Term Paper: Classical and Modern Greek Theater

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[. . .] We are inclined to understand the prophecies in these plays as having perhaps more weight than they would actually have had in Greece (Myers 9). In fact, while the prophecies were supposed to be divinely inspired, they were also known to be highly symbolic and subject to various interpretations. Laius, like Oedipus, had the option, not perhaps of ignoring the oracles entirely, but at least of listening to them with some caution.

They might have chosen to act otherwise, for the oracles were not the direct voices of the gods. Had the gods spoken directly to either of these men and ordered them to act the way that they did, we might say that Sophocles was indeed writing about the ways in which the lives of humans are determined by fate and the futility and naivete of believing in free will.

But Sophocles does not have the gods order the humans to behave in certain ways. By having the future told by an oracle, a semi-divine source at best, Sophocles opens thte door to the possibility that free will is indeed a possibility in this world.

Once one begins to read the Oedipus plays with an eye to seeing them as commentaries on the reality of human free will rather than as tracts on the terrible power off the gods over human fate, one sees suggestions throughout the plays that Sophocles is at least undecided on the issue, if not even perhaps actively advocating for the importance of free will in understanding human nature and human action. This remains true today in our experience of modern theater.

Oedipus himself argues that people have free will, in describing the perils of being a king:

have no natural craving for the name

Of king, preferring to do kingly deeds,

And so thinks every sober-minded man.

Now all my needs are satisfied through thee,

And I have naught to fear; but were I king,

My acts would oft run counter to my will.

How could a title then have charms for me

Above the sweets of boundless influence?

I am not so infatuate as to grasp

The shadow when I hold the substance fast.

Now all men cry me Godspeed! wish me well,

And every suitor seeks to gain my ear,

If he would hope to win a grace from thee.

Why should I leave the better, choose the worse?

That were sheer madness, and I am not mad.

In this speech Oedipus argues that people present themselves as they wish to be seen, jockey for favor, and try to change the course of their lives. In describing others, he acknowledges that they at least have the capacity to choose their own way.

Sophocles present to Oedipus, and to ourselves, repeated opportunities for him to choose a different direction to take. Oedipus refers again and again to the prophecies that have been spoken, but in no case does he talk about how he might choose to interpret them differently - or to try to go directly to the gods with prayers and sacrifices to see if they might not change their minds over what they wished for him.

Say, am I vile?

Am I not utterly unclean, a wretch

Doomed to be banished, and in banishment

Forgo the sight of all my dearest ones,

And never tread again my native earth;

Or else to wed my mother and slay my sire,

Polybus, who begat me and upreared?

If one should say, this is the handiwork

Of some inhuman power, who could blame

His judgment? But, ye pure and awful gods,

Forbid, forbid that I should see that day!

May I be blotted out from living men

Ere such a plague spot set on me its brand!

Before he blinds himself with Jocasta's brooch, Oedipus is blind to many other things, perhaps most importantly of all he is blind to his own ability to make decisions. He is in thrall to ideas he has about fate, which should have much less weight than they do.

Jocasta, in the following speech, makes perhaps the most clear-cut condemnation both of Oedipus himself and of the policy of blinding following oracles and believing in fate:

He will not use

His past experience, like a man of sense,

To judge the present need, but lends an ear

To any croaker if he augurs ill.

Since then my counsels naught avail, I turn

To thee, our present help in time of trouble,

Apollo, Lord Lycean, and to thee

My prayers and supplications here I bring.

Lighten us, lord, and cleanse us from this curse!

For now we all are cowed like mariners

Who see their helmsman dumbstruck in the storm.

Oedipus could have chosen to pass by Laius on the road. He kills him not because his own life is in danger or because of any significant point of honor but because he is stubborn. He kills his father because he believes that it is acceptable to let whatever part of his character it is hardest to control take over at any given time. Today we should not accept this as any sort of defense, and it is difficult to believe that Sophocles does either.

He could have refused the crown of Thebes. He could have refused the hand of Jocasta. Likewise, Laius did not have to kill his son. The characters in this play act in ways that seem natural and right to them but that are certainly not always wise or just. And this is not merely true from our own, historically later perspective. Rather, it is at least to some extent true contemporaneously as well.

After all, if Oedipus had simply been the innocent victim of the gods, surely he would not have been punished so. He is no innocent who has been punished unjustly: He has done terrible things and as a result he suffers. This is not an example of the gods dictating all but rather a sense that humans, who act out of free will, must reap what they have sown.

Let the storm burst, my fixed resolve still holds,

To learn my lineage, be it ne'er so low.

It may be she with all a woman's pride

Thinks scorn of my base parentage. But I

Who rank myself as Fortune's favorite child,

The giver of good gifts, shall not be shamed.

She is my mother and the changing moons

My brethren, and with them I wax and wane.

Thus sprung why should I fear to trace my birth?

Nothing can make me other than I am.

Thus Oedipus argues, but we hear an answer - not from the chorus but from Sophocles himself - you, you could have made yourself other than you were. This is the message that we hear equally from the Greek stage, whether in traveling back to the classical world, in looking at revivals of classical plays, or in looking at entirely new works.

Works Cited

Bobzien, Susanne. Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Society. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.

Edinger, Edward. The Psyche on Stage: Individuation Motifs in Shakespeare and Sophocles. New York: Inner City, 2000. http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/oedipus.html

Moscati, S. Ancient Semitic Civilizations. New York: Putnam, 1960.

Long. A.A. Stoic Studies. Berkeley: UC Press, 2001. http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/oedipus.html [END OF PREVIEW]

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