Fate or Free Will in Oedipus The Tyrant

In Oedipus The Tyrant, fate is symbolized by the prophecy predicting that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. This prophecy condemning Oedipus will lead to his loss, although he does everything possible to escape. Oedipus thus shows himself to be innocent since he strives to fight as far as possible against the fulfillment of this prophecy. Indeed, when he learns it he tries at all costs to flee Corinth, which he believes to be his hometown, never to see again Polybius and Merope that he thinks to be his biological parents, and take no risk by relation to the prophecy. He then moves away, at the whim of what he thinks is chance, but it leads him little by little toward the fulfillment of his destiny. Oedipus the Tyrant is nothing but a book depicting tension between reason and revelation.

Indeed, anything that may seem to allow Oedipus to reach a new life, far from fatality, is only an illusion: everything brings him closer to his loss, the victory over the Sphinx, for example, is considered by all as a feat and a benefit for all, but it is also this one that allows Oedipus to accede to the throne and to marry Jocasta, his biological mother. He thinks well and eventually finds himself carried away by the force of his destiny.  It is indeed by a heroic act that Oedipus delivered the city from the fatal songs of the Sphinx. However, can we consider Oedipus as a hero?

When the priest declares: “Now, as equal to the gods you are not put by me, nor by these children, when we sit here…  ” (p.16 line …), it seems that Oedipus is legitimized also partly because he is presented as the chosen of the gods and the depositary of a will transcendent which authorizes him to reign legitimately on Thebes. This leads us to wonder if Oedipus is not a monarch of divine right. On the other hand, we have in the text: ” by the help of a god, as is said and believed, you put straight our life “(p.16 line 39-40)

The authority of Oedipus comes from the gods. It is only the instrument of the will of the gods. Oedipus is subject to this inexorable force of destiny. Even when Oedipus seems to act, he makes himself the author despite himself of his decay by falling under the blows of his imprecation.

However, we can ask ourselves if, by his personal will, Oedipus did not himself participate in the realization of his destiny. Oedipus constantly rejects the prophecies he receives. Oedipus who defeated the sphynx with his reasoning ability thought he could beat an even stronger adversary: prophecy, which is the divine will.


As he learns the elements bringing him closer to his fatal destiny, he will refuse to admit his fate. This dimension of the character is also perceptible during the confrontation between Oedipus and Tiresias, located in the first episode of Sophocles’ play. Oedipus wants to know who killed Laius, not for the sake of justice, but because he needs this information to punish the guilty and eradicate the plague in Thebes. He is therefore in a pragmatic search. Tiresias initially refuses to give him this information. He knows that informing Oedipus will not change anything in the course of events, and will only exacerbate the present situation: “Alas! Alas! To understand is so terrible, where it does not profit the Knower! Knowing these things in so fine fashion, I bottled them out- for otherwise, I would not have come hither.” (p.25 line 316-319); “For the same things will come to pass even though I stand in silence” (p.26 line 341-342). Here again, Oedipus, rather than listen to the wise words of the diviner, gets carried away and favors action.  He wants to obtain the revelations of the diviner; that he will listen to better deny them. He is the incarnation of the pragmatism concerned, in the face of the unselfish wisdom of Tiresias.

In fact, Tiresias states his future to Oedipus but Oedipus will not listen to him and will accuse him of treason, which proves a willingness of Odysseus to reject his promised fate and also to know anything by himself; continuing, therefore, his quest for the truth.  Like Odysseus, Jocasta does not believe in the Oracles as she asserted:” So as regards prophecy I would look neither Here nor there.”

However, the chorus is conscious of the danger of Oedipus’s intention to contradict the prophecy, and where Oedipus seems to ignore gods’ power, the Chorus looks for gods’ assistance and acknowledges their power. They give a warning of what will happen if Oedipus continues on his path to disregard the prophecy: “Hubris begets a tyrant. Hubris, if Vainly overfilled with many things That are neither timely nor advantageous, Having scaled the topmost ramparts, Storms to the …. Where no footing is of use” (p.42  line 873-878).


Any attempt to establish, even with regard to Oedipus’ blindness, a clear line between what is divine causality and what depends on the human decision is doomed to fail, because it amounts to separating the inseparable. Indeed, the question that the chorus poses to Oedipus in the verses:

“Oh you doer of terrible deeds! How did you endure to thus Extinguish your eyes? Who of the divines urged you on?” (p.57 line1327-1328) , involves a human causality and a divine causality. In the same way, Oedipus’ answer in the verse:” Apollo it was, Apollo, friends- Who brought to completion these evil, evil sufferings of mine! But he who struck with his own hand now” (p.57 line 1329-1331), does not distinguish, as one might think at first sight, between two categories of evil that would be due to Apollo’s will, others to the action of Oedipus. It distinguishes two levels of causality for the same facts. All this clearly proves that the problem of Oedipus’ responsibility and guilt is not posited in Oedipus The Tyrant.

But when we analyze the story attentively, we are forced to acknowledge that divine fate plays the most central role in Odysseus’ tragedy.

In fact, in this confusion of persons and intentions, in this almost causal sequence of actions can we still see the presence of a human freedom? What is important is the divine plan. This global and divine plan will coincide with the intrigue which, at the bottom, remains the heart of the work. Sophocles intend to show us that fate is always the guaranteed winner over free-will and that even the most superior human reasoning cannot defeat fate.

Alexandre Koffi

Entrepreneur, space enthusiast, dreamer, cosmic messenger.

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