Treatment And Inclusion Of The Idea Of Free Will: Oedipus The King By Sophocles And Medea By Euripides
In this essay, I will be discussing and evaluating the treatment and inclusion of the idea of free will within the play Oedipus The King By Sophocles as well as Medea By Euripides.
These are both two very old plays which include a plot which is intertwined with the constant influence of Fate and therefore, can be used in order to debate the influence of destiny and whether or not the characters have “Free Will”. This is an important point as Free will is very prominent in both plays and as a construct in society both when the plays were originally performed as well as in current day.
Firstly, Within Oedipus The King, Fate or Prophecies tend to become reality and this is mentioned frequently throughout. Oedipus was initially performed in ancient Greece and written by the Playwright Sophocles. The play was written based off of a well known myth that was centered around the topic of fate and whether it is possible to alter ones fate or if in fact it is impossible to impact the outcome of someone’s destiny. One such example of fate within Oedipus The King, Taylor et al.(2008, p. 15.) is when Teiresias states “This is because you are all blind To what I can see. I can’t tell you. The truth is painful. My secret. And yours.” This is directly linked to the fate of Oedipus as Teiresias is forewarning about the inevitable fate of him bedding his mother and subsequently losing his sight at his own hands. This is shown in the use of words such as “blind” and the theme of sight throughout the greater extract on this page. Teiresias next says that “ I’m saving you from Agony. And myself. Don’t ask me again, don’t waste your time. I shall tell you nothing.” This shows the way in which fate is handled and feared within ancient Greek society. Teiresias is a well respected prophet of Apollo whom is being consulted by Oedipus. And within these two quotes we can see that Teiresias knows of Oedipus’ fate but he is fearful to tell of it as Teiresias is hopeful that by not telling Oedipus, he can affect fate. Treating Fate as this overbearing force of nature is how the ancient Greek society perceived it to be. Regarding the reveal of Oedipus’ fate “You were marked for suffering, from the day you were born”, Oedipus The King. Taylor et al (2008.p, 44.). This is said by the shepherd revealing the plot by his parents Laius and Jocasta to have him killed during infancy in order to prevent the tragic events of Oedipus’ prophecy from unfolding. This shows the audience that even the will of the highest nobles of society (Laius and Jocasta) could not affect and alter the result of fate and the predetermined destiny. As the narrative shows that it is not possible to alter the result of one’s fate, it could be argued that Oedipus does not have free will as his actions are already predetermined to reach the same tragic end. This thought is what makes the play such an iconic and true Greek tragedy as it would resonate with the then audience at the festival of Dionysus in which it would have originally have been performed. “If we give ourselves up to a full sympathy to the hero, there is no question that the Oedipus Rex fulfils the function of a tragedy and arouses fear and pity in the highest degree.” Barstow, The Classical Weekly vol.6, No.1 (Oct 1912, p2-4 .) Within this journal by Marjorie Barstow, she believes that Oedipus is the “Ideal tragic hero of Aristotle” in relation to Aristotle’s The Poetics and the idea of “fatalism”. Within Oedipus The King, the tragic downfall of someone of such high status and so in favour of the gods can directly speak to the then very religious audience at a religious festival and warn them of fate and the results of attempting to go against the will of fate.
When looking at Medea, we see society’s view but flipped as at the time of it’s first performance, many would be able to resonate with Jason as the audience would be male due to beliefs about women at the time preventing them from attending. Also, the societal viewpoint on women in ancient Greece would make Medea seem even more insane for being driven to seemingly alter her own fate and choose to commit infanticide. Within Medea, Euripides. (p. 46) “All I did for you and how you did for me. You thought you’d kick me from your bed and laugh at me, unpunished. Wrong!”. This shows that the play is presenting the blame of infanticide on Jason for him driving Medea to the point of derangement in which she became capable of killing their children. Medea, much like Oedipus was a myth on which the play was based and created. This meant that the audience were very much aware of the story of Medea, but within the play, the way in which Medea chooses her plan of revenge as a result of her personal feelings of betrayal and being disregarded. The way in which Medea was treated by Jason was normal within ancient Greece, but Jason largely impacted the outcome of their fate by his choice to replace Medea with another woman. However, again within Medea, Euripides. (p. 26) “ O Zeus! Justice of Zeus! Light of the Sun! My enemies are in power… Now my enemies will pay, and pay.” Within this we see Medea call upon the gods as she is in a position where she can enact her revenge against Jason and Kreon. This shows us that the gods have an influence upon Medea and the gods are referenced, called upon and mentioned throughout the play. The intervention of the gods in Medea’s plan for revenge makes it much more likely that she was destined to reach the end she eventually does where she triumphs over Jason and escapes upon a chariot drawn by a dragon. Much like Oedipus, we can infer that Medea does not necessarily have free will since the gods have pre-determined an eventual outcome for Medea to kill her children. Therefore the way in which fate is treated is much more religiously linked yet seemingly individually shaped in the way one gets to their destined end. This contrasts with Oedipus The King, Taylor et al.(2008), in which we see Oedipus attempt to avoid the prophecy by leaving his adopted parents, only to stumble into his real father on the crossroads and subsequently partially complete his fate. This shows that Oedipus is shown to lack the free will to change his own life as he tried to go against the prophecy yet due to the lack of free will, he ended up where fate deemed him to be. In Oedipus The King, fate is much more feared and is almost used to scaremonger the audience as even Teiresias is scared to make Oedipus aware of what fate has in store for him.
In summary, Oedipus and Medea both include fate and therefore a questionable viewpoint on the free will of the protagonist and when compared with each other we can see the differing representations of fate. Within Oedipus The King we see a more overbearing and eerily controlling fate that seemingly prevents the opportunity of free will presented through the oracle of Apollo thus giving the prophecy legitimacy. Also, the fact that Oedipus attempted to use his free will to prevent completing his fate yet was unsuccessful makes the portrayal of fate to be all powerful and there to be an absence of free will to the character of Oedipus. In Medea however, the fulfilment of her fate is partially made by her derangement as a result of Jason’s prior actions. Yet, the frequent comments towards the gods does suggest that there was an intervention in the destined fate of Medea and therefore she does in fact have more free will than Oedipus. This is due to her own decision to arrive at committing Infanticide despite potentially having been partially caused by the gods on which Medea calls before going through with the act. Both plays handle fate and free will in similar ways due to societal views and beliefs at the time and as such both are very fate-centric tragedies in their own rights.
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