The Use of Dramatic Irony in Sophocle's Oedipus the King

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The Use of Dramatic Irony in Sophocle's Oedipus the King

Tragedy as an element of the human experience has been the subject of many of the great works of literature written in the Western tradition. For some, tragedy embodies the highest form of humanity. It is through suffering that we are able to reveal ourselves most completely. Others see tragedy as an element of morality where we are to learn well the lessons of those who tempt the gods. The Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, outlined a theory of tragedy as archetypal drama in his classic work, the Poetics. He uses the play by Sophocles, Oedipus the King (hereafter "Oedipus"), as the standard model by which all other tragedies are measured. In Aristotle's view, a perfect tragedy should not be simple, but rather complex in its action. It is the degree of complexity of the tragedy, the true increase in the amount of suffering that the heroic character has to go through, that intensifies the use of this device. The truly tragic figure will go through the play experiencing gradually increasing amounts of knowledge which reveal more horrible details. At each revelation, the audience has already been made aware of the tragic event so it is prepared and waiting for the hero's downfall.

To achieve true tragic circumstances, a clear reversal of fortune is required to occur to the main character. This reversal of fortune, above and beyond negative events, will then garner feelings of pity and fear in the hearts of the audience. As Aristotle states:

The change of fortunes should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come as a result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character either such as we have describe...

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...is destined to marry his mother after defeating the Sphinx. The audience, however, long familiar with the ancient myth, is mindful that in solving the riddle Oedipus further condemns himself.

These choices lead to the ultimate climax where Oedipus blinds himself and wanders the earth as punishment for his actions. The lack of knowledge of his fate combined with the audience's total familiarity with the myth provides for the greatest differential between knowing and not knowing. Dramatic irony, used throughout the play to emphasize the power of fate, is ultimately used as the closing statement of man's frailty in the face of infinite justice.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. 12 July 2005. http:classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.mb.txt

Gwynn, R. S. Drama: A Pocket Anthology, Second Edition. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc, 2002.
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