Critical Essays Free Will and Fate

The Classical tragedians appreciated the conflict between fate and free will. At the heart of every great tragedy lies the universal struggle between the human inclination to accept fate absolutely and the natural desire to control destiny. Both Sophocles and Shakespeare would agree that the forces of destiny and choice continually vie for control of human life. Yet, each of these great playwrights espouses a perspective on the struggle born of his specific time and culture. For the Greek Sophocles, fate far overpowers human will; the harder a man works to avoid his fate, the more surely he catapults forth into that very fate. Sophocles' characters ultimately surrender, after resistance, recognition, and reversal, to their destinies; Sophocles' plays warn against the pride that deceives us into believing we can alter fate through human intervention. For Shakespeare — a Christian — the choice between good and evil represents man's basic dilemma; for him, the human will is indomitable. Though fate may ultimately win, a man must fight to the death, if necessary, in order to remain the master of his own choices — choices that ultimately decide if and how his fate defeats him. The contrast between the two points of view is a note-worthy feature of any comparison between Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

In his book The Poetics, Aristotle based the definition of tragedy on Oedipus Rex, making Sophocles' play the archetype of the genre. The notion that a hero must be a man of stature who is undone by some flaw in himself entirely governs Oedipus, the play's protagonist. While Oedipus only nominally controls his life, Hamlet's choices direct and ultimately destroy him. Oedipus, the prototypical Greek tragic hero, can see nothing until he blinds himself, thereby breaking free of the human compulsion to understand forces that one should simply obey. Introspection is only possible for Oedipus when his blindness forces him to stop examining the world around him. Sophocles' hero is stoic, strong, and stubborn; he seeks to bully fate and then gives in to self-destruction. Only then can he recognize his shortcomings and failures.

By contrast, Hamlet remains painfully aware of himself, his shortcomings, and his powerlessness to right what he perceives to be great wrongs. Poetic, thoughtful, and philosophical, he seeks to thwart his fate through intellectual maneuvering. Hamlet sees all too clearly the varying shades of gray that muddy his vision and blur his choices. He resembles the modern tragic hero — the common man tossed in a turbulent sea of social ills who loses his battle to correct them. He is bound inside himself, imprisoned by the words in his head that allow him no sleep, and no rest. " . . . There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," he says, surrendering to his obsessive thoughts. Hamlet is the quintessential Shakespearean hero, born of stature but not necessarily powerful, and undone by external forces as much as by internal ones. The struggle to live between opposing expectations and to assuage a throbbing conscience constitutes the battle Hamlet cannot win. No one force determines the outcome for Hamlet. God asks of him one thing, and man demands another.

Oedipus, however, remains at the singular mercy of the gods. Having learned from the oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus has blundered into his own fate. Despite his best efforts to thwart the prophecy, dramatic irony prevails. Liberating Thebes from the tyranny of the Sphinx, Oedipus completes the first part of the dreaded prophecy. Flattered that the people choose him to be their king, Oedipus blindly accepts their offer of Jocasta's hand in marriage. Thus he completes the second phase of the prophecy by marrying his natural mother. Oedipus finalizes his destruction by attempting to escape it. By exerting his free will, he submits himself to the whim of destiny.

Oedipus eventually resigns himself to his failure by saying, "Oh G-d! It has come true. Light let this be the last time I see you." Having accepted his powerlessness, the only recourse left to him is to blind himself so that he may symbolically escape his failure. Unlike the Christian tragic hero, nothing motivates Oedipus to change the course of his life or make amends. He has disobeyed the gods by exhibiting too much pride, and he must now acquiesce to the will of the gods and accept his punishment. He travels to Colonnus and dies in exile, satisfied that he deserves such an end. In Oedipus Rex, man loses the battle for control of life and must surrender to the inescapable whims of fortune. The gods sit on Mount Olympus and manipulate humanity as though they were clay dolls to be moved about, discarded, and broken — like chess pieces. After Oedipus willingly acknowledges his insignificance, he attains the freedom to live beyond his pain and to die in peace.

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