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It is a literary device used frequently in the world of Greek Tragedy, where the

audience knows something that the characters are unaware of. This technique
is found throughout Greek Tragedy as the audience primarily consisted of
Athenian citizens who were extremely familiar with the myths being depicted
onstage. Dramatic irony can be used by the playwright to build suspense,
emphasise certain plot points and generally create tension between
characters. The tragic plot itself relies heavily on ‘​anagnorisis​’, the moment
where the protagonist recognises a fatal flaw they have made which leads to
their downfall. This moment of fatal recognition is the crescendo of dramatic
irony as the characters begin to understand their situation in a way the
audience had the entire time.
The first element of dramatic irony occurs before a first line is even uttered.
Oedipus’ decisions up to the start of the play were focused entirely on trying to
avoid the dreaded prophecy he heard as a young man from the oracle.
However, it is these very actions that lead him directly back to Thebes and
fulfilling the prophecy. His ‘parents’ he thought he was saving in Corinth are in
fact of no relation to him.
An initial example of dramatic irony in the play arises from Oedipus’ vow to
drive the plague of Thebes. Once Oedipus learns from Creon that the cause
of the plague is Laius’ murderer who still lives in the city, he declares a series
of proclamations. This includes a curse on the mystery murderer with Oedipus
proclaiming, “let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step”
(283). The dramatic irony here is multi-faceted. Not only is Oedipus
unknowingly cursing himself, but his eventual fate matches his prescribed
curse. The tragedy ends with Oedipus in agony having just blinded himself as
he limps out of Thebes. This is followed up by Oedipus claiming that if the
murderer has deceived him and managed to hide in the royal house then,
“may the curse I just called down on him strike me!” Oedipus has effectively
cursed himself twice. This scene as a whole is permeated in dramatic irony
with Oedipus making claims such as “If I’d been present then, there would
have been no mystery” (249-250) or that he and Laius would have been
friends as any children they have share the same mother and so they have a
blood bond (295-298).
The argument between Oedipus and the prophet Tiresias is a hotbed for
dramatic irony. Tiresias’ claim that Oedipus has caused the plague does not
sit well with the King. Oedipus puns on the Prophet’s blindness by suggesting
he is a, “seer blind in his craft!” (442). There is a great deal to unpack here.
Firstly, this is ironic as Oedipus is the one blind to his current situation
whereas Tiresias is very much aware of everything that has happened in
Oedipus’ past. Tiresias makes this distinction between literal and metaphorical
blindness when he says that Oedipus is, “blind to the corruption of your life”
(471). Oedipus has been blind to his reality his whole life. He never realised
Polybus and Merope were not his real parents, he failed to recognise Laius as
his father and now he cannot see that he is the cause of the plague in
Thebes. Ironically, once Oedipus finally begins to ‘see’ the truth he becomes
physically blind himself just like Tiresias. Oedipus begins the play as
physically able to see but figuratively blind, and ends the play as the inverse.
Finally, the character of Jocasta serves as a focal point for many of the most
ironic moments in the play. Jocasta attempts to reassure Oedipus after his
encounter with Tiresias by arguing that it is impossible for any mortal to
prophesied the future. Jocasta tries to prove her point by referring to her
experiences with prophets. She says that an oracle once told her that her late
husband would be killed by his own son. Jocasta goes on to say that Laius
was in fact killed by a band of thieves and their child was left to die on a
mountain and so prophets cannot be trusted. The irony here is that this
prophecy was in fact carried out and the very man who caused it is Oedipus
himself. Oedipus is being reassured about his own fatal prophecy with the
very same prophecy he has already fulfilled. The irony continues in this scene
as Jocasta’s account reminds Oedipus of his encounter with Laius on the
roads to Thebes. He begins to fear that he may be the murderer and asks for
a description of Laius to which Jocasta replies, “his build…wasn’t far from
yours.” This line must have evoked a great deal of dramatic irony for the
Athenian audience and indeed a modern one. Jocasta is so close to
unearthing the truth that it creates a tension in the plot that builds towards the
anagnorisis ​of the final scene.
Concluding thoughts
Dramatic irony is a vital part of tragedy as the tragic plot revolves around
circumstances in which characters unknowingly cause their own downfall and
the downfall of others. This is seen most clearly in ​Oedipus Rex​, as the main
plot device is the ignorance of the primary characters to a fate they have
already fulfilled. This irony is intentional as a Sophoclean innovation of the
Oedipus myth was to make the fatal moment of discovery come about through
Oedipus’ own investigation as opposed to the divine intervention of previous