“How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise” (Sophocles, line 316, “Oedipus Rex”). People often mistake blind people, or people labeled as somehow flawed, for being ignorant. Whether the blindness is literal, like Teiresias in Sophocles’ Teiresais in “Oedipus Rex,” or blindness as transparency, like the Fool in Shakespeare’s’ King Lear, both of these tragedies contain a persona of a fool, someone whom people think cannot see at all, or cannot see things clearly. The fool in King Lear has no credibility that anyone responds to, although is much more wise than King Lear in the play. He is similar to the oracle in Oedipus Rex, Teiresias, who has authority and is wise, yet Oedipus does not take him seriously because of his damaging information as well as his impaired sight.
Teiresais only appears in Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” for one scene. This is the most important scene of the play. In this scene, Oedipus converses with the prophet Teiresias. In this conversation, Oedipus asks the prophet who killed King Laius. Teiresias does not respond immediately with the answer, rather, he talks around the answer to mock Oedipus for his inability to see the obvious. He continues to speak about how if Oedipus knew the truth he would flee the city of Thebes. In fact he even requests “let me go home. It will be easiest for us both” (Line 320). This means that Teiresias knows something about the prophecy but doesn’t want to say anything for the betterment of the two of them. However, Oedipus is deaf, or rather, blind, to what Teiresias has to say. He doesn’t listen, and continues to pressure Teiresias to confess his prophecy. This not only reflects on Oedipus’ willful blindness, but also, through this scene, Sophocles suggests that it is human nature to refuse bad news, knowledge of shortcomings and self-assessment. Oedipus is so caught up in his self-perceived omniscience he is that he is not even willing to consider that he is in the wrong, ever. Oedipus represents an important aspect of humanity: pride. He is blinded by his own pride, by his own opinions, and doesn’t listen to the man who is right, because he is merely physically blind. Following this, Teiresias does not think this is a good idea: “I will not bring this pain upon us both, neither you nor on myself. Why is it you question me and waste your labor? I will tell you nothing” (Line 335). Oedipus responds vehemently and even goes so far as to call him a traitor to the city of Thebes, one of the most capital insults in the ancient world. During this conversation, Sophocles’ language continually hints at Oedipus’ sight or accuracy: “you do not see” (Line 336 ), “you chide me instead” (Line 337), “you are the land’s pollution” (Line 352 ), “even your own words miss the mark” (Line 325 ). Sophocles notifies the audience that Oedipus’ fate lies in Teiresias’ words. Although Teiresias warns Oedipus, very bluntly as well as using innuendo, that it was in fact Oedipus who killed King Laius, Oedipus still refuses to believe him. This ultimately causes Oedipus’s downfall. Once he finally realizes what he has done, Oedipus curses himself, saying “Against those two [Oedipus’ mother and father] I have committed acts / so vile that even if I hanged myself / that would not be sufficient punishment” (Line 1620-3). Even though Teiresias is a prophet with authority, Oedipus makes him a fool by disregarding his input. Playwrights routinely use fools to reveal the truth to the audience, in settings where the other characters do not take them seriously. Since Teiresias and Oedipus are the only two characters involved, Sophocles basically forces the audience to side with Teiresias, against the belligerent Oedipus. Oedipus’ immense shame is compounded by his adamant resistance to Teiresias telling him that he is the cause of the plague in Thebes. In this scene, Sophocles, rather than representing the human nature of his audience with Oedipus’ greatness and authority, highlights humankind’s willful ignorance through Oedipus’ rejection of the truth he desperately seeks.
The Fool in Shakespears’ “King Lear” is a character that gives the audience comedic relief. However, he serves Shakespeare’s larger purpose; we can compare the fool in Shakespeare to the chorus/prophet tradition in Greek Tragedy. The Fool comments on the events that happen throughout the play, and criticizes the king’s decisions, ultimately serving as King Lear’s conscience. In “King Lear,” the fool is Lear’s personal comedian, who in fact, is the only person Lear allows to criticize him. Shakespeare introduces the Fool in Act 1, Scene 4. His very first lines are “Let me hire him too: here’s my coxcomb / Sirrah, you were best take my coxcomb” (Act 1, Scene 4). The Fool calls King Lear a fool, rather than referring him as someone of his stature would be expected to do. He is offering him his ‘coxcomb’ which is a special hat worn by fools as part of their costume. King Lear had just divided his kingdom to his 3 daughters, effectively giving all his power away, which proves to be foolish by the play’s end. With the pivotal words said by the fool, the audience can detect Shakespeare’s sarcasm and the foreshadowing of King Lear’s consequences. In Act 1, Scene 4, the Fool gives King Lear a speech, saying “Mark it, nuncle: Have more than thou showest, Speak less than thou knowest, Lend less than thou owest, … Leave thy drink and thy whore, And keep in-a-door, And thou shalt have more Than two tens to a score.”(quote). The fool speaks wisely, but has no authority, and King Lear has no reason to heed his words. Shakespeare puts the audience in the same predicament: is the audience to listen to the fool’s words as they are, or disregard everything he says as simply coming from the mouth of a fool? The Fool challenges Lear in the same way that Teiresias challenges and criticizes Oedipus. Both kings choose to blind themselves from the opinions of those they deem unworthy of consideration, but because of that mindset they, as well as the audience possibly, miss out on critical information.
Leaders often neglect the opinions of those who are physically or otherwise flawed. After comparing the two fools, the audience is aware that when it comes to leaders, one’s blindness makes people perceive them as fools, but leaders sometimes become blind to the input of the lowly and those deemed unworthy. This ties in with our everyday life. We as humans are blind when it comes to our future. King Lear and Oedipus exhibit a similar type of blindness and negligence that Louis XVI of France shows, and that leads to the French revolution in which Louis XVI was beheaded. This style of rule which ignores opinions of knowledgeable people based on their social class or physical state of being can cause a leader to be beheaded or cause the proletariat [everyone who isn’t royalty… the normal people] to revolt. We never want to see further than what we know. It can be fear of the unknown, oblivious to situations when we know we are in the wrong, even so far as being blinded by love. Human nature hides in the face of fear. As President Roosevelt once said “Nothing to Fear but Fear itself” (Presidential Inaugural Speech of 1933). that we must not live like Oedipus and King Lear, we as the audience are educated by the Fools in both plays, that when a persona is brought upon us we should listen. Not let our hubris blind us in the face of the fool. The act of the fool in both of these tragedies is one of the most important character / lessons we should utilize in our day to day lives.
Prophets are known for being able to ‘see’ the future, or in other words see the unknowable. Teiresias is a prophet so he can ‘see’ in some ways, but not in the literal way. Our language can’t separate the mental/divine knowledge from the same words we use for physical sight, because they are both vital to being human. Humans also need imaginative sight, a mind to process and challenge and asses what surrounds them. Both are very important in many ways. One is animal; physical sight. The other is mainly human, the mind and imagination and cognition. Thus, Sophocles messes with this dynamic of the two meanings of the word ‘see’. He strips Teiresias of his animal ability to see with his eyes, physically, and then gives him a supernatural sight. He is mocked by his own physical state because he can see the future but can’t literally see right in front of him. But he is such an extreme character to show how Oedipus id the exact opposite. He can see right in front of him but fails to see what his actions are causing. Oedipus also cant step back and look at all that’s happened and make connections using his imagination. So Oedipus is more over the animal and less human, since he relies more on his mental and spiritual sight. King Lear is like Oedipus. His Fool is very smart but he doesn’t take him seriously. So are kings wrong for not entertaining opposing views, when they are surrounded by people who agree with them all the time? I think it’s more complicated than that. I think there is a flaw in human nature to want to know everything, and celebrate any type of knowledge that we master, rather than continuously seeking all knowledge and continuing to learn and to improve the mind.