The Use of Irony in Sophocles's King Oedipus.

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James Moran     01/11/2001

The Use of Irony in Sophocles’s King Oedipus


Irony has many forms or definitions depending upon the situations in which it used, and the effect it achieves. We will discuss Sophocles’s extensive use of irony in his play King Oedipus.   

        The central character Oedipus is introduced as egotistical, separating himself from the masses with the constant use of the pronoun ‘I’. He feels pretty pleased with himself, after all he has altered the destiny of the people of Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, or so he believes. Now they come to him again for help, but in doing so they begin a process in which his own arrogance leads to his downfall. Throughout the play we see Oedipus deluded by his high opinion of himself, and his ability to change the fate mapped out for him by the Gods. He had left his ‘home’ in Corinth because of a prophecy he relates in lines 792 to794.

        How I must marry my mother,

        And become the parent of a misbegotten brood,

An offence to all mankind - and kill my father.

Although Oedipus learns that a similar prophecy is attributed to the son of Laius, the previous king of Thebes and the former husband of Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta, his unstinting faith in his version of the ‘truth’ does not allow alarm bells to ring in his mind. This situation where the main character is deluded and ignorant of the real circumstances in which he or she finds himself or herself is called ‘Structural Irony’. When it is used it gives the audience a feeling of superiority at the expense of the character. We as onlookers can clearly see that which seems beyond the wit of Oedipus. Is this use effective, it may lead us to think that the character is naïve or unintelligent. Can we be sympathetic to a character that appears this way, and if we are not sympathetic could we become apathetic to the play as a whole. There is a danger that this could be so, unless the characters’ credentials are paraded for all to see, and Sophocles does this with Oedipus’s solving of the riddle of the Sphinx.  

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Oedipus expects to bring the killer of Laius to justice, and sets out the punishment the perpetrator will receive in lines 235 to 238.

I here pronounce my sentence upon his head:

No matter who he may be, he is forbidden

Shelter or intercourse with any man.

In all this country over which I rule.

We of course realise that Oedipus is unwittingly pronouncing judgement upon himself. This is a situation where the audience and the character can have paradoxically different perceptions of the same statement. We call this ‘Dramatic Irony’ and it has subtle differences with Structural Irony ...

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