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The genius of Sophocles’ Oedipus Plays is enriched through the many levels of interpretation that can be explored by each individual reader. One major area left open for interpretation is sight. It is divided into two categories, “physical” sight and “non-physical” sight. Physical sight is the event itself as it occurs in the story, while non-physical sight is the knowledge of a specific event. Throughout the Oedipus Plays, non-physical sight has a more dramatic effect on the characters than physical sight.
Oedipus’ actions during his youth are dictated by his fear of prophecy (or non-physical sight). Oedipus leaves his home in hopes of outwitting the gods and escaping his fate, therefore saving him from the horrors that have been predicted. Despite his best efforts, he still fulfills his fate, marrying his mother and slaying his father. Oedipus’ ignorance about the fact that the prophecy has come to pass wraps the city of Thebes in a blanket of irony. To the citizens of Thebes, he is “a most respected king,” called “Oedipus the Great.” The people respect Oedipus and look to him for help because he is “who disenthralled us from the Sphinx” (pg 6). When Thebes is slipping into ruin, they come to him begging, “We plead with you to find for us a cure”(pg 6). The irony in the people’s pleas is significant in that it demonstrates how they perceive Oedipus before they know who he truly is. It represents his place in their society prior to the realization of non-physical sight.
Physical sight, in contrast, is available to nearly every character. This is especially true for Queen Jocasta, who notices the resemblance between her late husband and Oedipus. She describes her late husband to Oedipus as “tall, the first soft bloom of silver in his hair; in form, not far removed from yours.” The similarities are disturbing to the reader, but not to Jocasta. She uses physical sight, but her ignorance of the fact that she has bedded her son allows her to go on. When pronounced hints surface during a conversation with Jocasta, Oedipus states, “My queen, each word that strikes my ear has shattered peace, struck my very soul.”
Oedipus is “his children’s father and their brother, son and husband to his mother, bed-rival to his father and assassin.” Yet Oedipus is unaware of this fact until years into his marriage. When he finally realizes the truth, his reaction is fierce: he feels a shame no man should know, and alerts all of Thebes to his misery by blinding himself with these words, “Lost! Ah lost! At last it’s blazing clear. Light of my days, go dark.” This is also true for Jocasta, who “burst into the palace, running through the doors demented, she made for the bridal bed, plunging her fingers through her hair and slamming shut the door behind her.” This is one of the most dramatic moments in the Oedipus Plays, and is directly inspired by the recognition that incest has taken place. Both Jocasta’s and Oedipus’ reactions are evidence that the knowledge of the great sin they committed has a more dramatic effect than the act itself.
This statement is not limited to “Oedipus the King”: it is also true of both “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone.” In “Oedipus at Colonus,” Antigone becomes a very different person from her sister and brothers. She stays by her father’s side, graceful because of her non-physical sight. She states, “Poor father! Poor wayworn Oedipus!” The fact that she also speaks to her brother does not bother her. She feels pity for Oedipus because she carries with her the knowledge of all of his trials. The event itself does not change Antigone’s life, but her knowledge of it makes her unique. Even though she is a woman, she defies her king and chooses martyrdom. The contrast between Antigone and Ismene reveals just how singular Antigone is as a result of her visionary capabilities.
In “Antigone,” Creon is hateful to his son because he wants Antigone for a bride. To Creon, she is a “creature.” Antigone, however, stubbornly refuses to follow Creon’s edict. She feels that what she did is above any king’s law, because her actions obey the rules of the gods. Creon sentences her to die for her insubordination, and is unmoved by his son’s love for his bride-to-be: “She is poison. Spit her out. Let her go and find a mate in Hades.” Creon refuses to listen to his son’s desperate pleas or to Antigone, and even ignores the consensus among the citizens of Thebes. The only form of sight that causes him to change his mind about Antigone’s sentence is prophecy. A leader states, “Son of Menoeceus, be advised in time,” to which Creon replies, “To do what? Tell me, I shall listen.” The non-physical sight offered through prophecy affects the character more than any event laid out before his eyes.
The reason non-physical sight has a more dramatic effect on the characters of Sophocles Oedipus Plays is because physical sight can be examined with the eyes and humbled with words. Though it is clear to Jocasta that Oedipus bears an eerie resemblance to her late husband, she remains unconvinced. The reason for this is because she allows her own words and the words of others to minimize the probability that Oedipus is her son. Pride can often stand in the way of clear sight. When a prophecy is finally realized, non-physical sight achieves its full strength, deeply impacting the characters, the readers, and the outcome of the story.
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