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Oedipus Rex: Dramatic Irony in Greek Tragedy

What is Dramatic Irony?

It is a literary device used frequently in the world of Greek Tragedy, where the audience knows something that the characters are unaware of. This technique is found throughout Greek Tragedy as the audience primarily consisted of Athenian citizens who were extremely familiar with the myths being depicted onstage. Dramatic irony can be used by the playwright to build suspense, emphasise certain plot points and generally create tension between characters. The tragic plot itself relies heavily on ‘anagnorisis’, the moment where the protagonist recognises a fatal flaw they have made which leads to their downfall. This moment of fatal recognition is the crescendo of dramatic irony as the characters begin to understand their situation in a way the audience had the entire time.

Why Oedipus Rex?

This article will examine dramatic irony in Sophocles’ masterful Oedipus Rex. The plot of the play is underpinned with dramatic irony with many of the protagonist’s misdeeds already occurring unbeknownst to himself, and everyone else, prior to the beginning of the plot. Aristotle himself cited Oedipus Rex as the best example of the Greek Tragic plot.

What happens in the Tragedy?

Oedipus rules as monarch over the city-state of Thebes with his wife Jocasta. The city has recently been struck by a plague and the citizen body turn to their king for help. The ever-proactive Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi to decipher the cause of this plague. The oracle reveals that the plague is caused by the murder of the previous king, Laius, and can only be abated once this murdered is killed. Oedipus, shocked at the Thebans’ previous failure to follow-up this murder, launches an investigation into Laius’ case. This leads Oedipus to consult the blind oracle Tiresias who labels Oedipus the murdered and hints at his incest. The final scenes consist of a series of messenger speeches which reveal that Oedipus is in fact Laius’ son as well as his murderer. Oedipus’ realisation that he has murdered his father and borne children with his mother leads into his infamous self-blinding and exile from Thebes.

Gaps in the characters’ knowledge

It is revealed that Laius and Jocasta were told a prophecy that Laius would be murdered by his own son and so left the infant Oedipus to die on a nearby mountain. From Jocasta and Laius’ perspective their only child died there that day. Unknown to them, Oedipus was rescued by a shepherd and eventually adopted by the rulers of Corinth, Polybus and Merope. Oedipus grows up under the assumption that he is the heir to the Corinthian throne until he is told by a drunkard at a banquet that Polybus is not his real father. An outraged Oedipus consults the oracle at Delphi who reveals to him that he will one day murder his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus is understandably shocked by this prophecy and vows to never return to his ‘parents’ in Corinth and so decides to travel to a new city. On the roads to Thebes, Oedipus encounters Laius and the two men come into a disagreement that escalates into a fight. The younger and fitter Oedipus slays Laius and thinks very little of it. Oedipus arrives at Thebes and finds that it is under attack by a malevolent Sphinx. Oedipus is told by the citizens that if we can decipher the Sphinx’s riddle he will be rewarded with the now vacant role of King of Corinth and the widowed Jocasta. Oedipus solves the riddle and defeats the Sphinx and is justly rewarded. Oedipus rules with Jocasta and has two daughters with her, completely unaware that she is his mother and that the man he killed on the roads to Thebes was not only the former king but his real father. These events all occur several years before the events of Oedipus Rex but are referenced throughout the play and would be known by the ancient audience.

Dramatic Irony in Oedipus Rex

The first element of dramatic irony occurs before a first line is even uttered. Oedipus’ decisions up to the start of the play were focused entirely on trying to avoid the dreaded prophecy he heard as a young man from the oracle. However, it is these very actions that lead him directly back to Thebes and fulfilling the prophecy. His ‘parents’ he thought he was saving in Corinth are in fact of no relation to him.

An initial example of dramatic irony in the play arises from Oedipus’ vow to drive the plague of Thebes. Once Oedipus learns from Creon that the cause of the plague is Laius’ murderer who still lives in the city, he declares a series of proclamations. This includes a curse on the mystery murderer with Oedipus proclaiming, “let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step” (283). The dramatic irony here is multi-faceted. Not only is Oedipus unknowingly cursing himself, but his eventual fate matches his prescribed curse. The tragedy ends with Oedipus in agony having just blinded himself as he limps out of Thebes. This is followed up by Oedipus claiming that if the murderer has deceived him and managed to hide in the royal house then, “may the curse I just called down on him strike me!” Oedipus has effectively cursed himself twice. This scene as a whole is permeated in dramatic irony with Oedipus making claims such as “If I’d been present then, there would have been no mystery” (249-250) or that he and Laius would have been friends as any children they have share the same mother and so they have a blood bond (295-298).

The argument between Oedipus and the prophet Tiresias is a hotbed for dramatic irony. Tiresias’ claim that Oedipus has caused the plague does not sit well with the King. Oedipus puns on the Prophet’s blindness by suggesting he is a, “seer blind in his craft!” (442). There is a great deal to unpack here. Firstly, this is ironic as Oedipus is the one blind to his current situation whereas Tiresias is very much aware of everything that has happened in Oedipus’ past. Tiresias makes this distinction between literal and metaphorical blindness when he says that Oedipus is, “blind to the corruption of your life” (471). Oedipus has been blind to his reality his whole life. He never realised Polybus and Merope were not his real parents, he failed to recognise Laius as his father and now he cannot see that he is the cause of the plague in Thebes. Ironically, once Oedipus finally begins to ‘see’ the truth he becomes physically blind himself just like Tiresias. Oedipus begins the play as physically able to see but figuratively blind, and ends the play as the inverse.

Finally, the character of Jocasta serves as a focal point for many of the most ironic moments in the play. Jocasta attempts to reassure Oedipus after his encounter with Tiresias by arguing that it is impossible for any mortal to prophesise the future. Jocasta tries to prove her point by referring to her experiences with prophets. She says that an oracle once told her that her late husband would be killed by his own son. Jocasta goes on to say that Laius was in fact killed by a band of thieves and their child was left to die on a mountain and so prophets cannot be trusted. The irony here is that this prophecy was in fact carried out and the very man who caused it is Oedipus himself. Oedipus is being reassured about his own fatal prophecy with the very same prophecy he has already fulfilled. The irony continues in this scene as Jocasta’s account reminds Oedipus of his encounter with Laius on the roads to Thebes. He begins to fear that he may be the murderer and asks for a description of Laius to which Jocasta replies, “his build…wasn’t far from yours.” This line must have evoked a great deal of dramatic irony for the Athenian audience and indeed a modern one. Jocasta is so close to unearthing the truth that it creates a tension in the plot that builds towards the anagnorisis of the final scene.

Concluding thoughts

Dramatic irony is a vital part of tragedy as the tragic plot revolves around circumstances in which characters unknowingly cause their own downfall and the downfall of others. This is seen most clearly in Oedipus Rex, as the main plot device is the ignorance of the primary characters to a fate they have already fulfilled. This irony is intentional as a Sophoclean innovation of the Oedipus myth was to make the fatal moment of discovery come about through Oedipus’ own investigation as opposed to the divine intervention of previous myths.

Translation used: Sophocles, Fagles, R, (1984), The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. London: Penguin Classics

Written by Harry Ferrigno (2020)

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