Oedipus Rex a Greek tragedy written by Sophocles in the early days of antiquity is based upon an even more ancient story in Greek mythology. Sophocles, however, knowing that his audience is aware of the outcome of the play utilizes that foreknowledge to create various situations in which dramatic and verbal irony play key roles. However, citing all of the irony in Oedipus Rex would require the writing of quite a hefty book, for time and convenience only a few examples will be cited.
Through his use of irony Sophocles manages to avoid simply retelling an old tale, though the audience is cognizant of the story’s end they are intrigued by the irony present in the story. For instance when Oedipus pronounces his curse upon the head of King Laius’s murderer in the opening scenes of the play :
So will I fight on the gods’ side,
And on the side of the slain man!
But my curse be on the one who did this, whether he is alone
Or conceals his share in it with others.
Let him be free of no misery if he share my house
Or sit at my hearth and I have knowledge of it.
On myself may it fall, as I have called it down!
-Oedipus from Oedipus Rex
When Oedipus pronounces this sentence he has already unwittingly judged himself, and to the excitement of the crowd foreshadowed later events to come. This statement, is a classic example of verbal irony. In it Oedipus thinking that he is directing his pronouncement upon some bandit, or conspirator, in all actuality he is truly condemning himself. Further examples of irony include his speech when he first answers the chorus “Because of all these things I will fight for him as I would my own murdered father.” The irony inherent in this speech that Oedipus makes to the chorus lies for the most part in this single line, since the murdered King Laius is his father.
Sophocles does not reserve his use of irony to verbal irony, but he also ranges into areas of irony dramatic in nature. The entire play could be said to be an example of this, after all throughout the entire play Oedipus is unaware of the fate that awaits him, even though the viewer is intensely aware that Oedipus the King will become Oedipus the Beggar.
Sophocles was a pioneer in his field. The plays that he penned, that survived through the eons are revered as much now as they were during his day. He often wrote scripts for events in mythology that had already “occurred” and were common knowledge to the populace that viewed his productions. In order to keep these audiences returning for more, Sophocles made liberal use of irony. By doing this he tantalized the viewer into wanting to see how the events that occurred later would mentally affect the main character, in this case Oedipus.