Will, Fate, and Dramatic Irony

by F.

I was listening to a recording of Oedipus Rex today and it reminded me that Sophocles found a way to square the circle: he reconciled will and fate in the minds of the audience, even if only temporarily.

Drama requires willful characters. A character who doesn’t want anything, and doesn’t willfully pursue anything, is dull. This fact about drama is discussed, among other places, in The Theory and Technique of Playwriting by John Howard Lawson. Lawson provides a good explanation of why absurdist theater leaves most audiences uninvolved in the play: lack of willful characters. So, given that Oedipus is fated to kill his father and seduce his mother, why isn’t the Oedipus of Oedipus Rex dull?

One explanation is that dramatic irony keeps us involved. We, the audience, know what will happen to Oedipus, but we don’t know how he will react once he finds out. This is how dramatic irony creates emotional involvement. It has two parts: there is a revelation to the audience of which the character is unaware, and then there is a recognition by the character of the information formerly revealed to the audience. As the action proceeds after the revelation to us, we wait for that recognition scene and dread its arrival.

This is the same mechanism that makes us feel for our friend when we know that her spouse has cheated on her and she doesn’t. Yet. We know when the recognition scene comes, it will be horrible. We’ve all been in this situation and it sucks. “You mean I thought that…? You mean he was really…? I was…? Oh my god!”

But I think this isn’t the entire explanation in Oedipus Rex (and similar stories). I think we forget that Oedipus is fated. We know that he is fated to kill his father and fuck his mother, and yet we watch him try to find out about his fate—we see him engage in willful activity to discover that his will is irrelevant. This makes us think he may avoid his fate. If this seems paradoxical, it is, logically, but it’s not, emotionally.

Human beings have a wonderful ability to reconcile contradictions in order to preserve emotional equilibrium. For instance, pessimism appears to increase blood pressure, predict second heart attacks after a first one, lower life expectancy, and increase the chances of suicide. Avoiding pessimism often involves denying the facts. When optimists are faced with adversity, they tend to think it’s not their fault, that it’s temporary, and that it isn’t pervasive. In contrast, when they are successful, they tend to think they are responsible, the success is permanent, and that the positive outcome is pervasive in their life. These results are described in Martin Seligman’s work, as well as the work of others, such as Karen Matthews.

I tend to think this is primarily what involves us in Oedipus Rex. We don’t just want to watch a train wreck—watch poor Oedipus learn he has killed his father and seduced his mother. Rather, we have forgotten he is fated, just like we forget we are fated—not by the gods, but by the web of causality in which we exist. Each of us may be Camus’s Sisyphus, but that’s not a fact of which we want to be constantly made aware.