Irony in Oedipus Rex
In Oedipus Rex Irony is not only the theme of the play, it is actually the structure of the play. The plot moves through ironical actions and reactions. Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta of Thebes. There is an oracle saying that he will kill his father and marry his mother. When he was born, Laius, his father, abandoned him on a hill in order to defy the decree of fate. But some stroke of luck takes him to Corinth where he is reared by an issueless king and queen of Corinth. Later on, circumstances lead him to kill his father and marry his mother in complete ignorance. When he comes to know of the truth, he blinds himself and goes into exile. This tragic story is replete with many types of irony.
First, outside the plot of the play, there is irony of situation, i.e. when an oracle tells Oedipus’ father-Laius that he will get a son who will murder his father and marry his mother. Laius tries to avoid the decree of fate, but this act in a way fulfils the oracle. Later on, when the same is told to Oedipus by the Oracle, he runs away from Corinth in order to avoid this misfortune. But this action brings him nearer to his doom. He runs away from his destiny but ironically he runs into his destiny. So irony of fate is there in the play.
Oedipus is shown throughout the play searching for the murderer of Laius, but at the end, he himself turns out to be the murderer. He is introduced as the greatest of men, but later events show that the Oedipus is entirely different from what he appeared in the beginning. The titles given to him in the prologue are taken away from him, ultimately, he comes out to be the one who has committed patricide and incest, whole reversal of his personality takes place. He is the investigator but becomes the person to be investigated. While talking with Teiresias, he blames him of plotting against him and calls him:
“Sightless, witless, senseless, mad old man!”
Later on, all these words recoil upon him. He is the shameless who committed incest: he is the witless that could not comprehend the true problems, he is sightless and senseless that could not see beyond what is visible. He boasted himself to be the man who solved the riddle of the sphinx but he failed to solve the riddle of his own life.
There is grim verbal irony in the Prologue when the priest says to Oedipus:
“Let them not say, we rose, but later fell.”
Oedipus saved them from the tyranny of the sphinx and Thebans enjoyed sixteen years of prosperity. But now very ironically the very deliverer becomes the root cause of all of their problems. Oedipus says while discussing the murder of Laius:
“I say I take the son’s part, just as though
I were his son, to press the fight for him……”
and then he says:
“By avenging the murdered king I protect myself.”
He is terribly near the truth because Laius, in fact, is his real father. Further, while talking with suppliants in the Prologue, he says:
“Sick as you are, not one is as sick as l.”
Later events prove that he really suffers more than all.
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Then there is irony in the proclamation which Oedipus makes including even himself within the jurisdiction of the punishment which he announces for those who may harbor or have collusion with the killer of Laius.
“As for the criminal, I pray to God,
Whether it be a lurking thief, or one of a number
I pray that man’s life be consumed in evil and wretchness.
And as for me, this curse applies no less.”
There is also irony in the lines when Teiresias while talking with Oedipus says:
“A blind man, Who has his eyes now; a penniless man, who is rich now;
And he will go tapping the strange earth with his staff;
To the children with whom he lives now he will be Brother and father.”
Subsequent events prove the words of Teiresias true. To be curt, there is no dearth of the examples of irony in “Oedipus Rex”: