Explain what Tiresias means by his first statement to Oedipus. "How terrible to know/ when it does not help the knower."

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sfwriter eNotes educator| Certified Educator

 "Alas, alas! How terrible to know/ when it does not help the knower;"  In some other translations the line reads "Oh Fate!  How terrible it is to know/ when nothing good can come of knowing." (Treasury 37)  This is an example of the Greek dramatist's complete willingness to "give away the ending" of a play to the audience, effectively killing any suspense.  Tiresias, the blind man who can see the future, is telling us what will happen by the end of the play.  Since the tragedy of this play is that Oedipus unknowingly killed his father and then married his own mother, Jocasta, knowing these facts would not help Oedipus in the least.  The knowledge, when it comes out, leads to disaster, with Jocasta killing herself, Oedipus blinding himself, and Oedipus leaving his motherless children behind. Tiresias' statement is not only a revelation of the plot, but is a interesting commentary on morality.  If a person does not know that he or she is committing a heinous crime (such as patricide or incest,) is that crime of the same magnitude as it would have been if undertaken with full knowledge?  Is the revelation of that knowledge necessarily a right action if it only compounds the evil, without expiating it?  The answer is not given in the play -- it is up to the reader to decide.

Source: Treasury of Theatre, University of California Press, 1951

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Teiresias initially enters the scene, Kind Oedipus praises his wisdom and tells him that Thebes is in his hands if he can help reveal the man who killed King Laius. Teiresias responds by saying, "How terrible to know when it does not help the knower" (Sophocles, 347-348). Teiresias then insists that King Oedipus allow him to leave, because his wisdom will only cause pain. Teiresias's quote refers to the fact that his knowledge will harm King Oedipus. King Oedipus is not aware that he is responsible for the terrible plague that is ruining Thebes. He is also unaware that he killed King Laius at the triple crossroads while he was traveling from Corinth to Thebes in an attempt to avoid his destiny. King Oedipus is also unaware that his wife, Jocasta, is also his mother at the beginning of the play. The blind prophet Teiresias knows that this information will ruin King Oedipus's life, which is why he initially tells the king that the knowledge he possesses will not help him. Teiresias's comment also foreshadows the disastrous ending of the play, which results in Jocasta's suicide and King Oedipus leaving Thebes to wander as a blind exile.