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Role of Fate in Tragedy (an essay)

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Tue Feb 07, 2012 5:10 am
BluesClues says...

Spoiler! :
This was supposed to be due tomorrow, but now I don't know because there's no link to turn it in...anyway, I just thought I'd share it because it includes Star Wars Episodes 1-3. :)

Fate often comes up in discussions of tragedy. It is true that characters in tragedies generally achieve the catastrophic destiny foretold them; Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother; Romeo and Juliet kill themselves; Anakin Skywalker loses his mother to the Sand People and his wife in childbirth and turns to the Dark Side of the Force. However, while the ultimate calamities in each of these tragedies seem to be the sole work of fate, coinciding as they do with earlier prophecies, forebodings, and dreams, fate and free will actually dance in an intricate, circular pattern, with each affecting and governing the other.

A perfect example of this is Oedipus Rex. In a cursory viewing of this play, fate appears to triumph over free will; after all, despite the characters’ attempts to avoid their fates, the prophecies given both to Laius and Jocasta and to Oedipus are fulfilled. However, upon paying more attention the audience realizes that destiny came about due to free will. How exactly does this happen?

First, the prophecies. The initial prophecy given to Laius and Jocasta, the one that started all the trouble, said that Laius “was doomed to perish by the hand of his own son” (Oedipus, line 744). This prophecy makes no mention of the incest for which the tragedy is famous, but a later prophecy, given to Oedipus himself, told that he “should defile my mother’s bed/and raise up seed too loathsome to behold,/and slay the father from whose loins I sprang” (Oedipus, line 830-832). By the end of the play, the audience learns that Oedipus has indeed already killed Laius, his father, and married and conceived children with Jocasta, his mother. This information by itself appears to cast fate in a very straightforward role: the victor.

Despite the evidence, this is not entirely true. Fate plays its part, but much of the tragedy – and even fate itself – is brought about by free will. It is true that Oedipus, who throughout the play demonstrates a quick temper, might still have murdered Laius had Laius and Jocasta not disposed of him. However, in this case the second prophecy would not have come true. Because Oedipus was raised by adoptive parents, he was driven to seek the Oracle at Delphi to learn the secret of his true lineage, and it was this Oracle that told him of both the murder and incest. If Oedipus had been raised by his biological parents, he would not have questioned his heritage and thus would not have gone to Delphi. Therefore, not only would the second prophecy have remained unfulfilled but in fact would never have been told in the first place! Furthermore, while the steps taken by the play’s characters to avoid fate actually played into its hands, their respective fates could have been avoided completely if Oedipus had never killed a man and made sure to marry someone his own age or younger.

Another example of this relationship between fate and free will is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Again it seems that fate is the ultimate winner, as the audience knows from the beginning that they are dealing with “a pair of star cross’d lovers.” While no oracles are heard in this tragedy, the title characters misgive their own romance and even predict their own deaths multiple times throughout the play. The play is famous for the ultimate fate of the lovers and the ironic circumstances of their suicides – and yet, free will again has its part.

Through the prologue, the audience learns that Romeo and Juliet’s love is “death-mark’d” due to the quarrel between the houses of Montague and the Capulet. This, perhaps, is what leads to the lovers’ feelings of foreboding. “I fear too early, for my mind misgives/Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars/Shall bitterly begin his fearful date/With this night's revels, and expire the term/Of a dispised life, clos'd in my breast,” says Romeo (Romeo and Juliet, 1.4.), and later on Juliet also worries about “this contract tonight,/It is too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden” (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2). When Juliet awakens to find Romeo dead beside her, Friar Laurence says, “A greater power than we can contradict/hath thwarted our intents” (Romeo and Juliet, 5.3) and urges Juliet to come away. In the end the fate that beset the lovers from the prologue is fulfilled when they commit suicide and their families’ feud finally ends.

However, fate in this play seems a little weak. Although the predictions of the chorus and the title characters come true, it is clearly not only fate that is at work here; a lot can be attributed not only to free will but simple historical fact. It may have been fate that prevented Friar John from entering Mantua due to suspected pestilence, or it may have been the Black Plague ending less than a hundred years before the play’s beginning, the raw sewage lying in the streets, the rivers that were used both for drinking and waste disposal, the frequent outbreaks and consequent fear of disease. Though Romeo cries “O, I am fortune’s fool!” (Romeo and Juliet, 3.1) after slaying Tybalt, it is not fate that made him kill Tybalt; it was Romeo’s conscious choice to duel him. As for the lovers’ suicides: While it was fated that they should die, their deaths seem less the product of destiny and more of raging hormones, teen angst, and overly melodramatic personalities.

A more modern illustration of the circular relationship between fate and free will is the Star Wars prologue trilogy; that is, Episodes I-III, which follow Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader. In this trilogy, fate appears in the form of one prophecy, which tells of one who will bring balance to the Force, and two dreams or “visions” showing the anguish of people Anakin loves. While fate is again important and the outcome of the trilogy largely attributed to it by the characters, free will also plays a huge part.

Something that sets this tragedy apart from the others is the fact that the initial prophecy goes unfulfilled (for the time being). The Jedi believe that Anakin is the one to whom the prophecy refers, the one who will restore balance to the Force, but at the end of this trilogy, he instead “leaves it in darkness” (Obi Wan, Episode III). Yoda, in his infinite wisdom, recognizes that fate and fortune-telling are thorny and devilish things. He cautions that the “prophecy…misread may have been” (Yoda, Episode III) and that “careful you must be when sensing the future.” Anakin, however, takes his visions at face value. In the first, he dreams of his mother being tortured. He sets out to find and rescue her, believing his dream is real, and finds her near death, a prisoner of the Sand People. In the second dream, he sees his wife Padme dying in childbirth. As he came to his mother’s rescue too late, he is now determined to save Padme and once again sets out to do so. Like Oedipus, however, Anakin’s attempted avoidance of fate causes fulfillment of the very fate he tried to evade. Because he is willing to do anything to save Padme, he turns to the Dark Side, which corrupts his mind to the point where he no longer trusts her, thinks she has teamed up with Obi Wan to kill him, and chokes her. In addition to all this and despite surviving his choking, Padme loses the will to live because of Anakin’s evil acts, which is what finally kills her.

While fate is important to this trilogy, Anakin realizes that much of what happens is due to his choices. Unlike Romeo, who blames fate and cries that he is “fortune’s fool” when he kills Tybalt, Anakin’s cry is “What have I done?” when his actions allow Chancellor Palpatine to throw Mace Windu out the window. Unfortunately, by this point his fear of losing Padme has led him so far down the path to the Dark Side that he seems incapable of turning back. If Anakin had trusted Padme, who insisted that she would not die in childbirth, if he had trusted Obi Wan with the secret of their marriage – or if he had trusted the Chancellor less – then he might have truly avoided Padme’s premature death and certainly his descent into darkness. As with Oedipus, who could simply have not killed anyone at all, as with Romeo, who could have spent a few minutes longer sobbing over Juliet’s body (thus giving her time to wake up), Anakin could have avoided his ultimate fate by being smarter and a little less rash. He had multiple clues to the Chancellor’s true nature; surely Palpatine could not have known the Sith legend of Darth Plagueis unless he himself was a Sith or at least had spent considerable time in company with a Sith; yet by the time Anakin finally realizes that the Chancellor is a Sith lord, he is too desperate to save Padme and too deep in the Chancellor’s council to let Mace Windu kill him. It is Windu’s death that marks the turning point of the trilogy, the point when Anakin completely turns from the path of the Jedi to the path of the Sith.

While fate is clearly at work in each of these tragedies and often seems to be the catalyst of their characters’ demise, it is not the only force at work. As shown by the above examples, free will is also a vital factor in tragedy. It is important to remember that, however large a role either fate or free will plays, both ultimately come together in an intricate relationship that governs life and the human experience.

Spoiler! :
Not perfect, I know, but Star Wars makes everything better. Also I hope I made some good points. It was supposed to be 4-6 pages, this is 5.

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— Peregrin Took