On his journey, the first part of his fate is realized. Oedipus encounters Laios at a crossroads “where three highways meet” (ii.192) and murders him. In the middle of the play, Iocasta informs Oedipus that Laios was killed at this crossroads, an intersection that is referenced numerous times during the play. Oedipus speaks of his own realizations
“There were three highways/Coming together at a place I passed;/And there a herald came towards me, and a chariot/Drawn by horses, with a man such as you describe/Seated in it. The groom leading the horses/ forced me off the road at his lord's command;/ But as this charioteer lurched over toward me/ I struck him in my rage. The old man saw me/bought his double goad down upon my head/As I came abreast.” (ii.278)
The place where three highways meet serves as a symbol of the crucial moment where Oedipus meets his father and begins his downward spiral towards actualizing his fate and fulfilling the prophecies he has tried to escape. While crossroads oftentimes symbolizes a turning point where choices must be made, in Oedipus Rex it serves as a symbol for the ultimate lack of free will in the lives of the ancient Greek. Oedipus could not have avoided meeting his father – the supposed free will that brought him to the fork in the road was not free will at all; Oedipus was lead by the gods, not through a random chain of events. The viewer is left wondering if the encounter was avoidable by taking another road; was it Oedipus’ own free will that brought him to this crossroads or was he at the whim of the gods the entire time? The chance meeting of Laios and resulting trip to Thebes serves as an example of the inexorability of the gods' desires. By the
commencement of the play, Oedipus has realized his fate but now must become aware of
At the start of the play, Thebes is in ruins and Oedipus is awaiting Kreon’s return
from the oracle at Delphi. Upon Kreon’s return from the oracle, he reports that the plague will be lifted from Thebes if the man who kills Laios is banished. Immediately, human dependence is placed in the hands of the fortuneteller – the intermediary between humans and the gods who control them. The initial revealing of the prophecy drives the entire plot, providing the jumping off point for an unavoidable dependency upon the gods. The fate of Thebes is wrapped up within the information provided by, the desires of, and ultimately the forgiveness of the gods. Oedipus’ free will - however well intentioned it may be - cannot remedy Thebes’ problems. Even Oedipus’ choice to exact revenge upon the murderer of Laios is not a result of his free will; he must rid Thebes of this “old defilement” (Jacobus, 47) in order to put a stop to the plague that is beleaguering his kingdom. It becomes increasingly clear at the very start of the play that the gods have ultimate control over human interactions and decisions.
Slowly, Oedipus attempts to put the pieces of the puzzle together, calling forth witnesses and prophets to unmask the truth about Laios’ death. As Oedipus
becomes more frenetic in his search for the truth, he gets closer to unmasking the veracity of his existence. When Teiresias is beckoned to supply information regarding the murderer of Laios, Oedipus’ awareness of his fate is clinched; he can no longer avoid the truth that he and his family have tried so hard to elude. Oedipus’ free will has been completely nullified by the evidence Teiresias supplies. The audience and characters
within Oedipus Rex comprehend that all of Oedipus’ attempts to change his fate have
only been countered with steps from the god to ensure he does not succeed. Because
Oedipus’ awareness of his fate profoundly affects his actions, fate is not merely the
outcome of the choices he has made, but the cause of his actions as well.
By the end of the play, Oedipus has become fully aware of the inescapability of his fate. Oedipus, as well as the audience, experience the stunning truth that Oedipus’ life has been little more than a pawn in the games of the gods. Interestingly, Oedipus’ prophecies end with the marrying of his mother; once he is aware of his fulfillment of this prophecy he has complete free will. His choice to gouge his eyes out was never part of his fate. The audience, then, comes to the conclusion that once one’s fate is satisfied, free will follows.
While it is possible to argue that Oedipus did not have to travel to Thebes upon hearing a prophecy, or vow to rid Thebes of the defilement, the fact remains: his fate was inevitable. The miniscule amount of free will Oedipus may have had is immediately
nullified by the tremendous amount of control the gods exerted upon him. The certainty of coming to the fork in the road begins the spiral downwards towards the fulfillment of his fate. His choice to rid Thebes of its murderer is not really a choice at all, but a product, one can assert, of the empathetic characteristics the gods infused into Oedipus when creating him. This choice also serves as the catalyst towards the awareness of the fulfillment of his fate. Oedipus’ role as a tragic hero, then, can be heightened, not diminished. Despite his valiant efforts to deflect his own fate, to save his mother and father, to save Thebes itself, the gods have let their planned fate overpower his good intentions.
Oedipus Rex demonstrates the utter lack of free will and lack of randomness in
life. Through witnessing Oedipus’ downfall, the viewer is able to comprehend the ultimate hegemony the gods have over humans. By utilizing examples such as the three highways to illustrate the fact that there is little to no free will involved in one’s decision making process, and including characters such as Tieresias who are aware that fate is unavoidable, Sophocles is able to present the idea of free will as an illusion. The audience realizes that all of their actions will lead to the preordained, that no matter what road they take, they will wind up meeting their Laios.
Sophocles, OEDIPUS REX, Compact Bedford Introduction to Drama, ed Lee A. Jacobus (New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001), 54. Subsequent references will be given in the text.