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Free Will and Fate in Medea and Oedipus the King: Essay

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In the entirety of both Medea and Oedipus the existence of Gods are shown as dominant throughout. In Modern time, Theorists and dramatists are turning the pages every day to find answers to the questions at hand, are the characters of these plays in control of their own destiny? Or is their fate already inevitable? Ancient Greek people believed that Gods set the destinies for some people as its what they were born to do and there is a level of which people can take charge of small choices in their lives. ‘The belief in free will’ author describes “free will in contrast to determinism, which holds that one’s behavior is the causal consequence of preceding events, such that (s)he could not have acted otherwise..” This suggests that basing one’s life choices on free will is just a theory where you are taking responsibility of your own actions. This links well to Oedipus as every action he makes creates a domino effect to the next. Euripides made a clear point to his audience that the Gods will always have the upper hand in guiding Medea and commanding her what what to do as she followed. This power of the Gods is also shown in Oedipus the King as the prophecy was a main part of the play as it is created before his is born which makes it seem like he has no choice whether it will be fulfilled as he is abandoned as a child and rescued to be brought up to be a Price in Corinth, then goes back to Thebes after hearing his prophecy where he kills his father and sleeps with his mother. This shows he can’t even escape his fate, even when he does have a choice.

It may seem that Oedipus has a choice throughout the story based on his actions. Being able to control your fate is important to any person because everyone has a destiny in the eyes of Sophocles in ancient Greek theatre, as he has faith in the fact that fate has a large impact over the life of a man’s control. In ‘Oedipus the King’ Oedipus kills his Father and marries his mother, which lead to him becoming King of Thebes. However, the ancient Greeks all believed in Gods having power of the prophecies and could see the future of certain individuals. This suggests that the prophecy that was set out for Oedipus would heavily influence him. This controls his fate that he is destined for. This shows at the point of “peripeteia” as he has discovered that he killed his own father. He says, “I stand revealed at last-cursed in my birth, cursed in marriage, cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands”. This shows that his destiny began before he was born so he had no control. Some may argue that he had control as he decided that he’d leave Corinth and defeat the sphinx that was terrorising the city of Thebes while it was kingless. However this simply because he was set out to be the noble man that the audience can look up to. Sophocles’ wanted him to be this character which reflects on Aristotle’s poetry to create this Greek tragedy. Throughout the story Sophocles expresses the “hamartia” of the protagonists character as his tragic flaws; which in this case are Oedipus being too proud to listen to other people, such as Jacosta telling him to give up on finding Lauis’ killer. This also motivates his inability to control his fate.

Medea’s choices throughout her life may seem as if she has full control over her decisions that she makes by using her sorcery powers and intelligence to get where she wants to be with Jason, such as helping him aquire the Golden fleece, then fleeing from her family and murdering her brother during their escape to Lolcus; Jason’s home. Soon after Medea receives the news that her husband has left her for another princess, she questions, (p6) “Was it for this I turned back on my country, my father, my own brother cuts to bits – for this?” This suggests that Medea wasn’t aware of the consequences of her actions that she did for Jason, which shows that there was a higher power that led her to do these evil and conniving acts. Helen P. Foley explains that in ancient greece “Women are and how they should act, and has a repertoire of clichés to draw on in describing them. As a category, women are a ‘tribe’ apparently less differentiated as individuals than men; paradoxically, they are both more embedded in the social system and marginal to its central institutions. Ideally, their speech and action should be severely limited, since they are by nature incapable of full social maturity and independence.” Furthermore, it was the Gods that gave her these powers, which she will obviously use to rebel as woman during this era were deeply opressed as they had no free will for themselves. This made it easy for Euripides to show an Ancient Greek audience what can happen when you give a woman power to do what she wants.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King the theme of free will is scattered throughout the play, which is also based on certain flaws of Oedipus’ character. When he finds out that the Laius has been murdered, then by his own choice he decides to search for the killer himself in order to be noble and respected. This later shows that his ignorance plays a big part in securing his own fate. Mariana Penha Ferreira states that for “moralist scholars the general agreement is that the gods are just to punish the hero for some sort of crime”. This suggests that whatever choice Oedipus makes he will still suffer consequences from the Gods. Oedipus then goes on his journey and requests the presence of a blind prophet; Tiresias, so he can question his on Lauis’ death. He then goes on to tell Oedipus “Hear then: this man whom thou hast sought to arrest With threats and warrants this long while, the wretch who murdered Laius that man is here. He passes for an alien in the land but soon shall prove a Theban, native born.” This shows Tiresias’ belief in the prophecy in which Oedipus is the killer of Laius’ to warn him not to continue his search but he ignores this advice, and goes on thinking this is him taking on his own free will, however it’s just the lead to his prophecy coming true. He later figures out that he is actually guilty for the crime from inquiring himself from his own thoughts.

There are many parts in the play that present Medea as a follower to the Gods and to be controlled by their power. This is clearly shown in the killing of her children, as the female chorus are trying to convince her not to when they know they can’t stop her. This leads to Medea having existential thoughts about her sons lives, then the chorus soon after they agree with her for them to be murdered as they have no purpose. Medea states “Overreach yourself, you’ll suffer. The Gods look down and take their toll”.(p5) This suggests that she hasn’t made any decision in her plans and the Gods are the reason that she is reaching her fate. This was also far before she finalised her plotting, which meant she could’ve easily listened to the chorus’ advice and turned back.

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The treatment in free will is also present in other characters of Oedipus the King as Oedipus’ biological parents, Laius and Jocasta become involved in the prophecy at the beginning of the play. When they hear of the curse that has been placed on their family by the Gods, they decide to abandon their son and send him away from their own choice. Jocasta explains, “As for the child, it was but three days old, When Laius, it’s ankles pierced and pinned together, gave it to be cast away

by others on the trackless mountain side.” This suggests that Oedipus’ parents tried to divert the prophecy by sending him away from them so he can’t grow up to kill Laius. However, this later fails as a shepherd saves him as a baby, which lead him on to his destiny to follow the prophecy from the oracle.

At the beginning of Euripides’ Medea, it can also be suggested that Medea did have her own free will, which is presented to the audience by the Nurse as she believes that Medea has made her own decisions and is not completely controlled by the support or will of the Gods. When Medea is mourning about her husband abandoning her and is plotting against him, the Nurse states “You hear? She cries to justice. Who is not called in vain, and Zeus who seals all promises. She’ll do such things. What her anger brews will have no easy antidote.” (p6) At this point the chorus thinks that these are only her making the point that’ll she’ll have her revenge, not that her plans are set in stone, as they believe the Gods have just put these thoughts in her head as they explain “she calls on Gods – on Zeus, on justice who brought her to Greece.”(p7) This further suggests that the Gods have lead Medea here so speaking for their help would not make her situation any more improved. However, her plots to murder Creon and Glauke were made by her own choice, as she knows what she needs to do to get revenge on Jason for leaving her and doesn’t seem to care about what the Gods will’s are.

Throughout both plays, Medea and Oedipus the King the treatment of fate is stands out more than free will as Sophocles wanted to alert the Greek audience about the power of Gods and the faith people should have in them. Whilst, Euripides tried to inform the people on what can happen if certain individuals are given a high amount of power and have their own free will with the abilities that come with this power. Even though fate is presented more thoroughly in the two plays, free will can be seen in the background of choices some characters make, which create their flaws so the audience doesn’t completely pin it on the Gods for the endings of the plays.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Do Both Jocasta and Oedipus Seem to Believe About Their Abilities to Control Their Own Fates?

Ancient Greek people believed that Gods set the destinies for some people as its what they were born to do and there is a level of which people can take charge of small choices in their lives.

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Free Will and Fate in Medea and Oedipus the King: Essay. (2021, August 13). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from
“Free Will and Fate in Medea and Oedipus the King: Essay.” Edubirdie, 13 Aug. 2021,
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