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The drama of the final segment of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex is heightened when Oedipus blinds himself.
Because the Greeks believed that one could not alter his or her fate, there is already a sense of impending tragedy as Oedipus struggles to find the criminal who has brought the city of Thebes to its knees with plagues, famine and fires. Oedipus is relentless in searching for the man who has harmed his city; he has vowed to find and punish him. Oedipus is a man of moral and ethical character. Not only does he know the difference between right and wrong, but he is also not afraid to act upon what he believes.
The audience sees what kind of character Oedipus is when he hears the prophecy surrounding him and leaves King Polybus of Corinth, to save the man that Oedipus believes is his father. He is a brave man as well: he faces the dreadful Sphinx, solves its riddle and releases Thebes from the clutches of the monster.
The dramatic action of the play increases when Oedipus sends Creon to find out more about the disasters that have befallen Thebes. Oedipus believes Creon is trying to discredit him. Tiersias, the blind prophet of Apollo, tries to avoid telling Oedipus the truth—Oedipus (out of character) insults the old man. Eventually Tiersias says he will not leave without telling what he has come to share:
That man, whom you have long sought,
threatening him and naming as the murderer
of Laius, that man is here. (472-474)
Tiresias predicts that the man he speaks of will learn a harsh truth, will lose all he has, and will blindly wander the earth.
An immigrant in theory, soon he will be
revealed a native Theban, though he will not be
happy to learn it; for blind instead of seeing,
a beggar instead of rich he will travel
foreign earth, tapping it with his staff. (475-479)
One who does not know the story might wonder if the blind prophet speaks of the fugitive's sightlessness in refusing to "see" the truth, or of literally suffering the loss of sight.
"Sight" is referred to several times. The play moves toward the exposure of what Oedipus soon begins to suspect. In learning of what Laius (his real father) looked like, he suspects that he did kill his father; he laments that the prophet was truly able to "see" the truth—
I am terribly afraid the prophet can see. (775)
Oedipus calls for the slave that was with Laius when he died— Oedipus wants to "see" him.
By the time the play ends, the audience has gradually received more and more information that seems to lead to the eventual exposure of Oedipus' murder of his father and marriage to his mother. Oedipus' sense of abhorrence for what he has done is almost too much for him to bear. Jocasta takes her life, and it is with Jocasta's brooches (jeweled pins) that Oedipus blinds himself. He denounces his place on the throne and bids his daughters farewell. He begs Thebes to treat them kindly, so that they might not suffer for his sins.
Oedipus' action of blinding himself seems in keeping with the level of revulsion the Greek audience would have felt for the horrific deeds he has unknowingly taken part in. Blinding by his own hand shows Oedipus' terrible guilt and grief, and enhances drama surrounding the tragic circumstances that ultimately destroy him.
Simply put, it heightens dramatic effect because Oedipus is NOT DEAD. Tragic formula insists on collecting heads,andOedipus Rexdoes not dissapoint - Laius and Jocasta are indeed dead prior to play's end, but not Oedipus. And this is the guy that denied fate and went forth to become a hero...ha!
The prospect of blindness is not something that can be ignored in this work, because of its metaphorical implications. Why is it that the only one that can clearly sense fate is the blind guy? Tiresias warns all involved that the Oracle at Delphi will come true, and everyone just believes they can skirt around the issue. It makes Oedipus seem proud, cocky, and dumb...after hearing the same message a few different times, who wouldn't ask a man to simply shut up? The point is that Tiresias knew what was coming for everyone involved, and that one message forced Oedipus to 'blind' himself with what he chose to believe - that he was greater than fate, that he was greater than what the gods had lain out for him.
However, we all know how that story goes - a story perpetuated as old as time - that what comes around, goes around. An audience is enthralled by Sophocles' overtly obtuse and deliberate use of dramatic irony, sitting there, waiting for Oedipus to finally realize that he has committed the sins of all sins: patricide and maternal incest. This use of dramatic irony, dependent on the reader's knowledge of the myth, leads to this question: How does he feel now that he's found out? What's he gonna do? So yeah, he takes his wife's broaches and blinds himself with the pins. Gruesome, indeed, but a first step in the only kind of redemption that he has left. He is a shameful figure, and can only be pitied by the likes of those that remain after the destruction of Thebes, but he can now see everything...just like Tiresias. The drama comes to its pinnacle when Oedipus can finally 'see'.
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