King Oedipus is a prominent example of how fate inevitably controls his life and leads him to his predestined denouement. He attempts to escape Delphi’s prophecy by committing acts of sacrifice to save his family and his citizens. Though the intentions were there, Oedipus ultimately brought the prophecy to life because of these same actions. He banished himself from Corinth to save his father but killed his father on the way to Thebes. He answers the Sphinx's riddle correctly, but then he ends up marrying his mother. The way these events pan out is almost comical in how ironic it seems. In Kitto’s Greek Tragedy, he asks, “Is Sophocles telling us that man is only the plaything of Fate? Or does he mean, as Bowra suggested, no more than that the gods have contrived this awful fate for Oedipus to display their power to man and to teach him a salutary lesson?” (Kitto 138) These questions create skepticism of the Oracle of Delphi’s intentions for Oedipus’ life. The ambiguity of outcomes gives an aura of mystery over the legitimacy of fate and whether it can be told, but undoubtedly the theme of fate interlays with power. A common trend in Sophocles’ work is whether power and fate go hand-in-hand and if this relationship is relevant in every character’s development.
This relationship is tested in Antigone when King Creon disobeys the will of the gods by forbidding the burial of Polyneices. The ancient Greek practice of proper burials was a sacred tradition to bring human souls to the underworld. By banning this for him, King Creon faces the consequences of disrespecting the gods and angering them. In a twist of fate, Creon ends up with his family dead and his citizens displeased. The chorus agrees that Haemon makes a rational argument when he mentions how the citizens believe that Antigone’s life should be spared. They go as far as to chant, “Proud words of the arrogant man, in the end, meet punishment, great as his pride was great, so, at last, he is a school in wisdom.” (Sophocles 1350-2) These last lines of the play summarize the cause of his denouement. In this case, the illusion of fate has become more relevant in this context than the illusion of control. Creon has total control over his decision to execute Antigone and finds no remorse at first. Once he finds out about his retribution, it is then that he realizes the consequences of his wrongful choices. The chorus then provides context about his vengeance and how the gods’ contributed to his punishment. Whether the gods were actually at fault, or they were looking for an explanation for this unusual act of equalizing the scales, the audience may never know what Sophocles’ intent was. Hence why the illusion of fate is more distinguishable in this case.
In the same play, Antigone has her comprehension of fate and decides to accept it rather than dismiss it. Antigone, Creon, and Oedipus all have their fates given, but the way they each respond to them varies significantly. Creon chooses to act in belligerence and ignorance. Oedipus decides to run from it altogether. Antigone goes to embrace her actions and the fate that comes along with them. Antigone knew the consequences of burying her brother but still chose to accept said results and followed through to the very end. She claims, “But my fate prompts no tears, and no friend mourns.” (Sophocles 881) She has nothing left to lose and accepts the fate that is her death. In this case, Antigone is known as the powerful heroine in this story, even though it seems like she gave up in the end. However, this acceptance of her purpose is not a mere pathetic abandonment of her motivations, but rather, her resolute faith in the justice she was fated to serve. The same case is made in Electra’s story. When Electra decides to take revenge upon her mother and kill her own blood, the chorus provides the audience with insight as to what the gods would think about this unorthodox method of resolving conflict. The chorus sings, “But through thy loyalty to Heaven's eternal cause wearing the stainless crown of most perfect renown, and richly dowered by the mightiest laws.” (Sophocles 1093-7) Meaning, the chorus believes that the gods condone Electra’s resolve and that her fate is sealed. Her destiny is to punish her mother and reach the equilibrium of justice, and she can fulfill it in the end. In doing so, we see her power as the anti-hero shine through. Electra determines her own fate and successfully achieves it, which proves that her power is generated within herself and displayed through her actions. Through these interpretations, we recognize that the theme of power and the theme of fate go hand-in-hand and Sophocles uncovers how the manipulation of these qualities influences each character.
Sophocles has no qualms against portraying women as strong and powerful leaders. Yet, the society he lived in at the time had different perspectives on the role of women and how they should be represented in the community. So why did he choose to bring light to this matter? One could argue that “Sophocles surely had seen such men and knew that the male gospel of unquestioned intellectual and spiritual superiority was not supportable, that it was an untruth that indicted any— man, ruler, the state itself— who would mindlessly embrace it.” (Hanson 104) The typical standard for women’s rights very nearly ended at housekeeping and rearing children. Women were not allowed to vote, nor were they allowed to own or inherit the land. Even though they were an integral part of society, their general portrayal in theater and daily life reinforced these values even more. A model that fits the stereotypes of women back in that time is Ismene, Antigone’s sister. She is passive and submissive, both traits that confirm the stereotypical “weak and inferior” attitude towards women back then. Ismene says, “If, in defiance of the law, we cross a monarch's will?--weak women, think of that, not framed by nature to contend with men. (Sophocles 59-61) Ismene is frightened for her sister’s life because of the power a man holds and how dangerous it can be when confronted by a man. She reasons by saying that women, by nature, can not even compete with men and their strength. What Sophocles does next is surprising, since he decides that Antigone will ignore Ismene’s pleas to be compliant and exceed the plot in an unusual way.
Not only does Antigone go against the willpower of men in the beginning, but a specific man in general, King Creon, who believed he had the same divinity as the gods themselves. Her bravery and her complexity made her more than a daughter, sister, or niece, but also a ruler in her own right and an unconventional hero. She is a distinct contrast to Creon in the sort of values they represent. E.W. from The Economist argues, “Kreon, in Hegel’s view, stands for the masculine law of the state, whereas Antigone represents the feminine law of the home.” (E.W.) Creon stood by his decision based on his responsibility to his citizens, and Antigone stood by her decision based on her responsibility to her family. By fulfilling Antigone’s objective, the notion represents a win for all women and society in general.
Another example of a strong female lead Sophocles created is Electra, who plots to kill her mother, Clytemnestra, and her step-father, Aegisthus, for the murder of her father, Agamemnon. Electra is considered one of Sophocles’ most successful dramas due to its controversial and unorthodox storyline. The main plot serves to exhibit a nonconformist perspective on what a woman was allowed to be back in that time, and this pushed the boundaries of how women were portrayed in society. Electra’s personality is exhibited not only through her actions and words in the play, but also through the way her lines are structured to be. Bollack, the author of The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan says,
“The female part overflows with vocal, narcissistic, spontaneous, and irrational outpourings; it is extremely lyrical, with the stressed syllables of its dochmiacs and syncopated iambs (batches and cretics), with the exception of the trochees of the epode and the final recapitulation.” (Bollack)
The tone and articulation of Electra’s lines give intuition to her emotions when she is reunited with Orestes. The sing-songy style and her over-the-moon excitement show her passionate and reckless response to the good news. The same intensity can be assumed for the opposite end of the spectrum, which is proven through her unrestrained desire to kill her mother.
Electra’s betrayal of her own blood counteracts the notion of what an ideal lady was supposed to be back in that time: passive, compliant, and weak. However, one could argue that she is also defending her own blood since the plan to kill her mother started with getting revenge for her father. Her ambivalence is not brought up from her personality or character, but rather says, “Electra is a victim of circumstance, imprisoned in the narrative of a past that she did not create and cannot control.” (Wheeler 384) Because of her motives, one cannot say that her plan was unprovoked, nor can they assume her morals are driven by the malicious intent of striking first rather than striking back. Electra’s ambiguity throughout the play is not determined by the revenge plan itself, but rather, by her reactions and her stubbornness to stick with her reactions. This makes her contributions to the play far more significant than any other character. However, Electra is not the only leading female character leaving an impact on the play.
Though Clytemnestra (Electra’s birth mother) is the villain of the story, she is also another significant model of a woman portrayed in a non-traditional manner. Electra ends up helping kill her own mother, and Clytemnestra helps to kill her own husband. Both of which are strikingly similar. Specifically, Clytemnestra’s character counteracted the “virginal and pure” stereotype that was valued in the patriarchal world. “In societies acknowledging only two, rigidly differential sets of gender roles, women wishing to succeed in ‘male’ spheres frequently assume wholesale the masculine set.” (Wheeler 383) Though untypical for a woman to be portrayed as “strong”, the only fitting way to do so was to do it in a masculine way. This reinforces patriarchal values since it supports the notion that the only way to be strong is to be masculine and act more like a “man”, rather than the fact that a woman can be strong and still act like a “woman”.
Clytemnestra opposed the idea of how a woman should behave when in a relationship with a man. Instead of valuing compliance and loyalty, she decides to go with another man and ends up killing her first husband. The general topic of adultery is more accepted by men than it is by women, but Sophocles allows Clytemnestra to do what others thought was unacceptable. She still has her authority and power regardless of her act of adultery, which makes her strong and dangerous. Wheeler, the writer of the chapter Gender and Transgression in his novel The Classical Quarterly notices that,
“She decided to commemorate Agamemnon’s murder after taking her (gender-transgressive) revenge; she owns the household’s property; it is she whom Chrysothemis fears and Electra blames for her plight; and she is responsible, at least jointly, for the plan to imprison the latter.” (Wheeler 385-6)
She is portrayed as a person with bad morals because of her adultery and lack of guilty conscience, and the justice that gets served seems rightfully deserved since a woman should not be capable of doing such a thing back in the time. Even though she is the antagonist in this play, Clytemnestra is still a force to be reckoned with in her own right, and that makes for the creation of a frighteningly powerful figure, even though she is only a woman. This contributes to the argument that women are not just weak and gentle creatures, but can also be vicious and forceful.
Creon in oedipus the king merges the significance that power and fate bring to change the course of a person’s life, not just through the eyes of the traditional man, but also through the modern eyes of a woman. By shifting the course of action when these themes come into play, the audience can truly capture the dynamic of each character along with the purpose of why these themes are essential to highlight the morals of each story. So, the audience can ask themselves, how can the lessons taught by Sophocles be incorporated into one’s own life? The kinship developed from Sophocles’ characters with people in real life can transform and evoke a new sense of lucidity about society and the world.