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Oedipus Rex, by far, is one of the greatest Greek tragedies of all time, as it remains culturally poignant and universally relatable. In the great tragedy, Sophocles illustrates a masterful composition of both irony and symbolism that far surpasses any other contemporary work of its age. The reoccurring themes of fate against free will and astigmatism against cognizance add flavor and power to the play, making it that much more compelling to read. Throughout the play, Sophocles, exercises excellent use of these elements to illuminate Oedipus's struggle for truth. The power of choice is specifically significant throughout this play because it highlights an individual's need for control in a world of chaos, but the unsettling reconciliation that destiny is preordained. In the critique "Irony of Sophocles," A.E. Haigh attempts to explain the significance of dramatic irony in Greek mythology. Interestingly enough, A.E. Haigh believes the most prominent example of dramatic irony is depicted in the acclaimed Oedipus Rex, as Oedipus learns the essence of insight.
The opening scene of the play illustrates Oedipus as a savior and sage among men; however, the looming reality of his fate never wanders far from the audience's perception. As the great Oedipus embarks on a search for King Laius' killer, the audience begins to sympathize with Oedipus. It seems as he comes closer to the truth even he begins to recognize his doomed fate. The purpose and perseverance with which Oedipus organizes the search for the former king's killer, is symbolically significant. It is tragically a foreboding of Oedipus' subconscious belief of his own guilt. In addition, his passionate insistence that "As for the criminal, I pray to God whether it be a lurking thief, or one of a number, I pray that that man's life be consumed in evil and wretchedness. And as for me, the curse applies no less, if it should turn out that the culprit is my guest here, sharing my hearth," ironically mirrors his own awaited doom (I, i, 29-34). The harrowing realization that he, in fact, is the killer of the great King Laius and a perpetrator of incest is too much for Oedipus to bear. In a moment of deep sorrow, he gouges his eyes out, for he cannot bear the thought of seeing the results of his own sin. According to A.E. Haigh it is at this moment when the realization of the truth begins to surface amongst the audience for "the audience knows the wrath of heaven will have crushed and shattered him" (Haigh, 4). His fatal words created his own destination when the truth is revealed in which he is unable to accept. The belief in Greek Culture was "you would be the same way in the afterlife as you were when you died" ("Religion Facts", 6). The tragic significance of this scene in the play adequately illustrates the brilliance of Sophocles. The physical act of self-inflicted blindness not only signals self-purging, but also a metaphorical coming of age for Oedipus. In his newfound blindness, he has never seen more and for Oedipus this is an insurmountable and painful truth
In the Greek Culture, "physical blindness was said to give an individual" the gift of prophecy and ordained that individuals as a messenger of the gods ("Religion Facts", 5). As such, Sophocles emphasizes this idea continually throughout his work. The play begins with a physically sighted Oedipus; however, ironically, he is unable "to see" the truth. By comparison, the play ends with a physically handicapped Oedipus; however, he has never seen more, as he realizes his sins of incest and patricide. The undeniable symmetry in this transformation from astigmatism to cognizance is profound. It perpetuates a sense of finality in Oedipus's search for self, for in his hunger for truth he was forced to face the reality of all that he was, is and, prophesied to be. Furthermore, upon examination of the subtle comparison between Tiresias, a blind seer, and Oedipus, a great king, the reader will note that there is a contrast being made between the two. The blind prophet Tiresias, who is physically blind, is able to connect and understand the truth even though he lacks the capability to see; whereas, great and knowledgeable king Oedipus cannot even grapple with the borders of truth despite his visual advantage over Tiresias.
Consequently, Oedipus grows increasingly impatient with Tiresias' reluctance to convey King Laius' killer. Day by day his desire to know the truth begins to transform into an unhealthy obsession that dominates all of his thoughts, thereby inducing a slight state of paranoia. At this point in the play, Oedipus begins to conduct himself as a mad-man, lashing out at any individual who he esteems as indifferent or insensitive to his quest for Laius' killer. He can no longer differentiate between his allies and his adversaries. In a moment of deep frustration and confusion, Oedipus even denounces wise and virtuous Tiresias by crying out, "Rage? Why not! And I'll tell you what I think: you planned it, you had it done, you all but killed him with your own hands: if you had eyes, I'd say the crime was yours, and yours alone" (I, i, 27-30). Oedipus's denunciation of Tiresias is a prime example of his severely induced state of paranoia. It is almost as if he believes there is a conspiracy in the midst; therefore, it is far from surprising, that Oedipus would begin to show signs of distrust to even those whom he would deem loved ones. Creon, his wife's brother, becomes the second suspect in the murder of King Laius' The origin of such allegations is unknown to the reader, but it is quite clear that Oedipus is inconsolable in his convictions of Creon's guilt. Oedipus defiantly proclaims, "Let him go. And let me die, if I must, or be driven by him in shame from the land of Thebes. It is your unhappiness, and not his talk, that touches me, as for him, wherever he goes, hatred will follow him" (I, ii, 146-150) By this time, Oedipus has reached the climactic point of his manic state. Once again, he has accused an innocent individual of a heinous crime. One can only wonder if Oedipus's potent desire to reveal King Laius' guilt is a subconscious recognition of his own sins of patricide and incest.
Oedipus Rex is definitely a masterpiece and a giant among all Greek tragedies. The reoccurring elements of dramatic irony and the subconscious allow the work to continually be a relatable piece of literature. Oedipus is the modern day hero, as he is battling his upmost opponent, himself. Throughout the play, the reader will note the juxtaposition between the conscious and subconscious, the real and unreal, and fate and free will. It seems that Sophocles wants to muddle the line among themes, as they are quickly coalesce. Oedipus desperately wants to understand the content of his past and punish the murderer of his father. Sadly, however, he is so focused on external forces that he fails to exercise the insight to introspect and find the darkness that dwells within. Consistently throughout the play, Oedipus is characterized as an arrogant and all-knowing figure, but soon thereafter his ignorance is revealed. The transformation from astigmatism to cognizance is pivotal for Oedipus, for only once he recognizes his "blindness" can he truly find the truth that he seeks.