Darkness and Light in “Oedipus Rex”

April 17, 2007 by aaron

The only ones who can truly see are blind. This is a popular theme through out Greek literature, especially in “Oedipus Rex” where Sophocles nurtures the idea that real sight does not require eyes but the ability to see beyond the surface of things. According to Sophocles, one must not only be able to see something, but one must also be able to understand it. Teiresias, the only physically blind character, is the only person that throughout the play can actually see what has, is and will happen. Oedipus himself only truly achieves this state of knowledge after he blinds himself with his mother’s/wife’s broach. Light and darkness (sight and blindness) takes on three different forms throughout the play, the first form refers to knowledge, the second to physical light and the third to truth; the three forms are used interchangeably and they occasionally refer to multiple interpretations at the same time.

The first form of light and darkness is knowledge; this is the representation of the characters ability to see beyond the surface of things and to truly understand them. The very first example of this is spoken by Oedipus at the beginning of the play when he says, “I must bring what is dark to light” in reference to the mystery of Laios’ death. This is the first and most obvious example, and it sets the stage for the use of light and darkness to represent knowledge throughout the remainder of the play. Repeatedly, Sophocles refers to the fact that Oedipus is blind to the truth just as Teiresias is blind to the world. Teiresias charges Oedipus, “but I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind!” he makes the reference not to his physical state but to his mental state. Teiresias also says: “you do not even know the blind wrongs you have done” referring to Oedipus’s unknown incestuous relationship and the murder of his father. To be blind could also mean unknowingly done or forgotten. The knowledge that is lacking from most of the play is the knowledge of one’s self. Oedipus is obviously intelligent but he lacks the knowledge of his past which, for the Greeks, meant he also had no future. Oedipus was able to answer the Sphinx’s riddle because he was intelligent enough to detect the undertones of the question, that morning, noon and night referred to the stages of a man’s life not a literal day. Yet Oedipus was unable to detect the undertones of his own life: he was blind to the many clues and hints to his origin. The lack of knowledge is the path to his downfall, for all of his intelligence he was unwilling to step aside and follow the advice of those who knew what was happening.

The use of light and darkness to represent truth is also an important part of the play. The first example is when Oedipus says to Teiresias as they argue: “You child of endless night! You cannot hurt me or any other man who sees the sun”; in response, Teiresias just says “True.” Oedipus’s claim is not that Teiresias would be unable to hurt of kill him because of his blindness but rather that he cannot hurt Oedipus with his falsehoods. This exchange can be restated as Oedipus calling Teiresias a liar and Teiresias retorting by saying that if he was lying, Oedipus would be able to tell if Oedipus actually knew the truth. Although in the beginning of the play Oedipus denies Teiresias’s accusations, later as he begins to comprehend the events surrounding his birth he say: “I’m not sure that the blind man cannot see.” Oedipus is not referring to physical blindness but admitting that Teiresias may actually be telling him the truth. Sophocles use of light and darkness to portray truth would not have been seen as metaphorical to his original audience as it is seen today, but would have been part of the lexicon of his contemporaries.

The physical blindness of Oedipus is the outward display of his prior inner state, unable to see the world around him for what it really was. When Oedipus eventually blinded himself, he fulfilled the numerous prophecies in which Teiresias declared that Oedipus in which Teiresias declared that Oedipus wold become as blind as Oedipus had declared as Oedipus had declared Teiresias to be. In the beginning of the play as Oedipus argues with Teiresias. Oedipus says, “You sightless, senseless, witless old man!” In response, Teiresias makes his first prophecy: “there is no one here who will not be cursed you soon, as you curse me.” Teiresias second prophecy occurs as he is leaving the palace and calls Oedipus a “A blind man, who has his eyes now.” Upon the death of his wife/mother, as Oedipus blinds himself, he says “Too long been blind to those for whom I was searching from this hour go into darkness!” He speaks of both knowledge and physical blindness. He blinded himself in an attempt to return to the darkness in which he had previously lived, for although he had before lacked knowledge of himself, his life was peaceful. Upon blinding himself, he was able to return to a state where he could not see the evil he lived in and the misery he caused.

After Oedipus realizes the truth, but before Oedipus rushes into the palace, he says “O light, may I look upon you for the last time.” The light he speaks of refers to several things: light in a physical sense as he has already cursed himself to be blinded, light as in goodness because this is his last moment before knowing all the evil he committed, and finally the light of knowledge as he sees the meaning of all that came before.

The three forms of light and darkness take on an extremely important role in the play and almost become another character. The subtle use of the words in their different forms give the reader subtle hints about the truth of the play. Sophocles weaves an extremely well-portrayed story in which he declares that just because a ruler can see the world around him, it does not guarantee that the ruler understands what is happening, and, in turn, that kings are not all-knowing: they are just men.

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