The Soothsayer's Indictment of the King
Although the title character and Teiresias the soothsayer only interact in Scene I of the play Oedipus Rex, their dialogue greatly impacts the play. Readers learn right at the beginning that Oedipus accidentally murdered his father and wedded his mother, although Oedipus obstinately refuses to believe it. Just as a detective first learns about a crime, then strings clues together in order to understand how and why it occurred, Oedipus’ readers have only to learn how and why Thebes’ king commits patricide and incest. The pair’s conversation is crucial to the play as a whole because Oedipus’ angry reaction to Teiresias’ indictment of him establishes that Oedipus is short-tempered, stubborn, and blind to the truth, and because it creates an expectation in readers to discover how the truth came to be.
Upon Teiresias’ entrance, the Choragos establishes that Teiresias is “the holy prophet / In whom, alone of all men, truth was born” (82-83). These words impart an understanding about the blind man. Because Teiresias is “alone of all men” in telling the truth, readers learn that he is the only person who is completely trustworthy among the dramatis personae. Readers can believe the Choragos’ assertion about Teiresias because, as leader of the chorus in a Greek play, the Choragos remains unbiased; he has no purchase in the outcome of the following events.
As soon as the prophet arrives, Oedipus pleads to him to reveal Laïos’ mystery assailant. The dialogue begins with a tone of flattery. Oedipus honors Teiresias when he deems the man a “student of mysteries” in line 84. Here he acknowledges his belief that Teiresias can reveal the unknown. He even tells Teiresias that “We find that you alone can guard or save us” (89). At this point, Oedipus thrusts the burden of the city onto Teiresias, fully believing that the man is Thebes’ sole savior. These compliments are especially meaningful since they come from a king who is humbling himself before one of his subjects. Oedipus’ kingly graciousness shines the spotlight on Teiresias.
With a whole Greek polis’s attention on him in expectance of his uncovering the great mystery that will solve all their woes, Teiresias replies with words that dismay Thebes: “How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be / When there’s no help in the truth!” (101-102). Instead of just telling everyone the identity of the perpetrator, Teiresias frets about how no one will be pleased with the truth. According to Teiresias, not only is the truth unpleasant, but it is also unhelpful. His saying “I should not have come” in line 103 illustrates his regret for even agreeing to meet the king. He realizes that by coming, he is putting himself in the position to relate the unfortunate facts to Oedipus and his kingdom, which he knows they will not be grateful to hear. Thus begins the conflict between the king and the prophet. Although Oedipus believes uncovering the truth will improve the Thebans’ situation, Teiresias insists that the knowledge will worsen it.
Oedipus begs Teiresias to name Laïos’ murderer several times, until his kind, pleading tone transforms into demanding rage: “What! You do know something, and will not tell us? / You would betray us all and wreck the State?” (114-115). His exclamation in line 114 shows that Oedipus is yelling at Teiresias. He equates Teiresias’ disobedience to treason against Thebes. Oedipus’ act of stating this equation demonstrates that he is short-tempered. Despite the angry king’s remark, Teiresias still refuses: “No, I will not go on. Rage as you please” (126). Teiresias’ insubordination in spite of a maddened ruler magnifies the truth’s importance; the truth is so dreadful and significant that a powerless man whom Oedipus could choose to exile or execute exile stolidly withholds compliance from a king who he himself describes as raging. This illustrates that it will take a lot of effort on Oedipus’ part to make Teiresias budge. Teiresias’ stolidity sharply contrasts with Oedipus’ quickly-changing shift from admiration to frustration, which further emphasizes Oedipus’ ill temperament.
Oedipus tolerates this behavior no longer. He resorts to accusing Teiriesias of the crime: “You planned it, you had it done, you all but / Killed him with your own hands” (128-129). Oedipus now believes that because Teiresias will not confess who killed Laïos, which caused the gods’ plagues upon Thebes, Teiresias must be part of the act. He believes guilt to be Teiresias’ only possible motive for refusing, and he will not simply believe the prophet’s statement that knowing the truth will not help. This demonstrates Oedipus’ pigheadedness, which recurs throughout the play.
Teiresias finally spouts the truth in line 131: “So? I charge you, then.” Sophocles’ choice to have the character ask “So?” indicates that Teiresias is fed up with Oedipus and his stubbornness. His frustration with the king leads him to break his promise to not tell. He follows this by calling Oedipus the “pollution of this country” (135). This insulting comparison to pollution should show that Teiresias means to blame Oedipus for his own domain’s problems. Oedipus, in Teiresias’ mind, contaminates Thebes with his wrongdoings the same as how pollution harms the environment. It is important to note that Sophocles consciously chose not to have Teiresias say “Oedipus is like pollution to this country,” which would have been only a simile. Metaphors imply stronger correlations than similes, so its status as a metaphor increases the severity of Teiresias’ accusation.
As a result, Oedipus is shocked into disbelief: “I did not understand it. Say it again” (143). He takes Teiresias’ claim to be so wrong that he must check to make sure that he heard the man correctly. Teiresias’ repeats himself as requested: “I say that you are the murderer whom you seek” (144). This time, however, Teiresias makes absolutely clear what he means. He drops the subtlety inherent in metaphorical language and directly labels Oedipus as a murderer. One could even view the prophet’s linguistic rephrasing as an insult to Oedipus’ intelligence, since excluding metaphors simplifies his diction. The fact that the most truthful character in the play insults Oedipus’ intelligence provides further damning evidence against the king. Because Oedipus is known to be unintelligent, audiences know not to trust Oedipus’ denial of Teiresias’ claim.
Oedipus proceeds to return the rhetoric of insults, calling the seer a “sightless, witless, senseless, mad old man” (153). At this point, the dialogue between Teiresias and Oedipus that was supposed to provide clarification and lead to Thebes’ improvement is now a heated argument. Oedipus’ original diction of humility and honor is giving way to fury and defamation, and Teiresias’ original diction of regretful fretfulness is giving way to malicious honesty. This change in tone builds tension between the two men. Oedipus’ dramatic shift from flattering the wise seer to berating him indicates that he is more inclined to become angry and defensive than thoughtful and understanding when listening to someone who criticizes him. This instance begins a pattern of unwillingness to believe others with differing opinions that repeats in later scenes.
Oedipus does not understand why Teiresias would accuse him of ruining Thebes. Because he will not blame himself, the first idea that comes to his mind is to blame Creon for Teiresias’ insolence, alleging that Creon “has brought this decrepit fortune-teller, this / Collector of dirty pennies, this prophet fraud” (170-171). All Oedipus can think to do is insult people because he will not stop to ponder the truth that Teiresias expresses. Yet Teiresias rejects this claim, and he calls Oedipus blind. He does not mean that Oedipus literally has impaired vision, but that he blinds himself to the truth with his denial. Here Sophocles places the men as polar opposites: Oedipus is a stubborn, unthinking king with all his senses intact, and Teiresias is a wise commoner who lacks literal vision. This paradox of calling a seeing man blind is especially powerful coming from a man who is blind himself. Although Teiresias cannot even see the ground upon which he walks, he firmly believes that Oedipus is blinder than he.
Teiresias has the last word in their dialogue. In his final block of text, he explicitly details Oedipus’ offenses:
To the children with whom he lives now he will be
Brother and father—the very same; to her
Who bore him, son and husband—the very same
Who came to his father’s bed, wet with his father’s blood.
Teiresias finally reveals to all the dramatis personae the full extent of Oedipus’ wickedness. Because he uses the word “will” and not “is” in line 239, it is clear that he knows Oedipus will not accept these truths immediately. Right now, Oedipus’ children do not believe that he is both their brother and father, and his wife does not believe that Oedipus is both her first husband’s murderer and son, but they will soon. He simultaneously informs Oedipus of his past deeds and predicts that Oedipus and his family will eventually find the proof that Teiresias’ words are true. Thus, readers of Oedipus Rex can anticipate this hinted-at climactic moment of recognition. That recognition, however, can only happen after Oedipus finishes blindly blaming other people and begins uncovering clues about his murky past. He will have to overcome his habit of being headstrong before his moment of recognition occurs, because, as his conversation with the blind soothsayer demonstrates, Oedipus cannot understand the offenses he committed and be short-tempered, blind, and stubborn at the same time.