The first text of the year was, I admit, not one I was particularly enthusiastic about. As I read through the text, Oedipus’ unfolding tragedy (which I had learned about several times in the past) seemed to me as a foretold train wreck: a man who, curse upon curse, sealed his own destiny. However, looking at the play in a more analytical light allowed me to notice many interesting writing choices and themes that I would perhaps not have picked up reading aimed solely to uncover the plot. In a sense, knowing the outcome freed me from the burden of anticipation and curiosity, and allowed me to focus more on the words than on the story itself.
In Oedipus the King, many key sections of the play reference the motifs of light and darkness, as well as the associated motifs of seeing and blindness. Light represents not only seeing and the related aspect knowing, but also peace and happiness. On the other hand, darkness is closely linked with blindness and the inability to see the truth. However, light is not synonymous to seeing, nor is darkness exactly the same as blindness. Light also seems to represent divine influence, in particular the actions of Apollo, who is associated with light and the sun. Seeing is shown as the ability to find knowledge and the truth; yet this is contradicted by the ironical differences between Teresius, the blind prophet who knows everything, and Oedipus, the man who can see with his eyes but not with his mind. Darkness is intertwined with Oedipus’ self-blinding, yet also hangs over his future, obscuring the truth from him and the Chorus until the dramatic reveal at the end of the play. Blindness leaves Oedipus a crippled and dependent man, but it causes him to see the arrogance of his ways.
“LIGHT LIGHT LIGHT
never again flood these eyes with your white radiance, oh
gods, my eyes.” (Lines 1491-1493)
Throughout the play, the Chorus and Oedipus describe their reverence to the sun, and comment on its relation to the events. As the sky clears, they perceive this as a good omen, and it raises their hopes for the mystery of the murdered king. Ironically, the sun is what casts this darkness on Oedipus’ life. Apollo, the god of the sun, brings light to each day, but also brings down this horrible fate on Oedipus. Strangely, Oedipus acknowledges that his life has been ruined by the gods, yet he continues to speak of them highly and does not seem to resent their influence, instead bringing the blame onto the shepherd who had spared his life. Perhaps his self-blinding was an action not only to prove his control over at least something in his life, as he declares to the Chorus, but also to banish Apollo’s influence, represented by light (and seeing)?
“All he had, all this man was,
pulled down and swallowed by the storm of his own life,
and by the god.” (lines 1983-1985)
But is Apollo really the one to blame for the king’s misery? Are the gods and fate, external factors beyond mortal control, the ones who created this tragedy? Oedipus claims that he was cursed because of the hate of the gods, but was it really their actions, or was it all just coincidence and mortal folly? An interesting point that was brought up in the discussion was that Sophocles was one of the later Greek philosophers who questioned complete devotion to the gods. Is the play a testament to the unyielding law of the gods, or is it highlighting the inability of humans to trust their own judgements and actions? Could it be that Oedipus and his parents’ efforts to avoid the prophecy, which paradoxically ended up dooming them, be Sophocles’ criticism of those who trust the words of the divine?