Sophocles’ Oedipus the King or Oedipus Rex is a tragic ancient Greek play featuring a man who has unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. As the story progresses, the protagonist, Oedipus, evolves from his position as the egocentric king of Thebes and rapidly disintegrates into a victim of his own fate. He begins literally and metaphorically retreating into darkness as he gains insight where fate or destiny plays the supreme controller of events.
The play begins with establishment of Oedipus’s hubris as he announces to his people, “Here I am myself— / you all know me, the world knows my fame: / I am Oedipus” (MacGregor & Knox, 159, 7–9). He supports his ignorance further by also declaring, “I would be blind to misery / not to pity my people kneeling at my feet” (MacGregor & Knox, 159, 14-15). This statement adds dramatic irony because, despite the blind prophet Tiresias’s warning about the misery that Oedipus will face if he discovers the truth, Oedipus continues to become more persistent in his search.
The contrast between light and dark is also used to represent truth under the parameters of fate where truth represents an alternate image of fate of destiny. In Oedipus the King, light embodies truth, but light is only externally perceived by the eyes, whereas wisdom lies in the darkness of a character’s soul. As Oedipus and Jacosta gain knowledge about the murder of Oedipus’s father, Laius, they arrive at two separate truths: Jacosta recalls that the servant told her that he was killed by strangers, and Oedipus knows that he, himself, was alone when he killed a man in the same location. Though their stories are otherwise strikingly similar, they seem to be choosing to stay in the darkness by accepting the servant’s story as an indisputable account of the event.
Oedipus, however, appears to be more receiving of the truth: “…if he refers to one man, one alone, / clearly the scales come down to me: / I am guilty.” (MacGregor & Knox, 208, 935-937). The chorus also notes the manifestation of truth and light together: “…all-seeing Time has dragged you to the light…” (MacGregor & Knox, 234, 1341). The strongest correlation between the two themes, however, is actually found with the blind prophet and his extensive knowledge from the Gods. Tiresias, despite being physically blind, is much further into the light and can see deeper into the truth than others in the play. Oedipus later approaches a similar status when he discovers the facts of his prophecy and contrasts his inner enlightenment by inflicting physical blindness upon himself. He behaves as if to bring his outer state to a reflection of his prior mental and emotional state of awareness, or as an attempt to return to the darkness in which he was once comfortable. Oedipus’s sight abilities or lack thereof, existed to confirm or deny his acceptance of truth under the guidance of fate.
Sophocles leaves the audience with two choices at the end of the play. They can choose to believe that “ignorance is bliss,” or they can see light in the darkness, discover truth and wisdom, and suffer with knowledge and in both the cases the author indicates that fate or destiny is the supreme ruler of human being. Oedipus reveals his knowledge of human suffering and strife and thus, despite surviving the play, becomes a truly traditional Greek tragic hero where fate directs the conclusion of the existence of the characters.
MacGregor, Bernard, & Walker Knox. The three Theban plays. NY: Penguin Classics, 1984.