Fate and Choice in the Theban Plays

“Apollo, friends, Apollo—
he ordained my agonies—these, my pains on pains!
But the hand that struck my eyes was mine,
mine alone—no one else—
I did it all myself!” —Oedipus Tyrannus 1467-71, trans. Robert Fagles

Who (if any) is your favorite ancient playwright?

I’ve tended to favor Euripides and overlook Sophocles, possibly because of a traumatic elementary school memory of seeing a performance of Oedipus. That scene when he comes on stage after having blinded himself has haunted my nightmares ever since.

I’ve been rereading the Theban plays and am absorbed by the way Sophocles explores the interdependence of fate and choice, as reflected in the above quote. The Chorus has asked Oedipus what “superhuman power” drove him on, and Oedipus explains that it was a combination of Apollo and Oedipus’ own hand. Oedipus became the agent of Apollo’s prophecy. But did it have to be that way?

Each step of the way, from the prophecy’s initial revelation to Oedipus’ parents up to this moment, Oedipus and his parents had and have been making choices, even if it is difficult to see them as such. Outside the context of the play, I wonder how often we throw up our hands and say that we have no choice in reacting a certain way when it’s more that we dislike the choices available to us?

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