M. H. Abrams defines dramatic irony as a situation wherein:
“the audience or reader shares with the author knowledge of present or future circumastances of which a character is ignorant; in that situation, the character unknowingly acts in a way we recognize to be grossly inappropriate to the actual circumstances, or expects the opposite of what we know that fate holds in store, or says something that anticipates the actual outcome, but not aat all in the way that the character intends”(137).
Let us explore that feature in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.
From the very outset of the tragedy, Sophocles relies on heavy irony. E. T. Owens in “Drama in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus” comments:
We must bear in mind that Sophocles builds his effects on the audience’s presumed knowledge of the outcome. He has therefore constructed these early scenes also to get the most out of the ironic contrast between appearance and reality. For there is here the opportunity not only of progressively sharpening and deepening the “irony,” but of prolonging suspense, keeping the audience breathlessly waiting for the expected blow to fall” (32).
The protagonist’s fortunes are never higher than at the outset of the drama. The rising action has already occurred with his destruction of the Sphinx and his election as king. This is the high point of Oedipus’ fortunes, to which he will never return. At the outset of Oedipus Rex the reader sees a king who comes to the door full of curiosity: “Explain your mood and purport. Is it dread /Of ill that moves you or a boon ye crave?” When the priest, referring to Oedipus as “savior,” has responded that the people are despairing...
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... of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Woodard. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Owens, E. T.. “Drama in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex, edited by Michael J. O’Brien. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
“Sophocles” In Literature of the Western World, edited by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. NewYork: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1984.
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Transl. by F. Storr. no pag.
Van Nortwick, Thomas. Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
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