Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, (as translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald), is replete with dramatic devices – one of which is known as Sophoclean Irony. Sophoclean Irony can be divided into two terms: unconscious and conscious irony. Unconscious irony occurs when a character speaks what he believes is the truth, but the audience (fore-armed with knowledge of the truth) knows that it is not. Conscious irony is evident when a character knows the truth but is reluctant to reveal it: thus, he speaks cryptic lines deliberately intended to be ironic.
Both types of irony will be examined in this paper and passages from the text will be cited in support of this thesis. At the moment of his birth, Oedipus received a reading from the Delphic Oracle which stated that the baby was destined to grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. Shocked, his parents (King Laios and Queen Locaste of Thebes) try to circumvent Hera’s curse by turning the infant over to a loyal servant (The Theban Shepherd) to take to the top Mt. Cithaeron to be killed.
After nailing his ankles together and leaving him to die of the elements, the old shepherd relents and hands the child over to a traveling shepherd from Corinth to take back to the childless King and Queen to raise as their own son. For the next twenty years, Laios and Locaste rule in Thebes believing their son to be dead. Unfortunately, Hera sends a drought associated with a sphinx to bedevil Thebes. A desperate Laios travels back to the Delphic Oracle for a reading. Meanwhile, back in Corinth, Oedipus grows to manhood believing Polybos and Merope (the King and Queen of Corinth) are his real parents.
Soon, he too learns of his horrible fate and seeking to avoid it, he flees hi supposed homeland. As fate would have it, along the road, Oedipus meets Laios and kills him in a fit of rage. Thus, he has unwittingly fulfilled the first half of the prophecy. Traveling on to Thebes, Oedipus saves the city from the drought by solving the riddle of the sphinx. Declared the new King, he marries the widowed Queen (Locaste) – his mother. Thus, he has unknowingly fulfilled the second half of the prophecy. For the next two decades, Oedipus rules successfully in Thebes until Hera sends a second drought to plague the city.
After sending his brother-in-law, Creon, back to the Delphic oracle for a reading, Oedipus learns that the second drought will not be lifted until Laios’ killer is found and punished. An over-confident King takes charge of the investigation. At this point, Sophocles begins his play. Our first example of unconscious irony can be seen in a discussion about Laios by Oedipus and Creon. Oedipus says about Laios: “I know: I learned of him from others: I never saw him. ” (pg. 862, lines 108-109). This passage constitutes unconscious irony as Oedipus believes that he is speaking the truth – that he never met Laios.
Of course, the audience, armed with fore-knowledge, know that it is not. Oedipus not only has met Laios (his real father), he killed him at the crossroads “where three highways meet. ” Our second example of unconscious irony occurs a little in the same scene. Oedipus states that: Then once more I must bring what is dark to light. It is most fitting that Apollo shows, as you do, this compunction for the dead. You shall see how I stand by you as I should, to avenge the city and the city’s god, and not as though it were some distant friend, but for my own sake, to be rid of evil.
Whoever killed King Laios might who knows? Decide at any moment to kill me as well. By avenging the murdered King I protect myself. (pg. 863, lines 133-142) Here, Oedipus refers to the fact the whoever killed Laios might someday attempt to kill Oedipus. Thus, ironically, he feels that by finding the killer of Laios, he will be protecting himself. Of course, this is nonsense. He is unaware that his finding of Laios’ killer will not protect him – but destroy him. Our third example of unconscious irony is evident later in scene I, when the King ironically condemns himself with his own proclamation:
I make this proclamation to all Thebans: if any man knows by whose hand Laios , son of Labdakos, met his death, I direct that man to tell me everything, no matter what he fears for having so long withheld it. Let it stand as promised that no further trouble will come to him, but he may leave the land in safety. (pg. 865, lines 10-15) This passage constitutes unconscious irony as he condemns himself later in the play. He thinks that he is condemning the kill he is looking for. Our first example of conscious irony occurs later in scene I.
Again, following Creon’s advice, Oedipus decides to consult Tiresias, a famed blind prophet. Armed with mystical ability, Tiresias knows the truth about Oedipus’ horrible fate. He knows that the King is doomed so he is reluctant to reveal what he knows. As he enters the stage, the old man says: How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be when there is no help in truth. I know this well, but did not act on it. Else I should not have come. (pg. 868, lines 101-104) Since he knows how horrible the truth is about Oedipus’ fate, he is reluctant to reveal it. Thus, he speaks lines deliberately intended to be ironic.
Of course, Oedipus misinterprets Tiresias’ reluctance and begins to badger the old man. Our second example of conscious irony occurs moments later in the conversation when Tiresias know that Oedipus has no free will: “What does it matter? / Whether I speak or not, it is bound to come! ” (pg. 868, lines 120-121). These lines are spoken in a cryptic fashion deliberately intended to obscure the truth. Our third example of conscious irony takes place in scene III. After a visit by the Corinthian shepherd, Locaste has figured out the truth about Oedipus. She has crossed over from ignorance to knowledge.
Now she tries desperately to stop Oedipus from further investigation into his past: “For god’s love, let us have no more questioning;/ is your life nothing to you? / My own is pain enough for me to bear. ” (pg. 885, lines 140-142). She speaks cryptic lines here deliberately intended to obscure the truth. In the play, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles (as translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald), the playwright uses a dramatic device known as Sophoclean Irony. Both types of irony have been defined and passages were cited from the text in support of the thesis.