cultural anthropology

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Ironic Developments In Oedipus Rex

In Sophocles¹ Oedipus Rex there are many themes that are evident. The audience that is watching the play notices these themes because they were told the story beforehand in the prologue. As a result they can focus their attention on the elements of the themes being foreshadowed. The theme that I believe is the most prevalent is the irony. From the very first action in the prologue to the last line of the play irony is being developed. I found it interesting to follow Oedipus¹ actions to see how irony plays a role in his tragic story and also see how the audience would respond to the changes of events.

One way that Sophocles uses irony is to surprise the audience. In order to accomplish this goal, the playwright immediately sets up the character of Oedipus with a specific intent on his mind. It is in the prologue that the first factual information about the present king of Thebes is told. The Priest speaks to Oedipus on behalf of the other citizens of the community. He confronts Oedipus and pleads for his help in curing the city from its disastrous plague. He does not come to Oedipus with demands, but instead is very careful to say the right things. ³You are not one of the immortal gods, we know; Yet we have come to you to make our prayer As to the man surest in mortal ways And wisest in the ways of God (Prologue ll. 7-40).² This quote tells the audience that Oedipus is generally respected and admired by the community because of his past actions as the king. By the priest placing Oedipus just beneath the gods further proves the point that he is a good king. His people are not cursing him for his prior actions, nor are they ashamed of how he ruled over Thebes in the past. Instead they respect him and are confident that he is capable of saving the city once again.

Oedipus¹ reaction to his people further establishes his role as a good king. He says, ³You shall see how I stand by you, as I should, Avenging this country and the god as well, And not as though it were from some distant friend, But for my own sake, to be rid of evil (Prologue ll. 145-148).² In this excerpt Oedipus is taking the problems of Thebes on his shoulders. Thus making them his own. He has heard the oracle at Delphi and will now try to solve this dilemma with all his power. All of the dialogues that exist in the opening of this play depict Oedipus as a good king. He is neither selfish nor power hungry, but instead cares about his people and the city he reigns over.

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The prologue surprises the audience when they find out that Oedipus is really the murderer of King Laios, Oedipus¹ own father. It was not to be expected that the good king from the beginning of the play would ever bring about harm to his city. He tried everything in his power to once again save his city and unrealizingly condemned himself. It is ironic and surprising to see that the King murdered his father yet does not know that it was his father. The audience, on the other hand, knows that Oedipus murdered his father and that he is destined to live the prediction of the oracle out. The audience has the upper hand and must now wait to see Oedipus play out his part.

Sophocles also uses irony to foreshadow events later in the play. The first point where irony is used as foreshadowing can be seen in the prologue. Oedipus states, ³Avenging this country and the god as well, and not as though for some distant friend, but for my own sake, to be rid of evil (Prologue ll 146-148).² In these three lines Oedipus sets goals for himself but he unknowingly foreshadows his own failures. He is successful in finding the killer yet he is a failure in life because he was blind to all the evidence that points to him as the murder.

Foreshadowing is continued later in the story. He again foreshadows his own downfall in scene two. He says

I solemnly forbid the people of the country, where power and throne are mine, ever to receive that man or speak to him, no matter who he is, or let him join in

sacrifice, lustration, or in prayer. I decree that he be driven from every house,

being, as he is, corruption itself to us the Delphic Voice of Apollo has pronounced this revelation (Scene 1 ll. 0-6).

Oedipus makes a strong proclamation and is determined to find answers that an audience member could see eventually coming back to slap him in the face. Furthermore, Oedipus is so concerned about results that he forgets to look at the events that are going to change his life. He sees that there are problems but he does not notices how they relate to him and his life. He realizes that the events are getting him closer to the answer but he ignores that he is the key to the answer.

Throughout the play the audience notices that each time that Oedipus is presented with a clue to solving the murder of Laios he ignores them and continues on. It is almost as if he realizes that he has something to do with the problems with Thebes but is not quite ready to admit them to the people. The irony is that he needs to be told outright that he is the murderer, that he has married his mother, and that he has fathered his brothers and sisters. The audience would first believe that he would come to this realization faster because he is supposed to such a wise and good king but he is ignorant and blind to all the evil that he has caused.

The oracles play an enormous role throughout the entire play. It starts with the oracle that tells Laois and Jocasta that their son will murder Laois and marry Jocasta. They inadvertently carry out the oracles prophecy by sending away their son. If they would have kept Oedipus the later events would not have happened because he would not have knowingly married his mother or purposely killed his father. But Oedipus must play out his part and is thus sent away.

Sophocles also uses irony in a more humorous light. This is evident in the conversations between Oedipus and Teiresias. It is important to keep in mind the fact that the audience is knowledgeable about the conclusion of the play and could therefore find humor in the specific dialogues exchanged between the two. Teiresias is a blind truth teller and is explaining to Oedipus his involvement in the problems that face Thebes. Teiresias says, ³You mock my blindness, do you? But I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind you can not see the wretchedness of your life, nor in whose house you live, no, nor with whom (Scene 1 ll 07-10).² I feel the average audience member would be amused at the quick witted response that Teiresias makes toward Oedipus. The scene involves a blind, old man who knows more of the truth than a young and powerful Oedipus. It must also have been amusing to the audience to see the stubborn king be so sure of a false truth.

After careful reading of a play, one starts to realize there is more than a standard plot. Major themes and their relevance to the audience or other characters within the play become apparent. In Oedipus Rex the theme of irony plays a pertinent role. Irony is used to surprise, amuse or foreshadow upcoming events for the reader.

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