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Foreshadowing in Oedipus the King

Foreshadowing in Oedipus the King
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  • 0:03 Foreshadowing in…
  • 1:00 The Blind Seer
  • 2:03 The Delphian Oracle
  • 3:13 What's In a Name?
  • 3:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Have you ever re-watched a film or re-read a story, noticed a hint towards the story's shocking twist, and thought to yourself, ~'I should have known~'? Those hints are known as foreshadowing. This lesson will discuss the central role of foreshadowing in 'Oedipus the King' by Sophocles. We will discuss how Sophocles uses foreshadowing through the prophet Tiresias, the oracle at Delphi, and the meaning of Oedipus' name.

Foreshadowing in Oedipus the King

Many people today would know the stories of Cinderella, the Three Little Pigs, and Little Red Riding Hood before they watched someone acting them out. Because of this, they would expect the plot twists, such as Red Riding Hood's grandmother being a wolf in disguise. Ancient Greek audiences would similarly have been familiar with the story of Oedipus and, when they were watching Sophocles' play on the stage, would have recognized the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, hints of what was to come.

These hints are called foreshadowing, a plot device that clues the reader or audience into important developments to come. Sophocles uses foreshadowing to show the audience that terrible things are going to happen because Oedipus, without knowing, fulfilled his prophecy of killing his father and having sex with his mother. Sophocles uses the character of the prophet Tiresias, the communication with the oracle at Delphi, and the meaning of Oedipus' name to foreshadow what is to come in the play.

The Blind Seer

A central figure of the plot of Oedipus the King is Tiresias, a blind prophet, or seer, who knows the details of Oedipus' parentage and the death of King Laius, the king of Thebes who died before Oedipus took over. Tiresias provides most of the foreshadowing in the play in the form of dialogue, or discussions with other characters. Oedipus tries to remove the curse from Thebes by seeking justice for the murderer of Laius. Tiresias tells him, 'You yourself are the profane polluter of this land,' telling Oedipus in a round-about way that he is the one who murdered Laius. Oedipus, frustrated with Tiresias' vague foreshadowing, gets Tiresias to be more direct; the prophet says, 'I say that you are the murderer you are seeking.'

Although Oedipus dismisses Tiresias as insane, the audience would recognize the truth in his statements about Oedipus having killed Laius and being the reason for the curse of Thebes. Tiresias' state as a blind prophet also hints at Oedipus blinding himself at the end of the play when he learns that Tiresias' claims are true.

The Delphian Oracle

Although we never see the oracle at Delphi, she is essential in providing foreshadowing for the plot of Oedipus the King. In Greek culture, an oracle was a priest or priestess who would receive and relay messages from the gods. Before the play begins, the priestess gave Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes, the message that their future son would end up murdering his father. Because of this, when Oedipus was born, they bound his ankles and gave him to a servant to leave out on a mountain to die so that he would not fulfill his prophecy.

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