Samuel Clemens Profile Essay, Research Paper
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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?
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
Green, Janet M. (1993, Fall) Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex.”
Guralnik, David B., editor in chief (1968) Webster’s
New World Dictionary of the American Language. New York: The
World Publishing Co.