At the beginning of the play Oedipus the King is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles and was first performed in 429 BCE. It is second in the line of Sophocles’s three Theban plays and features Oedipus as a brave, young protagonist. Oedipus was cursed since birth and saw his downfall due to fate and his own rash actions. The fate of Oedipus was first brought before the audience by the wise Tiresias. It was this blind prophet who made veiled comments about Oedipus’ parentage and his misdeeds in the direction of his biological parents. In this sense, the meeting of Oedipus and Tiresias is vitally important.
Oedipus’ original encounter with Tiresias at the beginning of the play is of great value. One is the clear-eyed popular king of Thebes who has solved the riddle of Sphinx and provided freedom to his state while the other is the all knowledgeable blind oracle. Thebes is suffering from plague and Oedipus sends Creon, his brother in law to the Delphi based oracle to know the cause of this plague and find its possible cure. In fact, distressed by the oracle’s pronouncement that the plague will only end if the murderer of Laius, the former king is banished from the state, Oedipus sends for the blind prophet. Thus, we are greeted by Tiresias who is led by a young boy.
Oedipus is initially quite concerned about his countrymen. The nation is struggling with plague and he finds no way to resolve it. Hence, understanding the power of the blind oracle, Oedipus begs some insight from him. However, Tiresias is not ready to delve the information as to the identity of the real murderer and directs the king to abandon his pursuit. This enrages Oedipus who believes that the prophet is plotting against him. Oedipus also verbally attacks the prophet for his physical blindness. However, prophet is a powerful person and laughs at the king speaking instead of insight that the king lacks in spite of his physical eyesight Even when the Oracle directly accuses the king of the murder and speaks in riddles that murderer of Laius will turn out to be both brother and father to his children, both son and husband to his mother.
He shall be proved the brother and the sire,
Of her who bare him son and husband both,
Co-partner, and assassin of his sire. (lines 507- 509)
Oedipus is unable to guess the truth and his thoughts just get muddled up and he decides that the Oracle must be a conspirator along with Creon.
The arrival of Tiresias indicates an essential twist in the plot. Moreover, the blindness of Tiresias functions in augmenting the intense irony that directs the tragedy. The oracle lacks eyesight, yet the truth is clear before him. On the other hand, Oedipus with his bright eyesight is unable to comprehend something that lies straight in front of him. Oedipus is eager to discern the reality, but Tiresias in his wisdom sees that truth would only succeed in bringing pain. In fact, it is an irony that Oedipus was able to solve the riddle of Sphinx but is unable to fathom the riddles of Tiresias in spite of the clear annotations and his knowledge of his prophetic past. Hence, in an ironic way, the dialogue between Tiresias and Oedipus is packed with allusions to vision and eyes.
Tiresias riddles only act in making Oedipus angrier and the protagonist derides the oracle for his blindness. Here the king is befuddling physical sight with vision or understanding. The Oracle equals the king in his verbal attacks and mocks him for his eyes which are unable to reveal to him the very important truth.
Here, the distinguishing quickness of Oedipus’s words, deeds and thoughts are shown in poor light and they contradict the earlier positive qualities of the ruler. On the arrival of Oracle at line 340, the king admires him as a supreme prophet who has sheltered Thebes from countless plagues.
Teiresias, a seer who comprehendest all,
Lore of the wise and hidden mysteries, (line 340, 341)
However, after forty lines we find the protagonist referring to the prophet as “scum,” Shortly he also accuses the fortune-teller of treachery. Here we find the king acting in an absurd manner by contradicting all his words. He is quick in making a judgment but does not stick to them. Although Tiresias tries to reveal the truth through simple riddles, Oedipus is unable to interpret them and his pursuit for facts simply strive for confirming the facts that he already believes.
The scene is significant both in itself and in the larger light of the play. Here the audience is made acquainted with Tiresias and is prepared for the future revelation. Oedipus is shown in poor light as a rash, contradictory individual who is unable to see the plain truth even when presented clearly before him. He is shown as an immature individual who does not think of his former theories and beliefs. On the other hand, Tiresias is shown as a wise old man who has inherent wisdom and insight. He is aware of the cause of the downfall of the kingdom and yet he forbids informing the king in spite of all the threats and accusations. He leaves the stage leaving the chorus in confusion.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Translated by F. Storr.