Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear
One of the key themes in both Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear
and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is the importance of having a good
understanding of our condition as human beings – knowing ourselves,
the world that surrounds us and our place in it. At the same time,
however, both authors recognize the fact that blindness to this
knowledge of the human condition is a basic mortal trait. Thus, before
we can have an understanding of the human condition, we must endure a
journey to wisdom. The two authors view the journey to wisdom in terms
of metaphors of blindness and seeing. Sight is a frequently used
metaphor for perception, knowledge and awareness, whilst blindness
connotes ignorance, insensitivity and the inability to perceive and
understand. In the two plays, the characters are initially blind to
their own condition, which eventually leads them to make faulty
decisions, despite the warnings of others. Consequently the characters
suffer as a result of their poor judgment, and only then do they gain
sight and a clear understanding of their own situation. The characters
who undergo this journey are Shakespeare’s Lear and Gloucester, along
with Sophocles’ Oedipus.
At the beginning of his ‘journey’, Lear is blind to the fact that he
is just a mere mortal, which prevents him from acknowledging his own
faults and moral failings. He cannot see that the source of his own
power is the position of kingship, rather than some intrinsic quality
that separates him from his subjects. His own condition is essentially
masked by his kingship, power, wealth and the false self-image of a
‘dragon’[i]. Out of this blindness, Lear presents his daughters with
the love test, to determine who should receive the largest share of
his kingdom. Of course this prompts the daughters to shower him with
compliments. And, as expected, Lear remains blind to the fact that the
praise he receives is more flattery than genuine adulation.
Ironically, Goneril even states that her father is ‘dearer than
eyesight’[ii], since for the power hungry daughter Lear is far more
valuable blind than he would be, if he could see his own condition.
Gloucester can not see past the appearances of his children as well,
he is blind to Edmund’s deceit and Edgar’s virtue. When learning of
Edgar’s apparent intention to conspire against him, Gloucester chooses
not to use his own ‘eyes’ to look into the matter, but asks Edmond to
do so instead.
In Oedipus Rex, much like Lear, Oedipus is blind to his own mortality.
He has been deluded by the people of Thebes who hail him, if not ‘the
equal of gods’[iii] then certainly ‘the first of men’[iv]. Thus,
Oedipus too has developed a self-image that is less than objective.
Oedipus learns from the prophet Teiresias, that he is the ‘unclean
thing’[v] that needs removal from Thebes. He chooses to remain blind
to this truth about his own condition,...