For believers in fate, it is common to use phrases such as, “everything happens for a reason”. However, this type of thinking is usually an attempt to exempt oneself from taking complete responsibility for particular actions or decisions. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet as well as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the classic dispute of fate vs. free will is often debated. Hamlet conveys the story of Prince Hamlet, who, after finding out that his uncle Claudius murdered his father, has a mission to avenge the king’s death. Meanwhile, Oedipus Rex tells of King Oedipus, who inadvertently kills his father and marries his mother.
When examining these plays, it may appear as though the tragic endings of both characters were inevitable, and therefore, completely determined by fate. However, critical analyses of the events leading up to the demises of both Hamlet and Oedipus reveal a different picture. Taking these occurrences into consideration, it is possible to conclude that the demises of Hamlet and Oedipus are ultimately driven by free will. This autonomy can be seen throughout the plays in the characters’ fundamental choices, deliberate disregard of opposition, conscious fatal actions, and the consequences of their decisions.
In both plays, Hamlet and Oedipus are faced with the need to make fundamental decisions during crucial early periods. Unfortunately, both characters choose paths that end up destroying both themselves and people important to them. For example, Oedipus’ initial choice to kill those he meets on his way to Thebes leads to all other downfalls that transpire. Although unbeknown to Oedipus at the time, it had been previously prophesized that he would one day murder his father. Because of this, one could argue that the Oedipus is not to blame for the death, as he did not know it was his father and therefore fell victim fate.
However, it can be proven that Oedipus consciously decided those fatal actions as he explains, “In wrath I struck him…one stroke of my good staff… laid him prone. And so I slew them every one” (Sophocles pg). During this situation, Oedipus could have chosen to avoid a fight and in turn avoid catastrophe. As a result of a decision that was clearly made “in wrath”, it is true to say that Oedipus killed his father with free will, setting into effect the continuation of tragic occurrences (Sophocles pg). Similarly, Hamlet’s initial choice to avenge his father’ death leads to his demise as well as others. After the ghost of Hamlet’s father requested Hamlet to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”, Hamlet states “now to my word” (Shakespeare pg). Here, one can see that Hamlet, in one way or another, is set on keeping his word to his father. If he had not decided this, the succeeding tragic events would not have occurred. Therefore, Hamlet and Oedipus’ preliminary decisions set into motion their demises.
Both characters are, at some point, asked to reconsider their choices, but the suggestions were disregarded. As a result, one can see that prevention of tragedy was indeed possible. In Oedipus’ case, he is often advised by different characters to cease his mission in finding the killer of King Laius. Oedipus’ own wife and mother, Jocasta, says “Stop – in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search!” because she knows knowledge of the truth will destroy him (Sophocles 1162-1163). Instead of listening to a seemingly trustworthy influence, Oedipus persists in his quest, leading him closer to downfall.
Likewise, Hamlet also had an out of his tragic end, as he was warned by many not to enter into the duel that ultimately killed him. Hamlet’s most trustworthy companion, Horatio, says “you will lose this wager, my lord… If your mind dislike anything, obey it.” (Shakespeare pg). Hamlet’s response to this resistance leads only himself to blame for the tragic outcome as he explains, “Not a whit. We defy augury… Let be” (Shakespeare pg). His deliberate choice to ignore the advice of his friend leads him to only tragedy. Both characters face opposition, by dependable sources at that, but chose to disregard, further legitimizing free will’s role in the tragedies of Hamlet and Oedipus.
Some of the common behaviors shared between Oedipus and Hamlet include rashness, irresponsibility, and a sense of hubris, or pride. These traits can be attributed as tragic flaws associated with both characters. It is these unfortunate characteristics that lead Hamlet and Oedipus to be so quick to dismiss other’s ideas. It is typically important for leaders to be able to make decisions based on their own sense of right and wrong (Owen, Davidson). For Hamlet and Oedipus, in such high positions as a prince and a king, it is somewhat appropriate for them to have a sense of self-correctness. However, the hubris in both characters leads to this false sense even when faced with fitting critique by those around them. When speaking of the duel, Hamlet explains the he “has been in continual practice” and “shall win at the odds” (Shakespeare pg). Oedipus also shows over confidence when saying, “I will not be convinced I should not learn the whole truth of what these facts amount to” when faced with obstruction (Sophacles pg). These examples show the arrogance, impulsive actions, and concept of vindication that are determining factors of hubris (Owen, Davidson). One could argue that blame cannot be placed on the characters, as they have just fallen victim to their flaws. However, regardless of one’s personality or characteristics, one still has the ability to listen to others— it is a choice to disregard.
There are many instances in Hamlet and Oedipus Rex where the main characters’ words and actions can be proven as deliberate. In most specific cases, the notion that Oedipus and Hamlet were driven solely by will and not chance or destiny cannot be debated. For instance, when Oedipus learns that he has fulfilled the prophecy by killing his father and marrying to his mother, the shame becomes more than he can bear. At this point of despair, he pricks his eyes with a pin rendering him blind. This action can be proven as deliberate when, before blinding himself, Oedipus declares, “O light, let me look at you one final time a man who stands revealed as cursed by birth” (Sophocles pg). This declaration serves as proof that Oedipus was fully aware of his decision. He had the choice to deal with the depressing circumstances in a way that could not cause him more pain, but he opted for the negative alternative, proving that this aspect of demise was driven by sheer will rather than fate. Hamlet’s conscious decision making can be shown though his careful planning. For example, when observing his uncle seemingly pray Hamlet debates whether or not to kill him there. Instead, he says, “Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent. When he is … [committing] some act That has no relish of salvation in ’t— Then trip him.” (Shakespeare pg). The obvious prearrangement of Hamlet’s actions further proves that he acted with his own willpower. Through these and other examples of willing decisions made by the characters, one can see that their downfalls are advanced by their own doings.
Along with the actions of both Hamlet and Oedipus come disastrous consequences. These results can be proven as being caused by the characters’ free will when tracing back to the causes. Examining the relationship between the previous actions of Hamlet and Oedipus and their resulting downfalls prove that the characters’ endeavors lead to demise. Every difference in choice, both direct and indirect, leads to difference in effect (Thiele 1). In Hamlet’s case, the death of, not only Hamlet, but also his mother, Gertrude, his uncle, Claudius, and his dueling partner, Laertes, can all be traced back to the decisions Hamlet made throughout the play. Here, the indirect cause is his initial decision to take vengeance and the direct cause is the choice to enter into the duel. Likewise, the damaging of Oedipus’ life as well as his banishment from the kingdom can be traced back to his decisions as well. In his case, the indirect cause is the choice that begins his downfall— the murder of his father. The direct cause, on the other hand, is his insistence in being exposed to the truth of his life.
Everything that happens or exists is the result of previous state or cause (Thiele 1). Occurrences do not happen without reason, and therefore every consequence in Hamlet and Oedipus Rex is due to initial sources. The tracing back of each tragedy in the respective plays further proves that there is not an outside force like chance or fate at work in the plays, but rather Hamlet and Oedipus’ decisions and actions throughout the plots.
While some may place responsibility on fate in Hamlet and Oedipus Rex, it is truly the respective characters’ free will that drive downfall. In preliminary periods during the plays, Hamlet and Oedipus both make decisions that serve as catalysts for the continuation of their demises. Also, throughout the plays, there are many instances in which characters attempt to prevent Hamlet and Oedipus from reaching their tragic ends, only to be shut down. Not only does this prove that the characters voluntarily aid in their own downfalls, but it also legitimizes the fact that other options were available— demise was not the only possible end result.
Furthermore, there is countless evidence throughout both Shakespeare’s and Sophocles’ works that illustrate the deliberation and self-infliction of both Hamlet and Oedipus’ choices. The cause and effect notion is also a leading factor in the consequences produced by those decisions. By fully analyzing the events that lead to the characters’ ends, one can see that there is solely free will at work rather than fate.