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The Role of Ironies in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex


Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex deals with the tragedy of Oedipus and one understands that his tragedy was predetermined by fate. In Oedipus Rex, one finds the journey of Oedipus’s self from pride, hubris, anger, annoyance, self-disbelief and self-ignorance to self-discovery, self-realization and self-knowledge. But, unfortunately, Oedipus’ self discovery doesn’t lead him to light or redemption; instead it plunges him in to darkness, feeling of guilt and eternal doom, to follow his inevitable destiny.

The Greeks believed in the power of oracles, prophesies, predestination and myths, and were very much preoccupied with good and evil. Sophocles makes use of all these elements in Oedipus Rex and one can clearly understand that the play is abundant with a series of ironies. Sophocles employs a series of ironies all throughout the play to bring about dramatic effects in the play. One comes across a number of dramatic as well as verbal ironies all throughout the play. The fact that the Sophoclean audience is aware of the myth of Oedipus contributes to the dramatic ironies in the play and the audience very well know from the beginning of the play that Oedipus is the polluter of the land. The oracle predicts that Oedipus would be killing his own father and marrying his own mother. Since then, Oedipus tries to escape the inevitable fate that awaits him. The play thus depicts Oedipus’s futile attempt to escape the prophecy of the oracle and the greatest irony of the play is that al his efforts to evade the destiny bring him closer to it.

The play is full of dramatic ironies. Even when Oedipus is unaware of the actual reason for the plague the audience very well know that Oedipus is responsible for it and they also know for certain that Oedipus’ actual father is Laios and his mother is Jocasta. This contributes to a large number of dramatic ironies in the play. For instance, the utterances made by Oedipus such as “By avenging the murdered king I protect myself” ( 66), “I solemnly forbid the people of this country, where power and throne are mine, ever to receive that man or speak to him, no matter who he is, or let him join in sacrifice, lusration, or prayer” (68), “Thus I associate myself with the oracle and take the side of the murdered king” (68), are quite ironic as he himself is the murderer. Similarly, when Oedipus states: “They prophesied that I should kill Polybos. Kill my own father, but he is dead and buried, and I am here – I never touched him” (80), it is highly ironic as the audience know that Polybos is not his real father and that Oedipus has actually murdered his own biological father. One can also notice instances of dramatic irony when Jocasta tells Oedipus that the prophecy of the oracles regarding her son was wrong whereas in reality the oracle proved to be right. Thus, it can be concluded that whenever Oedipus condemns the murderer of Laios and plans to take revenge upon him, it is highly ironic that he is pointing fingers at himself.

One also comes across a lot of verbal ironies in the play even though they are not as prominent as the dramatic ironies. Verbal irony occurs “when a character says one thing but means another” (Verbal Irony: Irony in Oedipus Rex). The conversation between Teiresias and Oedipus is full of verbal ironies. For instance, when Teiresias tells Oedipus “I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind” (71), he is referring to the inner blindness, ignorance and lack of insight of Oedipus. The utterance also means that even though Tieresias is physically blind he can see the truth more clearly than Oedipus. The conversation between the two is also highly ironic as it foreshadows Oedipus’ own future blindness. This means that when Oedipus regains his inner sight and sees the truth he is forced to blind his physical sight. Similarly, when at the end Oedipus confesses “”I had neither sight nor knowledge then” (88), he is not referring to his physical sight, but to his lack of insight. One can also see instances of verbal ironies in the chorus’ commentary and Oedipus’ conversation with the shepherd in the play.

To conclude, it can be stated that Sophocles has very carefully employed a series of dramatic and verbal ironies in the play to heighten the suspense of the play; the use of ironies also enhance the effects of foreshadowing in the play. The effective use of dramatic and verbal ironies keeps the audience anxious to know what ultimately happens to Oedipus. The audience are likely to empathise with the character of Oedipus when he curses the murderer of Laius, condemns him, and wishes to banish him from the city because of the ironic treatment involved in these utterances. Similarly, the irony of Oedipus being clever enough to solve the riddle of the sphinx, yet being utterly devoid of self knowledge, also is evident in the play. Tieresias is the only character who knows the truth and it is the ignorance of other characters that leads to the series of ironies in the play. It can be concluded that the play assumes greater tragic depth due to the dominant dramatic and verbal ironies employed in it.

Works Cited
Sophocles. “Oedipus,” in Our Dramatic Heritage, trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. ed. Philip G. Hill. Madison: Fairleigh Dickson University Press, 1983.
Verbal Irony: Irony in Oedipus Rex. Randyn Plachinski, 2000. 23 Feb. 09.

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