Use of Irony in Oedipus Rex Many sources tell us that Sophocles wrote more then one hundred plays, but only seven of them have survived the centuries in their entirety. Certainly the best known of his surviving plays is Oedipus Rex. The plot of the play hinges on the element of irony. Irony can be defined as a combination of circumstances or a result that is the opposite of what is or might be expected or considered appropriate, (Guralnik, Webster’s, 1968, p. 745).
Irony is one of the prevailing and defining characteristics of the play. The first event that sets the whole tragic tale in motion is when Laius, King of Thebes, is told by a prophet that any child that is born to him and his queen, Jocasta, will murder him. Therefore, when a child is born to him, he pierces the baby’s ankles with a spike, ties them together, and has a servant leave the child on Mount Cithaeron to die from exposure. This is ironic because if Laius had not attempted to murder his own child, Oedipus would not have been found and raised by strangers. He would have known Jocasta was his mother. Ironically(and disgustingly, Oedipus marries her and produces several children).
Also, without his violent temper, he would not have killed his father on the road to the Oracle if had had been aware of his identity. As a baby, Oedipus is found by a shepherd, and taken back to Corinth where he is raised as the son of King Polybus, and his queen, Merope. After he is grown, Oedipus is told by a drunken man at a banquet that he really isn’t the son of Polybus. Confused, Oedipus is determined to learn the truth. H visionary oracle.
The horrified woman sends him away saying that he will murder his father and marry his mother. The prophecy disturbs Oedipus so much that he doesn’t return in the hopes of preventing the prophecy from coming true. But, in so doing, he defied the will of the gods, and sealed his fate. This is, of course, ironic because Oedipus is taking the action of not returning to Corinth because he wrongfully considers Polybus and Merope to be his parents. But, here again, a human is trying to avoid what is clearly predestined. In committing the sin of hubris(pride), Oedipus brings down upon himself the rightful condemnation of the higher power. Previous to meeting with the Oracle, Oedipus had met King Laius, and four attendants, at a fork in the road.
A fight started, and Oedipus kills King Laius, totally unaware that this is his real father. It’s ironic on several many levels. Oedipus, in trying to avoid the prophecy, has fulfilled it. This is also ironic because Laius would not have left Thebes and journey to the Oracle if the city had not been plagued by the Sphinx, a monster with a woman’s head and a lion’s body, plus miscellaneous other animal features. The city would, undoubtedly, have not been plagued if Laius had stayed in the god’s good graces. Having unknowingly killed his father, Oedipus journeys on and encounters the Sphinx. Because he answers the Sphinx’s riddle correctly, it kills itself in a fit of anguish and the city is saved. Oedipus is declared King of Thebes. He marries the recently widowed Jocasta and the prophecy is fulfilled.
“Oedipus Rex” seems to roll one pieve of irony after another. Everything Oedipus tries to avoid he ends up doing. The beautiful marriage between the King and Queen is incest. He is also famous for solving riddles but cannot solve the one that concerns the origin, path, and destiny of his own life. Oedipus shows a brutal side when he beats the same shepard that saved him during the interrogation.
Some readers interpret the irony differently. Ever since the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, made his famous observations, critics have been using this aspect in this analysis. The Freudian interpretation can be taken beyond the obvious relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta and extended to Oedipus’ two daughters. Oedipus and Jocasta had four children-two sons and two daughters. The children are brought in at the very end of the play when a blind Oedipus is pondering their fate.
The sons he dismisses because they are able to take care of themselves, but Oedipus frets over the fate of his daughters. Oedipus- “As for my sons, you need not take care of them.They are men, they will find some way to live. But my poor daughters, who have shared my table, Who have never before have been parted from their father-Take care of them, Creon: Do this for me. And will you let me touch them with my hands A last time, and let us weep together? Be kind my lord, Great Prince, be kind! Could I but touch them, They would be mine again, as when I had my eyes… Creon- Yes Oedipus:I knew that they were dear to you In the old days, and know you must love them still. Sophocles(231-245) It could be said that this intense interest in his daughters indicates that Oedipus had a sexual attraction for his children that completed the incested cycle of his family. If this is true, another piece of irony is added to the fire that overwhelmed Oedipus and led to his demise.
Similarly, Green says that when Oedipus stabs himself in the eyes with Jocasta’s brooches that the scene is full of Freudian psychosexual significance. Frank sees the rope with which Jocasta hung herself as an umbilical cord and also a strange sort of rape in the use of the long pins of the brooches. According to Green, Frank states that in the persona of Jocasta, he ‘rapes his own eyes with her phalluses’ . This is going a bit overboard There appears to be a lot of focus on the symbolism of eyes and seeing. There is a deeper meaning to the play than that of some weird sexual conspiracy.
The physical blinding is already encouraging new insight, awareness, and compassion. All qualities that Oedipus was lacking before his horrible situation started. The Chorus asks Oedipus: What god was it drove you to rake black / Night across your eyes? And Oedipus replies in anguish: Apollo, Apollo, Dear Children, the god was Apollo, He brought my sick, sick fate upon me. But the blinding hand was my own! How could I bear to see When all my sight was horror everywhere? (Sophocles, ) There is more the just bitter irony played out by an incredible string of coincidence, and that is could be more than a story of a man who is humbled by his incredible down fall. It shows the respect and attitudes that people had during Sophocles life time.
The god that is the puppet master seems to be an incredibly cruel one. It can be said that those who would give the play a Freudian interpretation have occasionally gone off into some extremely strange waters with their observations (like the one when Oedipus is blinded and asks Creon for his daughters so he can have another incested relationship.). Nevertheless, suspicions should never be ceased because of the complexity of the poem. After all, writers were not as blunt as they are today. Rather the constant and consistent use of irony indicates that the gods had a very specific lesson in mind for the mortals involved. This lesson hinges on the hubris but is not the main point of the play.
Throughout the play, those who show exreme pride in their own intelligence or ability are always brought down by the invisible hand of god. Perhaps it is not that the gods are vicious, but that it is necessary to show the individuals who are overly proud or arrogant who is the inevitable boss. This true from the beginning of the play. If Laius had accepted his fate and been a father to Oedipus, the events would have probably changed even though he still may have been killed by his son inevitably, perhaps incest would have never taked place. If Oedipus had returned to Corinth and told his foster parents of the prophecy, maybe he would have learned more of the truth and possibly averted the catastrophe.
When Oedipus had his eyes, he could not see the sourness of his own self. His pride was his constant downfall. After he was blinded, he began to truly see where his life had been lacking and where his priorities truly lay with his children, especially with his vulnerable daughters. The Irony seems to point him in this positive direction even though he suffered hardships getting to the enlightenment. References .
Bibliography Green, Janet M. (1993, Fall) Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. http://www.schoolsite.edex.net.uk/223/acdepts/thea stud/greek s/oedipus.htm Guralnik, David B., editor in chief (1968) Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. New York: The World Publishing Co.