But, in the end, after Oedipus dies, his family continues to succumb to suffering and death.  Were they destined to suffer?  Of course not.  Did they suffer from hubris?  Of course.  Is hubris the same as fate?  Of course not.  Is hubris the result of bad choices and decision-making?  Of course.

In other words, fate is only that which is completely and utterly out of Oedipus' control.  It is his gender, the color of his skin, hair, and eyes.  It's family secrets, an inscrutable past.  In particular, it's that crippled leg.  I can't think of any other instance of fate that is any more crucial to the plot of this play.

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How does the issue of fate vs. freewill influence Oedipus Rex by Sophocles?

It was believed by the Greeks that even Zeus was bound by the iron chains of fate and necessity. Fate was what made prophecy possible, because if fate did not exist then the future would be contingent rather than necessary. As Teiresias points out when he reveals the future to Oedipus:


It is not your fate
to fall because of me. It’s up to Apollo
to make that happen. He will be enough ...

Fate, however, is not so much in opposition to free will as a different perspective. From  our perspective as mortals, we make choices according to our free will. But our free actions are conditioned by our own natures, and thus sub specie aeternitatis, they appear as necessary. Thus whatever choices Oedipus makes still lead him to fulfill his fate.

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Interpret the role of fate in Oedipus Rex?

The idea that fate is absolutely unavoidable is central to the drama Oedipus Rex. When Sophocles wrote the play, most of the audience was already familiar with the basic story, which had been told in Greece for years. The value of the play was not so much finding out how the story would end (they already had a pretty good idea), but in watching the characters struggle against fate.

Specifically, Oedipus finds himself banished by his own decree when it turns out that he is the murderer of King Laius (who, unknown to Oedipus, was also his father). Although Oedipus had no idea that it was the king of Thebes he killed, he still has to pay the price when the truth comes out.

In our modern sense of justice, we would like to see Oedipus let off the hook. He did not intentionally do anything wrong. But fate, in the old Greek sense, is not necessarily just. The gods will get what they want. In this case, they want Oedipus removed from the throne and out of Thebes altogether. In the process, lives are destroyed and Oedipus is ruined.

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What is the role of fate in Oedipus Rex?

Fate drives the plot of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. In the play, Laius, the father of Oedipus, has offended the gods by violating the laws of hospitality in a particularly gruesome fashion. In response, the gods place a curse on him that he will be killed by his own son. To avoid this curse coming to pass, he orders his servant to expose his son Oedipus on a mountainside. Because fate or the decrees of the gods cannot be evaded, Oedipus naturally survives to fulfill his fate.

Oedipus is adopted by the King of Corinth and hears via an oracle that he is condemned to kill his father and marry his mother. To escape this fate, he leaves Corinth, but indeed kills Laius at the crossroads and marries Jocasta. His very efforts to escape the curse by leaving Corinth are what result in the curse being fulfilled. Thus the message of the play is that you cannot escape fate. 

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How powerful a role does fate play in Oedipus Rex?

It is clear from the way that prophecies are repeatedly referred to throughout the text, and that Teiresias, an important prophet, is a prominent character, that fate is a key theme of this play. Consider the time and energy that Jocasta spends trying to convince Oedipus that he can safely ignore the prophecy that points towards his own involvement in the death of the former King of Thebes, who turns out to be his father. She deliberately mocks fate and argues that prophecies are not to be listened to. Note what she says to Oedipus to assuage his fear and worry about the prophecy that he killed Laius:

Then thou mayest ease thy conscience on that score.
Listen and I'll convince thee that no man
Hath scot or lot in the prophetic art.

The story of her own dead child is an attempt to prove that the original prophecy of the son of Laius ending up killing him is false, and that "no man" is the victim of fate, yet of course the tremendous irony of the text is precisely the opposite: Oedipus is a victim of fate, and it is his own determination to unearth the identity of the murderer of Laius that leads to his own discovery of the truth of the prophecy and his own identity. Fate is shown to be an absolute reality that cannot be altered or changed, no matter how hard Jocasta tries to convince her husband otherwise. However, when the audience bears in mind how much Jocasta has to lose were the prophecy to be proved true, perhaps her persistence is understandable.

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