For us as individuals to have free will it suggests that as human beings, we have the ability to express and elect our own personal choices. Whereas the notion of fate entices the idea that our lives are simply determined by physical or divine forces. When focussing on the treatment of free will and fate in relation to Greek tragedies, one can recognise that this theme was often established as the driving forces of conflict. In ancient Greece, the lives of people seemed to be determined by the concept of fate; it was common belief that your fate was set for you from the moment you were born into existence – you couldn’t escape your destiny. Focussing on the main dramatists, Euripides and Sophocles, we can explore whether tragedies were created using the divine powers of the three fates, the Moirai, spinning, measuring and cutting each person’s destiny (Ancarola, 2018). Or, whether the power of free will prevailed and people could choose how they wanted to live their lives. Through studying Medea and Oedipus the King, this essay will seek to find out in what ways the playwrights have used precise influences of destiny and significant personal choice, to further develop the lives and paths of their characters.
Medea by Euripides is a Greek tragedy that follows the main protagonist’s journey of revenge against her unfaithful husband, Jason – after leaving her and their two children for King Creon’s daughter, Glauce. In Medea, the characters make multiple references to the gods as the cause of struggle. A key piece of dialogue takes place between Medea and the Tutor, where they discuss the golden crown and robe that has been laced with a fatal poison. They boast that this package has been successfully delivered to Jason’s new mistress the Princess of Corinth. One line said by Medea is most striking, “I have no choice old man, none at all. This is what the gods and I have devised, I and my foolish heart”. (Euripides, 2003, p.77). The ‘gods’ that Medea refers to could be Eros, Aphrodite and Hera, who, in the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, are the engineers of Medea’s love for Jason. (Wood, 2011). The declaration of “I have no choice old man, none at all…I and my foolish heart” (Euripides, 2003, p.77) suggests that Medea has conceded her free will and that she could in fact blame the gods for the outcome, as her malevolent plans stem from the artificially encouraged love that she has for Jason.
The significant personal choice made by Medea of killing her own children undoubtedly demonstrates her power to do as she pleases. Filicide is an unearthly act and Medea states “I am well aware how terrible a crime I am about to commit, but my passion is the master of my reason, passion that causes the greatest suffering in the world” (Euripides, 2003 p.78). This passage reinforces the concept of independent thinking and free will in the play. Regardless of Medea’s own doubts of killing her children, her human nature and uncontrollable need for revenge is so strong, she has conceded to the prospect of killing her children. Additionally, during Medea’s soliloquy which debates the future of her children, no vows were made and there was no invocation of the gods to assist her this the decision, it was her own free will that brought her to this unnatural decision.
Contrary to the seemingly obvious display of free will concerning the murder of her children, in the ending of Medea, Euripides indicates interference from the gods that provides evidence of tampering from the divine. Through the improbable use of Deus ex Machina, a term originally coined in ancient Greek, plays as stage machinery used to bring deities to intervene in action (Collins, 2016). Medea makes her exit in a ‘chariot drawn by dragons’ and exclaims “Such is the chariot that the Sun, my father’s father, has given to me, to keep me safe from enemy hands” (Euripides, 2003, p.84). Medea’s ability to leave the country, freely and unpunished for her actions illustrates the gods overlooking her vicious acts yet still protect her. Touching on the creation of Greek Tragedy, Aristotle in The Poetics states that “the unravelling of the plot…must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the Deus Ex Machina – As in the Medea” (Butcher, 2011, 23%), which undeniably hints that he was distinctly unimpressed with the ending scene in Medea, due to Euripides’s use of the aforementioned stage device. However, developing on the initial discussion of the treatment of fate in this particular Greek Tragedy, Ruth Scodel (2010 p.131) declared that “Like a god, she flies, and she speaks as only gods ordinarily speak” in reference to the Deus Ex Machina, which proposes that Euripides may have used this manoeuvre to display the indisputable contribution from gods in the play.
Oedipus the King, written by Sophocles, clearly portrays the popular belief in ancient Greece that fate will indefinitely control all aspects of life, despite the presence of free will. Throughout the play Sophocles uses the concept of free will and fate as a vital part of Oedipus’ ruin. In the opening episode Creon announces “The ruler of this land, my lord, was Laius…He met with violent death – and now the oracle speaks clear: we must exact revenge upon his murderers” (Sophocles, 2015, p.18), which sets the motion that Oedipus must find out the truth behind the previous Kings murder in order to cure the curse that feasts upon Thebes. The presence of divine rulers is established quickly within the story as the ‘oracles’ have given the precise remedy to Oedipus’ problems. Unaware that the ancient prophecy that he was destined to wed his mother and kill his father, from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, has already come to pass, Oedipus begins a journey and through his self-determination and free will, transitions from ignorance to knowledge that inevitably leads him to his destiny.
The treatment of free will in Oedipus the King can be explored through the fatal flaw that presents itself within the character of Oedipus. The fatal flaw is represented in The Poetics by the Greek word Hamartia “which covers getting something wrong or making a mistake in the most general sense … and includes errors made in ignorance or through mis-judgement” (Heath, 1996, 20%). Oedipus’ fatal flaw is his erroneous judgement and subsequently, his ultimate downfall comes from a series of ill-fated miss-judgements that are made as he incessantly aims to do the right thing. The idea of Oedipus presenting Hamartia throughout the play provides a ground to believe that free will plays an important underlying theme throughout the play. Oedipus has the power in himself to not only make choices but to act and as Knox states “For the plot of the play consists not of the actions which Oedipus was “fated” to perform, or rather, which were predicted; the plot of the play consists of his discovery that he has already fulfilled the prediction. And this discovery is entirely due to his action” (1996 p.149). Even though this ultimately shows that Oedipus is able to make a range of independent choices and influence the actions in the play, this demonstration of free will can be hindered by certain pieces of the plot that highlight the involvement of destiny and the gods.
An example of the fatal flaw that displays Oedipus’ free will is when he makes the decision to find out about his past. Even after Jocasta pleads with him to look no further, Oedipus professes “That is impossible: when I have got such clues as these, I must reveal my origins” (Sophocles, 2015, p.55). His determination to find out the truth and the independent choice he makes to do so is what unearths his ‘origins’, and ultimately leads him to the recognition that he has already fulfilled the prophecy he was destined for and thus begins his destruction.
In his translation of Oedipus the King, Oliver Taplin notes that “Human lives are their own lives, then, with only rare interventions or interferences from outside superhuman powers. And yet they always (of course) end up doing what the gods have determined, or the oracles have foretold, or the curses have called down” (2015 p.7).
In conclusion, I think the above statement sums up the representation and deliverance of fate and free will in both the Greek tragedies discussed in this essay. Throughout both texts, fate and the gods are seen to be at fault for causing problems or interfering with the characters’ lives. As seen in the prophecies laid out in Oedipus or the gods having influenced Medea’s behaviour through her love for Jason, the involvement of destiny, fate and divine powers are prominent. However, we mustn’t forget that the choices made by the characters are of their own mind and heart, offering the figurative idea of free will as they make their own decisions. In the end, I believe that it is their own decisions in life that ultimately fulfil their illusion of what their fate may be.
- Ancarola, G. (2018). The Moirai, the Fates of Greek Mythology. Available from: https://greece.greekreporter.com/2018/03/17/the-moirai-the-fates-of-greek-mythology/ [Accessed 28 Dec. 2018]
- Aristotle. (1996) The Poetics. Translated by M. Heath. London: Penguin Classics. [Kindle Edition]
- Aristotle. (2011) The Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher. CreateSpace Independent Publisher. [Kindle Edition]
- Collins English Dictionary, (2016). Available from: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/deus-ex-machina [Accessed 22 Dec. 2018].
- Euripides. (1996). Medea and Other Plays. Translated by J. Davie and R. Rutherford. London: Penguin Classics.
- Knox, B., (1982) Introduction to The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles. London: Penguin Classics.
- Scodel, R. (2010). An introduction to Greek tragedy. Cambridge University Press.
- Sophocles. (2015). Oedipus The King and Other Tragedies. Translated by O. Taplin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Wood, M. (2011). BBC – History -Ancient History in depth: Jason and the Golden Fleece. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/greeks/jason_01.shtml [Accessed 1 Jan. 2019].