Sophocles makes frequent use of seafaring imagery in his Oedipus the King, creating new perspectives from which to view its characters and cities. Oedipus tells the story of a king undone by a lack of faith in prophesy, the king of a people in need of spiritual rescue. Arrogant Oedipus is reduced to a wretch of a man as his awful marriage to his mother is revealed, but his city is saved in proportion. Seafaring imagery recurs throughout Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, primarily in the manifestation of Thebes as a ship and Oedipus as its helmsman; this reveals important themes of spiritual decay, Oedipus’ arrogance and blindness, and the inescapability of fate.
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Early in the play, Sophocles establishes the metaphor of Thebes as a ship. The audience finds the once-stable city plagued and on the brink of destruction. “King, you yourself / have seen our city reeling like a wreck / already; it can scarcely lift its prow / out of the depths, out of the bloody surf,” a priest tells Oedipus at the outset. Sophocles sees Thebes as spiritually bankrupt. Thebes the ship, then, is lacking in structural integrity, and threatens to collapse and sink. Sophocles describes Thebes’ situation: “Our sorrows defy number / all the ship’s timbers are rotten; / taking of thought is no spear for the driving away of the plague.” The vessel’s foundation of spirituality weakens at two crucial junctures, first at the hands of Oedipus and then Jocasta. When Oedipus summons Teiresias to reveal the identity of Laius’ murderer, the prophet speaks in riddles, angering Oedipus; the argument boils until he lobs this salvo: “[The truth] has no strength / for you because you are blind in mind and ears / as well as in your eyes.” This is the king’s rejection of the old man’s ability to know the future. In insulting Teiresias, Oedipus insults the gods by extension, for it is they who have given blind Teiresias the ability to interpret the past and predict the future like no other man. Jocasta also contributes to the spiritual emptiness of Thebes further weakening the structure of the ship when she denies prophets’ ability to speak for the gods:
Why should man fear since chance is all in all for him, and he can clearly foreknow nothing? Best to live lightly, as one can, unthinkingly. As to your mother’s marriage bed, don’t fear it. Before this, in dreams too, as well as oracles, many a man has lain with his own mother. But he to whom such things are nothing bears his life most easily.
Oedipus and Jocasta’s rejection of spirituality signals similar emptiness in the city as a whole. Thebes will continue to suffer, the gods decree, until Oedipus pays for his transgressions.
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The episode in which Oedipus insults Teiresias reveals a fundamental problem of Oedipus’: the arrogance and blindness (which, from the perspective of his insult match with Teiresias, is ironic) that will ultimately lead to the discovery of his true nature and his downfall. Oedipus’ stubborn refusal to acknowledge any opinion contrary to his own and denial of his true identity which, in light of emerging evidence, becomes increasingly indisputable steadily reduces his authority as captain of the ship of Thebes. Confidence in Oedipus-as-helmsman erodes as the tale of Laius’ death intertwines with Oedipus’ personal history. The similarities that result for example, that Jocasta bound her son’s feet and that the name “Oedipus” refers to his own feet being bound aggregate until they mutate from coincidences to proofs that Oedipus has fulfilled the prophecy and killed his father and slept with his mother. The leap (from funny coincidences to irrefutable proofs) is not large (the perceptive audience will make it long before Oedipus does) and the king looks foolish and stupid for not realizing the awful truth. A ship cannot sail if its passengers do not believe in their captain. This weaker, incompetent Oedipus is the opposite of the capable, confident man who helmed the city at the start of the play. “If you will rule this land, as now you rule it, / better to rule it full of men than empty,” the priest warns Oedipus. “For neither tower nor ship is anything / when empty, and none live in it together.” That the chorus never exits the stage in the course of the play that Oedipus is constantly surrounded by his subjects reminds us that what happens to him personally has ramifications for the city as well. Thus, while Oedipus is learning the nature of his relationship with his mother and becoming a wretch of a man, the ship of Thebes is losing its helmsman.
Oedipus’ blindness conjures images of a ship at sea without instruments, its captain refusing to use the stars for navigation, allowing the weather (fate) to toss it unpredictably about. Oedipus’ loss of control stands in stark relief to his image in the opening lines of the play powerful, purposeful, so in tune with his subjects that he anticipates their needs; he was once able to deliver the city to safe harbors in similar times of hardship, as when he answered the riddle of the Sphinx and saved the city. No longer. Ultimately, real control rests with fate and the gods. No matter how good a king Oedipus may be, he cannot rescue Thebes from the plague (i.e., find a safe harbor) if the gods do not consent. “It is murder guilt / which holds our city in this destroying storm.” The imagery of Thebes’ plight as a storm holding a ship hostage relates to a final theme of Oedipus the King: the inescapability of fate. Oedipus was aware of his fate and attempted to avoid it, and for this he was punished.
Seafaring imagery recurs throughout Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, most notably in the manifestation of Oedipus as the helmsman of Thebes the ship; this reveals important themes of spiritual decay, Oedipus’ arrogance and blindness, and the inescapability of fate. Reconciling the play’s conclusion with the seafaring perspective yields an interpretation of Oedipus’ blinding as repair and rescue. The plague has been lifted, and the strength of the Theban “timbers” builds as the city is restored to harmony with the gods. Oedipus, once blind to the truth but having literal sight, now has the opposite. The gods have been satisfied, and the city of Thebes has reached another safe harbor.
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