Sophocles, the playwright of Oedipus Rex, often wrote scripts for events in mythology, which were common knowledge to the populace who viewed his productions. Set in the time of the Golden Period of Greece, Sophocles, knowing that his audience is aware of the outcome of the play, utilizes that foreknowledge to create various situations in which irony plays a key role. By using irony in a play, playwrights can tantalize pre-enlightened viewers into wanting to see how the events occurring mentally affect the main character.
The audience receives a large amount of irony in the first few minutes of the play. When Oedipus learns that the bringing to justice of Laius’ killer will rid the city of its plague, he sets out on a path to track down the killer. Oedipus begins cursing the killer of Laius (in reality himself), and proclaims:-
“I mean to fight for him now, as I would fight
This is very ironic, as Oedipus’ father is in fact Laius: so Oedipus is fighting for his own father.
Oedipus’ determination for truth and justice leads to his own downfall. He tells the city that he will avenge the murder of Laius, no matter what obstacles are placed in his way:-
“There is nothing I will not do. Certain it is
That by the help of God we stand – or fall.”
It is this very resolve that leads to his downfall and the city’s shame. The statement is also a prophecy – in his triumph, Oedipus will fall.
Oedipus also claims the killer might try and kill him next, and so by “…serving Laius, I serve myself.” Ironically, Oedipus feels that by finding the killer of Laius, he will be protecting himself. Of course, this is nonsense, as he is unaware that his finding of Laius’ killer will not protect him – but destroy him. In fact, the entire ideal of helping the city be rid of the curse is ironic, as it was Oedipus himself who caused the plague in the first place.
The characters also create irony themselves, as is shown when Teiresias enters the stage and, reluctant to reveal what he knows, says:-
“To be wise is to suffer. And why did I forget this,
Who knew it well? I never should have come.”
Since he knows how horrible the truth is about Oedipus’ fate, he is hesitant to reveal it. Thus, he speaks cryptic lines deliberately intended to be ironic, and cover up the truth.
Teiresias also knows that Oedipus will eventually meet his downfall over this matter, and states “have you eyes, and do not see your own damnation?” Teiresias is the blind man who sees, and Oedipus is the seeing man who is blind. This is known by the audience, and Teiresias, all of who know what is going to happen at the end of the play – making it a skillful example of irony against Oedipus.
Moments later Teiresias again prophesies Oedipus’ demise:-
“But, as shall presently appear, a Theban born,
To his cost. He that came seeing, blind shall he go;
Rich now, then a beggar; stick-in-hand, groping his way
To a land of exile; brother, it shall be shown,
And father at once, to the children he cherishes; son,
And husband to the woman who bore him; father-killer,
The irony inherent in Teiresias’ parting shot at Oedipus is well known by the audience: Oedipus did kill his father and marry his mother. It is also ironic to note that Teiresias’ prophecy of Oedipus’ fate is almost exactly the same as the riddle of the Sphinx – begun as a strong man, ended as a cripple.
In Greek tragedies, oracles and prophecies are employed primarily to foreshadow events and help create ironies within the play. They are usually disregarded by the characters, or passed off as incorrect, and this is how they create irony. One example of this is Jocasta’s continual refusal to accept the prophecies. She states that “no man possesses the secret of divination”, and then proceeds to speak of the prophecy she was given regarding Oedipus as a child – unbeknownst to her, a prophecy already become true.
When Jocasta learns of the death of Oedipus’ “father”, Polybus, she laughs at the prophecies, saying:-
“Where are you now, divine prognostications!
The man whom Oedipus has avoided all these years,
Lest he should kill him – dead! By a natural death,
Jocasta will not admit to herself that Polybus isn’t Oedipus’ father, and instead speaks cryptic lines, to try and convince herself that she hasn’t been mothering ill-begotten children with her son.
When Jocasta finally admits to herself that she has married her son, she begs him to not continue his investigation, lest he find out himself:-
“(white with terror) what does it matter
What man he means? It makes no difference now…
Forget what he has told you… It makes no difference.”
Oedipus then states that he will continue until he has unraveled the mystery of his birth, to which Jocasta replies:-
“No! In God’s name – if you want to live, this quest
Must not go on. Have I not suffered enough?”
Jocasta pleads with Oedipus to not continue his investigation, lest he ironically find out about his past. Unfortunately, Oedipus’ Hubris leads him to do so, and he eventually discovers the truth…
…giving to the audience the moral of the play: that no man can defeat the Gods’ will. At the start of the play, Oedipus the King is revered as “Oedipus, O greatest of men”. By the end of the play, the pity of all for Oedipus the Beggar – “the man the deathless gods hate most of all” – is summed up by the chorus: “I wish you had never known”. The basic theme of Oedipus Rex is the irony of fate: no mortal man, no matter how powerful and wealthy, can be pronounced happy until he is dead; for no man, however wise, knows what tomorrow will bring.
In Oedipus Rex, the anagnorsis to Oedipus causes him to blind himself. The audience therefore pities him, and is positioned to do so through the use of irony. The use of irony in a play allows playwrights to make audiences want to see how the events occurring mentally affect the main character, even if they already are aware of the story, as shown in Oedipus Rex.