What are some examples of Sophocles’s use of dramatic irony in his play Oedipus Rex?  

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Dramatic irony arises from a circumstance in which an audience member knows something about a character or situation in a play that a character doesn't know.

A person unfamiliar with the ancient Greek Oedipus myth as dramatized in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex would experience far fewer examples of dramatic irony...

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Dramatic irony arises from a circumstance in which an audience member knows something about a character or situation in a play that a character doesn't know.

A person unfamiliar with the ancient Greek Oedipus myth as dramatized in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex would experience far fewer examples of dramatic irony in the play than a person who is already familiar with the myths surrounding Oedipus.

An audience member watching a performance of Oedipus Rex at the Festival of Dionysus in 429 BC was already familiar with the Oedipus myth. They heard the myth repeated time and time again from a young age, and they knew the myth of Oedipus and the characters involved in the story as well as a modern audience member knows any fairy tale or superhero adventure story.

The playgoer in 429 BC knew before the play begins that Oedipus killed his father, Laius, and married his mother, Jocasta. They knew that Oedipus saved Thebes from the Sphinx. They knew the names of Oedipus and Jocasta's four children. They may have even known what Oedipus had for breakfast on the fateful day in Sophocles's play that Oedipus discovers that he did, in fact, kill his father and marry his mother.

An audience member attending Oedipus Rex in 429 BC wasn't interested in the story, which they already knew. They would have wanted to know how the playwright crafts the story, the changes and twists and turns, if any, that the playwright adds to the story, and the playwright's skill as a poet.

In Poetics, Aristotle praises Oedipus Rex as a perfect example of a Greek tragedy and cites Oedipus as a perfect example of a tragic hero. Aristotle refers to only one event in the play—when the messenger comes to Thebes to tell Oedipus that his adoptive father, Polybus, has died—and assumes that his reader knows the rest of the story.

For the audience member familiar with the Oedipus myth, almost the entirely of the play was an example of dramatic irony. They already knew what's going to happen. What they wanted to know was how the playwright made it happen.

For an audience member unfamiliar with the Oedipus myth, Oedipus Rex is a murder mystery: who killed Laius? The viewer watches the plot of the story unfold and picks up clues to the murder along the way. There's very little dramatic irony because the viewer has no idea what's going to happen.

In time, the viewer learns, along with Oedipus, that Oedipus killed Laius, just like Teiresias said he did. They also learn the whole backstory about Oedipus being fated by the gods to kill his father and marry his mother, how as a newborn baby Oedipus was taken to the mountains to die, how Oedipus came to be adopted by King Polybus and Queen Merope in Corinth, how Oedipus saved Thebes from the Sphynx, and all of the many other elements of the Oedipus myth that Sophocles managed to integrated seamlessly into Oedipus Rex.

Accordingly, in exploring and discussing elements of dramatic irony in Oedipus Rex or any other play based on well-known myths and legends, it's important to consider the point of view of the audience member and clearly distinguish between foreknowledge and hindsight.

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The other answer does an excellent job of listing specific examples, but it's also important to note the factor that unites them: the person who does not know the truth of the situation is almost always Oedipus. His metaphorical blindness to reality leads to his literal self-blinding at the end of the play.

In many plays, dramatic irony involves the audience knowing something that none of the characters do. However, in this play, one of the foundational texts of the tragic genre, other characters—Tiresias, the shepherd, etc.—have some crucial knowledge that Oedipus does not. In a way, Tiresias represents the audience, in that he has the painful knowledge that they also possess; the difference is that he, unlike the audience, is able to tell Oedipus the whole truth if he wants to. So, rather than being generalized to the whole cast of characters, the dramatic irony targets Oedipus specifically.

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“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.

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