The ideas of fate and destiny were a consuming topic for the Greeks. Their pantheistic understanding of heaven included gods who toyed with humans for their own covert pleasures. The Greeks built a society which sought to understand the nature of men. Were men free, or did the god's ultimately hold their finger on the pulse of the universe, directing even the most insignificant actions according to some unseen plan? Socrates, Aristotle, Plato... each of these men wrestled with finding a purpose in the randomness of life. Through the concentric events of Oedipus the King, Sophocles created his own understanding regarding the subject of fate. Although free, Sophocles believed that we were not ultimately the masters of our own ships.
From the first lines of the play Oedipus the King, the playwright foreshadows the theme. Oedipus's seer Creon enters the king's court and discusses the oracle which he had perceived. The city of Thebes is suffering. Although the king is a mighty man with the respect of his citizens, the city is still under the oppressive hand of the gods. Creon says that there is an evil in the land which must be cleansed. The king agrees that it is fate, or the proper execution of justice for the evil to be purged from the land.
Creon tells of the evil, that king Laius was killed and that his murderer resides in the land, and must be found in order for the Gods' to be satisfied. The king unknowingly agrees to pursue his own downfall.
The plot of the story revolves around the events which preceded this meeting. Laius' killer is Oedipus, though he does not know it yet. Oedipus' response to the seer's oracle is:
"Well, I will start afresh and once again Make dark things clear. Right worthy the concern Of Phoebus, worthy thine too, for the dead; I also, as is meet, will lend my aid To avenge this wrong to Thebes and to the god. Not for some far-off kinsman, but myself, Shall I expel this poison in the blood; For whoso slew that king might have a mind To strike me too with his assassin hand. Therefore in righting him I serve myself." (Translated by Storr, 1912)
From the king's perspective, he is choosing to pursue justice in regards to these events. From the King's perspective, he is responsible for distributing justice, and in order for his kingdom to have the blessing of God, he must act according to the oracle. In order to bring peace to his children, he must find this man; otherwise the assassin may pursue him as well. What Oedipus does not understand is that the events which befell the king and his untimely murder were at his own hands. He was the man whom he sought. This conundrum is becomes slowly evident to the audience. But the King, the one who is pursuing justice, is unaware of his future fate. The king chooses to execute what he believes is right, only to find out that he has been fore-planned into the situation by another divine oracle.
The chorus enters and gives the audience another foreshadowing on the purposes behind the God's actions. They discuss among themselves the god's behaviors. They speak of Zeus, and Artemus. But in the final line before Oedipus returns to declare sentence on the soon to found murdered, the chorus declare:
Bacchus to whom thy Maenads Evoe shout;
Come with thy bright torch, rout, Blithe god whom we adore, The god whom gods abhor." (Storr, '1912)
Perhaps it is a divine plan to bring down Oedipus. The god whom the people adore is the king. The same man is the one whom the gods abhor. Perhaps, from the perspective of gods, the king is too powerful, and must be brought down. Perhaps the gods are jealous of his success. Or perhaps it is Oedipus' own confidence and boldness which is his ultimate downfall. He is the one who chooses to put to death the one found guilty of Laius' murder. His proud and arrogant nature may be what the gods are displeased with.
These questions lay a foundation of intrigue once the main characters are revealed. Only gods could have planted the oracle early in the king's life which set in motion the sequence of event which brought him to be deserted by his parents and raised by a rival king. His father, Laius, thought they were preventing the tragedy of the oracle told over their son. But their actions set in motion the fate which would eventually destroy the king, and his successor. The audience is left to only ponder why, and in what way non-sequetar events which occur in their own lives controlled for some divine purpose.
Teiresias is a counter to the self-made and proud king. He is an old seer, who tries to avoid the truth, knowing that speaking unfavorable news to the mighty king can be dangerous to ones life. However, not out of rage, or anger does he tell the king that he is the murderer, but out of his obedience to the king. The contrast between these men could not be more striking. The seer only wished to live by the truth, while the king lived by conquest. The seer avoided conflict, while the king was a mighty man of valor. The seer, a man honored in his old age by insight from the gods would live to a peaceful old age. The king however, a man of conquest and success, would be brought down by his own actions.
Oedipus reveals more of his character in his interaction with Teiresias. The blind prophet only seeks to tell the king that which he has been told by Delphi the prophet. In response, the king becomes angry. He arrogantly accused the seer of being part of the murder plot himself, and thereby trying to cast suspicion on the king in order to clear his own name. The king is a mighty man, and who is this blind prophet to accuse him with such lies. This is the king's attitude. He is the essential Athenian. He is a man of strong character and large accomplishments. Is it the success which he has enjoyed which place him at the object of the God's wrath, or is it the arrogant attitudes which have been built as part of that success for which the gods plan to hold him accountable? These questions are left for the audience to ponder because of the king's encounter with Teiresias.
Jocasta, Laius wife, Oedipus's mother and wife after the murder of Laius, takes a different view of truth, and fate than either Oedipus or Teiresias. She most closely represents those who are watching the play. Jocasta neither pursues her fate, nor does she run from it. She walks through the events of her life, and although she does not acknowledge the power of the gods to shape her life, she is still subject to their power.
Jocasta is the person who has watched her life affected by the beliefs and decisions of others, and she is still caught up in the web of the confusion which is created. She lost her first born son as a result of the Seer's Teiresias oracle. In the same way most people do not discover the activities of god's purpose, or the influence of fate in their life until they are engrossed in the same, the audience does not discover her place in the story until the middle of the play. She appears at the play's beginning as Oedipus's wife. As the event unfold, she is revealed as Oedipus' mother, and his slain father's bride.
Only a few members of the audience could understand Oedipus' perspective. Not many are mighty men. Not many are leaders, set forward with perfect character and accomplishments. His life was not one with which the audience could empathize. The seers, Creon and Teiresias, were also slightly beyond the everyday experience of the audience. Some audience members may have had interaction with a seer or other religious leader in one of the money temples. But to a great measure, the seer's advice was limited to kings and leaders, and was not a part of the every day Thebian's life.
Jocasta was placed in the play for the audience. She epitomized the average person's interactions with fate, and the will of the gods. She lost her first born son because of a mystical oracle. How could the family stand by and allow their only son to mature, only to kill the parents who gave him birth. So, in response to the leading of others, the son is cast into the wilderness to die. For Jocasta, she can only mourn a fate which she did not understand, and struggle to comprehend the purpose in their choices.
As the play climaxes, Jocasta discovers that fate had again turned against her.