A Discourse on the Theme of Blindness in Oedipus Rex
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is a play “… about the limits of human knowledge” (Jacobus, 42) told through the journey of Oedipus Rex. Sophocles develops the play using irony, specifically where it relates to metaphoric, intellectual and physical images of blindness. Oedipus was “… a model for human greatness but also (as) a model for the human capacity to fall from a great height.” (Jacobus, 42) As in all Greek tragedies, Oedipus’ downfall was caused by his tragic flaw. Oedipus tragic flaw was hubris, or excessive pride, which caused him to act impulsively on his misunderstanding of the prophecies. In this discourse you will see that Sophocles chose the theme of blindness and the device of irony to illustrate and explore this tragic flaw as it led toward Oedipus downfall.
The first irony of the play lies in known facts. At the play’s opening Oedipus is blind to the fact that Polybus and Merope are not his real parents, “Polybus of Corinth is my father. My mother is a Dorian: Merope.” (Sophocles, p.54, 248-9) His true parents are King Laios and his wife Iokaste. Having heard the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother he sets off on a journey to Thebes, in an attempt to avoid his moira, his fate. “Since I must flee from Thebes, yet never again / See my own countrymen, my own country, / For fear of joining my mother in marriage / And killing Polybus, my father.” (Sophocles, 54, 300-3) Ironically this is his true birthplace, so unknowingly Oedipus is moving head on into his fate.
In the second of many ironies he comes across his true father on his way to Thebes. King Laios is traveling, runs Oedipus off the road and in a rage, Oedipus kills him, fulfilling the first of the Oracles prophecies. “The old man saw me / … / He was paid back, and more! / Swinging my club in this right hand I knocked him / Out of his car, and he rolled on the ground. / I killed him.” (Sophocles, pg. 54, 285-291)) However, Oedipus is blind to this knowledge and therefore unaware of the full significance of his guilt as he moves on to Thebes.
When Oedipus reaches Thebes he challenges the Sphinx, wins and is rewarded by marrying Iokaste. Little does he know he has just fulfilled another part of the prophecy by marrying his mother. However, blind to this irony, he proceeds to enjoy many happy years, siring two sons and two daughters. Ironically, Iokaste has had a prophesy from the Oracle which said, “My child was doomed to kill him; and my child – / Poor baby! – it was my child that died first.” (Pg. 55, 328-9) Thinking the Oracle referred to the son who was killed earlier; Iokaste was quite naturally blind to the fact that Oeidpus was her child and that he did indeed kill her husband.
In an ironic twist, Sophocles introduces the character of Teiresias who is physically blind. “This is Teiresias, this is the holy prophet / In whom, alone of all men, truth was born.” (Pg. 46, 83-4) Although Teiresias is physically blind, Sophocles has set him up to be a great spiritual leader who “sees” better then any other. Although physically blind, he has a keen spiritual eye and therefore has the ability to go within and hear the truth clearly and with remarkable accuracy. Teiresias at first refuses to tell Oedipus the truth, stating “Let me go home. Bear your own fate, and I’ll / Bear mine. It is better so: trust what I say.” (Pg. 47, 105-6) But Oedipus hubris will not allow him to heed the warning so he presses on, insulting and accusing Teiresias, until finally Teiresias relents and says, “I say that you are the murderer whom you seek.” (Pg. 47, 142-3) Oedipus remains blind to the truth, and in a wonderful moment of irony he mocks Teiresias blindness. Teiresias answers saying, “Listen to me. You mock my blindness, do you? / But I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind:” (pg. 48, 195-6) Teiresias finishes by foretelling the future saying, “But the double lash of your parents’ curse will whip you / Out of this land some day, with only night / Upon your precious eyes.” (Pg. 48, 203-5) Still Oedipus refuses to see and the wise blind man spells it out for him with “A blind man, / Who has his eyes now; a penniless man, who is rich now; / And he will go tapping the strange earth with his staff.” The truth has been uttered from one physically blind man to another metaphorically blind man.
Enter Kreon. Since Oedipus will not heed the words of Teiresias, he intellectually reasons that Kreon must be plotting with Teiresias to take over the throne. “It is your death I want, / So that all the world may see what treason means.” (Pg. 52, 106-7) Here he uses the word “see” showing how blind he has become in his paranoiac frenzy. He has intellectualized himself into another blind corner, because of his ego. Even the chorus begs him to see reason: “Open your mind…” (pg. 52, 131) “Respect Kreon’s word.” (132) “A friend so sworn should not be baited so, / In blind malice, and without final proof.” It is no accident Sophocles uses the phrase “blind malice” as this describes Oedipus’ actions perfectly at this moment. Kreon makes one final plea before he leaves saying: “You do not know me; but the city knows me, / And in its eyes I am just, if not in yours.” Ironically even the city can see what Oedipus is too blind to see.
But not for long. In a final defiant act, Oedipus brings the shepherd in and demands he tell his story. At last he learns the truth: “They said it was Laios’ child; / But it is your wife who can tell you about that.” (Pg. 60, 56-7) In this one moment his vision is cleared and he sees the facts as they are. Against all efforts to the contrary, Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother, fulfilling the prophecies. The chorus observes wisely, “But all eyes fail before time’s eye. / All actions come to justice there.” (Pg. 60, 40-1)
Now, eyes open, Oedipus sees all too clearly. He can “see” as he finds he dead wife, hung from her own hand after hearing the news she didn’t want to hear. Unable to bear the sight “… the king ripped from her gown the golden brooches / That were her ornament, and raised them, and plunged them down / Straight into his own eyeballs, crying, “No more, No more shall you look on the misery about me …. Too long been blind to those for whom I was searching! From this hour, go in darkness!” (Pg. 61, 44-50) His final words speak to the irony and the metaphoric use of sight; “… the blinding hand was my own! / How could I bear to see / When all my sight was horror everywhere?” His pride was destroyed, ironically so was his sight!
So we have come full circle on the journey. Oedipus begins the journey intellectually and metaphorically blind, but physically clear of sight. Yet in the end he is physically blind, yet intellectually and metaphysically he has never seen things so keenly. Oedipus tragic flaw of willful pride began strong and indefatigable and in the end has been completely beaten, leaving behind the humility that only experience can nurture. Sophocles leaves us with a clear idea that blindness is in the eye of the beholder.
Jacobus, Lee A., Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, The Bedford Intro to Drama 4th Edition, Boston, Ma: Bedford/ST. Martin’s