Irony In Oedipus Rex

Explain the major ironies in Oedipus Rex and explain how irony emerges at each twist of the unfolding plot?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Undoubtedly, the greatest irony in the drama of Oedipus Rex is the fact that King Oedipus, who has rescued Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, seeks to rid the people of suffering again by advising them to seek out the murderer of King Laius, who ruled Thebes before Oedipus, while he unknowingly is the very cause of this suffering. There are, of course, other ironies that emerge as the play develops.


  • Oedipus issues the proclamation that any man who knows who killed Laius must tell him everything and

                                         further trouble
Will come to him, but he may leave the land in safety....
Let him not keep silent:  he shall have his reward from me. (216-219)

The irony here is that when Teiresias is accused by Oedipus of lying and is berated by him, not rewarded.

  • Oedipus also decrees that the man who did kill Laius shall never be spoken to and him shall driven from every house,
Being, as he is, corruption itself to us.... (227-228)

and he hopes that this murderer will not "[L]ay violent hands even on me..." Later, he ironically forbids the Thebans to ever "receive" or "speak" to the man who has murdered Laius.

  • Further, with dramatic irony, he curses himself, "I pray that that man's life be consumed in evil and wretchedness" (234). 
  • Then, he insists that Teiresias go to Apollo to learn who the murderer is that they can kill or exile him. When Teiresias replies with irony,

How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be 
When there's no help in truth! (304-305)

  • Later, Oedipus and Teiresias argue and, with dramatic irony, Oedipus accuses Teiresias of the crime he has committed,

Now twice you have spat out infamy. You'll pay for it! (348)

Even further, he accuses Teiresias of being blind and making a fool of himself for coming to him, telling the page to lead the seer away. But, before he goes, Teiresias makes a prediction that Oedipus will himself become a blind man.


Oedipus accuses his brother-in-law of having killed Laius and of wanting to be the ruler of Thebes, still not realizing that he is the man whom he seeks. Later, after Creon has left, Oedipus talks with Jocasta and begins to piece together what has really occurred, realizing that he has "Pronounce this malediction upon myself." That is, he has banished himself from Thebes and cursed himself to being shunned by all. Yet, he does not understand that Polybos and Merope are not his parents.


Ironically, Oedipus yet believes that the oracles are wrong, convinced that they have prophesied that he will kill Polybos and marry Merope. But a messenger arrives, a man who tells Oedipus that Polybus "was not your father." For, another shepherd gave the baby Oedipus to him, and he gave Oedipus to Polybus. Fearlessly, Oedipus replies with great dramatic irony,

However base my birth, I must know about it...
                                                                But I
Am a child of Luck; I can not be dishonored.
Luck is my mother; the passing month, my brother,
Have seen me rich and poor. (1022-1026)


After Oedipus learns the truth and realizes that he has fulfilled the prophecy against him, a second messenger comments of the irony of life; "The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves" (1262).