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Blindness And Sight: ‘Oedipus Rex’

1628 words (7 pages) Essay in English Literature

11/05/17 English Literature Reference this

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Tragedy on such a great level has never been replicated as the dramatized play “Oedipus Rex”. To create tragedy, a character must undergo a significant loss in his or her life while receiving some type of realization or new perspective. A work would focus on certain religious or other aspect of the character’s misfortune (Roberts 1265). Helaine Smith wrote in Master Pieces of Classic Greek Drama: “Greek tragedy presents the intersection of god and man and asserts the limitation of human understanding and endeavor” (1). This idea of human inadequacy and intervention by gods encompasses Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex”. The drama is centralized around the protagonist character, Oedipus, who receives the title of tragic figure due to the horrendous fate foreseen to him by an oracle. The tragedy is strongly structured around the foundation of sight. In studying “Oedipus Rex” insights can be gathered and deduced on the significance of sight and blindness, which are predominately used throughout the Greek tragedy. Sophocles uses the ability and inability of sight to empower literary elements such as irony, symbolism and foreshadowing, to fulfill the three major elements of a tragic plot, which are peripeteia (reversal), anagnorisis (recognition) and a scene of suffering (pathos), to bring about the tragedy of characters, and to emphasize a theme.

It is crucial to understand what sight and blindness embody in the literary realm and how it could be used for irony, symbolism and foreshadowing. A character’s vision is just as related to physical sight as it is to being knowledgeable and enlightened of present circumstances, which allows both conditions to be used into literary symbols throughout the drama. Tiresias evidences this after Oedipus’ accusation against the seer- “You live, unknowing, with those nearest to you in the greatest shame. You do not see the evil” (Sophocles, 1291). Tiresias refers to Oedipus’ act of murder and incest, which the new king is unable to understand or interrupt because of his closed eyes towards the truth. Oedipus can be depicted as one who “sees everything except the truth and provides for everything except the calamity that actually occurs” (Ferguson 187). Sophocles cleverly makes both characters, Oedipus and Tiresias, blind in two separate ways: Tiresias is blind to the physical world, always in need of servant to lead him one place to another and Oedipus is unable to see that the prophecy he once fled from has been fulfilled. Irony is implemented into the play with Oedipus’ sight and Tiresias’ blindness. It is Tiresias who knows that Oedipus is the one that Lord Phoebus, oracle to Apollo, told Creon and the Thebans to get rid of in order to end the plague that consumes Thebes Oedipus brought on. Oedipus insults Tiresias and his ability as a prophet by jeering- “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 witness the truth, Tiresias is able to foreshadow that “this day will give you birth and ruin too” (Sophocles 1292). Birth is referring to the discovery of the true identity of Oedipus’ parents. Oedipus’ ruin is said to being the “seeming stranger… shown to be a Theban born… blind, who once could see, a beggar who was rich… To his beloved children, he’ll be shown a father who is also brother; to the one who bore him, son and husband; to his father, his seed-fellow and killer” (Sophocles 1293). It is clear that Sophocles uses “blindness as an image to represent the limits of humanity” (Buxton 123). But this shouldn’t discredit Oedipus nor should it make his character be presented as completely blind from knowledge. It was with his intelligence that he was able to solve the Sphinx’s riddle. Oedipus is confident to “accuse the seer of mental blindness because [Oedipus] solved the riddle of the Sphinx whereas Tiresias did not” (Adams 91). Again, irony is woven into the play in order to bring out the fullest effect of tragedy, this time with the use of the Sphinx’s riddle. The Sphinx, a creature of woman, lion and bird, had held the city of Thebes hostage until one person was able to solve her riddle, devouring those who answered incorrectly. Until the riddle was solved, no person could leave or enter the city. The riddle posed by the creature was “What goes on four legs and two legs and three legs and when it has the most legs is at its weakest?” Oedipus answered man, who crawls as an infant, walks on two legs as an adult and uses a stick as third leg as an elderly man (Ferguson 182). The riddle and the answer hold truth in Oedipus’ fate when he was an infant, he crawled, as an adult walked upright, “not aged, but blind, Oedipus will carry a staff and move on ‘three'” (Smith 93). Irony, symbolism and foreshadowing are all implemented within the Greek tragedy through the idea of blindness and sight.

It is with Oedipus’ unawareness or “blindness” that the tragic plot that consists of a reversal, a moment of recognition and a scene of suffering is able to be completed. The three elements are brought about at the end to create the most powerful effect. The reversal is the change in situation from good to bad and is highly unexpected from the main character, in other words, the opposite of what is expected. Anagnorisis is the critical moment of enlightenment a protagonist experiences. With this moment of recognition a character is able to acknowledge and react to his or her positive or negative fortunes (Roberts 1272-1273). For Oedipus, he experiences both the reversal and recognition simultaneously with the discovery of the fulfilled prophecy. It was least expected and it brought on a moment of clarification with the most tragic of occurrences. The scene of suffering succeeds the first two events. The episode consists of what Aristotle describes as “a destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds and the like” (Roberts 1273). Also, this incident, in order to arouse a powerful sense of tragedy, must occur within or near a family or household. Fear and pity are generated when the protagonist suffers rather than antagonist because of the sympathy a reader might hold towards the former. “Oedipus Rex” consists of two tragic scenes where pathos, also known as feelings of pity, sympathy or sorrow, is brought about due Oedipus’ misfortune. Jocasta is first to discover the truth that laid in Laius and Oedipus’ prophecy and attempts to “dissuade him from further enquiry” (Ferguson 191). Jocasta, in the midst of her distress, exits the stages to hang herself in her bedroom. Upon finding Jocasta, Oedipus uses the golden pins of her dress to strike “into the ball-joints of his eyes” (Sophocles 1311). Both dramatic actions provoke immense pity and sorrow, which brings about a catharsis, purging of emotions, in the end.

Oedipus’ tragedy is emphasized by his self-inflicted blindness. Upon Oedipus leaving the palace, the choragos reacts to “suffering that sends terror through men’s eyes, terrible beyond any suffering” (Sophocles 1312). Oedipus describes his new as his “cloud of darkness, abominable, unspeakable as it attacks [him]… brought by an evil wind… the memory of evils” (Roberts 1312-1313). Oedipus announces to the chorus that although he can’t see, he continues to live with the suffering of his fate and the murders that surround it. The self-blindness also has an explanation, that is when Oedipus begs the question “for why was I to see, when nothing I could see bring me joy?” (Sophocles 1313). It is also possible that the reason for Oedipus’ eye gouging is punishment for his rapprochement of Tiresias. Oedipus had proven to have an impetuous personality when he was quick to accuse first Creon of treason then Tiresias and for this “his blindness will be a natural consequence of his nature… the answer to those reckless taunts Apollo’s representative has suffered” (Adams 94). It has become tragic that Oedipus must now suffer beyond what was originally prophesized. 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 1292). Blindness has brought about a greater form of tragedy for Oedipus.

Sightlessness contributes to an overall theme developed within the play. It is a theme that examines human limitation and “the blindness of man and the desperate insecurity of the human condition” (Dodds 27). Oedipus proves himself as a great intellectual and king to the Thebans. Oedipus is confident that he of course could not have been the killer of Laius and bringer of the plague so incidentally, when Tiresias retaliates with the promised prophecy Oedipus hears “nothing but a baffled traitor’s rage” (Adams 93). Oedipus proves to be a representation of man that is not all knowing and short-sighted in many ways. His misfortunes embody all man’s faults, short-comings and tragic endings.

There are many different instances where blindness and sight are structured to make a tragic plot complete, create irony, symbolism and foreshadowing, to bring about the greatest scene of tragedy possible and express a powerful theme. Sophocles was able to utilize vision and the lack of it to bring about a compelling drama that has withstood the test of time every since it’s “first showing at the theater of Dionysus on the side of the Acropolis in 429 B.C.” (Walker 95). “Oedipus Rex” can be thought to be quite an enigmatic play but with the comprehension of what sight and blindness is and how it is manipulated through the play one can begin to bring down the complexities of characters, structure and themes.

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