Dramatic Irony in Oedipus Rex: Quotes & Examples

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  • 0:05 Oedipus Rex: Background
  • 0:37 Definition of Dramatic Irony
  • 1:30 Examples of Dramatic Irony
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ansley Stephenson

Ansley is a former high school English teacher with a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in English Education.

'Oedipus Rex' is a play known for its countless examples of dramatic irony. In this lesson, we'll learn the definition of dramatic irony and look at some of those moments in the play.

Oedipus Rex: Background

Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex is a Greek tragedy, a type of play that uses characters the audience already knows. As all Greek tragedies do, it features a tragic hero. Tragic heroes are characterized by a fatal flaw, usually pride, that leads to their downfall. Sophocles' audience was familiar with the tragic hero Oedipus' background: that he unknowingly killed his father, King Laius, and married his mother, Jocasta. Oedipus hasn't realized that yet, which creates some great examples of dramatic irony in the play.

Definition of Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is irony that the audience understands but that the characters don't see. In other words, dramatic irony happens when a character says or does something that makes it clear they're missing some important information.

It's like when you watch the movie Titanic. It's based on a famous moment in history: when the supposed 'unsinkable' ship hits an iceberg and sinks. Although we know how the story will end, the characters in the movie don't. We see dramatic irony when the characters do something, like expressing excitement about boarding the luxurious Titanic, or say something, such as 'God himself could not sink this ship. That shows they definitely don't know what we know: that ship is sinkable.

Sophocles created Oedipus Rex around the idea that the audience knows Oedipus' background but Oedipus himself doesn't; a great set-up for dramatic irony. In fact, it could be argued that Oedipus Rex is the most ironic play ever performed.

Examples of Dramatic Irony

Oedipus says:

'I did not think it fit that I should hear

of this from messengers but came myself,

I Oedipus whom all men call the Great.'

The play opens with a scene already full of dramatic irony. The city of Thebes is suffering from a plague and the people have turned to their king, Oedipus, for help. In the past, he saved them from the Sphinx, so they trust that he can solve this problem as well. Of course, neither the citizens of Thebes nor Oedipus himself realize that he is the reason for the curse on the city.

Oedipus states:

'Whoe'er he be, I order

That… all men from their houses banish him;

Since it is he contaminates us all,

Even as the Pythian oracle divine

Revealed but now to me.'

At this point in the play, an oracle has told Oedipus that there is a plague in the city of Thebes because the former king's murderer has never been found and punished. In this quote, Oedipus is referring to the murderer; he declares that once found, the murderer must be banished. This is dramatic irony because although we know Oedipus murdered King Laius, Oedipus doesn't, which means he also doesn't realize he's banishing himself. It's also interesting that he mentions the oracle revealing something to him, since it was an oracle early in his life who warned him about killing King Laius.

Oedipus says:

'On these accounts I, as for my own father,

Will fight this fight, and follow out every clue,

Seeking to seize the author of his murder.'

Again, Oedipus insists that he'll make sure Laius's murderer is punished, unknowingly cursing himself. He says that he'll search out the murderer with all his might, as he would for his own father. The declaration is an example of dramatic irony because he vows to find the murderer of his own father… he just doesn't realize Laius is his father or that he is the murderer, as we do.

The prophet Tiresias says:

'I say you know not in what worst of shame

You live together with those nearest you,

And see not in what evil plight you stand.'

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