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The story of Oedipus, as narrated by Sophocles, is one of extreme horror and tragedy. The play revolves around several complex themes in its course, with the characters and the audience groping mysteriously in the terrifying darkness for the truth they might not even want to know. Once the ocean of unending doubt and confusion is traversed, the shore seems dark and deeply unsettling. A myth full of incest, hubris, cosmic irony and chaos, Oedipus the King or Oedipus Tyrannous presents a plethora of difficult emotions and a tumult of drama.
This deeply unsettling and unnerving series of events take the audience by shock and leave a question hanging in the air, “ What is blindness and what, is vision?"
This question directly connects to the broader aspect highlighting the shades of "Fate Vs. Free Will" in the tragedy. Oedipus is portrayed as a helpless figure subject to drastic fate. Even before he saw the light of the day, his fate was sealed. He was to kill his father, Laius and marry his mother, Queen Jocasta. According to Aristotle this play is completely the tragic story of a hero who tries hard to deceive his fate but fails again and again. Oedipus is a classic example of a classic tragic Greek hero.
He succumbs to his fate, unknowingly. Blindly.
Oedipus' character is that of an inquisitive, quick-witted man. A ruler with a capacity of swift actions, he feels deeply responsible for his people. When Thebes is struck with the deadly plague, he claims to feel the pain of each of his people.
On the other hand, Oedipus is a troubled man. He lives in a problematic and dark psychic realm. From his very birth, to his upbringing, to escaping Corinth and further on to become the ruler of Thebes, everything in his life bears a melancholic undertone. He has questions about himself that he cannot find answers to. He inches towards his deadly destiny every time he wants to run away from them.
His life is a series of unsettling and disturbing dramatic ironies.
"Oedipus", the name means "swollen-feet". He got this name because of the deep mark on his swollen feet which his parents had pinned down with the help of a skewer before they threw him away on the third day after his birth. His very own parents tried to escape the drastic fate he brought with him.
It so happened that when his father, King Laius, hears the prophecy, he decides his son better be dead. His mother, Jocasta, had to tear him apart from herself right giving birth to him and sacrifice him to save the life of her husband, just like he had ordered. However, the heart of a mother cried out at the Queen's ghastly responsibility of murdering her own child and she realizes she cannot perform the King's orders. She hands him over to a shepherd and asks him to do the job instead. The shepherd, who is again unable to kill the child, takes him to Corinth, far away from his prophesied fate and Thebes. The shepherd somehow believes that now, the child is harmless. He is sadly blind to the games of destiny, the utter havoc that this action of his will cause in the not-so-far future.
The play opens in ultimate chaos and darkness. Thebes, is struck by a deadly plague and the people are clueless as to what they can do to save the plants, animals, fellow humans and themselves. Thus, the chaotic confused herd of people, led by their Priest, proceed to their King, seeking relief. The king, their celebrated ruler who once freed their city from the shackles of dubious discomfort of the Sphinx, might know the cause and cure of their sufferings; so is their firm belief in Oedipus. The people are blind, blind to the reason of their suffering and pain. They have no idea as of what is causing this terrible destruction, whose wrath is it that they’re encountering, whose sin is it that they’re paying for?
As the Priest says, "Thebes is dying. A blight on the fresh crops and the rich pastures, cattle sicken and die, and the women die in labor, children stillborn, and the plague, the fiery god of fever hurls down on the city, his lightening slashing through us - raging plague in all its vengeance, devastating the house of Cadmus! And black Death luxuriates in the raw, wailing miseries of Thebes."
The chaos and suffering amongst in the city is not only limited to the subjects but also stretches its tentacles towards the ruler himself, the Tyrannous. Oedipus is deeply conflicted and distressed by the fate of Thebes, and later, his own. He is shown unable to accept his inability to free his people from the grasp of this deadly plague and thus his ego is hurt. He, who once, as a mere stranger, freed the same people from the riddle of the Sphinx, now feels obligated as the ruler to get rid of this plague. His hubris, in turn proves to be his hamartia and blinds him to the truth that is time and again rubbed off on his face. He instead chooses to point in the dark towards figures who he can blame and pass off the guilt to. He is infuriated, annoyed and frustrated at his metaphorical blindness to the truth ,and thus his resolve, “I will bring it all to light myself".
The theme of blindness is further heightened in the twisted relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta. Knowing little that Jocasta is his mother, Oedipus marries her when he is awarded the throne of Thebes as a reward for solving the riddle of the Sphinx.
Oedipus is extremely determined to become a good ruler and an ultimate protector to the people of Thebes. Upon hearing that the deadly plague will come to an end with the punishment of Laius' murderer, he stops at nothing to discover the truth that will save his people. Maybe this is because of his complex of not being able to become a good son, of being destined to murder his own father and marry his mother. Maybe this is why all Oedipus wanted to do is prove that he is above and beyond fate, the unseen and of course, any prophecy. That he is the supreme controller of Thebes and it’s existence.
Oedipus is fiercely committed to the sense of justice and morality. He is unstoppable in his quest for the truth which will bring about his destruction and doom. He remains blind to his fate and although the truth lies in the range of his vision, it is well hidden and he does have to do serious digging before he can see it. Though Tiresias, the blind prophet warns him several times about the consequences of his inquisitiveness and determination to seek the truth, Oedipus fearlessly remains committed to his duties as a ruler and doesn't shift from his stance of justice.
During the study of "Oedipus Rex" one gathers insights and deduces the significance of vision and blindness as is repeatedly used in Greek Tragedy. Sophocles shades literary elements like irony, symbolism and foreshadowing in the light of this major theme of the play. The three major elements of a tragic plot, which are peripeteia (reversal), anagnorisis (recognition) and pathos (suffering), are all emphasized with the help of Blindness and Vision in Oedipus Rex.
The way Sophocles has implemented irony, symbolism, foreshadowing in this play with the help of the theme of blindness and vision is very important and crucial. Irony is when Oedipus is faced by the fate that he has so tried to escape, it is when he mocks Tiresias’ blindness only to become blind himself in the end ,it is when he refuses to accept that he is the reason that Thebes is being ravaged by such a deadly plague. Symbolism is implemented in literal and metaphorical blindness. While Oedipus is able to see literally and metaphorically he is unable to see the truth. The moment he can see the truth, he cannot bear it, and thus imposes blindness upon himself. Although Tiresias is a person who can never really see and is always in need of a servant to guide him around from place to place, he is the one who actually knows what the Oracle had meant when it had asked Creon to get rid of the perpetrator of the crime of the murder of Laius, that the criminal is actually Oedipus himself. The theme of foreshadowing is depicted at several levels in the play. One is before the birth of Oedipus, when Laius and Jocasta, blind to the games of unpredictable destiny, did not know that they cannot escape the truth that Oedipus is born with the curse of the House of Polybus.
After Oedipus' accusation against the seer, Tiresias says, "You live, unknowing, with those nearest to you in the greatest shame. You do not see the evil" (Sophocles, 1291). In saying so Tiresias is actually referring to Oedipus' act of murder and incest, of marrying his own mother which Oedipus refuses to understand because of his closed eye towards the truth, his metaphorical blindness. Oedipus can be depicted as one who "sees everything except the truth and provides for everything except the calamity that actually occurs" (Ferguson). Irony is implemented into the play with Oedipus' sight and Tiresias' blindness. Oedipus insults Tiresias and his ability as a prophet- "You have no strength, blind in your ears, your reason and your eyes" (Sophocles 1291) - when he refuses to believe he is the culprit that has brought the plague to Thebes. When Oedipus is unable to Believe the truth, Tiresias is able to foreshadow that "this day will give you birth and ruin too" (Sophocles 1292). Here he means that the day Oedipus will come to know the truth, he will be reborn. Reborn with a sense of truth, of his birth. And that he will bring his ruin upon himself with the truth is inevitable. Oedipus in his blindness towards the truth of himself becomes the brother and father of his children, the son and husband to the one who bore him, the murderer, son, and the spouse of the wife of the man who is his father. Sophocles uses blindness as a question to humanity and conscience. However this should not make us feel that Oedipus is a completely lost cause in his sense of sight or vision. It was Oedipus, who with his ability of being able to see what others cannot solves the riddle of the Sphinx, which Tiresias being the Prophet, the seer, could not.
It is only due to the emphasis on blindness towards the truth and the literal blindness that Oedipus forces upon himself, that completes the scene of pathos, thus weaving the ending together. In this play the scene of anagnorisis and peripeteia occurs together. The truth comes to light and he discovers himself as he gouges his eyes out in shame with the golden pins of Jocasta's dress after she has hung herself. This is the scene of extreme suffering which allows the audience to sympathize with Oedipus and raise a question that was his sin so grave to have received such a brutal punishment? The episode of pathos consists of what Aristotle describes as "a destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds and the like" . Not only does Oedipus taking his eyes out but also that of Jocasta hanging herself is a scene of extreme sorrow and drama. Jocasta in her attempt to dissuade Oedipus from asking any further questions and in her extreme distress and shame of the truth being out, hangs herself. The audience or the reader here sympathizes with the woman who had everything in charge, the Queen who was forced to give away the heart of a mother when she gave away her child to be killed and then loses it all. Her willful blindness results in this tragedy, brings about the doom of both Laius and Oedipus.
Oedipus' tragedy is emphasized by his self-inflicted blindness. Oedipus describes his new vision as his "cloud of darkness, abominable, unspeakable” It is also possible that the reason for Oedipus'. His self inflicted blindness is the punishment for his reproach of Tiresias. It is seen that Oedipus has an impulsive character as he was quick to blame his trusted Creon for the murder of Laius. Oedipus, thus, when actually says out to the choir that although he lives in literal blindness he could never be blind to the murders that surround him , to the crimes that he has committed, to the truth about himself anymore. It is only Tiresias that makes mention of Oedipus's eye piercing when he retorts "now you can see, then you will stare into darkness" (Sophocles ).
Oedipus proves to be a great king to his people. Upon discovering that he is in fact, the perpetrator of the crime, he punishes himself in the heinous possible way and exiles himself from the city of Thebes. He cries out to the choir saying that although he is blind now, he can see far and will live with this guilt of being a murderer and an incestuous man. Tiresias, the blind seer is the far-sighted man who advises Oedipus against the truth, till the very end. Jocasta, the willfully blind Queen who prefers the bliss of ignorance suffers an equally tragic end as that of Oedipus. However, the suffering of Oedipus is the most striking and heartwrenching. He has to live his life bearing the fate he didn’t deserve in the first place, to bear the sins of his ancestors and pay for them over and over again, every day. Although he tries his best to escape the truth about himself, destiny gets the best of him.
The story of Oedipus and his blindness yet the clarity of his vision in the end is not only relevant to the Greek society back in the days of Sophocles, but also today. It shows us that literal sense of sight or vision is the metaphorical one that makes us see within ourselves and enlightens us about the being called “self".
Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: translated by F. Storr. Harvard University Press, 1912.
Eleftheria A Bernidaki. Blindness in a Culture of Light. Virginia University Press, 1990.
Martha L. Rose. The Transformation of Oedipus. University of Michigan Press, 2003.