In dramatic literature throughout the ages, no greater force has existed to fell heroes, seal fates and carry out the means of Greco-Roman tragedy than that of irony. Sophocles’s three Theban plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antingone serve as an ideal mediums to illustrate three distinct and prevalent dramatic themes: that of dramatic, situational, and cosmic irony. All three types of irony are illustrated and epitomized in classic tragic form within the plot of the trilogy, making it a perfect tool for analysis of the ancient literary motif.
Oedipus the King is set in Thebes, a kingdom beset by plague and death. Oedipus, ruler of Thebes, is beseeched by his people to make things well again. Via word of an oracle Oedipus learns that the unknown murderer of Thebes former ruler Laius is cursed. The murderer’s presence within the kingdom causes the plague, and upon his exile the curse will be lifted.
At this point in the play dramatic irony is already in place. Dramatic irony is defined as “a relationship of contrast between a character's limited understanding of his or her situation in some particular moment of the unfolding action and what the audience, at the same instant, understands the character's situation actually to be.”1 The literary merit of dramatic irony is the building of suspense produced by the reader being in an informed position and waiting to see what means the uninformed characters go through until they find out the truth.2
Ancient Athenian audiences viewing the play were already familiar with the myth of Oedipus, specifically its resolution. Modern audiences alike will mostly likely know of the play’s famous outcome. Therefore the search for the murderer’s identity is cast in a different light for the viewers who already know how the events conclude.
The play continues with, after Oedipus hearing the cryptic words of a blind seer named Tiresias, an investigation into the conditions around Laius’s death. Upon hearing an...