The intermediate section of The Three Theban Plays, Oedipus the King, is a story of the tragic demise of a heroic character. So what role does knowledge play in Oedipus Rex’sophocles uses knowledge throughout this play to depict the fall of Oedipus. Essentially, the entire play is based on how the acquisition of knowledge shapes and consequentially leads to the tragic events that occur. The idea of metaphorical blindness and in the closing scenes, literal blindness, also links to the role of knowledge, as it can be seen as a result of acquiring it. Overall, knowledge is the main motif as it leads to Oedipus’ downfall.
Oedipus, at the beginning of the play, has knowledge of the world and his position in it. From the outset, his inherent knowledge of his surroundings shapes him as a character by displaying his role, his traits and the background of his past events. Effectively, Oedipus is set up as a wise and nurturing figure on the first page when he opens by saying “Oh my children”. By referring to the citizen of Thebes as “Children”, he is initially putting himself above others, displaying that he is a highly regarded figure. By saying “Oh my”, displays his concern as he has knowledge of the suffering of Thebans.
His knowledge is further displays as he uses words of negative connotations, such as “reeks”, “cries” and “wailing”. Thebes suffering is also depicted through stage directions, as Oedipus “Slowly views the condition of his people”, and he reacts in a way which shows his concern for others. His knowledge further sets Oedipus up as a self-assured, proud man with high confidence and assertiveness, when he declares “I am Oedipus”. His hubris links back to the Thebans having knowledge of Oedipus being a heroic man who solved the riddle of the Sphinx and saved Thebes. Oedipus’ already acquired knowledge of his empire leads to his hamartia, as he is a man of action and quick to respond, shown by exclaiming that “I am ready to help, I’ll do anything”.
Knowledge is apparent from the absolute start of the play as an important idea to be further developed. Knowledge continues to play a role for the Thebans as well, due to their vision of Oedipus. The Priest, through knowing of Oedipus’ success, addresses him as “our greatest power”. His admiration and respect sees Oedipus as being as being highly regarded, adding to the audiences early knowledge of his hamartia. The Thebans understanding of gods and tradition however, leads them to express that Oedipus “cannot equal the gods”. The referral to god’s links knowledge to the notion of fate, as this eventually prevails when Oedipus gains knowledge.
Further into the play, Oedipus often shows a subtle unwillingness to accept knowledge, suggesting that Oedipus lacks control over fate. He is presented with a prophecy from the blind prophet Tiresias in which he is accused of being “the curse, the corruption of the land”. This accusation, although very direct and forceful, is instantly rejected by Oedipus, displaying his reluctance to accept knowledge that he does not wish to hear. Through this disinclination, Oedipus’ character begins to be shaped as accusing and relentless, yet again presenting his hamartia. Instantly, Oedipus reacts by calling Tiresias “shameless”.
By this point, Tiresias’ knowledge and Oedipus’ lack of, creates a power shift to fuel Oedipus’ harsh tone, representing that with knowledge, comes power. This power is emphasised as Tiresias presents Oedipus saying “you are the murderer you hunt”. Again, Oedipus denies this knowledge and calls Tiresias’ accusation “obscenity”. Oedipus displays selectivity towards the knowledge he is presented and through this, draws himself into his demise. This dramatic scene depicts the ironic notion of metaphorical blindness.
Tiresias, although being literally blind, is shown to be able to see in the metaphorical sense of already having knowledge of Oedipus’ impending demise, yet although all has been presented to Oedipus, he is metaphorically blind to his actions and the events that are beginning to unfold. Linking to his unwillingness to accept knowledge, Oedipus displays his metaphorical blindness, yet ironically, accuses Tiresias of exactly that, arguing that “given eyes, I’d say you did the killing single-handed”. He continues to mock Tiresias of his blindness by saying he has “eyes blind as stone”. Despite Oedipus’ unjustified actions, Tiresias is fully aware of Oedipus’ metaphorical blindness and attempts to tell Oedipus, with no success.
The metaphorical blindness apparent, adds to our awareness of Oedipus’ lack and desire for knowledge. Further through the play, Oedipus gains desire to obtain knowledge of his life. The desire to obtain knowledge depicts the importance of knowledge and how it can lead to destruction. Oedipus’ character is once again reshaped and is presented as a man with hubris and believes he can control fate as he gains knowledge of Polybus’ natural death. Jocasta suffers similar traits as she dismisses prophecies of Oedipus killing his father, asking “where are you now”. This ultimately is representative of the dismissal of fate and overcoming of knowledge.
Despite this mild celebration, Oedipus desires for more, and begins to question the messenger in order to obtain knowledge. He questions his own existence by asking whether Polybus was his father or not. Oedipus begins to feed off newly obtained knowledge and consequently desires for more. The tonal shift of Oedipus, questioning the messenger represents the power of knowledge and how the person with knowledge, has control over situations. From this scene, it is apparent that knowledge has a dark and destructive side to it as upon hearing information of Oedipus’ identity, Jocasta has sudden and dreadful realisation of events.
This acquisition of knowledge is clearly displayed as when the messenger refers to Oedipus’ birth linking to Laius, the stage directions states “Jocasta turns sharply”. As a turning point in the play, knowledge has the power to instantly change the course of events as the demise of Oedipus starts to become evident. Despite knowing the couple are doomed, Jocasta attempts to shield Oedipus from the dangerous and fatal knowledge soon to be obtained, exclaiming that “my suffering is enough”. Unaware of the consequences, Oedipus believes the worst case scenario would be turning out to be from a slave decent.
At this point, the story is driven by knowledge as Oedipus, ruthless and determined, continues to question, heightening the point of revelation. Oedipus’ peripeteia finally becomes apparently when he acquires the dreadful knowledge. The ultimate role of knowledge bringing Oedipus’ downfall becomes evident as he ironically cries “all burst to light” as he is now sure that he is doomed to darkness. The dramatic events then continue, as Oedipus then blinds himself by stabbing his eyes out with Jocasta’s brooches, signifying his awareness of his metaphorical blindness. This depicts that now although literally blind, now is fully sighted to the knowledge of his actions.
Knowledge destroys Oedipus, eventually addressing himself by saying “I am agony”. This personifies suffering and pain as well as showing Oedipus finally accepting his fate. Knowledge also gets represented as being residual as Oedipus attempts to escape from its destructive nature by asking for the people to “Take me away, far, far from Thebes”. It is apparently that Oedipus’ only way out of knowledge’s viscous grasp is to flee somewhere where knowledge of his demise is not apparent. He brings himself into full isolation where kdnowledge cannot harm as he keeps asking for Thebes to “Drive me out of the land”. Isolation is again made apparent when Creon takes the only thing Oedipus has left, his daughters.
Knowledge is the ultimate catalyst in Oedipus’ downfall and proves to have a destructive nature. Jocasta, through the acquisition of knowledge, is seen hanging herself as well as Oedipus becoming his fate. Knowledge is shown to have the power to bring Oedipus, once a king, down to an isolated outcast, being lower than the absolute lowest point of society. Upon Creon becoming king, Oedipus is reduced to nothing where he declares “here your power ends”. So overall, the role of knowledge in Oedipus the King is to bring about destruction and demise, to show the audience blind from the sighted.
Sophocles would have used the main notion of knowledge to suggest that fate is unescapable, that humanity is not to undermine civilized values. Knowledge and desire for it, fuels all the actions and events that occurs in the play, continually developing the desire and need for it.