Oedipus Rex

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Tiresias Character Analysis

The blind prophet or seer. He knows that the terrible prophecy of Oedipus has already come true, but doesn't want to say what he knows. Only when Oedipus accuses him of treachery does Tiresias suggest that Oedipus himself is guilty of the murder of King Laius. He leaves Oedipus with a riddle that implies, plainly enough for the audience to understand, that Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother.

Tiresias Quotes in Oedipus Rex

The Oedipus Rex quotes below are all either spoken by Tiresias or refer to Tiresias. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Oedipus Rex published in 1982.
Lines 341-708 Quotes
Just send me home. You bear your burdens,
I'll bear mine. It's better that way,
please believe me.
Related Characters: Tiresias (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 364-366
Explanation and Analysis:

Tiresias comes to Oedipus to offer counsel on the plague. But when asked to share his wisdom, Tiresias asks to be allowed to depart without any comment.

As with the earlier scene, Oedipus here seems to bring his fate upon himself. By pressing Tiresias to tell him about the murderer of Laius, Oedipus is actively pursuing his own demise. Sophocles thus presents a division between the information held by prophets like Tiresias and its assimilation into the populace: his foresight seems to only come true when it is at last vocalized to Oedipus—for at that point it will become self-fulfilling prophecy. The text also implicitly cautions against the hubris of pursuing knowledge beyond one’s range of understanding, for Oedipus's tragic action is not so much the murder itself but rather his insistent wish to know the truth instead of just to “bear your burdens” in silence.

Furthermore, Tiresias seems capable of resisting this fate. He knows Oedipus’s true identity, but actively resists telling him of it—he acts, not like an oracle who would simply freely convey information. Sophocles thus makes Tiresias a character halfway between the divine and mortal realms: he has access to content beyond normal humans, but he is still privy to the human emotions of pity and anger—which dictate whether he will reveal what he has foreseen.

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Did you rise to the crisis? Not a word,
you and your birds, your gods—nothing.
No, but I came by, Oedipus the ignorant,
I stopped the Sphinx! With no help from the birds,
the flight of my own intelligence hit the mark.
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker), Tiresias
Page Number: 449-453
Explanation and Analysis:

Tiresias and Oedipus begin to fight, each insulting the other about the way they have been negligent of Thebes. Here, Oedipus reprimands Tiresias for not having intervened when Thebes was previously crippled by the Sphinx.

Oedipus juxtaposes the roles of divine and human intervention. He aligns Tiresias with “your birds, your gods”—the first which stands for auguries (observing the actions of birds to predict the future), the second which explicitly links him to the divine. But Oedipus claims ”nothing” came from this spiritual realm, whereas it was “Oedipus the ignorant” who was successful. His ignorance is set in contrast with the “help from the birds”—the foresight permitted by reading divine signs—and Oedipus thus implies that his “own intelligence” has merit even if it is not derived from divine prophecy. He was able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx through his own mental acuity alone, without the aid of the gods.

Oedipus's statement is actually quite blasphemous, for it elevates his human intelligence above divine providence. Again, he displays himself to be deeply proud, assuming that his previous accomplishments have given him a status that cannot be challenged by others, even the gods. This fault speaks, itself, to the limits of Oedipus’s “intelligence,” for while he may be shrewd and clever, he has no wisdom when dealing with others and thus cannot prevent his fate.

No man will ever
be rooted from the earth as brutally as you.
Related Characters: Tiresias (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 488-489
Explanation and Analysis:

Tiresias speaks these condemning lines as his argument with Oedipus escalates. He predicts that Oedipus will suffer a horrifying end to his life.

This language is actually remarkably similar to that used by Oedipus earlier in the play. Recall that Oedipus cursed the murderer of Laius to “drag out his life in agony, step by painful step,” which highlighted the way the killer would die slowly and in agony. That Tiresias evokes, similarly, the way Oedipus will die “brutally” reiterates how they are actually speaking about a single person: Oedipus is the murderer of Laius, whom he himself has cursed. Tiresias’s pronouncement is thus less a new prophecy than a reiteration of what Oedipus himself has already brought into motion.

It is a typical technique of Sophocles to have characters make similar pronouncements about people or events that they believe to be different, but are actually the same. It creates a dramatic irony in which the audience knows that Oedipus had cursed himself, just as Tiresias curses him here—even when Oedipus is unaware of this equivalence. The technique also further blurs the lines between human action and fate—for here Tiresias seems, as a divine figure, to bring about Oedipus’s destiny. But he only does so after Oedipus’s aggression has forced Tiresias to do so.

Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich,
he will grope his way toward a foreign soil,
a stick tapping before him step by step.
Related Characters: Tiresias (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 517-519
Explanation and Analysis:

After pronouncing that Oedipus will suffer a terrible end, Tiresias tells this riddle about the killer of Laius. He describes the pitiful way the killer’s life will end.

As is characteristic in the play, the elements of the prophecy will be easily recognized by anyone who knows the Oedipus story. “Blind who now has eyes” refers to the way Oedipus will gouge out his own eyes once he learns of his crimes, while “beggar who now is rich” foretells how he will fall swiftly from king to vagrant. As before, Tiresias uses Oedipus’s own language—“step by step”—from the king’s earlier curse on the killer of Laius. Here, Tiresias uses the phrase more literally to refer to the way Oedipus will, once he is blinded, move slowly away from Thebes as an outcast.

That Tiresias has left Oedipus with a riddle recalls the hero’s own triumph when he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. In a sense, Tiresias is offering a second test to Oedipus’s character: perhaps if he were able to solve this relatively straightforward riddle, he could avoid his fate. That he cannot do so speaks to how extensively Oedipus has been blinded by his pride—to the point that he cannot perform the same task that garnered him acclaim in Thebes to begin with. Sophocles thus renders Oedipus's tragic downfall the result of not just any character flaw, but rather one that undermines his defining heroic characteristic: intelligence.

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Tiresias Character Timeline in Oedipus Rex

The timeline below shows where the character Tiresias appears in Oedipus Rex. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lines 1-340
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
...anyone who defies his orders. The leader of the chorus suggests that Oedipus send for Tiresias, the blind seer. Oedipus announces that he has already done so. Soon, blind Tiresias arrives,... (full context)
Lines 341-708
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Oedipus asks Tiresias, the prophet, to help Thebes end the plague by guiding him to the murderers of... (full context)
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
Now angry, Oedipus accuses Tiresias of plotting to kill Laius. This upsets Tiresias, who tells Oedipus that Oedipus himself is... (full context)
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
Oedipus convinces himself that Creon has put Tiresias up to making these accusations in attempt to overthrow him. He mocks Tiresias's blindness and... (full context)
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Guilt and Shame Theme Icon
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
As the men continue to argue, Tiresias prophesies that Oedipus will know who his parents are by the end of the day,... (full context)
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon
Finding Out the Truth Theme Icon
Action vs. Reflection Theme Icon
...Creon tries to defend himself against the charges. He claims he has no idea what Tiresias was going to say, and has no desire to be king. He suggests that Oedipus... (full context)
Lines 709-997
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Jocasta asks how Oedipus's argument with Creon started. Oedipus tells her that Creon sent Tiresias to accuse Oedipus of Laius's death. Jocasta responds that Oedipus shouldn't worry about the seer's... (full context)