The Oedipus Plays
Oedipus the King, lines 338–706
A boy leads in the blind prophet Tiresias. Oedipus begs him to reveal who Laius’s murderer is, but Tiresias answers only that he knows the truth but wishes he did not. Puzzled at first, then angry, Oedipus insists that Tiresias tell Thebes what he knows. Provoked by the anger and insults of Oedipus, Tiresias begins to hint at his knowledge. Finally, when Oedipus furiously accuses Tiresias of the murder, Tiresias tells Oedipus that Oedipus himself is the curse. Oedipus dares Tiresias to say it again, and so Tiresias calls Oedipus the murderer. The king criticizes Tiresias’s powers wildly and insults his blindness, but Tiresias only responds that the insults will eventually be turned on Oedipus by all of Thebes. Driven into a fury by the accusation, Oedipus proceeds to concoct a story that Creon and Tiresias are conspiring to overthrow him.
The leader of the Chorus asks Oedipus to calm down, but Tiresias only taunts Oedipus further, saying that the king does not even know who his parents are. This statement both infuriates and intrigues Oedipus, who asks for the truth of his parentage. Tiresias answers only in riddles, saying that the murderer of Laius will turn out to be both brother and father to his children, both son and husband to his mother. The characters exit and the Chorus takes the stage, confused and unsure whom to believe. They resolve that they will not believe any of these accusations against Oedipus unless they are shown proof.
Creon enters, soon followed by Oedipus. Oedipus accuses Creon of trying to overthrow him, since it was he who recommended that Tiresias come. Creon asks Oedipus to be rational, but Oedipus says that he wants Creon murdered. Both Creon and the leader of the Chorus try to get Oedipus to understand that he’s concocting fantasies, but Oedipus is resolute in his conclusions and his fury.
As in Antigone, the entrance of Tiresias signals a crucial turning point in the plot. But in Oedipus the King, Tiresias also serves an additional role—his blindness augments the dramatic irony that governs the play. Tiresias is blind but can see the truth; Oedipus has his sight but cannot. Oedipus claims that he longs to know the truth; Tiresias says that seeing the truth only brings one pain. In addition to this unspoken irony, the conversation between Tiresias and Oedipus is filled with references to sight and eyes. As Oedipus grows angrier, he taunts Tiresias for his blindness, confusing physical sight and insight, or knowledge. Tiresias matches Oedipus insult for insult, mocking Oedipus for his eyesight and for the brilliance that once allowed him to solve the riddle of the Sphinx—neither quality is now helping Oedipus to see the truth.
In this section, the characteristic swiftness of Oedipus’s thought, words, and action begins to work against him. When Tiresias arrives at line 340, Oedipus praises him as an all-powerful seer who has shielded Thebes from many a plague. Only forty lines later, he refers to Tiresias as “scum,” and soon after that accuses him of treason. Oedipus sizes up a situation, makes a judgment, and acts—all in an instant. While this confident expedience was laudable in the first section, it is exaggerated to a point of near absurdity in the second. Oedipus asks Tiresias and Creon a great many questions—questions are his typical mode of address and frequently a sign of his quick and intelligent mind—but they are merely rhetorical, for they accuse and presume rather than seek answers. Though Tiresias has laid the truth out plainly before Oedipus, the only way Oedipus can interpret the prophet’s words is as an attack, and his quest for information only seeks to confirm what he already believes.
The Chorus seems terrified and helpless in this section, and its speech at lines 526–572 is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety. Though, like Oedipus, the Chorus cannot believe the truth of what Tiresias has said, the Chorus does not believe itself to be untouchable as Oedipus does, consisting as it does of the plague-stricken, innocent citizens of Thebes. The Chorus’s speech is full of images of caves, darkness, lightning, and wings, which suggest darkness, the unknown, and, most significantly, terror striking from the skies. The Chorus’s supplications to the benevolent gods of lines 168–244 are long past. The gods are still present in this speech, but they are no longer of any help, because they know truths that they will not reveal. Thebes is menaced rather than protected by the heavens.
by KajuKoa, January 31, 2013
Creon is not the one who comes to Oedipus first, it is actually the blind seer, Tiresias, who can "see" future, past, and present.
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