Discuss dramatic irony and how it contributes to the theme and overall tragic vision of Oedipus the King as a whole.
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Much of the tension in the play is created in the situations where the truth is about to be revealed but the actors interupt and put off the revelation, especially Oedipus. The audience is aware of what this truth is, creating a situation of dramatic irony and also building the tension around the moments of potential revelation.
The fact that the truth is both what Oedipus wants and doesn't want is understood by the audience. This ambivalence leads to a big question - How will Oedipus' respond to the truth?
When we read this play in class, there's lots of uncomfortable laughter, and that comes directly from the dramatic irony. In one sense there's a deliciousness to hearing someone blow so hard with so little reason to do so; in another sense, hearing him condemn himself to curses you know are going to fall on him is awful. Knowing something the hero does not is a great feeling for the readers/audience; watching him fall because of what they know inspires pity and awe. Aristotle got it right.
The audience steel themselves for the fate that awaits Oedipus much as a parent or friend watches helplessly as someone who is too proud to listen to warnings falls into his fate. Tiresias and Creon and Jocasta all seek to avert the inevitable, but Oedipus, in his hubris, plunges himself headlong to his fate. The audience is left to wonder what flaws Oedipus possesses that he would insist upon receiving his fate in such a definitive manner. They can only feel sorrow for a man so tragically defeated.
First of all, remember that dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something the characters do not know. Consider then, that the most significant point of the story is the fact that Oedipus is trying to escape a fate that predicts he will kill his father and marry his mother.
The irony here is that the audience knows all along that in every character's attempt to make sure this fate does not come true, they only succeed in sealing it. Jocasta and Laius contribute when they try to get rid of Oedipus as a baby. Oedipus himself contributes when he lets his anger get the best of him (as a young man in Corinth) and flees the city in a rage.
The tragedy that stems from Oedipus' unfortunate (and apparently unavoidable) situation then grows when as the King of Thebes, Oedipus is completely ignorant of everything that has really happened in his life. As a result, he makes a promise to his people and unknowingly condemns himself to death. He curses the one person who knows the truth (Tiersias) in front of everyone. He allows his pride (hubris) to prevent him from seeing the truth and doing the right thing. The audience alone is aware of this and powerless to stop him.
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