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Oedipus the King | Imagery and sybolism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1091 words Published: 17th May 2017

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Sophocles use of light and darkness in Oedipus the King acts as an aid in the character development. The associated imagery and symbolism in the play manifests Sophocles ideas to the reader which gets them involved in reading and understanding the play.

Throughout time, the presence of light in any situation has always been construed as the presence of knowledge, good spirits, parity & holiness. For darkness the converse is true. Not only is it representative of holiness, but also, the presence of light shows that we should be able to see far, similar to how much we know of something. After all, it is hard to fathom a human who can see in the dark.

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In Oedipus Rex, sight and blindness are also used as allusions to light and darkness, albeit not with exactly the same meanings. A blind person is in the dark about what is going on around him, with no knowledge about his setting, and is handicapped while making choices. A sighted person is well aware of his setting, and should be able to make decisions while being able to see the repercussions.

It is also hard to draw a line to where the different interpretations stop. It can be used in the same work to show any of the different meanings interchangeably. This makes it such a useful tool for an author to draw attention to specific character traits and development, without becoming overly technical in writing. By combining all of these ideas, playwright is able to portray a deeper meaning than could possibly be explicitly written. Also, the author is able to express a complex idea with a single word; ie light representing knowledge and truth.

Oedipus Rex is a Greek tragedy written by Sophocles, who was a celebrated ancient Greek poet. The play is together with Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus part of what is called the Theban plays, all set in Thebes and concerned with the town of Thebes before, during and after Oedipus’ reign as Theban king (Sophocles – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).

A tragic hero must fulfill four criteria; nobility, harmatia (i.e a flaw), peripetia (i.e. reversal of fortune) and anagnorisis (i.e. discovery that peripetia was caused by the hero’s own actions). (What is a Tragic Hero? – Yahoo! Answers, 2013) The basic plot of a tragedy is the rise of a character to become a leader of men, the fall of the character due to a character flaw and the realisation of the character flaw that destroys him.

In Oedipus the King, the priest describes Thebes as the “City of Light”. Thebes normally is supposed to be a prosperous town; all that it touches is supposed to turn to gold. There is joy and happiness around every corner. In such conditions, Oedipus could waltz in and no one would bat an eyelid. However, the same priest describes how the plague has taken over the city by saying; “And deadly pestilence, that fiery god, swoops down to blast the city, emptying the House of Cadmus, filling it with blackness like Hades” [1] . This indicates a total contrast to how it’s supposed to be. The once prosperous city is now under the curse of the sphinx. With the darkness comes disease, uncertainty and emptiness and with it the need for a hero. The stage is now set for Oedipus’ entry. A need has been created for a leader of men. The use of the imagery of darkness has paved the way for Oedipus to rise above all other men.

Another example of successful character development using light/darkness imagery is when Oedipus promises to Creon, the messenger, that “I will shed light on this darkness” [2] . Creon had just told Oedipus that the curse on their land would be lifted when Lauis’ killer is banished or killed. [3] 

Oedipus implies that he would investigate Lauis’ murder and ensure that justice is served. The magnitude of this quote is in its development of the tragic hero that is Oedipus. He is just trying to avenge his predecessor’s death but is inadvertently plotting his own downfall. This is part of the flaw in Oedipus’ character. Oedipus’ flaw is that cannot see what is beneath the surface. The fact that he wants to clear up the mess and lift the curse is commendable, but in doing so, Oedipus will implicate himself and begin the reversal of fortune.

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Throughout the play, a recurring theme is the blindness of some and full sight of others, yet it is those who are allegedly blind who are enlightened. Take Tereisias for example, who was the blind prophet of Thebes. Only he is able to put two and two together and see the bigger picture. Tereisias acts as the antagonist in the play, providing a balanced counter view in the drama, giving Oedipus a chance to realise his flaws.

For example, a reader of Oedipus cannot miss the irony in a blind man telling a sighted one that he is committing a grave crime by sleeping with his legitimate wife and that he would one day also be blind and need a guide to move along just like him [4] . Tereisias also assures Oedipus that he cannot tell who he’s sharing a household with. [5] Oedipus cannot fathom how this could possibly happen, and resorts to calling Tereisias a traitor and stupid. Tereisias replies to Oedipus, also in an outburst of anger, that “Those clear-seeing eyes will be blinded”. Oedipus was unable to “see” that he would have to gouge his own eyes because it was he who had brought the curse onto the land. The net effect is that now we have a protagonist who is also arrogant, overly proud, and unable to perceive the path fate is leading him along.

Oedipus’ character is now that of a tragic hero in waiting, and it is just a matter of time before he discovers his ancestry, and with it the terrible sins he has committed. Oedipus comes to the realisation that he is the cursed polluter of the land, husband of his mother and father of his brothers


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