Dramatic Irony in Oedipus the King
To understand how brilliant Sophocles uses dramatic irony in “Oedipus the King” we should clearly define what is dramatic irony. The dramatic irony has not much in common with the irony we are used to: it is not funny (or is, but in extremely bitter way). It is the situation, when the audience already knows the answer to the question the characters try to solve.
They understand that everything is going to end on a grim note, but the characters are still struggling, not knowing that their efforts are worthless. William Shakespeare was a great master of the dramatic irony, but the oldest and one of the most wonderful works that uses it belongs to the playwright of Ancient Greece, Sophocles.
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The plot of “Oedipus the King” starts from the weird prophecy Oedipus’ father, also the King, receives from the oracle. The oracle proclaims that the baby, who will be born by the queen will kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified by the prophecy, the Kind orders to take newborn Oedipus and leave him far away in the mountains for the mercy of the gods.
Luckily, the shepherd, who was chosen to complete the grim task, meets his colleague from another kingdom. The two men discuss the cruel order (they don’t know the real reason the King wants to kill his son) and the other shepherd agrees to take the baby across the border and raise him in another kingdom.
But when the shepherd returns home, he decides to show the baby to his own King and Queen. The Queen, who desperately wants to have a son, decides to adopt the baby and raise him as her own and a prince. Young Oedipus grows up a strong and handsome man, but then, when he comes to the oracle to ask about his fate, he receives the same prophecy: he will kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified and disgusted, Oedipus leaves his kingdom, deciding to stay away from his parents. Not knowing that he is adopted, he swears not to return home to avoid killing and disgracing his beloved family.
The first of the many instances of dramatic irony used in “Oedipus the King”: the young prince heads to the kingdom of King Laius – his real father. He flees from the prophecy, but we, as the audience, already understand that he runs straight to his fate. On his way to the palace Oedipus encounters an old nobleman riding somewhere. The guards of the man rudely demanded Oedipus to step back and the young man refused.
A fight started and the prince managed to kill almost everyone including the nobleman himself. Such encounters on the roads weren’t uncommon at the times of Ancient Greece, so Oedipus continued his way to the capital to introduce himself to the royal family. He doesn’t know who was the man murdered by him, but, due to dramatic irony used here, we, the audience already understand that the first part of the prophecy is fulfilled. Unwillingly, Oedipus kills his father.
When Oedipus comes to the palace, he learns that King Laius disappeared and Queen Jocasta is now considered a widow. After a while of being in the palace, the young prince becomes so beloved by the people that finally he marries the Queen and takes the throne for himself. The second part of the prophecy becomes true. But the real tragedy only starts to unfold.
The actual play starts from the point when Oedipus, now already the King, the husband of Jocasta and the father of several kids, learns that the plague came to his land. Desperate, Oedipus turns to the oracle, asking for the way to cure it. The oracle replies that the plague is the curse from the gods that will be removed only after the death of King Laius is avenged. King Oedipus comes to the main square and makes a promise before all his people: he will find the murderer, blind them and exile them forever.
This is one of the most heartbreaking instances of dramatic irony in all the play. We see Oedipus as a good man, caring father and husband and a competent ruler of his country who genuinely worries about the wellbeing of his people. He doesn’t deserve the ugly fate that is prepared for him, yet he condemns himself before his own people, family and gods.
The line of events that follows slowly reveals the mystery of the Oedipus’ origins, but he remains oblivious to it. This is also a good metaphor, because he orders to blind the murderer of King Laius – though the murderer is already blind, unable to notice ominous signs that are coming again and again. When the shepherd – who appeared to be the last guard of the old nobleman who survived – comes to the palace as witness and tells almost the whole story, Oedipus is still unable to comprehend (or unwilling to) what had happened to him.
Jocasta is the one who solves the case. She pleads her husband to step back and not ask the shepherd any more questions, but, devoted to his oath, the King angrily sends her away. When the truth is finally revealed, one of the servants storms into the throne room to report that the Queen killed herself.
Now it is time for the final example of dramatic irony used in the play and also the climactic point. The last time we see Oedipus is when he softly says farewell to his children, asking their uncle to care about them until the older son will be able to inherit the throne. We know what should happen next, though we desperately want something to stop the King from it. Still, Oedipus is faithful to his promises to the end. He blinds himself and goes into exile, intended to die and to release his land from the curse.
The main aesop of the play is that no one can go against the will of the gods and fight fate, no matter how good and noble they are by themselves. But “Oedipus the King”, the tragedy that becomes the golden standard and defines the very concept of dramatic irony, gives us something more than the strong characters and a downer ending.
The story itself is very sad and tragic, but it becomes much more heart-wrenching because of the ways the author uses dramatic irony in it. We know that the prophecy should be fulfilled. This ominous shadow of dark knowledge makes the pastoral images of Oedipus’ family life and his duty as a King much more bitter. We know that it should end in the most horrible way possible. When he himself declares that he will find the murderer and punish him – he is completely right, as a King and as a man of honor.
Each step of Oedipus’ life is justified – as a loving son he leaves his home and changes the fate of the prince to the life of a vagabond, just to get his parents out of danger. Later he kills a man in self-defence: Oedipus isn’t the one who starts the fight with Laius. He arrives to the capital and wins the heart of the people with his intelligence and ability to solve their troubles. No wonder that he also wins the heart of Jocasta who, oblivious to Oedipus’ real origins, gladly agrees to marry the handsome and clever foreign prince.
Later he rules his kingdom wisely and raises his kids to be good people. He does everything right, but the ultimate meta dramatic irony is the fact that if Oedipus were a worse man – not so devoted to his family, brave to stand while being outnumbered, noble to charm Jocasta etc. – nothing would happen. Everything destined to him was based on his personality – of a good man and good king. It isn’t a punishment for his sins or even the sins of his ancestors: we never see any reason at all.
The life isn’t just or fair: he never did something to deserve such a horrible fate, but it is inscribed for Oedipus before his birth and can’t be changed even by the gods, who willingly curse his land. The major part of his personal tragedy is that he is a victim of his own positive traits for no visible reason. The fate of Oedipus is never explained, there is no divine plan for it and no divine intervention to prevent it. The tragedy torments us with painful waiting until the worst happens and the happiness of Oedipus and his family only adds intensity to the pain.