Sophocles makes frequent use of seafaring imagery in his Oedipus the King, creating new perspectives from which to view its characters and cities. Oedipus tells the story of a king undone by a lack of faith in prophesy, the king of a people in need of spiritual rescue. Arrogant Oedipus is reduced to a wretch of a man as his awful marriage to his mother is revealed, but his city is saved in proportion. Seafaring imagery recurs throughout Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, primarily in the manifestation of Thebes as a ship and Oedipus as its helmsman; this reveals important themes of spiritual decay, Oedipus’ arrogance and blindness, and the inescapability of fate.Early in the play, Sophocles establishes the metaphor of Thebes as a ship. The audience finds the once-stable city plagued and on the brink of destruction. “King, you yourself / have seen our city reeling like a wreck / already; it can scarcely lift its prow / out of the depths, out of the bloody surf,” a priest tells Oedipus at the outset. Sophocles sees Thebes as spiritually bankrupt. Thebes the ship, then, is lacking in structural integrity, and threatens to collapse and sink. Sophocles describes Thebes’ situation: “Our sorrows defy number / all the ship’s timbers are rotten; / taking of thought is no spear for the driving away of the plague.” The vessel’s foundation of spirituality weakens at two crucial junctures, first at the hands of Oedipus and then Jocasta. When Oedipus summons Teiresias to reveal the identity of Laius’ murderer, the prophet speaks in riddles, angering Oedipus; the argument boils until he lobs this salvo: “[The truth] has no strength / for you because you are blind in mind and ears / as well as in your eyes.” This is the king’s rejection of the old man’s ability to know the future. In insulting Teiresias, Oedipus insults the gods by extension, for it is they who have given blind Teiresias the ability to interpret the past and predict the future like no other man. Jocasta also contributes to the spiritual emptiness of Thebesfurther weakening the structure of the shipwhen she denies prophets’ ability to speak for the gods:Why should man fear since chance is all in allfor him, and he can clearly foreknow nothing?Best to live lightly, as one can, unthinkingly.As to your mother’s marriage bed,don’t fear it.Before this, in dreams too, as well as oracles,many a man has lain with his own mother.But he to whom such things are nothing bearshis life most easily.Oedipus and Jocasta’s rejection of spirituality signals similar emptiness in the city as a whole. Thebes will continue to suffer, the gods decree, until Oedipus pays for his transgressions.The episode in which Oedipus insults Teiresias reveals a fundamental problem of Oedipus’: the arrogance and blindness (which, from the perspective of his insult match with Teiresias, is ironic) that will ultimately lead to the discovery of his true nature and his downfall. Oedipus’ stubborn refusal to acknowledge any opinion contrary to his own and denial of his true identitywhich, in light of emerging evidence, becomes increasingly indisputablesteadily reduces his authority as captain of the ship of Thebes. Confidence in Oedipus-as-helmsman erodes as the tale of Laius’ death intertwines with Oedipus’ personal history. The similarities that resultfor example, that Jocasta bound her son’s feet and that the name “Oedipus” refers to his own feet being boundaggregate until they mutate from coincidences to proofs that Oedipus has fulfilled the prophecy and killed his father and slept with his mother. The leap (from funny coincidences to irrefutable proofs) is not large (the perceptive audience will make it long before Oedipus does) and the king looks foolish and stupid for not realizing the awful truth. A ship cannot sail if its passengers do not believe in their captain. This weaker, incompetent Oedipus is the opposite of the capable, confident man who helmed the city at the start of the play. “If you will rule this land, as now you rule it, / better to rule it full of men than empty,” the priest warns Oedipus. “For neither tower nor ship is anything / when empty, and none live in it together.” That the chorus never exits the stage in the course of the playthat Oedipus is constantly surrounded by his subjectsreminds us that what happens to him personally has ramifications for the city as well. Thus, while Oedipus is learning the nature of his relationship with his mother and becoming a wretch of a man, the ship of Thebes is losing its helmsman.Oedipus’ blindness conjures images of a ship at sea without instruments, its captain refusing to use the stars for navigation, allowing the weather (fate) to toss it unpredictably about. Oedipus’ loss of control stands in stark relief to his image in the opening lines of the playpowerful, purposeful, so in tune with his subjects that he anticipates their needs; he was once able to deliver the city to safe harbors in similar times of hardship, as when he answered the riddle of the Sphinx and saved the city. No longer. Ultimately, real control rests with fate and the gods. No matter how good a king Oedipus may be, he cannot rescue Thebes from the plague (i.e., find a safe harbor) if the gods do not consent. “It is murder guilt / which holds our city in this destroying storm.” The imagery of Thebes’ plight as a storm holding a ship hostage relates to a final theme of Oedipus the King: the inescapability of fate. Oedipus was aware of his fate and attempted to avoid it, and for this he was punished.Seafaring imagery recurs throughout Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, most notably in the manifestation of Oedipus as the helmsman of Thebes the ship; this reveals important themes of spiritual decay, Oedipus’ arrogance and blindness, and the inescapability of fate. Reconciling the play’s conclusion with the seafaring perspective yields an interpretation of Oedipus’ blinding as repair and rescue. The plague has been lifted, and the strength of the Theban “timbers” builds as the city is restored to harmony with the gods. Oedipus, once blind to the truth but having literal sight, now has the opposite. The gods have been satisfied, and the city of Thebes has reached another safe harbor.
Sophocles’ epic poem, Oedipus the King, is a classic elegy that explores how irony can affect ones life and how “fate works more closely” then one would expect. It is due to this that many argue over how to react to the character of “King Oedipus, the sovereign of” Thebes (13). Though at times arrogant and overly assertive, one must look more closely at the life of Oedipus. He is a man whose leadership demanded such qualities to overcome the Sphinx and other challenges along his road to becoming king. From this we must become sympathetic, and understand how a man so determined and admirable to do good for his people, could possibly have the same qualities as an arrogant person.A man running from a prophesy of his fate, the story opens with Oedipus king of the Thebes with a population dying of a plague. Wanting to help his people, Oedipus opens his heart to his public saying, “Here I am myself-/you all know me, the world knows my fame:/I am Oedipus” (lines 7-9). By declaring this, he is declaring that he is on the problem of city, deliberating what to do. When asked by the old priest what Oedipus plans to do, Oedipus quickly replies that “after a painful search [he] found one cure:/[he] acted at once. [He] sent Creon,/[his] wife’s brother, to Delphi-/Apollo the Prophet’s oracle – to learn/what [he] must do or say to save [the] city” (lines 80-84). Such decisiveness showed how much Oedipus cared for his people and what bothered them. He later said that the plague “torments” him and that the city “now have [him] to fight” for them (lines 86+153).This determination to solve the problems of his people and help them is shown throughout the poem. Even after Jocasta, his wife, urged him to just let it past as it always did and to forget about the curses he brought down on himself, he could not. He defies his wife when he declares, “What-give up now?/Fail to solve the mystery of my birth? Not for all the world!” (lines 1160-1162). Though unwavering, he has good reason. By solving out his birth, he might possibly solve the riddle from Apollo and thus find out who is the real killer. Doing this he would save his people and his kingdom.However, as Oedipus continued in his admirable quest, he became impious to the Gods thinking that he could out run their prophecy. Probing deeper into his past he realized that he was the actual killer, something that he could not believe. It was after seeing his wife (who was his mother) kill herself that Oedipus understood how everything connected. Crying, Oedipus screamed with disgruntlement, “You,/you’ll see no more pain I suffered, all the pain I caused!/Too long you looked on the ones you never should of seen, blind to the ones you longed to see, to know! Blind/from this hour on!” (lines 1405-1409). With that, the now humble Oedipus gouged out his eyes and became blind. Even the mocking chorus leader felt pity for him, as he said “Oh poor man, the misery-/has he any rest from pain now?” (lines 1422-1423).The anguish of the pitiful Oedipus continued into the end of the poem as Creon, the one that Oedipus accused of treason, wreck more havoc into the gloomy life of Oedipus. Creon now in power, toys with the once proud Oedipus and his final wishes. Oedipus, lowering himself, pleading with Creon says, “I command you-I beg you” (line 1583). Creon wishing to exploit his power, teases Oedipus by letting him see his children again, making him think they will go with him. It is only after this that Creon strips them away saying, “Still the king, the master of all things?/No more: here your power ends./None of your power follows you through life” (lines 1675-1677). Just another example of how Oedipus was manipulated by the Gods and forced into a life of misery.It was such distress of Oedipus that one must see. “He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance,/he rose to power, a man beyond all power” (lines 1678-1679). A man that each and every citizen of Thebes looked to for the answers, and he eventually gave them all, sacrificing himself in the end for the greater good of his people. A people that was no longer gratified by him said themselves, “Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,/count no mane happy until [Oedipus] dies, free of pain at last” (lines 1683-1684). A leader of a greedy people for which he gave everything and even that was not enough.
Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus is a play about one man’s actions, both intentional and unintentional, and the necessary punishment for those actions. Regardless of whether he was manipulated by the gods or self-motivated, Oedipus must take responsibility for his deeds and their consequences. His reaction to the course his life has run is an important reflection of ancient Greek society. The play blurs the line between a shame-based culture and a guilt-based culture. Scholars argue that in the 5th century B.C., when the play was written, the Greeks were transitioning from the former to the latter. In order to understand how Oedipus Tyrannus represents this, it will be necessary to better define shame, guilt, and responsibility as the Greeks viewed them. Specifically, it must be shown how the character of Oedipus demonstrates all three of these concepts in a way that would have likely conflicted Sophocles’ audience.Oedipus was destined by the gods to kill his father and sleep with his mother. When given knowledge of this, he ran away from his city and family in order to escape this fate. Later, he became the tyrannus of the city of Thebes, rescuing it from the curse of the Sphinx and marrying the widowed queen. In Oedipus Tyrannus, a plague has struck Thebes, and the just king resolves to find the murderer of Laius, the former ruler, in order to rid the city of miasma, or “pollution.” In the course of his investigation, he discovers that it was he who killed Laius in a fit of rage during his early wanderings, not knowing his identity. He also finds out that he was adopted, and that Laius and Jocasta are his real parents. Oedipus realizes, with horror, that he has unwittingly fulfilled his destiny, killing his father and bedding his mother. In an act of deep contrition, Oedipus gouges out his eyes and asks for exile from the city.The character of Oedipus is not entirely evil, and, in fact, has very good intentions. He leaves his home in order to avoid acting out the terrible prediction of the oracle. He saves the city of Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, and tries to save them again by solving the Laius murder mystery. However, Oedipus has a rather quick temper, and it causes him a lot of trouble. Most importantly, it causes him to unknowingly kill his father over a minor road dispute, which sets all the other events into motion. Later, during the murder investigation, he flies off the handle at his brother-in-law, Creon, accusing him of plotting to overthrow him, despite the irrationality of the accusation. By the time Oedipus inflicts his self-punishment, he has committed wrong actions that were both intentional and unintentional.The Greeks’ basic definition of shame was not all that different from the modern definition. Williams says that “the basic experience connected with shame is that of being seen, inappropriately, by the wrong people, in the wrong condition (78).” Aidos, “shame,” does not always literally require an observer, but the idea of an observer (Williams 82). Oedipus blinded himself because he could not handle seeing the looks of disdain in the eyes of others regarding his actions, but even as a blind man he chose to exile himself, because he could not handle even imagining those looks of disdain. This view of shame stays relatively true to the way we experience it. However, there is no Greek word directly equivalent with guilt (Williams 88). Rather, guilt is defined in relation to shame. Whereas shame is a result of the public’s negative opinion of basic character traits revealed by one’s actions, guilt is an internal remorse about how one’s actions have affected others. Williams says, “What I have done points in one direction towards what has happened to others, in another direction to what I am” (92). Thus, Oedipus also faces guilt over the curse his actions have placed on Thebes, as well as the way he treated Creon. A lifetime of internal guilt should be punishment enough, but it is compounded by a lifetime of external shame. The relationship between his shame and his guilt is important to Sophocles’ commentary on Greek society and will be discussed later.E.R. Dodds argues in his book, “The Greeks and the Irrational,” that the ancient Greeks operated first primarily under a shame-culture.In the Archaic Age the mills of God ground so slowly that their movement was practically imperceptible save to the eye of faith. In order to sustain the belief that they moved at all, it was necessary to get rid of the natural time limit set by death (Dodds 33).Sometimes people were never punished in their lifetime for evil deeds. In order to retain some faith in the justice of the gods, the Greeks invented the concept of miasma, “pollution.” The shame of an evil action would be passed down to offspring, thus polluting an entire family line, or, in the case of a royal family, an entire city (Dodds 33).In Chapter 11 of The Odyssey, there is a version of the Oedipus story told in which Laius raped a young boy, thus cursing Oedipus and his descendants. In Sophocles’ version, the audience never finds out exactly why the gods would grant him such a cruel fate. It is unclear whether the miasma originates in Oedipus or in an ancestor. Regardless, under this system a seemingly innocent person could be punished for the sins of their parents.An interesting question is raised: was Oedipus truly guilty, or merely a victim of bloodguilt and “ate”, “divine temptation” (Dodds 2)? In previous versions of the tale, he is clearly the latter. One effect of the shame-culture was that “the weight of religious feeling and religious law was thrown against the emergence of a true view of the individual as a person, with personal rights and personal responsibilities.” Oedipus would have been seen in the Archaic Age as merely a tool through which moral debts were exacted (Dodds 34). Sophocles does not see things in such black and white terms. Oedipus spends most of the fourth stasimon of Tyrannus alternating between blaming himself and blaming the gods. He calls himself “the destroyer, the curse,” but also “the man the gods loathe most of all” (1345-1346). In lines 1330-1331, he blames Apollo (the god through whom the oracle predicted his fate) for his agonies, but in line 1382 he says that the gods merely exposed his own impiety. He believes that “evil festered beneath” his skin from birth (1396), and because of that the gods came to hate him (1518).Was Oedipus an innocent person forced to enact a fate chosen for him by the gods, or was he an inherently evil man who brought about his own sad consequences? Not even Oedipus seems to have a clear answer to that, and neither would the audience. He could not have known that the man traveling on the road was both the king of Thebes and his father, but he also could have stopped himself from killing him. He could not have known that Jocasta was his mother, yet he also could have stopped himself from taking her to bed. Oedipus seems to blame himself for his own ignorance, yet blame implies an understanding of ignorance, which is, in this case, a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, he gouges out his eyes as penance for actions he did not understand at the time he committed them. This is a very troubling play to this day, and would have been especially so for the ancient Greeks. The audience would leave the play wondering if a man should be punished for events beyond his control, events that were in his control, or both. We know that eventually, the guilt-based system of morality takes precedence over the shame-culture in Greek society, and individuals were much more often judged for their own actions, not those of their kin. Oedipus in this play characterizes the struggle between the two that was occurring in Sophocles’ day.While a great deal of Oedipus’ suffering in the fourth stasimon seems linked to his shame over what has happened, it is his guilt that truly motivates his punishment. His aidos was for his actions, seemingly caused by ate. His guilt was for the consequences of his actions, regardless of their motivation, and it is for this he takes full responsibility.Everywhere, human beings act, and their actions cause things to happen, and sometimes they intend those things, and sometimes they do not; everywhere, what is brought about is sometimes to be regretted or deplored, by the agent or by others who suffer from it or by both; and when that is so, there may be a demand for some response from that agent, a demand made by himself, by others, or by both (Williams 55)Oedipus demands blindness and exile for himself as a result of the consequences of his actions. Even though he did not intend these consequences, he must take responsibility as the agent of them in order to appease his own guilt. It did not matter to the Thebans that he was, in essence, a tool of the gods. Their city was polluted, and someone must be punished and exiled in order to achieve catharis, or “purification.” Miasma is miasma, regardless of intent, and Oedipus fully understood this. This is what Williams calls “responsibility without causality” (57). In the modern justice system we have terms like involuntary manslaughter where intention is taken into account; in the Greek world a person would stand on trial based upon action only, and when intent is not taken into account, Oedipus’ crimes seem gruesome. The justice of the gods is tragic and seemingly not always just.Sophocles was, perhaps, the final major supporter of the Archaic Greek worldview (Dodds 49). This worldview was one where the actions of one person could pollute an entire bloodline. It was one in which the gods could, and quite often did, manipulate the hearts and minds of humans to bend to their whims. However, Oedipus Tyrannus was also quite progressive, in that its main character takes responsibility for the consequences of his actions, instead of hiding behind causality as an excuse. Blinding and exiling himself was Oedipus’ attempt to end the miasma he created under the influence of fate. The audience of Sophocles would probably have admired Oedipus for taking responsibility for his actions, and felt sorry for his tragic life being the “dike”, or “balance,” of some cosmic equation. They would, no doubt, have accepted it as the way things were, but the cognitive dissonance this play causes would likely plant a seed of doubt in their minds. The age of Greek rationalism was soon to come, and the shame-based culture would give way to a more democratic form of justice based on individual responsibility.Works CitedDodds, E.R.. The Greeks and the Irrational. 5th ed. Los Angeles: University of California P, 1966. 1-63.Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagels. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. 249-270.Sophocles. Oedipus Tyrannus. Theban Plays. Trans. Peter Meineck, and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003. 61-124.Williams, Bernard. Shame and Necessity. Los Angeles: University of California P, 1993. 50-102.Additional SourcesKitto, H.D.F.. Greek Tragedy. 6th ed. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1981. 138-150.Vellacott, Philip. Sophocles and Oedipus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan P, 1971. 101-244.
Frank Kermode writes in his book The Genesis of Secrecy “We are most unwilling to accept mystery, what cannot be reduced to other and more intelligible forms. Yet that is what we find here: something irreducible, therefore perpetually to be interpreted; not secrets to be found out one by one, but Secrecy” (143). Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex illustrates Kermode’s distinction between secrets and Secrecy by showing how the seeker of truth taints the discovery of any secret with his/her presuppositions and interpretation. Both Oedipus, the main character of the play, and the audience pursue the answers to Oedipus’ past but find a reflection of their own presumptions in place of the truth. Oedipus exhibits the natural fallacy of human reasoning when confronted with secrecy: to project one’s own conclusions and narrow-mindedness onto the answer. Through the play the audience leans that pursuing secrets one by one with the tools of human intellect leads to the frustration of Secrecy in general: there is no truth available to humans that was not in some part self-invented. Oedipus’ attempt to discover the secrets of his past blinds him to the truth and proves that humans do not have the capability to disclose any absolute answers. In the beginning of the play Oedipus learns of the murder of King Laius and vows to avenge his death, saying “Upon the murderer I invoke this curse / . . . may he wear out his life / in misery to miserable doom!” (line 246). The irony of this passage in which Oedipus curses himself to a fate that he must suffer shows that he already has certain expectations concerning the mystery of the murder. Yet Oedipus’ reaction is sensible and natural to the reader and one can not find fault with his reasoning at this point of the play. Though it is reasonable to assume that human logic is a tool for solving problems, Oedipus’ rational thought process actually causes him to move further from the truth. In this sense our human intelligence prevents us from finding any answers that we have not tainted by our own inferences. While humans generally take each mystery as a separate problem to be solved there is in fact a more general sense of Secrecy that will always prevent us from finding truth in a pure form.Though Oedipus thinks he has discovered the truth about his past he is still frustrated and confused with the gods and the ultimate answers concerning his miserable life. Oedipus continually bemoans his fate to the gods, saying “Take me away, my friends, the greatly miserable, / the most accursed, whom God too hates / above all men on earth!” (line 1344). Despite the many answers he finds to satisfy the immediate secrets surrounding him he feels further from enlightenment than before his quest for knowledge. He questions the gods and the purpose of his fate but never once considers whether he actually committed the crime. His presuppositions not only bring him further from uncovering the truth of his past but also prevent him from actually understanding his fate or the purpose of his life. Oedipus has such faith in the answers he compiles from a variety of dubious sources that he violently stabs his eyes upon discovering the story of his sins. One can partly attribute his irrational trust to the many conjectures and presumptions he makes in the evolution of the plot. The same intelligence that won Oedipus his royal position now causes his downfall and inevitably prevents him from discovering any pre-determined truth about his past.Sophocles not only demonstrates how human intellect and logic blinds Oedipus to the truth but how the same intellect used to interpret literature can prevent the reader from finding answers. Within the story Sophocles subtly develops two plausible explanations for Oedipus’ past. Small details from the play discount every witness and piece of evidence, allowing for the possibility that Oedipus was framed. For example, Teiresias the prophet accuses Oedipus of murder only after Oedipus angers him. In addition, the sole witness to the murder was unclear and could only remember that “the hands that did the murder / were many” (line 121). The play can be interpreted as a conspiracy against Oedipus or as a tragedy of Oedipus’ unintentional sins, but both arguments have weak points. The reader is left to wonder why Sophocles confuses the plot with these otherwise trivial details. The interpreter will never know Sophocles’ original intent despite attempts at retranslating the play or rethinking it in a new context because these attempts would only mirror the interpreter’s own presumptions. Sophocles purposely allows for more than one interpretation of his work to exhibit to the audience their own natural weaknesses when confronted with a secret. In this sense the reader is in the same position as Oedipus, whose every effort to find answers leaves him with a reflection of himself. Interpretation becomes another form of disclosing secrets and is therefore perpetual as no original meaning, or Secret, exists to be found.However, in casually observing the play there seems to be no mystery or secrecy for the audience and only the characters within the story are the “outsiders” to the riddles that Sophocles has created. Because Oedipus is a common and well-known story most readers are familiar with the characters and either know the ending or can make obvious conjectures. The play has less suspense for the audience and instead contains many examples of tragic irony and double meanings because of their knowledgeable viewpoint. Despite the central theme of secrecy in the play, Sophocles lets the audience feel like “insiders” by giving them knowledge that Oedipus does not have. This allows for many instances of tragic irony, as when Oedipus says of the murderer in the opening scenes of the play, “For when I drive pollution from the land / I will not serve a distant friend’s advantage, / but act in my own interest” (line 137). The seemingly well-informed audience can almost pity Oedipus, who creates a double meaning in this line by unintentionally renouncing himself. The many examples of irony allow the reader to feel like an omniscient insider to the secrets that frustrate Oedipus. But with this comfortable viewpoint the audience casually accepts Oedipus’ guilt by jumping to conclusions and disregarding the small clues that point to other possible discoveries. Because Sophocles contradicts himself and offers two different interpretations, the answers to the play’s secrets are misleading and the reader must also suffer from the mystery of the play. Though the audience enters the play with apparently more knowledge than Oedipus has, overlooking details and jumping to conclusions force audience members into Oedipus’ position of ignorance. The audience does not feel that they are along with Oedipus on his quest for answers but are instead sympathetic towards him because they have already figured out the riddle. This is the key distinction between individual secrets and all-encompassing Secrecy: though the audience feels superior in their knowledge of Oedipus’ secrets, they are truly just as disillusioned as Oedipus and just as far from holding any real truth. Even though the audience believes they are insiders with the answers to all the secrets, they unwittingly become outsiders by paralleling Oedipus’ quest for the truth and finding their own preconceived notions instead.In searching for the truth behind individual secrets both the audience and Oedipus suffer confusion and frustration. Sophocles manipulates Oedipus by showing him his own foolishness when confronted with secrecy. The irony and double meanings in the play show the audience the faults in Oedipus’ search for the truth and the impossibility for him to ever find answers to his past. However, Sophocles develops a much more subtle argument in the play to exhibit the hopelessness of humanity’s desire for the truth. Because Oedipus Rex includes many easily overlooked details, the play evolves into something much more mysterious and complicated than is superficially obvious. By craftily allowing the audience to jump to conclusions about Oedipus’ past, Sophocles shows us the absurdity of our demand for absolute answers. We realize only too late that we have been in Oedipus’ position for the entire play and that we have mimicked the very characteristics that we pitied in Oedipus. But instead of taking the play as a lesson and leaving it with a sense of experience, we walk away with a feeling of hopeless ineptitude. For Oedipus Rex does not outline a way for humans to better solve secrets or even offer a preventable fault that we could overcome in order to disclose the full truth. Instead we realize with frustration that it is our nature to insert our own presuppositions and logic into an answer; no secret exists whose disclosure is not a mirror image of the discoverer, and in the end Secrecy is eternal and inescapable.
“Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eye are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light,which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees anyone whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess light. And he will count the other one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other”(Plato, The Republic)The paradoxical coexistence of blindness and insight is portrayed in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus experiences a devastating yet redeeming realization that the “vision” he possesses is nothing but false pride and blindness. Suffering a complete reversal, Oedipus nevertheless maintains the fortitude to actively develop and endure intense suffering in order to attain extraordinary insight; deliberately grasping the kairos, Oedipus experiences a double bewilderment of the eye – both a physical blindness and, more ignificantly, a spiritual enlightenment, resulting from his “[h]aving turned from darkness to the day [to be] dazzled by excess light (Plato, The Republic).”The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23). Oedipus’ “eyes are bad” and the daylight proves to be blinding – not because of its brightness, but because it diverts Oedipus’ eyes from all other light, particularly the potential light from within; Oedipus is satisfied with what he perceives to be his vision, which is really nothing but incomplete logos facilitated by techne. Believing his knowledge and rationalism to be complete, he proclaims, “I,/ Oedipus the ignorant,. . . stopped [the sphinx] -/ by using thought,” (401-402). All the while, Oedipus unconsciously represses the lingering shadow of the prophecy, because the heinous transgressions of patricide and incest are incongruent with his conception of his ideal self, and therefore uncomfortable and even frightening.With time and circumstances seeming to obscure the prophecy and confirm Oedipus’ “vision,” Oedipus remains ignorant of his ignorance. In the eyes of his people and of himself, he is the paragon of virtue, a wise and noble king. Oedipus’ incomplete knowledge contributes to his hamartia, breeding hubris and leading him to declare, “But I who count myself the child of Chance,/ the giver of good, shall never know dishonor” (1085-1086). Although Oedipus’ “hubris [is] directed toward the good of his polis,” (Bull, 6) it also gives him the irrational forthrightness that lets him strike out against truth, mistakenly and ironically accusing Tiresias of being “the child of endless night,” (379) “blind in [his] ears, [his] reason, and [his] eyes (376).The accusations of Tiresias motivate Oedipus to seek the truth, and after “his intensive interrogation of three witnesses” (Roochnik, 11), the truth of the prophecy becomes clear. Oedipus is determined to know the truth and himself, even if it means his downfall. With realization dawning, Oedipus sees his lack of vision and the irony of his condemnation: “And it is I/ who pronounced these curses on myself!” (824-825). Having been a firm believer in his vision and rationality, Oedipus is now left with the devastating knowledge that the entire system of logic upon which he based all his beliefs and actions is flawed. He comes across a “terrible enlightenment,. . . [anagnorisis,]” (Aristotle’s Concept of Tragedy) that not only his knowledge, but also the means by which he acquires knowledge, is limited; Oedipus realizes how fallible reason is – knowledge is complete and infinite while logos, the human conception of knowledge, is incomplete and limited. Even Oedipus’s new knowledge is merely a system of thought beyond his former one. With this revelation, Oedipus realizes that he can never be rationally confident about who he is or how the world works; he comes to realize that “[r]eal knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” (Confucius) and thereby paradoxically understand everything while not understanding everything.Thus forced to confront his limited knowledge and completely revise his conception of himself, the world, and how he perceives the world, Oedipus suffers a complete reversal. Stripped of all he was and laden with the realization of his dreadful sins, Oedipus undergoes intense psychological as well as physical suffering. His downfall from such a noble stature makes his present state seem all the more calamitous. Oedipus exclaims in anguish, “For why was I to see/ when nothing I could see would bring me joy?” (1344-1345). Yet, this suffering results in a paradoxical triumph as Oedipus finally examines himself. He physically puts out his eyes as a symbolic act, showing that he is freed from his former blindness and the darkness of the outer world. Through Oedipus’ perseverence and resilience, the “pain [of his suffering is] transmuted into exaltation” (Edith Hamilton).”Oedipus is not destroyed. He stands with the strength generated from having recognized his true place in the world” (Roochnik, 11). With the immense sacrifice of all that he identifies with, Oedipus acquires a new system of thought that illuminates the shadows formerly accepted as truth. The extinguishment of the outside light is replaced by the creation of an inner light. “The tragedy thus ends, not with the abandonment of knowledge, but with a new kind of knowledge: a knowledge of ignorance, of limits; knowledge that life is not simply a riddle to be solved; knowledge of what it means to be a human being” (Roochnik, 11). And Oedipus possesses the courage and free will to accept and understand this knowledge.With his new vision, Oedipus recognizes and affirms his free will: “It was Apollo there, Apollo, friends,/ who brought my sorrows to their perfection,/ these evil that were done to me./ But the one who struck them with this hand, that one was none but I” (1339-1343). While free will and rational thought give man a sense of stability and let him achieve a measure of understanding, it is because of free will that life is insecure; it is the quality of having neither the guarantee nor the denial of true knowledge, but the potential for it – and the potential to realize this potential – that makes the world uncertain and therefore incomprehensible to man. Uncertainty is inherent in the condition of man, but with personal integrity, will, and courage to make and accept his own actions, man affirms the dignity of not only himself, but of all mankind.”Man is not equated to the gods, but man at his greatest, as in Oedipus, is capable of something which the gods, by definition, cannot experience; the proud tragic view of Sophocles sees in the fragility and inevitable defeat of human greatness the possibility of a purely human heroism to which the gods can never attain, for the condition of their existence is everlasting victory”.(Knox)
The reader is told in Aristotle’s Poetics that tragedy “arouses the emotions of pity and fear, wonder and awe” (The Poetics 10). To Aristotle, the best type of tragedy involves reversal of a situation, recognition from a character, and suffering. The plot has to be complex, and a normal person should fall from prosperity to misfortune due to some type of mistake. Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, is a great example of a Greek tragedy. Its main plot is Oedipus’ goal to find out his true identity, the result being his downfall by finding out he has married his own mother and killed his father. The three unities, noble character, and complex plot, are what make Oedipus Rex a good example of a tragedy in relation to Aristotle’s Poetics.As defined by Aristotle, the three unities are the time, place and action of the tragedy. Oedipus Rex fits the time duration that Aristotle says a good tragedy should have “for tragedy is especially limited by one period of the sun, or admits but a small variation from this period” (Poetics 10). The play takes place at one main site, the palace in Thebes, and has action that has no subplot. Throughout the play, Oedipus is trying to find out his true identity. Subsequently his search for a cure to end the plague that has struck the city is related to Oedipus’ goal. Aristotle mentions Oedipus Rex in his Poetics to demonstrate how recognition of a character is best with a reversal of a situation. The main character, Oedipus, learns that he has done the unthinkable by killing his father and marrying his mother. This reversal of a situation adds to an effect central to a tragedy, where one who was once superior is brought down to an inferior level. This action is ironic since it has been prophesied to Oedipus’ father, Laius, and to Oedipus himself years before, and each man had sought to undermine the prophecy. The Chorus asks if the gods could even exist if the forebearings of Oedipus’ life turn out to be false because, after all, the people have only known the gods through the prophets:Divine Zeus and Apollo holdPerfect intelligence alone of all tales ever told;-For wisdom changes hands among the wise.Shall I believe my great lord criminalAt a raging word that a blind old man let fall?-These evil words are lies. (Literature Structure, Sound, and Sense 1031)The use of recognition is clearly noted when a messenger comes to Oedipus to deliver the news of Polybus’ death. At first, this is depicted as good news because Polybus was thought to be Oedipus’ father. Oedipus knows that he did not kill Polybus, so he thinks the prediction of the oracle did not come true. Jokasta and Oedipus do not show remorse when first hearing the news; instead, they feel relief. Soon enough, they realize the appearance of the good news turns out to be dreadful. A sense of pathos adds to the sense of tragedy in the play. As the audience watches the play, they become mortified as the plot unfolds. There is fear and uncertainty in the beginning because of the plague. “The breath of incense rises from the city/ With a sound of prayer and lamentation” (Structure 1018). Later in the play, Jokasta and the audience realize with horror what has transpired. Just the thought of a son marrying his mother and murdering his father can make an audience shudder. Consequently, the audience feels much sympathy and sadness for Oedipus, the fallen king, once-savior of Thebes, and now a victim of circumstance. The point at which the messenger tells Oedipus what his true identity really is, is the time when the audience figures out what has happened and is overwrought for Oedipus and Jokasta.Another element contributing to the tragic effect is the use of hamartia, the error of judgement due to ignorance. When Oedipus finally understands what he has done, he is so disgusted with himself that the audience is afraid for him and what he may do. After seeing Jokasta’s dead body, he blinds himself, saying:No more, No more shall you look on the misery about me, The horrors of my own doing! Too long you have seen,Too long been blind to those for whom I was searching! From this hour, go in darkness! (Structure 1051)By this time, the fate of Oedipus and his “lightless life” has the audience pitying and pondering over Oedipus’ plight. The blindness of Oedipus, which had been prefigured by the blindness of Teiresias, ends the play. It also leads to the enlightenment of this tragedy– through vision.Oedipus Rex could be the quintessence of tragedies causing grief for the characters as well as the audience. Aristotle says that the best plots are the ones with a complex plot which includes an undeserved change of fortune (Oedipus’ fortune), where the imitation of events evoke pity and fear, and there is a change of result of hamartia. The tragic hero is a man who fails to achieve happiness in such a way that it brings upon fear and pity in the highest degree. Through the three unities, the noble characters, and the plot, Oedipus Rex is blatantly an excellent tragedy, as confirmed by Aristotle’s Poetics.
The theme of recognition plays an important role in Homer’s The Odyssey and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Two key recognition scenes are that between Odysseus and Penelope and that between Oedipus and Jocasta. Many differences can be found between the two, and although they are less apparent certain similarities can be drawn as well.The way in which identity is established in these two texts is different. From the beginning, Odysseus and Oedipus are in reversed situations: Odysseus has always known who he is, whereas Oedipus’s goal is to discover his own true identity. One of the last people who Odysseus reveals himself to is his wife, Penelope. After he has killed the suitors, he sends the nurse, Eurykleia, to summon Penelope. Penelope’s first reaction is disbelief even after Eurykleia mentions the scar on his leg. Penelope hesitates to accept the truth, telling her, “it would be hard for you to baffle the purposes of the everlasting gods” (XXIII.81-82). Penelope suspects that some clever god has disguised himself as the beggar and has slain the suitors. Only after she tests him with the knowledge of the marriage bed does she finally believe that this man is her husband. Aside from Eurykleia, Odysseus is the only person who knows that he himself had built the bed around a living olive tree and therefore the bed cannot be moved. The recognition scene between Odysseus and Penelope ends happily as she “burst[s] into tears and ran straight to him, throwing her arms around the neckand kissed his head” (XXIII.207-208).The recognition scene between Oedipus and Jocasta, however, ends with sadness. Everyone discovers Oedipus’ true identity before he realizes it. In fact, he receives numerous warnings from various people not to pursue the search for the murderer of Laius, the former King of Thebes. The blind prophet Teiresias begs Oedipus: “Let me go home. It will be easiestif you will follow my advice” (lines 320-322). His wife, Jocasta, upon realizing Oedipus’ true identity pleads with him: “I beg you do not hunt this out I beg you” (line 1060). Even the herdsman who Oedipus summons asks him to stop questioning him: “O master, please I beg you, master, please don’t ask me more” (line 1165). However, Oedipus continues to ignore these warnings until he discovers that he has committed patricide and incest, and is the murderer whom he seeks and thus is the source of Thebes’ plague. Jocasta makes this connection earlier when the messenger reveals significant information about Oedipus, especially the fact that he has pierced ankles. In strong contrast to the loving embrace which Odysseus and Penelope exchange, she cries, “O Oedipus, unhappy Oedipus!/that is all I can call you, and the last thing/that I shall ever call you” (lines 1071-1072) before she commits suicide. Likewise, when Oedipus realizes what he has done, he blinds and banishes himself from Thebes. Both texts defer the recognition again and again, for very different reasons. In Oedipus the King, everyone is trying to protect Oedipus from the horrible truth by begging him not to carry his investigation further. They know it will only bring unhappiness. However, Oedipus is driven by his duty and responsibility as King to find out who the murderer is in order to rid Thebes of the plague. For this reason, he ignores everyone’s warning. On the other hand, Odysseus is driven by his own mission to “judge the faith of the women,/and make trial of the serving men” (XVI.304-305). He has to purge the suitors’ plague on his home. Keeping his identity unknown is a crucial element for success since he plans to kill the suitors by surprise. This explains why he responds so violently to Eurykleia when she discovers his true identity, taking “her by the throatand [saying] to her: Nurse, why are you trying to kill me?” (XIX.480-482). To explain why he reveals himself to Penelope only after he has revealed himself to everyone else (except his father), Odysseus is testing his wife’s faithfulness and loyalty. When he visits Hades during his wanderings, he meets Agamemnon who relates the story of how his wife, Clytaemestra, plotted his death as a cautionary tale. Agamemnon tells him of his wife who “with thoughts surpassingly grisly/ splashed the shame on herself and the rest of her sex, on women/still to come, even on the one whose acts are virtuous” (XI.432-434). He advises Odysseus to “not be easy even with [his] wife” (XI.441) even though Agamemnon speaks highly of Penelope as “all too virtuous and her mind stored with good thoughts” (XI.446). Odysseus listens to Agamemnon’s advice and thus defers revealing his true identity to Penelope until the end. For the playwrights, the delay of the recognition scenes serves another purpose. The revelation of Odysseus’ identity brings about the resolution of The Odyssey. Homer knows all about suspense and how pleasure is heightened if it is delayed. Thus, Homer stalls the arrival of the climax, keeping the audience tantalized. On the other hand, the Oedipus story is well known to the audience. Sophocles takes advantage of this for dramatic irony. Since the audience knows what has happened to Oedipus in the past, much irony is attached to various statements he makes, such as: “If with my knowledge he lives at my hearth I pray that I myself may feel my curse” (lines 250-251). The audience knows that the person whom he seeks is himself and it is ironic that he is cursing himself. Aside from these differences, the two texts share the important similarity that recognition serves the same purpose. Odysseus and Oedipus are each recognized by a loved one, bridging the past with the future. With recognition comes the establishment of their roles. Odysseus assumes his true position as King of Ithaca again, after ten years of war and another ten years of wandering. He is finally home. Oedipus establishes his place in Thebes by shedding light on the past. Discovering his identity, he realizes he has been home the entire time. After anagnoresis, they both have new responsibilities that only their newfound or regained identities can accomplish. With recognition and the establishment of their roles, further action is then allowed and expected. During the recognition scene with Penelope, Odysseus says to her: “Dear wife, we have not yet come to the limit of all our/trials. There is unmeasured labor left for the future/both difficult and great, and all of it I must accomplish” (XXIII.248-250). Odysseus still has to do what Teiresias instructs him to. Similarly, Oedipus, upon recognition, tells Creon: “send me out to live away from Thebes” (line 1518) in order to purge Thebes of the plague that he brings on his land. Responsibility and purpose is immediately given upon anagnoresis. The purpose of recognition in both texts, therefore, is to provide a catalyst for movement; each character, in his realization, is forced by his own past and duty to act. The identities of Odysseus and Oedipus are established in different ways and each recognition evokes extremely opposite actions and responses. Each text defers anagnoresis for different reasons. However, they are alike in that the role of recognition is not just an end but also a beginning.
Throughout the history of literature, authors and playwrights have often employed a foil – a character whose purpose is to create a contrast with the main character that allows the latter’s attributes to cement their presence. Ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles, in his play Oedipus Rex, seamlessly weaves his foil character, Creon, into the tapestry of the intricate plot not only by allowing Creon’s character traits to stand against those of Oedipus, but also by giving him his own magnitude in the events and direction of the play. Though Creon – who is Oedipus’s uncle, brother-in-law, and right-hand man all at once – demonstrates many qualities that provide stark relief against the title character’s, the ones that perhaps form the best grounds for contrast are Creon’s reactions, his piety, and his priorities.
One of the most critical elements of the plot’s rising action is the ongoing conflict between Creon and Oedipus, in which the first of their differences truly comes to light. Where Oedipus is portrayed as a frantic, paranoid king, Creon’s mature reactions to Oedipus’s attempts at provocation could not be more different. When Oedipus accuses Creon of “highway robbery of [his] crown” (l. 615), Creon’s only response to such a far-fetched claim is to calmly request an explanation that is just-as-composedly dispelled by him. When Oedipus proceeds with his poorly-founded accusations, which often come dusted with ill-concealed insults, Creon fails to be provoked into any reaction beyond unruffled, logical responses, as demonstrated by his attempt to explain to the king that he would have no motivation to frame him, since he already enjoys all the benefits of a high-ranking position without being weighed down by the burden of its responsibilities. Oedipus, however, refuses to listen to the voice of reason: every following exchange between them stands to further emphasize just how illogical and volatile Oedipus can be.
Another key dissimilarity between the two characters is their drastically different views of divinity and their reverence – or lack thereof – of the gods. Creon, who from the very beginning of the play is established as a man of piety, often makes note of the gods in conversation, ever careful to remain within his mortal boundaries. He also mentions that he awaits “to learn from the God [Apollo] the course of action [he] should follow” (l. 1620) before coming to any decisions, thus exhibiting his belief in fate. Oedipus, on the other hand, becomes infamous for his hubris – his pride that is so excessive that he believes himself superior to the gods. In his initial conversation with the prophet Teiresias, Oedipus criticizes the power of the gods and their oracles:
“When the dark singer, the sphinx, was in your country, did you speak word of deliverance to its citizens? And yet the riddle’s answer was not the province of a chance comer. It was a prophet’s task and plainly you had no such gift of prophecy from birds nor otherwise from any God to glean a word of knowledge. But I came, Oedipus, who knew nothing, and I stopped her. I solved the riddle by my own wit alone. Mine was no knowledge got from birds.” (l. 455-463)
In this extract, Oedipus’s true feelings regarding his rise to power and his general worthiness come to the attention of both the other characters and the audience. Oedipus, simply put, has been blinded by the single success that he had stumbled upon that skyrocketed him to wealth and power. By the end of the play, any remaining belief in the gods he may have had seems to have dissolved away, demonstrated by his self-dug abyss of self-pity.
Lastly, there is an unforgiving contrast between the priorities of the two gentlemen in question. One would expect that the king, so well-loved by his people, would instinctively put them first, surpassing the importance of his own needs, but that is far from the truth. When accusations are made against him, Oedipus is quick to discard the crisis of the plague that the people of Thebes are undergoing, and instead moves his own personal developments into the spotlight. Creon, meanwhile, prioritized the needs of Thebes all throughout the play. From the very beginning, when he went himself to fetch the prophet Teiresias to shed light on the suffering of the Thebans, Creon displays his willingness to make personal sacrifices for his people. This note is played to the very end of the play, when Creon easily steps into the role he never desired – that of king – and shoulders the worries of his people right alongside them.
Creon, a complex character in his own right, helped enrich audiences’ perception of Oedipus in a way that would have been impossible without his presence. Oedipus’s shortcomings in the fields detailed above may never have been seen so sharply without Creon’s additions. Indeed, the entire play would have been lacking had it not been for his contributions to audiences’ understanding and judgement. In this way, Sophocles’s decision to include the character of Creon as a foil to Oedipus allowed for the text to adopt an unprecedented depth, and for Oedipus’s brash character to be immortalized as the character all literature aficionados love to hate.
In describing the characters of Odysseus and Oedipus, Homer and Sophocles both avoid defining these men by typical physical characteristics such as stature or distinctive facial features. Instead, these authors focus on detailing specific bodily wounds that function as embodiments of each character’s identity. Parallel plotlines in The Odyssey and Oedipus the King reveal the symbolic significance of Odysseus’s scar as well as that of Oedipus’s swollen foot and gouged-out eyes. In both works, the infliction of these injuries is essential to the characters’ fates, with the specific degree of personal involvement in the creation of these wounds functioning as a reflection of the amount of control each man respectively has over his life. Furthermore, Odysseus’s scar and Oedipus’s swollen foot, as the signs and proofs of their origins, allow for others to recognize them. However, the true nature and significance of these injuries, while symbolically similar, differ: for Odysseus, his scar is a key to redemption, while for Oedipus, his swollen foot and damaged eyes are inescapable markers of his cursed fate, representative of his ultimate destruction.
Throughout The Odyssey, Odysseus, known for his wits and cleverness, hides his identity in hopes that he will be able to get back to his home in Ithaca and enact revenge on the boorish suitors plaguing his faithful wife and son. In the course of doing so, he employs many disguises both on his own and with the divine help of Athena; spinning tales to those that he meets on his journeys, he also uses his oratorical abilities to create new personas for himself. The scar on his upper thigh, however, remains a constant throughout these physical and verbal metamorphoses as a mark of his true identity. When he enters the palace and is washed by his old nurse, Eurykleia, it is this scar that betrays his guise as a beggar:
“Now Odysseus was sitting close to the fire, but suddenly turned to the dark side; for presently he thought in his heart that, as she handled him, she might be aware of his scar, and all his story might come out. She came up close and washed her lord, and at once she recognized that scar, which once the boar with his white tusk had inflicted on him” (19.389-394).
Following this stunning moment of recognition, the nurse recalls the story of Odysseus’s name and how he received the scar through a hunting party. Etymologically, Odysseus means the “son of pain,” and appropriately his scar functions as a reminder of his origins: begot in a moment of pain, Odysseus nevertheless maintains the mark as a sign of valor and true kingliness. Furthermore, because he is aware of the implications of his scar, Odysseus is able to use it to his advantage, by reclaiming his identity as rightful king so that he can regain his throne.
Unlike Odysseus, Oedipus, who is oblivious to the true significance and nature of his wounds, begins the play blinded to the reality of his circumstances. Ironically, although his name itself means “swollen foot,” Oedipus chooses to regard his injury simply as an insignificant and annoying reminder of “old pain,” and thus remains ignorant of his true identity as the child of Jocasta and Laius: OEDIPUS. What ailed me when you took me in your arms? MESSENGER. In that your ankles should be witnesses. OEDIPUS. Why do you speak of that old pain? MESSENGER. I loosed you; the tendons of your feet were pierced and fettered – OEDIPUS. My swaddling clothes brought me a rare disgrace. MESSENGER. So that from this you’re called your present name (1031-1036). In this exchange between Oedipus and the messenger, Sophocles indicates that Oedipus is more concerned with maintaining his status than with realizing the truth, even in the face of the most incriminating evidence of all: his own body. Given the opportunity for cathartic recognition like that experienced by Eurykleia, Oedipus instead strays further from the reality and straight into the trap of his inescapable fate.
The climax of Oedipus the King introduces a new twist in the discussion of injuries and identities. Having realized too late that he is himself the killer that he has been looking for and the perpetrator of incest, Oedipus gouges out his eyes. Whereas his swollen foot was an injury inflicted upon his body by his parents without his own knowledge and participation, Oedipus now punishes himself in an act of autonomy: “But the hand that struck me was none but my own. Why should I see whose vision showed me nothing sweet to see?” (1331-1332). Through blinding himself, Oedipus is given the opportunity to finally regain some control over his life and shape his fate. This stark act of self-mutilation is his last outlet of expression in the play and his damaged, bloody eyes become a symbol of his new identity as a wretched exile, a fallen king.
In the worlds of The Odyssey and Oedipus the King, humans are defined by their mortality. Bound to fragile bodies, caught in a constant tension between life and death, the physical wounds that these humans have become perfect embodiments of their identities, constant throughout despite the interference of magical transformations and sudden fluctuations of fate.
The Greek rationalists’ search for the meaning of life through rational thought instead of the traditional legends marked the first radical shift from mythos to logos. While there was no clean break with either traditional religion or belief in the supernatural, Greek thought as a whole during the 7th- through 5th-centuries increasingly trended towards a trust in logos and the individual as means towards the ultimate end. Within Oedipus the King, Sophocles reacts against the rationalists’ abandonment of mythos. Oedipus seeks to fulfill his duty as king by using logos to search for the cause of the plague, yet the reactions and warnings of the characters around him serve as a caution against this complete insistence on logos. The element of tragedy within the story works to show that the tradition of mythos is in this case the wiser choice because the deities and Fates provide clear boundaries for human knowledge and behavior. Oedipus, on the other hand, shows that without a comparable regulator, logos will push on even to the point of self-ruin. The guidance provided by Tiresias and Jocasta uses mythos to demonstrate that the knowledge brought by the pursuit of logos is not always beneficial.
Tiresias, the blind prophet of Apollo, knows the truth about the manifestation of Oedipus’ fate, yet is reluctant to tell Oedipus because he believes mythos has already revealed all that is necessary. Oedipus declares that in order to rid Thebes from the plague that has befallen it, he must “know it all,” and relentlessly questions Tiresias in order to help him achieve that goal (1170-1171). Tiresias explains to Oedipus that “what will come will come, even if I should shroud it all in silence” (388-389). Tiresias objects to foresight as intrinsically beneficial; the simple act of obtaining knowledge is not helpful in itself. Even if Tiresias tells Oedipus everything he knows about the other man’s fate, there is no guarantee that Oedipus would be satisfied or even happy. Tiresias implies the truth that knowledge does not necessarily guarantee that an individual will have any power to change anything, where Oedipus believes that with sufficient logos, one can avert what fate has declared. In addition, the dialogue between Tiresias and Oedipus provide a clear contrast between mythos and logos and their respective approaches to proprietary knowledge. For example, Oedipus taunts the blind prophet, saying, “You can’t hurt me or anyone else who sees the light” (427). He believes that he is infallible because he has logos; however, Tiresias dismisses him, “It is not your fate to fall at my hands. Apollo is quite enough” (428-430). Although he recognizes that logos allows Oedipus some power, he maintains that mythos is superior because it occurs regardless of whether every detail is made known. Knowledge is only useful when it is known; therefore, those who rely completely on logos are continually on a quest for more of it. In revealing the truth through prophecies instead of continuous lines of questioning, mythos presents an inherent boundary for human knowledge which is approved by the gods and the Fates.
Jocasta is initially skeptical of mythos, choosing to utilize logos in its place until she realizes that logos is the very thing that brought tragedy upon them. Jocasta details the lengths she and king Laius went through to prevent the prophesied fate from occurring, including pinning their baby’s ankles together and sending a servant to abandon it in the wild (784-800). If Jocasta and king Laius had not taken steps to try to prevent the prophecy from coming true, their lives would not have played out in the same tragic way. Jocasta believes that the gods are divine, but is skeptical of prophets and prophecies because she holds that “nothing human can penetrate the future” (782); she believes that “whatever [Apollo] needs and seeks he’ll bring to light himself” instead of speaking through prophets (799-800). However, after realizing that the mythic prophecies had already come about, Jocasta has a revelation and consequently tries to keep Oedipus from finding out the truth to save him pain. Her change of heart affirms that certain kinds of knowledge are painful and better left unknown (1163-1165). Nevertheless, Oedipus insists that he must find the answer he is seeking, even as Jocasta rushes out of the room to commit suicide, driven by her shame. Although Jocasta is skeptical of mythos for most of the play, her sudden realization of the truth brings her to recognize that sometimes it is better not to know everything.
Sophocles’ choice of protagonist is a direct response to the philosophers of his day. As Oedipus tried to avoid his prophesied fate only to tragically discover the prophecy had already been fulfilled, Sophocles would have seen the rationalists’ quest to understand the universe through logos alone as a similar walk into tragedy. Mythic limitations are put into place to save humanity from searching endlessly for knowledge that may or may not be beneficial. Not all knowledge must be known to everyone. In fact, not knowing is occasionally more admirable. Regardless of Sophocles’ view of the abandonment of mythos and its beneficial limitations, Greek thought, and to a larger extent all of Western thought, increasingly relied on logos to supply its knowledge.
Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Literature, 1984. Print.