Dramatic irony in Oedipus the King

Here are a few of the places where the audience’s prior knowledge of the full story enables dramatic irony.  A character -- in this case Oedipus or IocastÍ -- makes a remark that he or she understands to apply to the facts in a particular manner, but the audience understands that it applies as well, or instead, to facts the character is ignorant of, and that, when eventually brought to light for them, will radically change their circumstances. 

Of course, dramatic irony as such is not necessarily tragic.  In comedy, for example, the change in circumstances dramatic irony portends can be for the better.  But some of the most famous and powerful uses of dramatic irony are associated with tragedy, where it serves to emphasize how limited human understanding can be even when it is most plausible, and how painful can be the costs of the misunderstandings, in some sense inevitable, that result. 

Here, too, though, a caution is in order.  We will miss much if we insist on seeing only this general fact.  The particular "flavor" and thematic resonance of individual instances of dramatic irony in a given tragedy will depend on the particular circumstances of that individual work.  The questions at the end of this memo are designed to prompt us to take stock of the what may be special about what Sophocles wants to use dramatic irony to emphasize in this particular work.  We should remain open to the possibility that even the same playwright, in another work (for example, Sophocles in his AntigonÍ), might undertake to use the same general effect to quite different thematic ends.

[Numbers in brackets are the page references to our text, Kennedy and Gioia's Literature:  An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, in the 7th Edition & the Shorter 2nd Edition, respectively.  Recall that the Fitts/Fitzgerald translation used there uses the term "scene" to refer to the segment of action (exchange between characters) that takes place before an Ode.  In this scheme, the action of Oedipus the King breaks into 4 scenes, each followed by an ode, and all together preceded by the Parodos, and followed by the Exodos.  Dramatic irony is confined to the first 3 scenes, because it is Scene IV that Oedipus learns the full truth about his situation, and in the Exodos he expresses the various aspects of the misery into which this discovery plunges him.]

There are additional instances of dramatic irony in Oedipus the King.  Here we are singling out only some of the most prominent.

[1261 / 967]
Scene I, ll. 3-34, 41-56:  Oedipus’ exhortation and oath.
[1262 / 968]
Scene I, ll. 60-65:   Choragos’ question and Oedipus’ reply.
[1269 / 975]
Scene II, ll. 38-40:  Oedipus’ reproach of Creon.
[1273 / 979]
Scene II, ll. 199-200, in the immediate context of ll. 181-205 — dialogue between IocastÍ and Oedipus.
[1276 / 982]
Scene II, ll. 289-90, in the immediate context of ll. 181-205 — Oedipus on the possibility that he killed LaÔos. (Remember:  the question of whether LaÔos is his father is a distinct one, and hasn’t yet occurred to Oedipus).
[1282 / 988]
Scene III, ll. 147-48 and 160-61, in the immediate context of ll. 136-65:  Oedipus’ dismissal of IocastÍ’s plea that he terminate the inquiry.

Some issues to explore in connection with the passages cited above.  The point here is to try to appreciate what might be the particular effects Sophocles seems to be concerned to use dramatic irony to evoke in this particular work, and what might be the thematic ends these in turn could be serving.  Something like these should occur to us whenever we recognize we are dealing with dramatic irony. 

(1) What reflections would these moments stimulate in the minds of the audience?

Each is of course a moment of intense dramatic irony.  But in what exactly, in each particular case, does this irony, for the audience, consist? 

How do these instances of dramatic irony depend on the protagonist’s hamartia in the sense of "missing the mark" (a misjudgment about the reference of a key term)?

(2) What feelings would these thoughts in turn tend to arouse?

(3) How do these thoughts and feelings relate in turn to the ideas expressed by Choros and Choragos in

[1285-86 / 991-92]
Ode IV — Consider the whole; then re-read the opening (ll. 1-9), which applies not just to Oedipus but to mankind as a whole.
[1294 / 1000]
The final lines of the play (Exodos. ll. 292-300),

Remember, this is being spoken by Choragos to the Choros ("men of Thebes"), who within the scene of the play, have been spectators of the action concerning Oedipus and IocastÍ.  In this respect, the Choros is parallel to Sophocles' direct audience, the men of Athens, his audience.  It is thus on the table to consider whether these lines articulate what some important part of what Sophocles wanted to prompt his countrymen to make of the spectacle they've just witnessed.  By the accidents of history, it may be, they come to be addressed, ultimately, to us.

  Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome.  Please send them to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright © 2000 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

      This page last updated 20 February 2000.