Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Character and Role of Teiresias

A Man of an Established Reputation as a Prophet
Teiresias, the blind prophet, appears early in the play. Acting upon the advice of Creon, Oedipus had sent for the prophet in order to seek his guidance in the context of the misfortunes which are taking a heavy toll of the lives of the people of Thebes. Teiresias, we learn, has come somewhat unwillingly in response to the summons of the King. As Oedipus’s very first speech to Teiresias shows, Teiresias is a man of an established reputation and is greatly honoured in Thebes. Oedipus begins by saying that nothing is beyond Teiresias’s powers of divination. Both sacred and profane, both heavenly and earthly knowledge, are in Teiresias’s grasp. Teiresias can help and protect the city of Thebes, says Oedipus, appealing to him to save the city and its people.

Teiresias Provoked to Anger by Oedipus’s Rudeness
Teiresias is reluctant to supply any information or guidance to Oedipus for the relief of the sufferings of the people. He does have the necessary knowledge, but it would not be wise on his part to disclose what he knows. In fact the knowledge which he has in connection with the disaster that has overtaken the city is a heavy weight on his mind. Having strong reasons of his own to keep silent, Teiresias refuses to tell Oedipus anything. When Oedipus loses his temper, Teiresias is not in the least scared. On the contrary, he speaks to Oedipus in a defiant tone, asking him to rage as much as he pleases. Irritated by Oedipus’s false accusation, Teiresias bluntly says that Oedipus himself is the cursed polluter of Thebes. Teiresias does not show any fear of Oedipus, saying that truth is his defence. Pressed still further by Oedipus, Teiresias says that Oedipus himself is the murderer for whom he is searching, adding that Oedipus is living in sinful union with one whom he loves. When asked by Oedipus how he can make such slanderous statements, Teiresias once again says that he is protected by truth. When Oedipus taunts him with his blindness, Teiresias feels further excited. Oedipus’s claim that he has an intelligence superior to that of Teiresias, and his boast that it was he who saved the city from the Sphinx, offend the prophet even more. In fact, Teiresias now feels so provoked that he becomes as reckless in making predictions about Oedipus as he was reserved at the beginning. Oedipus may be having eyes which can see but he is blind to his own damnation, says Teiresias. Oedipus has sinned but he does not know it; he has sinned against one who is already in the grave and he has sinned against one who is yet alive on earth. The curse of his father and the curse of his mother will drive Oedipus out of this city. These clear-seeing eyes of Oedipus will then be darkened. When Oedipus learns his real identity, he will feel more miserable than can be imagined. All this Teiresias pitilessly flings into Oedipus’s face.
Teiresias’s Dreadful Threats
When Oedipus, almost mad with rage, commands the prophet to get out of his sight, Teiresias leaves, but not before he has delivered another onslaught upon the King. Teiresias now says that the murderer of Laius is here in Thebes; that the murderer, regarded as a foreigner, is actually a Theban by birth, that the murderer came to the city with eyes that could see but will leave the city with blind eyes, that the murderer is rich now but will be a beggar afterwards, and that the murderer will prove to be both a brother and a father to the children whom he loves, and both the son and the husband of the woman who gave him birth. Only when Oedipus can prove these predictions to be wrong, will he be justified in calling Teiresias blind.
Teiresias’s Complete Lack of Humility
While we certainly admire Teiresias for his foresight and his prophetic gift, we cannot reconcile ourselves to his arrogance, haughtiness, and feeling of self-importance. There is no doubt that Oedipus offends him with his tone of authority and command, but we should have expected a certain amount of moderation in a man who is spiritually so great as to know the minds of the gods and to be able to read the future. Unfortunately, we find that humility is not one of the virtues of Teiresias. He is as hot-tempered as Oedipus, and equally reckless. No doubt, his refusal to unburden his knowledge is prompted by the best of motives: he would not like to foretell unpleasant facts to Oedipus till the time is ripe for him to discover those facts in the natural course of events. But even so he has no right to lose his self-control to such an extent as to hit back Oedipus for Oedipus’s offensive remarks, especially when in trying to retaliate he discloses, though in a veiled manner, the very facts which he had sought to suppress. Teiresias is sensitive to insult, but he is almost merciless in lashing the King with his cutting remarks, and heartless to the point of vindictiveness.
Contributes to Dramatic Irony
Furthermore, Teiresias contributes to the tragic irony which is present throughout this play. In this particular scene, tragic irony is provided by the predictions which Teiresias makes. Teiresias knows the full import of his predictions, while Oedipus is completely ignorant of their significance. As for the audience, some members will be aware of the true meaning of these predictions while others will be ignorant of it depending upon whether they are reading the play for the first or the second time.

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