Or, How far is Oedipus himself responsible for his sufferings?
Or, Does fate or hamartia determine the fate of Oedipus?
Ans. There has been much controversy among the great critics on the question whether fate is responsible for Oedipus’ suffering or his hamartia is. Some argue that fate is responsible, some others argue that Oedipus’s personal fault (hamartia) is responsible for his tragic consequences. C.M. Bowra, a very perceptive critic, suggests that the punishment of Oedipus is undeserved. He says, “It is not a punishment for insolence, nor in the last resort it is due to any fault of judgement or character in the man”. While Kitto, another critic, says, “that Sophocles is not trying to make us feel that an inexorable destiny or a malignant god is guiding the events.” He of course, holds Oedipus’s weak side of character as partly, not fully, responsible for his tragedy. R.B. Sewall, yet another critic, says about Oedipus, “Whatever he may have thought he was doing, the act stands in the play as his culminating act of freedom, the assertion of his ability to act independent of any god, oracle, or prophecy.”
We have mentioned three notable critics’ opinions regarding the question, and these opinions represent extreme views— Oedipus’s absolute freedom of action at the one extreme, and the exclusive role of fate at the other.
King Laius was told by the Delphic oracle that a son born to Jocãsta would kill his father and marry his mother. So, as soon as Oedipus was born, Laius, in order to escape the oracle, riveted the baby’s ankles, gave it to a servant to leave it on the mountain to die from exposure there. But the servant out of sympathy, gave it to a Corinthian shepherd who in turn gave it to King Polybus who was childless. Oedipus was brought up as the prince of corinth. But when a young man remarked in a drunken state that Polybus was not his father he consulted the oracle in Corinth which repeated the same prophecy as was given to his father Laius. In order not to commit this crime Oedipus fled from Corinth and determined never to.return until Polybus died. On his way towards Thebes he encountered a. monster, Sphinx, who was eating up every Theban who failed to solve its riddle. Oedipus solved the riddle, and Sphinx killed herself.
Proceeding farther, Oedipus encountered King Laius at a place where three roads met. A quarrel ensued, and Oedipus killed Laius, and all his men except one who fled. The Thebans made him king of Thebes, and gave him the queen, as a reward for freeing the Sphinx. Thus Oedipus unwillingly killed his father Laius, and married his mother Jocasta. Several years later a plague descended on the city and the oracle said it was due to the fact that the murderer of Laius still lived in the country. Oedipus launched a drive to find out the killer, and ironically discovered that he hithself was the killer. Jocasta committed suicide, and Oedipus blinded himself.
From the plot of the story it is apparent that the oracle came true. The oracle prophesied the fate of Oedipus even before he was born. But some critics like Sewall thinks that what happens to Oedipus is the result of his actions as a free agent — actions owing to his hamartia, his pride and haughty temper. At this point let us suppose that Oedipus had no hamartia, and then those things would not have happened. But he did have hamarEia and the things prophesied happened. Hence the perplexity, and. differences of opinion of great critics. The perplexity is due to their overlooking of the principle of causality — every event is the cause of the succeeding event. It is a scientific law and it works everywhere.
If we apply this principle of causality to the case of Oedipus we find that Oedipus’s fate preceded his hamartia, even before his birth. So his hamartia is the result of his fate, not the cause. From the cosmological point of view everything in the universe is prefixed, things happen as they are designed, in a series cf seeming cause and effect. Oedipus’s fate was predesigned, and his nature was already so framed as to produce the events that were fated for him. They were so inexorable that he could not evade them even though he tried.