In Sophocles's play Oedipus Rex, when Tiresias does speak, 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)
(The entire section contains 311 words.)
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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.