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Hamlet and Oedipus: Free Will and Fate


Fate is an irresistible force who controlled the lives of Hamlet and Oedipus. They became the unwilling instruments of divine retribution as well as their own destruction. For Oedipus, Fate was doom to be avoided. All his life was about trying to escape the doom prophesied of him. He wanted to escape the crime of killing his own father (Sophocles 56). His father, for his part, wanted to forsake being killed by his son. Both worked almost in tandem with each other, becoming vulnerable to the guiding hand of Fate. Oedipus, in his journey to escape his father, did not actually know who his father was, and so journeyed to him. His father, not knowing his son was still alive, came to meet his doom at the crossroads where he encountered his son (57).

It was a cruel tale for Oedipus, for he was not at fault that he killed his father as prophesied, and would commit the unnatural act of bedding his mother and siring children from her. It was a cruel act for the gods, for they demanded divine justice when it was they who guided him to act upon his own doom. There was dark humor among the gods when they made Oedipus hunt himself down for the sake of a tragic search for truth. Fate came for him when he was forced to commit a monstrous act, and Fate came for him when he was to reap the consequences of his actions. Oedipus was never a master of his life, yet he accepted his fate willingly.

Similarly, Hamlet was the chosen instrument of divine retribution. Fate did not have a hand in his uncle’s monstrous act, of killing his brother and bedding his sister-in-law. Yet Fate in the guise of the specter of his father demanded him to act as Fate’s executioner, and like Oedipus, avenge the crime (Shakespeare 59-60). Hamlet was unwilling to answer a crime with another crime. He, like Oedipus, wanted to escape the hand of Fate and contemplated suicide (93-94). Throughout his tale, he hesitates and stops himself from committing a great crime. He becomes mad with his struggle and accidentally commits a crime, sowing the seeds of his own destruction. Was it, perhaps, Fate’s punishment for a crime he has yet to commit and demanded of Fate herself? If it is, it is evidence of Fate’s mad humor.

Was Hamlet willing to commit the crime of vengeful murder, when he hesitated to kill his uncle when the man was in prayer (115), and when he sought to leave for England though all his heart was for vengeance (131), and when escaping from his killers sought to reconcile with his uncle? No, he was as unwilling as Oedipus to become the pawn of fortune. His uncle had the same problem as Oedipus’ father. He set hindrances to stop the hand of Fate, plotting to kill Hamlet en route to England (129), poisoning his drink, and conspiring with the wronged Laertes to kill him during a sporting fence (147). Yet it was he who forced Fate on Hamlet, by poisoning his wife and forcing Laertes to poison Hamlet. Hamlet, finally realizing that he could not delay the hand of Fate, finally killed his uncle, and thus fulfilled his duty.

Thus Fate’s role in Hamlet and Oedipus is to be a cruel god who controls the destinies of men and leads them to their ultimate destruction, even against their wishes. Free will does not play a part, for they are unwitting pawns anyway. It leads lives to the doom of its own creation. It led Hamlet to a path to vengeance, and have him die for his crime. It led Oedipus to unspeakable crimes, and have him die for his acts. There is no mention of forgiveness, and there is no mention of redemption. For that is not its role to give.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Edward Hubler. New York: Signet Classics, 1963. Print.
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Trans. Bernard Knox. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Print.

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