Oedipus Rex tells the story of Oedipus, a young king who comes to wrestle with his past and his destiny, involving the inadvertent and unknowing murder of his father, and the marrying of his own mother. The play's setting is Thebes, where Oedipus has become king. The prologue of Oedipus Rex foreshadows all of the tragedy that is to befall the main character; it establishes Thebes as a city under attack from a plague, and the only way to solve the problem is to address the mystery of Laius' death. When searching for the murderer of the former king Laius, he finds out that he had, in fact, killed the man in a brawl some time ago, and taken his wife and kingdom as reward for another journey. He settles into life with Jocasta and the kingdom of Thebes, not knowing what he had truly done. Eventually, in the climax, he learns that Laius was his father, making Laius’ wife (now his own) his mother. The drama of this discovery makes it one of the more interesting Greek tragedies, its plot full of many different themes and complexities, including sight and the nature of prophecy.
Sight as a theme is showcased in a number of different ways within the text of Oedipus Rex, especially in the blindness Oedipus demonstrates towards the nature of his reality and the relationship with his mother. He is shown to be a benevolent king toward his people, making his eventual downfall all the more tragic - “I would be blind to misery not to pity my people kneeling at my feet” (Sophocles, line 14). Upon learning the truth, he symbolically stabs his own eyes out with the pins of the dead Jocasta’s dress. This is evidence of Oedipus’ ultimate understanding and comprehension of the situation, and also his rejection of it. He laments having seen this truth, as it is a terrible one that has led to the death of his parents by his own hand, and as such he does not want to see it anymore. He removes his own ability to see as punishment for the sight he has experienced.
The theme of sight is more transparently explored in the symbolic character of Tiresias, the blind prophet. He is the one who informs Oedipus of what will happen to him (his fate), providing an ironic juxtaposition between his inability to see and his ability to dispense “sight” to others in the form of prophecy. Blind oracles are a fixture in fiction, as they are often thought to have greater insight as a result of their physical blindness – “Blind as you are, you can feel all the more what sickness haunts our city,” says Oedipus to Tiresias (line 344). However, when Oedipus hears the bad news about his impending fate, he rejects it entirely, to which Tiresias says “Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich, he will grope his way toward a foreign soil, a stick tapping before him step by step” (line 517). This provides the foreshadowing of Oedipus’ humble past, and the need to explore it in order to determine the truth.
The character of Tiresias showcases Oedipus’ lack of foresight, as he derides Tiresias for his physical blindness (much like the narrator of “Cathedral” would to Robert). Portentiously, Tiresias foreshadows the end of the play by saying, “So, you mock my blindness? Let me tell you this. You with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life.” (Sophocles, line 469). Indeed, Oedipus does not care to question the circumstances of his birth and subsequent rise to power, perhaps intentionally, as he knows in the back of his mind that something does not add up, but does not wish to investigate it. The mask that Oedipus hides behind is one of denial; he dares not actually confront the truth.
The physical blindness carried by Tiresias is thought to be a torment, and is most certainly described as such for Oedipus. He blinds himself as punishment for his actions, which also condemns him to relive them for the rest of his life. He cannot look at anything else ever again, leaving his last real sight the image of his dead mother, who killed herself in grief at the tragedy of their lives. This, moreso than the blinding, is the true punishment Oedipus subjected himself to.
Oedipus the King is a wonderful play that speaks volumes about the human condition, particularly the importance of sight and the fallibility of man. Laius sends away Oedipus as a means to cheat destiny, but this ends up becoming fulfilled perhaps because of his own actions. In essence, Sophocles tells us that, no matter what we do, events will take their course, and often we fulfill our own destinies when we try to avoid them. We are blind to our own fates, and life can catch up to us in unexpected ways - Laius pays for his fear, and Oedipus pays for his ignorance and blindness to what others tell him.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King.