Oedipus Rex

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Oedipus Rex, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Sight vs. Blindness Theme Icon

When Oedipus publicly declares his intention to solve the mystery of King Laius's murder, he says, "I'll start again—I'll bring it all to light myself." Oedipus's vision and intelligence have made him a great king of Thebes—he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and revitalized the city. But he is blind to the truth about his own life. It takes the blind prophet, Tiresias, to point out his ignorance and to plant the first seeds of doubt in Oedipus's mind. When Oedipus mocks Tiresias's blindness, Tiresias predicts that Oedipus himself will soon be blind. And indeed, when Oedipus learns the full story—that he has killed his father and married his mother—he gouges out his eyes. He learns the nature of fate and the power of the gods, but at a great cost. And though he is blinded, he has learned to see something he could not see before.

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Sight vs. Blindness Quotes in Oedipus Rex

Below you will find the important quotes in Oedipus Rex related to the theme of Sight vs. Blindness.
Lines 1-340 Quotes
Here I am myself—
you all know me, the world knows my fame:
I am Oedipus.
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker)
Page Number: 7-9
Explanation and Analysis:

In the play’s opening lines, Oedipus introduces himself with this flourishing pronouncement. He accentuates how all those he speaks to would already know of him.

Oedipus’s language is a somewhat jesting take on a traditional character introduction. First he declines to give his name, saying just “I am myself,” which stresses the singularity and importance of his identity. Then, saying “you all know me,” he establishes that this “myself” needs no introduction for the priests in his attendance. When he qualifies this point saying, “the world knows my fame,” he expands his notoriety beyond just the immediate group to refer to a more universal renown. Only at the end of the passage does he finally speak his name, implying that it is relatively less important than the social identity constructed through his prestige. Sophocles immediately establishes the fact that Oedipus is already a celebrated hero: this tragedy will tell not of his epic ascent but rather of his tragic fall. These lines also have a second layer of significance directed toward the audience: at Sophocles’ time, Greek citizens would have been well acquainted with Oedipus’s story, so when Oedipus says “you all know me,” he is referring to both characters in the play and real viewers outside of it. Though modern readers or theater-goers come to the story of Oedipus primarily through Sophocles’ work, the myth was already an important part of Greek culture and mythology by the time Sophocles was writing. This fact is important to keep in mind when analyzing how Sophocles designs the dramatic action: the actual conclusion of Oedipus’s story would already be known for a Greek audience, and thus the merit of the play came from how it could best treat the tension leading up to that realization.

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Now my curse on the murderer. Whoever he is,
a lone man unknown in his crime
or one among many, let that man drag out
his life in agony, step by painful step—
Related Characters: Oedipus (speaker)
Page Number: 280-283
Explanation and Analysis:

Having learned that the plague is a punishment for the murder of Laius, Oedipus here condemns the killer. He spitefully demands that his life be drawn out in extended pain rather than lived freely or ended quickly.

For an audience familiar with the Oedipus story, these lines unwittingly predict the tragic hero’s fate. Oedipus highlights how the actual identity of the murderer does not matter to him, whether he has committed many crimes before or whether this is his first. The phrase “unknown in his crime” implies that the murderer may not even be aware of what he has done, which is the precise situation in which Oedipus finds himself. That Oedipus’s curse demands he “drag out his life in agony” speaks to a certain type of vengeful cruelty: the victim is not supposed to merely receive punishment or death, but rather experience a torturous decline (as Oedipus himself will).

This passage brings up a point of much contention in analyses of this play: does Oedipus bring his fate upon himself? Here, the protagonist seems to have cursed himself and demanded his own torturous death—which would make the play’s plot his own fault. In this case, Oedipus is not just at the whims of destiny and the gods, but rather lives a tragic life due to human action and free will. The tension between these two poles—fate and human agency—remains a central problem to the play, and it begins already in this famous curse.

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.

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.

But whether a mere man can know the truth,
whether a seer can fathom more than I—
there is no test, no certain proof
though matching skill for skill
a man can outstrip a rival. No, not till I see
these charges proved will I side with his accusers....
Never will I convict my king, never in my heart.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 563-572
Explanation and Analysis:

After Tiresias and Oedipus have finished fighting, the chorus expresses their sympathy for the king. They acknowledge the power of oracles, but also refuse to accept Tiresias's judgement until it has been proved certain.

The chorus challenges Tiresias, as Oedipus did before, on whether he does indeed profess prophetic powers above those of humans. They wonder “whether a seer can fathom more than I,” thus expressing a deep-seated skepticism with oracles. Like Oedipus, they want the proof of “matching skill for skill”—an even playing field, such as when Oedipus proved his strength and intelligence against the Sphinx. Perhaps the chorus, composed as it is by residents of Thebes, has been influenced by Oedipus’s more secular and humanist sensibilities, which prioritize human agency over the will of the gods. Indeed, they seem willing to defend Oedipus to great lengths when they say “Never will I convict my king, never in my heart.” That is to say, the chorus is willing to deny explicit evidence against Oedipus due to their strong attachment to him as a ruler.

This passage also marks the chorus as distinctly ignorant rather than omniscient. They play the role of an audience that is not already intimately aware of the story of Oedipus—and thus they allow viewers to compare their own knowledge against what a more ignorant viewer might assume. This strategy is part of what allows Sophocles to re-stage an old tale and maintain dramatic tension, for he can maintain the semblance of unfamiliarity in the perspective of the chorus.

Lines 709-997 Quotes
You who set our beloved land—storm-tossed, shattered—
straight on course. Now again, good helmsman,
steer us through the storm!
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 765-767
Explanation and Analysis:

In the wake of Oedipus’s fight with Creon, the chorus continues to defend their ruler. They repeatedly call upon him to save them from the current plague.

Sophocles underlines, once more, how fully the populace of Thebes has aligned themselves with Oedipus. Though they do diverge from his viewpoints at times—for instance urging a merciful treatment of Creon—their general view is entirely sympathetic to him. Here, the chorus again brings up the way Oedipus had previously saved their “beloved land,” this time making use of a sailing metaphor, in which the plague is a “storm” and their ruler a “good helmsman.” The image presents composure and good judgment as the necessary qualities to save Thebes—both of which Oedipus is, of course, lacking at this point. Yet the chorus seems unaware of this discrepancy. That they simply continue to implore Oedipus speaks to their own sort of blindness—for they, like their ruler, cannot tell that he acts unjustly and will thus bring tragedy upon himself.

Listen to me and learn some peace of mind:
no skill in the world,
nothing human can penetrate the future.
Related Characters: Jocasta (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 780-782
Explanation and Analysis:

Jocasta gives this consoling speech after Oedipus recounts his interaction with Tiresias. She claims that prophets have no real knowledge of events to come, and that Oedipus therefore should not be disturbed by what Tiresias has said.

These lines make a sharp division between the human and divine realms: Jocasta associates “skill” with “human,” both of which contrast with the providence of the “future.” Much like Oedipus praised his intelligence over the bird auguries of Tiresias, Jocasta claims that human skill can only affect the current state of affairs and cannot “penetrate” or enter any zone beyond that of the present. Though this appeal might strike some as disheartening, it would grant “peace of mind” to Oedipus and Jocasta by denying the significance of the prophecies they have heard thus far. That is to say, it would allow them to exist in their human realm without the anxiety that they should change their actions to respond to the unique “skill” of Tiresias.

It is important to clarify here that Jocasta is not denying the existence or providence of the gods. This is not an atheistic passage, but rather one that sharply delineates between divine and earthly realms. Her claim is that mediums such as Tiresias do not actually bridge the gap between the two realms, but rather exist fully in the human one—and thus have no unique access to the divine.

Great laws tower above us, reared on high
born for the brilliant vault of heaven—
Olympian Sky their only father,
nothing mortal, no man gave them birth,
their memory deathless, never lost in sleep:
within them lives a mighty god, the god does not
grow old.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 957-962
Explanation and Analysis:

Jocasta and Oedipus have just finished discussing the significance of the prophecies that each has received. When they depart, the chorus offers a chilling and complex speech about the state of the gods in Thebes.

Their first move is to aggrandize the gods and stress their omnipresence in human affairs. That “Great laws tower above us” indicates that a different and more powerful set of rules exist in the divine realm—ones that would supersede the relatively minute human regulations. Indeed, “no man gave them birth,” thus directly contrasting the power of Oedipus as a human king with the divine rulers who exist entirely independently of him. After a series of somewhat heretical exchanges between Jocasta and Oedipus, this passage firmly reinstates the importance of the gods for the chorus, and thus for Thebes society.

A particular emphasis is placed on how these rules and their creators are eternal and immune to decay. The chorus fixates on how they are “nothing mortal,” “deathless,” and “the god does not grow old”—which contrasts with the ephemeral nature of humans and their laws. Part of their entitlement thus comes from the way they are immune to the current state of Thebes and the eventual fate of Oedipus.

Lines 998-1310 Quotes
They are dying, the old oracles sent to Laius,
now our masters strike them off the rolls.
Nowhere Apollo's golden glory now—
the gods, the gods go down.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 994-997
Explanation and Analysis:

After first contending that the gods are everlasting and all-powerful, the chorus rapidly shifts positions here. They claim that given the current state of Thebes, the relative power of Oedipus, and the potential falseness of the prophecies, the gods may in fact be in decline.

To substantiate this point, the chorus directly inverts their earlier descriptions: if before, the gods were deathless and immortal, here we learn the oracles “are dying.” This formulation is both literal and metaphoric, for it refers to their increasing lack of importance in Thebes society, due to the perspective of “our masters.” Indeed, this lack of adherence to old prophecies extends to more than just prophets such as Tiresias—for it even applies to “Apollo’s golden glory.” The gods themselves are deemed to be in decline: they “go down” in public interest and in perceived relevance.

The chorus implies that a massive societal shift has taken place in the way of Oedipus’s rise to power: a movement away from the providence of religion and instead toward a more secular orientation. By repeatedly praising human intelligence and disparaging prophecy, Oedipus has already shown this to be his personal belief system—and the chorus has affirmed the actions and ideas of their ruler. Thus Thebes seem to have arrived at a complex and pivotal decision: if the prophecies about Oedipus prove untrue, it would cause them to see the gods as “down,” and gravitate toward an increasingly secular society.

Lines 1311-1680 Quotes
Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.
Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Oedipus
Page Number: 1683-1684
Explanation and Analysis:

After Creon has dealt with Oedipus’s fate, they both depart the stage to leave only the chorus. The chorus ends the play with these lines that reaffirm the power of the gods to dictate each action of man.

Once more, the chorus functions as a way to explain the morals and meanings of the tragedy to the audience. Their perspective has changed radically over the course of play—from full-heartedly supporting Oedipus, to questioning his position, and finally to condemning him to his fate. Here, they extrapolate from the specific example of Oedipus to offer a more broad-reaching comment on humanity. They take their king as proof that none can escape the control of the gods, and that their earlier skepticisms of divine control were unwise.

As a result, men can only “keep our watch and wait the final day,” implying that observation and submissiveness are the only possible responses to destiny. Oedipus’s proud attempts to escape or challenge his fate are deemed foolhardy, and thus any active attempt to shift one’s life will ultimately fail. The chorus’s next line is far darker, however, for it says that no one will be “free of pain” until death. This seems to imply that being bound by destiny is by definition a type of pain—and that watching and waiting will similarly bring pains that can never be fully eluded. Sophocles’s final lesson extracted from Oedipus is thus a cautionary and dark one: none can escape the providence of the gods, and therefore one must accept a life of pained predestination.