The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision. – Helen Keller Throughout Sophocles’ Oedipus the King the metaphors of sight and blindness are exercised frequently. It is understood that the references to eyesight correspond to wisdom, knowledge, and truth while, comparably, the indication of blindness is a suggestion of futility. By the use of these recurrent symbols, Sophocles states that although some humans are gifted with the power of knowledge, they are not as enlightened as those with the capability of insight and intuitiveness.
Sophocles juxtaposes the themes of ignorance and insight by use of the characters Oedipus and Tiresias. Oedipus is knowledgeable and able to see, but he does not have the same vision as the blind prophet Tiresias. By contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of the two characters, the author tempts the reader to investigate the importance of the motifs of sight and blindness. With focus on the actions, dialogue, and monologue of Oedipus and Tiresias, we can analyze the playwright’s objective to draw attention to knowledge, or lack thereof, through the accounts of vision, as well as unseeing eyes.
The unmistakable irony of the character Tiresias is verification of Sophocles purpose to highlight the dominance of insight. As a blind seer Tiresias’ role is ironic, being that although he is physically blind, he can “see” father than anyone. Oedipus himself states this fact when he first greets Tiresias saying, “Blind as you are, you can feel all the more what sickness haunts our city. ”(Sophocles 344-345) Furthermore, not only is Tiresias an incongruity in himself but his dialogue with Oedipus is also satirical in context.
As a clairvoyant, Tiresias knows that Oedipus will blind himself, saying that the “darkness [will shroud] [the king’s] eyes that can now see the light [. ]”(Sophocles 478-479) This statement is ironic not because it is sarcastic, but because it has a double meaning; Oedipus will literally go from a sighted man to a blind man, but also metaphorically his outlook on life will darken after he discovers the truth about himself. Tiresias’ lines often combine the metaphorical and literal implication of sight, as exemplified in the previous statement, therefore allowing the audience to interpret their significance interchangeably.
Additionally to his paradox, the character of Tiresias is also, when primarily introduced, a contrasting figure to Oedipus. While Tiresias is a man with the ability to understand the truth without the use of physical vision, Oedipus is the exact opposite; a sighted man who is symbolically blind to the truth of his existence. Tiresias confirms this claim by stating to Oedipus that “[he] with [his] precious eyes, [is] blind to the corruption of [his] life [. ” (Sophocles 470-471) By the use of this character foil, Sophocles again emphasizes the focus on emblematic sight and blindness. While Tiresias is a foil to Oedipus during the commencement of the play, in hindsight he can be seen foreshadowing what Oedipus will eventually become. As a blind old man capable of seeing the truth, Tiresias is a representation of what will inevitably befall Oedipus. After Oedipus learns the truth about his past and subsequently rakes out his own eyes (Sophocles 1306-1405) he emerges as a depressing exemplar of Tiresias’ character.
In addition to this fact, as Oedipus makes a mockery of Tiresias’ blindness, telling the seer that he is “stone-blind, stone-deaf – senses, eyes blind as stone” (Sophocles 424), the ruler begins to sound ironic to the audience who are conscious of his impending fate. Supplementary to Tiresias physiognomy, his prophesies concerning Oedipus are also illustrations of foreshadowing. Tiresias implies that someone will become “blind who now has eyes” (Sophocles 517) obviously referring to Oedipus imminent disability.
Similarly, the psychic also predicts the truths which Oedipus will eventually come to see about his being (Sophocles 520-523). Sophocles’ use of forewarning Oedipus’ future through Tiresias is effective in furthering the theme of insight through the metaphors of sight and blindness. By composing the unseeing seer as an exceptionally fortunate and wise man in comparison to the king, who possesses the ability to see physically, Sophocles again suggests that he placed a higher value on astuteness than quick wit.
Comparatively, if Tiresias is viewed as the all knowing, yet blind, visionary than Oedipus can be called the sighted blind man. Unfortunately for the misguided king, his triumph against the Sphinx permitted him to mistake his wit for all-knowing understanding. The ruler sadly convinces himself that he is more impertinent than Tiresias, asking the seer where he was when the riddle of the Sphinx cried out for a prophet (Sophocles 443-448). Furthermore, Oedipus erroneously believes that is more knowing than the prophet by saying that Tiresias is “blind, lost in the night… [and] can’t hurt [him] or anyone else who sees the light. (Sophocles 425-427) It is undeniable that Oedipus must have been a clever man in order to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, but he leans heavily on his accomplishment, and it eventually becomes a crutch that impedes him.
Not only is Oedipus blind in his belief that he is more adept than the visionary, but he is additionally blind to his own truth. Oedipus is in the dark concerning his past, while he portrays that he knows who his actual parents are, he has his doubts. The king even questions the prophet about his past, asking Tiresias “[W]ho is my father? (Sophocles 498) This unknowingness is what particularly makes the king inferior in his acumen compared to the oracle. Because Tiresias is able to see the past the Oedipus is blind to, this insight allows the clairvoyant to be distinguished from the king. After Oedipus ultimately realizes that Tiresias was precise in his prophesies, he recognizes that he was blind to the truth, and therefore foolish in the belief that he was sagacious like the predictor. The fallacy of Oedipus’ beliefs before his realization is Sophocles’ way of explaining that the king was inferior in intuition and insight compared with Tiresias.
After Oedipus gains insight into the truth of his existence, he decides to make his previous metaphorical blindness physicality. While scraping out his eyes he wails: “Too long you looked on the ones you never should have seen, blind to the ones you longed to see, to know! Blind from this hour on! Blind in the darkness – blind! ” (Sophocles 1407-1409) Again Sophocles combines the metaphorical meaning of the word “blind” with its unvarnished definition. Oedipus was not actually blind to the people he longed to see, intending his birth parents, but he was unaware of their existence.
But by removing his eyes he does become the literal definition of the word. By eradicating his eyes, Oedipus punishes himself for claiming that he was a wise man when in actuality he was exceedingly ignorant towards a major aspect of his being. He is so disgusted with himself and his callowness that when the chorus speaks him he is confused as to why they are “still with a care for [him], the blind man. ” (Sophocles 459-460) Because Sophocles punishes Oedipus’ character even after the king was able to see his faults, this once more defends the fact that quick comprehension is no competition for clear-sightedness.
For the duration of Oedipus the King, the recurrent references to sight and blindness are impossible to ignore. Sophocles emphasizes these two attributes to the highest degree in the characters Oedipus and Tiresias, not only in their speech, but also in their physical beings. This emphasis is a way of depicting the importance of all aspects of knowledge, which not only include wit and cleverness, but also insight and intuition; the awareness of truth. Without all of these aspects a person cannot truly be all-knowing. Oedipus himself learns this lesson, with the help of Tiresias, after the realization that he was unaware of his truths.
The ironies and foils between the characters give substance to the argument, while the juxtaposition of metaphoric and verbatim meaning of the terms throughout the text allow interesting interpretations of the work. After comparing the similarities and differences between these characters, pertaining to their physical and metaphorical sight, we are able to draw conclusions on the subject that the playwright was attempting to assert; we can certainly see a prominence on issue of the difference between knowledge and understanding.