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In Sophocles's play Oedipus Rex, when Tiresias speaks, he speaks the truth. Why doesn't Oedipus accept the story that Tiresias tells?
Various answers to this question suggest themselves, including the following:
- At first Oedipus suspects that Tiresias may be disloyal to Thebes (382-85).
- He also suspects Tiresias of disloyalty to himself (Oedipus; 395).
- He accuses Tiresias of “stubbornness” (402).
- He accuses Tiresias of insulting Thebes (407).
- He even suspects Tiresias of having helped to plan Laius’s death:
I get the feeling you conspired in the act,
and played your part, as much as you could do,
short of killing him with your own hands. (413-15)
Given the fact that Oedipus has already accused Tiresias of being unpatriotic, personally disloyal, stubborn, disrespectful to Thebes, and partly responsible for the death of Laius, it is not surprising that he is unwilling to believe Tiresias when the latter finally reveals that Oedipus himself was the murderer of Laius. Tiresias several times accuses Oedipus of having an uncontrolled temper (402-04; 409-10), and surely this temper also helps explain why Oedipus rejects Tiresias’s revelations about Oedipus himself.
Once Tiresias makes his personal revelations about Oedipus, Oedipus repeats many of the same suspicions and charges he had already leveled against the old man. He says, for instance,
- that Tiresias is a liar (445-46).
- that Tiresias has been bribed by Creon (464).
- that Tiresias is untalented (473-75)
During the course of his argument with Tiresias, Oedipus reveals that he himself is arrogant, easy to angry, and greatly irrational. These defects in his personality are some of the reasons he rejects the old man’s revelations, but other reasons involve his assumptions that Tiresias himself is afflicted with all the defects of character outlined above. Ironically, Oedipus’s suspicions about the alleged flaws in Tiresias’s character help reveal the flaws in Oedipus himself.
-- Ian Johnston translation (see link below).
Tiresias is informing Oedipus of an unimaginably terrible situation: not only is he responsible for the divine plagues that have been visited upon Thebes (when, as its ruler, he should be the lord and protector of the city), but the way in which he is responsible--his parricide and subsequent incestuously reproductive relationship with his mother--breaks just about every moral code the Greeks held. How could Oedipus accept that story? He would be admitting that he is the worst sinner possible. Of course he immediately rejects what Tiresias has to say.
Moreover, because he is a human being who must find some way to rationalize why Tiresias would charge him with such a reprehensible (albeit unintentional) series of acts, Oedipus is immediately aggressive. He accuses Tiresias of conspiring with Creon to remove him from the Theban throne because, quite frankly, that is the most plausible explanation for what the blind prophet has been saying. If only to protect himself as a man--let alone to safeguard his dignity and honor as a ruler--Oedipus strikes out and refuses to even consider the possibility that Tiresias is giving him an awful truth.
Sophocles' genius in the play is at least partly demonstrated in his ability to so neatly place into opposition two elements that usually work in conjunction with each other: truth and honor. Oedipus is absolutely a man of honor, as witnessed by his absolute devotion to the city that adopted him and gave him honor. When he learns that Thebes is suffering because of the sin of someone in the city, he is determined to uncover the source of the corruption, exact retribution, and earn redemption. The great irony, of course, is that he himself is the target of divine justice, and his ruthless quest for the truth exposes himself to the greatest dishonor.
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