From a Greek Vase
One of the great characters in all fiction is King Oedipus, not only is he a central figure in Greek mythology but he is the central figure of one of the greatest plays ever written; Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. It is forgotten that Oedipus is not simply the central character of that play but also the central character of Sophocles’ last play Oedipus at Colonus, which was first performed after Sophocles death, (Which occurred in 406 B.C.E.) c. 401 B.C.E.1
Here I shall deal with a common trope, that of fate and its relationship to the character of Oedipus in Sophocles’ plays.
That trope is the concept of Oedipus as a tragic hero, who through a fatal character flaw is brought down to destruction. I will not go through the acres of ink that have been spent trying to find Oedipus’ tragic flaw. The bottom line is that Oedipus at least in terms of Sophocles own concept of the character has no tragic flaw, no defect that causes his downfall.2 The search for the tragic flaw began with a misreading of Aristotle’s Poetics and requires a deliberately obtuse reading of Sophocles to find any such flaw.3
In chapter 13 of Aristotle’s Poetics, Aristotle says:
…on the other hand, the change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error of some kind.The Greek word hamartia, which in the translation above was translated as “error” and “serious error” was translated in the past as “flaw”, “character flaw” or / and “tragic flaw”. The term “flaw” assumes that what doomed the character was some personal, inward defect. This is wrong, at least in the case of Oedipus, for what doomed him was his fate sealed before he was born. He certainly makes mistakes, but those mistakes were made because of his ignorance of what was really going on not from some character flaw.5 So Oedipus is in effect from a modern point of view “innocent” of his fate.
It follows that a well-formed plot will be simple rather than (as some people say) double, and that it must involve a change not to good fortune from bad fortune, but (on the contrary) from good fortune to bad fortune – and this must be due to not to depravity but to a serious error on the part of someone of the kind specified.4
Why is this the case? It is simple; Oedipus was doomed by a curse uttered by the Gods before he was born that he would murder his father and marry his mother. It was his fate to do those terrible things. Nothing about his character enters into it at all. It is simply his fate. Of course the very attempts of men to evade their fate simply insures that the divine curse is fulfilled. Thus Oedipus’ father’s (Laius) attempt to avoid this fate by leaving young Oedipus to die on a hill is thwarted. Oedipus is raised by the King and Queen of Corinth as their son. When he finds out from the Oracle of Delphi that he is fated to be a patricide and marry his mother he flees Corinth to avoid this fate because he thinks the King and Queen of Corinth are his parents and being a dutiful, loving child he does not want to do those things to his parents. Oedipus decides to go to Thebes. On the way there he has an altercation with a man who tries to kill him, and who he kills in self defence. Unknowingly Oedipus as killed Laius his father. Just outside Thebes Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, who has been terrorizing Thebes. The Sphinx kills herself, mortified that any mere human could solve her riddle. Without a King since Laius’ disappearance The Thebans in gratitude make Oedipus King of Thebes and he marries Laius’ widow Jocasta, who Oedipus does not know is his mother. The marriage proves happy and they have four children; Eteocles and Polynices boys and Ismene and Antigone girls. Thus did Oedipus fulfill the second part of the curse. Years go by and finally the Gods send plague and famine to punish Thebes for letting an incestuous parricide get away with it and not be punished. Oedipus being the diligent and devoted King he is spares no effort to find and punish the evil doer in an effort to save Thebes from the wrath of the Gods. Oedipus finds out that he is the incestuous parricide. Jocasta kills herself in horror upon finding out. Oedipus blinds himself in an act of horror stricken self mutilation.6
Oedipus is eventually driven into exile accompanied only by his daughter Antigone, while Oedipus’ other daughter Ismene stays in Thebes to watch how things are going and sends help from time to time. Meanwhile Oedipus’ sons Eteocles and Polynices, who sent their father into exile, are fighting over the throne of Thebes. Eventually Oedipus reaches Colonus near Athens where, after an attempt by the Thebans to abduct him for selfish purposes, he is transfigured and disappears from the earth.7
In none of this is there the working out of a character flaw; there is instead the implacable, irresistible working out of fate. In the ideological world of the Greeks at the time fate was implacable it even controlled the Gods. Human attempts to thwart it were always unavailing and pointless. For note in none of this is Oedipus actually from a modern point of view guilty of anything worthy of being punished. After all he killed his father in self defence and he did not know the man was his father at the time. Further he did not know Jocasta was his mother when he married her and had children with her. In other words Oedipus is innocent. However this means nothing in the eyes of fate because he, Oedipus was destined to do terrible things and he is guilty because he did those terrible things despite his from our point of view, innocent.8 As Oedipus says:
I tell you, then, I have endured Foulest injustice; I have endured Wrong undeserved; God knows Nothing was of my choosing.9Oedipus later says, without contradiction:
Yes, You shall here. He (Laius) whom I killed Had sought to kill me first. The Law Acquits me, innocent, as ignorant, Of what I did.10Oedipus is a polluted, damned figure because of what he did. The fact that he is innocent makes no difference to either his guilt for his acts or to in anyway mitigating the horror of what he did. This view is so different from a modern view that views guilt as laying in motivation and intent. Here it is in the act itself. The fact that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother makes him guilty, his actual innocence changes nothing about his terrible fate. As Finley states regarding the Oedipus story:
We are usually taught to see in the story and the play the tragic hero who is brought low. But what was Oedipus’ fault? His guilt was objective. That is to say: it existed, first, because he had been destined to it; second, because, in fulfilling his destiny, he murdered his father and married his mother. It existed in several actions, not in his character or his soul, not in the inner motives behind his actions. When Oedipus discovers the truth, he promptly and fully accepts his guilt despite his subjective innocence; he curses his fate not because it was unjust or because he regretted having done what he might have avoided, but because his fate was to do terrible things; he curses what he as done and therefore what he is.11Attempts to find a character flaw in Oedipus include such absurd ideas as Oedipus’ single minded drive to find out the truth is a character flaw. Aside from forgetting that Oedipus has already done the terrible things that render him a polluted incestuous parricide, this ignores the fact that Oedipus MUST find out who and where this person is or the Gods will continue to send plague and famine to curse Thebes until either this person is found or Thebes utterly destroyed by the God's curses. Besides it would be a truly horrible character flaw if Oedipus out of concern for himself refused to find out the truth and thus sacrificed Thebes to his selfish personal needs. That would be pride, hubris, which the Gods abominate in ancient Greek myth, on a truly colossal scale.
Another foolish idea is the notion that Oedipus’ character flaw is attempting to escape his fate. Aside from the rather absurd implied notion that if Oedipus had embraced his fate he would have escaped it. This idea ignores that the Gods and fate are implacable they would have found a way for Oedipus regardless of what he did or did not do for him to fulfill his fate. Finally what human being with even the weakest sense of ethics would not fight, much less embrace a fate that consisted of murdering your father and marrying your mother. If fighting that sort of fate is a character flaw then I’m all for having that character flaw.
In the end Oedipus is a much abused, innocent whose terrible fate was to do terrible things. He is the polluted innocent whose very presence dirties and defiles and yet in Oedipus at Colonus this very pollution; the fact that Oedipus is guilty of acts of the most extreme defiling nature in the eyes of the Greeks of Sophocles time, turns him into a man of sanctity of the holy and supernatural. This is because of his innocence. Oedipus is objectively guilty because he did indeed commit the profane, defiling acts he is accused of. Yet he did not do them deliberately, there is no malice, no evil intent in the acts. Oedipus is quite simply a very good man fated to do terrible things. It is his goodness and his endurance of suffering, calumny and hatred and a remorselessly cruel fate that make him holy. He is a good man so polluted with unspeakable crimes that he is holy and divine.
So in the end the Athenian King Theseus saw Oedipus’ passing but no other man did. As the messenger relates:
Meanwhile perhaps we can take the warning of Sophocles to heart at the end of Oedipus the King:In what manner Oedipus passed from this earth, no one can tell. Only Theseus knows. We know he was not destroyed by a thunderbolt from heaven nor tide-wave rising from the sea, for no such thing occurred. Maybe a guiding spirit from the gods took him, or the earth’s foundations gently opened and received him with no pain. Certain it is that he was taken without a pang, without grief or agony – a passing more wonderful than that of any other man.12
Call no man happy until he is dead.13
1. Watling, E. F., Introduction, in Sophocles, The Theban Plays, Penguin Books, London, 1947, pp. 7-22, at 13.
2. Finley, M.I., Desperately Foreign, in Aspects of Antiquity, Penguin Books, London, 1968, pp. 11-15, Jones, John, Aristotle and Greek Tragedy, Chatto & Windus Ltd., London, 1962, pp. 192-235.
3. IBID, See Aristotle, Poetics, Penguin Books, London, 1996.
4. Aristotle, ch. 13, p. 21.
5. Finley, Jones, pp. 12-20, Heath, Malcolm, Introduction, in Aristotle, pp. vii-lxviii, at xxxi-xxxiii, xlix-liii. Heath’s attempt on pages xxxi-xxxiii to introduce some level, (He grudgingly admits that it would not be a serious moral failing.) of a moral failing as a error and not mere ignorance or some other intellectual error as a possible meaning for hamartia falls because it ignores, in the case of Oedipus at least, the implacable workings of fate. Oedipus is doomed to do terrible things from before he was born, any errors he commits are irrelevant his destiny is fated, no doomed, for him to fulfill.
6. Watling, pp. 23-24, 69-70, 125, See also Sophocles.
7. IBID, Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus.
8. IBID, Sophocles, see also Footnote 2.
9. Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, p. 87.
10. IBID, p. 88.
11. Finley, p. 12.
12. Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, p. 121.
13. Finley, p. 13, quoting Oedipus the King.