“Dramatic irony” has been briefly and helpfully defined at dictionary.com as follows:
irony that is inherent in speeches or a situation of a drama and is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play.
Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex displays numerous examples of dramatic irony, including the following:
- At one point Oedipus declares that the man who killed Laius may also kill Oedipus (167-69; Ian Johnston translation; see link below). He does not know, of course, that he is the man who killed Laius, although anyone familiar with the Oedipus legend would know this.
- Oedipus ironically proclaims that by avenging Laius he will serve himself (170).
- Oedipus vows to discover the criminal lest a “common ruin” afflict Thebes (177). Of course, by discovering the criminal (himself) he ruins his own life.
- At one point Oedipus declares,
If someone knows the killer is a stranger,
from some other state, let him not stay mute. (268-69)
Oedipus, of course, was originally not from Thebes.
- Oedipus declares that the killer of Laius is the cause of the city’s “pollution” (281), not realizing, of course, that he is the killer of Laius.
- Oedipus hopes that the killer of Laius will suffer “the worst of agonies” (287) – a fate, of course, that will eventually be his own.
- Oedipus says,
. . . I pray, too,
that, if he should become an honoured guest
in my own home and with my knowledge,
I may suffer all those things I’ve just called down
upon the killers. (288-92)
The dramatic irony of this prayer should be obvious.
- Oedipus notes that he is now married to Laius’s wife, not realizing, of course, that this woman is his own mother (303).
- Oedipus laments that “fate swooped down” on Laius’s head (308), not realizing that fate is about to swoop down on his own head.
- When Tiresias will not tell Oedipus what Tiresias knows about the killing, Oedipus calls him the “most disgraceful of disgraceful men!” (399) – a description that will later fit Oedipus himself especially well.
- Oedipus accuses Tiresias of having had some role in Laius’s death – an ironic accusation if there ever was one (412-17).
- Tiresias tells Oedipus that someday the latter’s eyes will be dark (505-06), but there is no way at this point for Oedipus to realize that he will later blind himself.
- Tiresias reveals many specific details about the killer’s identity (546-59), but Oedipus cannot see (as the audience can) how these details are relevant to his own life.
- Oedipus accuses Creon of having killed Laius (640), not realizing that he himself is the killer.
As should be obvious by now, the specific dramatic ironies that exist in Oedipus Rex are almost too numerous to list, making it one of the most ironic plays ever written. Anyone who reads the play for a second time or who knows the Oedipus legend before reading it cannot help but be struck by the tremendous number of particular dramatic ironies the play reveals.