The belief in gods and superstitions infused the lives of ancient Greeks. It was manifested in their customs, traditions, religion, feasts, and most certainly in their arts. Dramatists Sophocles and Euripides wrote masterpieces involving the intervention of gods and the supernatural in the progression or termination of the plot. However, in two of their most anthologized plays, “Oedipus Rex” and “Medea” respectively by Sophocles and Euripides, it is evident that the belief in the participation of the supernatural and, ultimately, the role of destiny in a person’s lives are not homogenous within the Greek society.
In this essay, the author will compare and contrast these two plays in order to highlight the different views of Euripides and Sophocles on the role of gods and fate in the lives of Greeks. The author proposes that in “Oedipus Rex,” fate takes the central stage as the characters attempt to escape their fate, while in “Medea,” fate is on the margins as the gods merely bless Medea in inflicting fate on those who wronged her.
“Oedipus Rex” is the last installment in the tragic trilogy of Oedipus, following the flawed hero in his pursuit of the murderer of King Lauis, fallen king of Thebes. The curse that has come upon the land as a result of the sacrilegious act has prodded Oedipus in what he thinks is a noble quest to extinguish the curse and bring justice to the king’s murder. Sophocles’ interesting irony surfaces as the plot unfolds to reveal Oedipus’ ignorance that he himself is the murderer he is pursuing and that his noble quest does not matter because it is he who has brought the curse to the kingdom. The conflict becomes more convoluted with the fact that the murdered king is none other than the estranged father of Oedipus and that the king’s widow, whom Oedipus has taken to be his wife, happens to be his biological mother.
Throughout the story, the characters attempt to escape their fate revealed to them by the prophets, and the denial of their destiny as a result of their insolence has entangled them to a web of conflicts. The inescapable fate of Oedipus was set in motion by Jocasta and Lauis’ attempt to obstruct fate, saving themselves from their destined end in the hands of their son by leaving the infant Oedipus in the mountains to die. However, fate prevails, and Oedipus is saved from death to fulfill the destiny of his father in an ill-fated meeting in the wilderness. All of these happened in the past and is only revealed to Oedipus as he unbelievingly confronts the consequence of his own disregard of the oracle’s words.
This recurring act of escaping fate points to the centrality of fate, destiny, and the supernatural in the story. Fate is the driving force of the play as it is the author and finisher of the lives of Oedipus, Jocasta, and King Lauis. Sophocles questions the extent of man’s actions in shaping and determining his life. Both Oedipus and his parents have gone to a great deal in order to escape their destinies—Jocasta and Lauis throwing away their own child and Oedipus engaging in feats of strength and wit—but in Sophocles’ words, once fate has been sealed by the gods, there is no way around it.
The futility of Oedipus’ actions in reversing his fate makes his story a classic example of tragedy. The relationship of man with the universe is the province of tragedy, and this relationship reveals how man becomes merely a pawn to the wiles of fate. In a modern setting, Oedipus’ efforts to determine his own fate would have amounted to something or at least resulted in something more hopeful than what had actually happened to him—being put in exile with his eyes plucked out of his sockets. However, Sophocles’ Greece, it seems, understood that fate overrides human efforts, predetermining the outcome of the future. Upon hearing the prophecy of the oracle in his childhood, Oedipus had set early on to escape it. Fearing the man that he would become, he ventures on a journey that would take him away from his known father who, he thinks, he would kill as the oracle had prophesied. However, he meets his biological father in the desert, murders him, and takes his own mother to be his wife without knowing that fate has already completed its course.
It is the blind oracle, Tiresius, who reveals to Oedipus the fate which he denies. As an adult, the insistent warnings of Tiresius get into Oedipus, and he allows pride, anger and insolence cloud his judgment of the divine message. Paranoia consumes his mind, and he becomes suspicious of everyone’s motive, including the oracles’. With hostility, he confronts Tiresias and says: “You’ve lost your power, stone-blind, stone-deaf – senses, eyes blind as stone!” to which the blind oracle answers: “I pity you, flinging at me the very insults each man here will fling at you so soon” (Sophocles 181). This remark, though intended to be a spiteful response to Oedipus, becomes a prophetic pronouncement of Oedipus’ future—that in the end, the people he vows to protect will turn their backs to him.
In sharp contrast to Sophocles’ idea is the play “Medea” written by his less celebrated contemporary, Euripides. This play revolves around the revenge of Medea on her unfaithful husband, Jason. Euripides takes the myth of Medea and Jason, particularly at that point in which the couple arrives in Corinth, and retells the murderous acts of Medea from the perspective of one that moves away from superstition. In “Medea,” Euripides suggests that humans have the capability to wield their own destiny, putting into the sidelines the role of gods in determining the future of individuals.
Euripides also highlights in the play the fact that the gods do not necessarily sanction individuals for their acts, thus negating any form of relationship between human and divine. The brutal acts of Medea are considered inhumane in modern standards and equally punishable by death, but in the play, Medea gets away from her pursuers with a winged chariot coming from the god themselves. It may argued that the gods were more concerned with chastising Jason for breaking his oath of marriage than attending to the crimes of Medea.
Euripides also suggests that inhuman actions are just driven by unjust causes and not by course of fate. When Jason met Medea, he promised to marry her in exchange for her assistance in acquiring the Golden Fleece. However, upon their migration to Corinth, Jason meets a young woman of a truly noble lineage and leaves Medea for her. Medea brings hell to Jason’s life and this vengeful reaction is clearly a human response to injustice, fueled by her own fury and merely supported, even accommodated, by the gods. From Medea’s words, it seems that she is aware of the moral law upon which her actions would be judged; nonetheless, her fury overcomes her, and she pursues her plan of inflicting pain on her treacherous spouse. She bewails before her children: “I know indeed what evil I intend to do, but stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury, fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils” (Euripides 209).
In contrast to Oedipus who struggles to run away from his fate, Medea makes her own path to her destiny even at the expense of the lives of her loved ones. Since the beginning, Jason and Medea refused to wait on the unfolding of what fate has in store for them. They each refused to be determined by their destinies. Despite knowing the consequences of breaking his oath of marriage, Jason acts on his desires and leaves Medea for Creon’s daughter. On the other hand, Medea refuses to wait on the judgment of gods to fall on Jason by taking matters in her own hands. She hatches a plan to murder Creon’s daughter and the children she bore of Jason to exact revenge on him. The insult Jason inflicted on her is something she will not accept without a fight. She reveals to the chorus her motive behind the malevolent plan: “Let no one think me a weak one, feeble-spirited, / A stay at home, but rather just the opposite, / One who can hurt my enemies and help my friends; / For the lives of such persons are most remembered” (Euripides 200).
These words reflect how Jason’s unjust action prodded Medea to commit the acts of murder. In this sense, her vengeance is justified. This justification is dramatized at the end of the story in which Medea escapes Jason through a winged chariot sent from the sun god Helios. The dues ex machina reveals that the gods have supported Medea in her decision to forge her own destiny and take immediate action on the insult she has incurred. In a way, the gods reward Medea for her decisiveness and for embodying the heroic virtue of protecting one’s honor. Euripides’ unique and revolutionary vision is reflected in his retelling of Medea’s story in that a woman, considered to be a cruel, barbaric witch, wins the favor of the gods for putting fate into her own hands.
The role of fate and destiny in both plays are clearly opposed. Sophocles insists in “Oedipus Rex” that fate is inevitable and inescapable and that, ultimately, it is the gods who determine our lives. On the other end, Euripides suggests that destiny is willed by the power of human strength. By rewarding Medea’s cruel vengeance, he demonstrates the independence of human morality from the powers that govern the universe. Whether this difference is a result of each author’s opposing view of fate or a representation of the varying views of fate and destiny in ancient Greek society is unclear. What is certain, however, is that these two stories reveal both the tragedy and the triumph of the human spirit.