In the play written by Sophocles, Oedipus the King, there are several instances of irony. Dramatic irony, or tragic irony as some critics would prefer to call it, usually means a situation in which the character of the play has limited knowledge and says or does something in which they have no idea of the significance. The audience, however, already has the knowledge of what is going to occur or what the consequences of the characters actions will be. The degree of irony and the effect it has depends upon the readers’ grasp and recognition of some discrepancy between two things.
Our first taste of dramatic irony comes very early into the play when Oedipus vows to bring to justice the killer of Laius, which is in reality himself. When he learns that the bringing of justice of Laius’ killer will rid the city of a terrible plague, he sets forth with a plan to track down the killer. Oedipus begins to curse the killer and vows:
Oedipus: As for the criminal, I pray to God –
Whether it be a lurking thief, or one of a number –
I pray that that man’s life be consumed in evil and wretchedness.
And as for me, this curse applies no less (968)
This is very ironic, as Oedipus is indeed, without knowledge of the truth, talking about himself.
Another example of dramatic irony is the power of fate and Oedipus’ powerlessness against it. Throughout the play we are aware of Oedipus’ fate and we realize there is nothing that he can do to change it. When Oedipus tells his city after listening to their plea for help against the terrible sickness and plague that has taken over the city:
Oedipus: I know that you are deathly sick; and yet,
Sick as you are, not one is as sick as I. (963)
The audience understands the truth and the irony in that statement. Oedipus should not worry about himself becoming ‘sick’ for he is already infested with the sickness.
A third example of the irony of Oedipus is the fact that Oedipus seemed to be blind and deaf to the truth. He appears to be on a valiant search for the truth and justice of the killer of Laius, yet refuses to hear the truth when it is spoken to him. In order to hear the truth Oedipus needed to be able to hear and interpret it, yet he only heard what he wanted to hear. Therefore rendering him unable to understand the mystery of who he truly was.
In this play there seems to be a constant string of ironies throughout. Oedipus is in denial of the truth. In his dramatic speeches he misconstrues the information that he has been given by Teiresias, as well as Creon and Iocaste. The horrifying realization that the prophecy of the Sphinx is in fact the truth, causes Oedipus to blind himself. The audience therefore pities him, which is a result of the use of dramatic irony. The use of irony in a play allows the writer to make their audience want to see how the events which are occurring, mentally affect the main character, even if they already know how the story will end, as in Oedipus the King.
Kennedy, X.J., and Gioia Dana. “Oedipus the King” Literature: An Introduction to
Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 2nd edition. New York: Addison Wesley Longman,