Are people truly responsible for their actions? This question has puzzled humanity throughout history. Over the centuries, people have pondered the influence of divine or diabolical power, environment, genetics, even entertainment, as determining how free any individual is in making moral choices.
The ancient Greeks acknowledged the role of Fate as a reality outside the individual that shaped and determined human life. In modern times, the concept of Fate has developed the misty halo of romantic destiny, but for the ancient Greeks, Fate represented a terrifying, unstoppable force.
Fate was the will of the gods — an unopposable reality ritually revealed by the oracle at Delphi, who spoke for Apollo himself in mysterious pronouncements. The promise of prophecy drew many, but these messages usually offered the questioner incomplete, maddenly evasive answers that both illuminated and darkened life's path. One famous revelation at Delphi offered a general the tantalizing prophesy that a great victory would be won if he advanced on his enemy. The oracle, however, did not specify to whom the victory would go.
By the fifth century, B.C., Athenians frankly questioned the power of the oracle to convey the will of the gods. Philosophers such as Socrates opened rational debate on the nature of moral choices and the role of the gods in human affairs. Slowly, the belief in a human being's ability to reason and to choose gained greater acceptance in a culture long devoted to the rituals of augury and prophecy. Socrates helped to create the Golden Age with his philosophical questioning, but Athens still insisted on the proprieties of tradition surrounding the gods and Fate, and the city condemned the philosopher to death for impiety.
Judging from his plays, Sophocles took a conservative view on augury and prophecy; the oracles in the Oedipus Trilogy speak truly — although obliquely — as an unassailable authority. Indeed, this voice of the gods — the expression of their divine will — represents a powerful, unseen force throughout the Oedipus Trilogy.
Yet this power of Fate raises a question about the drama itself. If everything is determined beforehand, and no human effort can change the course of life, then what point is there in watching — or writing — a tragedy?
According to Aristotle, theater offers its audience the experience of pity and terror produced by the story of the hero brought low by a power greater than himself. In consequence, this catharsis — a purging of high emotion — brings the spectator closer to a sympathetic understanding of life in all its complexity. As the chorus at the conclusion of Antigone attests, the blows of Fate can gain us wisdom.
In Greek tragedy, the concept of character — the portrayal of those assailed by the blows of Fate — differs specifically from modern expectations. Audiences today expect character exploration and development as an essential part of a play or a film. But Aristotle declared that there could be tragedy without character — although not without action.
The masks worn by actors in Greek drama give evidence of this distinction. In Oedipus the King, the actor playing Oedipus wore a mask showing him simply as a king, while in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus appears in the mask of an old man. As Sophocles saw him — and as actors portrayed him — Oedipus displayed no personality or individuality beyond his role in the legend. The point of the drama, then, was not to uncover Oedipus' personal motivations but to describe the arc of his fall, so as to witness the power of Fate.
In his plays, Shakespeare also created tragedy that revolved around a heroic character who falls from greatness. But Shakespeare's heroes appear fully characterized and their tragedies develop as much from their own conscious intentions as from Fate. Macbeth, for example, pursues his goal of the throne ruthlessly, with murderous ambition. When the witches' prophecies, upon which he has based his hopes, turn out to be just as misleading as any oracle's pronouncement at Delphi, the audience is more likely to blame Macbeth for his heartless ambition than to bemoan his fate with him.
In contrast, Sophocles' hero — even with his tragic flaw (as Aristotle terms it) — maintains the audience's sympathy throughout the drama. The flaw of his character represents less a vicious fault and more a vulnerability, or a blind spot. Oedipus' brilliance, then, is matched by his overconfidence and rashness — a habit of mind that makes him prey to the very fate he wishes to avoid.
Significantly, Oedipus' desperate attempt to escape Fate arises not from ambition or pride, but from an understandable and pious desire to live without committing heinous offenses. Prudently, he decides never to return to the kingdom where the people he believes to be his parents rule. But when an overbearing man on the road nearly runs him down and then cuffs him savagely, Oedipus rashly kills his attacker, who turns out be his father. So, just as he thinks himself free of his fate, Oedipus runs right into it — literally, at a crossroads.
In Oedipus the King, Oedipus displays his characteristic brilliance and overconfidence in what he regards as his heroic search for the murderer of Laius. He pursues the mystery relentlessly, confident that its solution will yield him the same glory he enjoyed when he answered the riddle of the Sphinx. Oedipus' self-assurance that he has taken care of his fate blinds him to it and begins the fall that will end in his literal blindness. Thus he becomes the victim — rather than the conquerer — of Fate.
In Antigone, Creon also displays a blind spot. Wrapped up in the trappings of power, Creon puts his responsibility for Thebes above the laws of the gods and has to be reminded of the gods' will by Tiresias. Creon's last-minute attempt to conform to the gods' wishes only reveals to him his own inescapable fate — the destruction of his family and the end of his rule.
Antigone herself is painfully aware of the power of Fate, attributing all the tragedy in her family to the will of Zeus. When she acts decisively, choosing to obey the laws of the gods rather than the laws of the state, she seems almost like a modern heroine — a model of individual courage and responsibility. Yet, before her death, Antigone shrinks in horror, acknowledging that she has acted only within the rigid constraints of Fate; indeed, in that moment, her earnestness and conviction fade as she feels the approach of her own doom. Antigone, like the rest of her family, must yield to Fate — the curse that hangs over the house of Oedipus.
Oedipus at Colonus features prolonged debate and protestations over Fate, before granting a unique blessing to the suffering hero. By the time of the story, a sullen Oedipus has grown used to his role as the pariah, the greatest sinner in the world. Still, he argues to the chorus that he did not consciously or willfully commit any crimes. At this point — the end of his life — Oedipus concedes the power of Fate as the reason for his destruction; at the same time, he embraces Fate in his death and fights vigorously to meet his end as the gods promised — at peace and as a benefit to the city where he is buried. Ironically, then, the victim of Fate becomes part of the force that has tortured him; his will to reward and to punish becomes as powerful as the will of the gods themselves.
In Oedipus at Colonus — Sophocles' last play — the dramatist seems intent on making a peace between the power of Fate and his willful, all too human hero. The chants of the chorus, as well as the formal, poetic speeches of the characters, suggest that Oedipus' heroic suffering results in a profound transformation into godlike glory. As tragic and terrible as the story of the Oedipus Trilogy is, then, Sophocles grants his audience the hope that the blows of Fate lead not only to wisdom, but to transcendence.