Oedipus the King

Pages 21-23


Summary

At the beginning of these pages, Oedipus is finishing his request to the public to assist him in discovering the murderer of the old king, Laius. He states that because he is ruling the kingdom in Laius’ stead, and furthermore is married to Laius’ wife, he will fight for Laius as he would fight for his father. Then, he wishes bad fortune upon those who disobey him in his efforts to avenge Laius and redeem the kingdom, and proclaims good fortune upon those “whom these words please” (21).

The chorus announces that they do not know who the killer is, but suggests that Oedipus consult the prophet, Lord Teiresias, whose is known to often see what the Lord Apollo (the sun god) is capable of seeing. Oedipus has already sent for him, and Teiresias arrives shortly, led by a young boy. At first, Oedipus treats Teiresias respectfully, proclaiming him the sole savior of a city afflicted with plague. He explains to Teiresias that the only way in which the city can rid itself of this plague is to drive out the murderer of Laius, and begs for Teiresias’ aid. Oedipus is then surprised when Teiresias appears to be distressed after hearing this request, and becomes incredulous and angry when Teiresias expresses his wish to go home without bestowing his “gift of prophesy” (23). He implies that by not providing aid for Thebes when it is in distress, Teiresias not only has "no care for law" (23), but also is in fact betraying the very city that raised him. Teiresias replies that Oedipus' accusations are wrong, and thus he must fear for the truth in his own words as well (basically providing another reason for why he shouldn't cooperate with Oedipus' request).

Analysis

This is the scene in which clues concerning the murder of Laius begin to be revealed to the audience. The events that occur initiate a domino effect, leading and building up to the final tragedies. In these lines, irony is put into play, accentuated by the portrayal of Oedipus as a wise and caring leader, as seen, for example, in his determination to find the murderer of Laius so as to obtain justice and peace in the country. His humility is also characterized in the way that he treats Teiresias with respect and honor, calling Teiresias “My Lord” (304), when he himself, as the king, is also a man in a position of significant power. This ensures that the eventual downfall of such a great man will be much harsher than that of a lesser character, and, in turn, also brings out the irony of a farsighted king falling to become a blind beggar.

Irony is first brought out when Oedipus is denouncing the murderer and anyone attempting to protect him from exile or death. He states that “Since I am now the holder of [Laius’] office, and have his bed and wife that once was his…I fight in his defense as for my father” (259-264). He then goes on the name Laius’ heritage, unaware that he is in fact naming his own father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather, and so on through generations of men in his own past. This is made even more ironic as Oedipus makes the slightly contradictory statement that he will treat Laius as his father, because he shares Laius’ wife. In this case, irony is used to point out the disjunction between truth and the realization of truth that takes place in most of the play. This incongruity is alluded to again when the chorus mentions that Laius was “killed by certain wayfarers” (293), and Oedipus agrees, but also adds that “no one saw the killer” (293), once again adding irony to the situation, as he himself was the wayfarer. Another example of Oedipus’ ignorance of the truth occurs when Oedipus begs Teiresias to “save [him]” (313) by bestowing his skill of prophesy upon the city, which is ironic because the truth ultimately ruins Oedipus, rather than saving him.

One of the most memorable lines of the play also occurs in these few pages, when Teiresias cries, “Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise!” (315-316). This phrase can is particularly significant as it may be used to summarize the mindsets of many of the characters who are aware of the truth, both before and after the mystery is unraveled.

by Chi-Chi Chuang