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Sight, Sound, and Sensation in the Oedipus Tragedy

Physical perception as a powerful yet suppressible human faculty is an underlying theme throughout the Oedipus tragedy of Sophocles. From the start of the play to the tragic finish, we are faced with the sights, sounds, and sensations of the world of Oedipus, giving us a clear and realistic picture of his city, his life, and even his torment. The synesthesia, or blending together of sensations, used by Sophocles in the play brings us still closer to this tragic figure and the events that revolve around him, and at the same time prohibits us from distancing ourselves by blocking off our sensory and sensitive perceptions. Indeed, were we to try to do this, we would be no better off than Oedipus himself, whose concluding blindness and desire for deafness lends to him our credence and our sympathy. Yet the importance of the senses in the drama cannot be understated -- from the chanting prophetical declarations of Teiresias to the musically evocative choral odes, the motifs of sight, sound, and the symbolic mixing of the two develop this tragedy beyond the reach of normal human perception, and give to it much of its poetical beauty.

The sense of sound very rarely stands alone in the tragedy. Instead, sounds are almost always accompanied by images, just as the mention of hearing occurs in conjunction with seeing or, less frequently, with touching and smell. Sophocles' use of synesthesia, mixing many different sensations together into a single all-embracing perception, gives the reader the illusion that he, too can actually sense the events being described in the tale. Thus, in the very first lines of the play, we are told that "the town is heavy with a mingled burden of sounds and smells, of groans and hymns and incense." (l. 4) [1] The groaning city is seen, heard, felt, and smelled in her misery, and the audience is immediately transported into the world of the tragedy itself. The same effect is used later in the play, perhaps as a device to enhance the emotional appeal and to reveal the deep inner torment of Oedipus: the Chorus maintains that the wretched spirit has flown to "a terrible place whereof men's ears may not hear, nor their eyes behold it." (l. 1313) How indeed, can we, as sensory beings, come to any understanding of the horrors within Oedipus, when all that is described to us is without concrete sensation? The truth here is so awful, in the eyes of the Chorus, that it can only be characterized as beyond human comprehension. "I weep for you and cry a dirge of lamentation," (l. 1219) states the Chorus, once again blending the images of tears (from the eyes) and song or poetry (from the mouth) into one deeply moving picture of utter misery and sadness.

This portrayal through words, sight, and sound of a grief entirely immeasurable reaches outside the choral odes, which naturally rely on heavy emotional contrasts and almost musical phrasing for their poetic beauty, and even into the ordinary speech of Oedipus, who, when bemoaning his own actions, cries desperately: "What can I see to love? What greeting can touch my ears with joy?" (l. 1339) The conception of hearing as the 'touching' of the ears by sound is certainly an ancient one, yet it is used here to spectacular effect by Sophocles, so that we hardly even notice the blending of the senses, and instead are given to focus on the emotions behind the words. So, too, is the impression made by Oedipus' speech shortly thereafter; this time, however, he expresses not more grief, to which by this time the audience may have become slightly dulled, but proclaims his overwhelming joy at being allowed to enjoy the companionship and comfort of his two daughters, whom Creon has graciously permitted in the presence of their father-brother: "O my lord! O true noble Creon! Can I really be touching them, as when I saw? What shall I say? Yes, I can hear them sobbing -- my two darlings!" (l. 1470-1473) The mixture of touching, seeing, speaking, hearing, and crying is here a powerful tool for the exhibition of pathos on the part of Oedipus, who no longer can express his inner feelings through mere words, and must now rely on the devices of synesthesia; these, as we see, can represent both ends of the spectrum of human emotion. Even Teiresias, though fully capable of pronouncing his dreadful prophesies without the aid of rhetorical deices, takes advantage of this blending of the senses, turning the intended insult given him by Oedipus into a reversed prophesy:

 Oedipus: You are blind in mind and ears as well as in your eyes.

Teiresias: You are a poor wretch to taunt me with the very insults which everyone will soon heap upon yourself. (l. 370)

The ominous foreshadowing in the words of Teiresias is nevertheless one of the lighter moments given to him in Sophocles' drama. Most of the dialogues in which he takes part are by far more weighty and solemn than this simple exchange, which seems almost like a child's attempt at verbal defense. And it is in these very somber and foreboding decrees that we see yet another important characteristic of sound and speech in the tragedy. The prophecies delivered by Teiresias, though often stated in prose form, appear to be completely unlike the rather bland dialogue exhibited throughout the rest of the play. The grandiose speech which concludes his appearance before Oedipus, for example, shows clearly the majesty and power with which his office, and indeed his very words, were endowed. One need not stretch the imagination very far to see him reciting these lines as would a priest or orator, sermonizing but firmly convinced of his own righteousness. Thus would he say, slowly and with great emphasis on each of the significant phrases (very much, I find, as did his counterpart in the film by Pasolini):

 ... he shall be proved father and brother both
to his own children in his house; to her
that gave him birth, a son and husband both;
a fellow sower in his father's bed
with that same father that he murdered. (l. 457-459)

This chant-like incantation of prophecy is not exclusively the property of Teiresias, however. The lengthy and poetical choral odes in this drama, as in practically every ancient Greek tragedy, are an integral part of the experience for both the audience and for the portrayal of the myth. We see therefore the many important discourses on the fate of mankind, on the nature of things mysterious, and on other mystical or spiritual themes. These may, at a first glance, seem somewhat irrelevant, yet they prove upon closer inspection to have a definite pertinence to the action of the play. The central role played by music and song in these early dramas, and most particularly in the choral odes, has been established by historians and scholars, and it is only fair, then, to treat these speeches not only as poems, but as the recitative or even musical passages which they must have been. Their effect is brought about by their form and beauty as well as by their content, and once again they function for Sophocles as a device to draw in and enrapture the audience.

In these choral odes appear images of sight and sound, not only as properties and gifts of the gods, but also as pertaining to the present conflicts. Thus we hear from the Chorus that "the hymn to the healing God rings out but with it the wailing voices are blended" (l. 186) -- once again a clear case of synesthesia, but this time in the midst of a hymn and prayer to the very beings about whom it speaks. It should be pointed out, however, that even when they concern themselves with divine topics, these choral odes are never intended as signs or forewarnings of what is to come in the drama. We must remember that the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy was a group of ordinary men, often the city elders, and was not in the slightest seen as omniscient or prophetic. Instead, the odes may serve as a kind of pause in the action of the story, or even as a break in the dramatic tension, as, for instance, when the Chorus speaks in verse (or sings) of the parentage of Oedipus at a time and in a manner that seems to the knowing audience almost ridiculous:

 Who was it bore you, child? One of
the long-lived nymphs who lay with Pan --
the father who treads the hills?
Or was she a bride of Loxias, your mother? The grassy slopes
are all of them dear to him. Or perhaps Cyllene's king
or the Bacchants' God, that lives on the tops
of the hills, received you -- a gift from some
one of the Helicon Nymphs, with whom he mostly plays? (l. 1098-1109)

While music and song play an undeniable role in determining the reception of this drama by the audience, the hearing of spoken words even without music is also of great importance. Although we see much of the narration acted out on stage, many of the most significant scenes in the story take place either outside the action of the drama or simply offstage. We learn about these events, then, through the reports of the messengers, who relate to us in gripping detail of Jocasta's death and Oedipus' subsequent blinding. It is through our own sense of hearing, therefore, that we are fully able to comprehend the actions in the play. This reliance on sight and sound on the part of the audience produce yet another tie binding us to Oedipus, and we begin to understand his desire to be deaf, in order that he may no longer hear of his terrible actions.

This wish of his, though, has of course deeper roots. As has often been noted, Oedipus seems, throughout the action of the play, to want to deny the truth, both to himself and to others. This he accomplishes by refusing to see or hear the many different points of evidence that appear before him. The chant-like declaration of Teiresias, "You have your eyes but see not where you are in sin, nor where you live, nor whom you live with," (l. 1314) bears witness not only to the motif of sight and sound in musical form, but also to this metaphorical blindness and deafness of Oedipus. In refusing to see the truth, Oedipus is refusing to hear it as well, or to perceive it in any sense. The importance of listening and hearing in the drama is brought to the forefront quite early on, as, for instance, when the priest and children, who have come to Oedipus as suppliants, tell him that they have done so in the hope that "perhaps you'll hear a wise word from God." (l. 42) Their hopes are dashed, however, when the revelations of Teiresias and the first awful hints of the truth are brought to light: not only does Oedipus hear no word from the gods, but he even refuses to hear the words brought to him by men and messengers. Indeed, the prophecies of Teiresias seem, in a sense, to go in one ear and out the other, as seen when Oedipus states openly his disgust and contempt for the man he considers a traitor: "Is it endurable that I should hear such words from him? ... Out of my house at once!" (l. 429), he orders derisively, playing once again on the motif of deafness and blindness to convince the audience of his passion.

Eventually, however, Oedipus resolves to open his mind, ears, and eyes, and try to find out where the truth in these puzzling mysteries lies. Here once again he is thwarted, though not by his own design as earlier; instead, he is dissuaded from listening, both by Jocasta and by the old shepherd. Jocasta, in one of her final lines, begs of Oedipus to close off all of his senses to this search: "Why ask of whom he spoke? Don't give it heed; nor try to keep in mind what has been said." (l. 1056) The chorus notes well that this is a reversal of behavior for the queen, and states solemnly the words full of foreshadowing and warning: "I am afraid that trouble will break out of this silence." (l. 1075) The silence here, in sharp contrast to the former references to wailing and other miseries, indicates a far deeper and more serious problem, by virtue of the unknown: that which cannot be seen or heard (silence) breeds that which cannot be comprehended or withstood (trouble). The allusions and indications of sight and sound are played upon continually in the denouement of the tragedy, and often to great effect, as in the final example, where we see that this metaphor of blindness and deafness, which has sustained its presence throughout the drama, is still effective and powerful: the blinded Oedipus begs of Creon to "drive me from here with all the speed you can to where I may not hear a human voice." (l. 1437) In consent to his wishes, then, this fate does indeed follow Oedipus: he is driven eventually to Colonus, where he is to meet his end away from the presence of all sensory mortals. It is interesting to note that in the Oedipus at Colonus tragedy, we seem to have come full circle in regards to the senses: the prophetic sign given to Oedipus in the hour of his death is once again one of synesthesia, as he is to depart when Zeus sends his "rolling thunder" -- the characters both see and hear this sign, and are touched by the awe-inspiring prophecy.

The whole of the Oedipus tragedy has then the underlying imagery of blindness, deafness, and general sensory deficiency; much of this seems to be caused by Oedipus' own refusal to acknowledge the ever-encroaching truth, but it can also be credited to the overwhelming importance of sight and sound to the reception of the tragedy by the characters themselves and by the audience. The literary devices used by Sophocles to enhance this reliance upon physical perception include the ever-present synesthesia, or mixing of the senses, as well as the use of music and poetical passages, all of which underscore once again the necessity of sensation and feeling to the explication of human emotions.


(1)  The edition of the Oedipus plays that I have used is the Grene and Lattimore translation (University of Chicago Press, 1991), whose line numbers and textual phrasings seem to be quite different from the Penguin translation used in class. Sorry for the inconvenience. [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1992 for Literature 10a at Pomona College.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Sight, Sound, and Sensation in the Oedipus Tragedy." Website Article. 20 October 1992. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/L10oedipus.html>.