Isn’t it ironic… don’t you think

February 2, 2009

It is difficult to imagine anyone viewing or reading King Oidipous without any knowledge of the major events of the play, especially the revelation of Oidipous’ “evils.” Now, millennia later, there is an almost obsessive avoidance of “spoilers,” divulging of details important to a story or movie to someone who hasn’t seen it, which may have been completely foreign to a culture that seemed to value the reimagining of old myths and legends rather than the invention of new ones. Even so, the use of dramatic irony persists in modern fiction not so much as an external practice, in which vital information regarding the events of the plot are known beforehand, but in a more internal fashion, in which details are revealed to the audience but not the character within the fictive work. In the case of King Oidipous, the dramatic irony arises from the audience being previously aware of the crime that Oidipous has committed; there is a great deal of foreshadowing, but it would be lost on someone being exposed to the material for the first time.

To say that dramatic irony is at work in this play is an understatement; it permeates the dialogue and, like the gods, is almost an omnipresent additional character. One could even argue that the representation of Apollo’s shrine as part of the scenery, if it was actually there, is the literal manifestation of the god’s presence. Apollo knows everything, like the audience, and it is the words of his oracle as brought back by Kreon that start the characters on their inevitable slide towards tragedy. While the audience immediately understands the implication of the prophecy, the characters are still in the dark and act accordingly. Oidipous’ grand pronouncements about the perpetrator being cast out and not permitted to “participate in prayers or sacrifices / to the gods” are uncomfortable to hear, inspiring a sense of empathetic dread since he is condemning himself to the various punishments. The suspense is heightened when Teiresias arrives, especially since he repeatedly refuses to tell Oidipous what he (and the audience) knows, until finally Oidipous galls him into action and then immediately rejects his statements. When Jokasta hears what Teiresias said, she too rejects the information because she believes that previous oracles were incorrect and thus, logically, others can be wrong as well; one wonders whether the audience would have been surprised by a female using logic, flawed as it might be. Soon thereafter, however, she is the first to realize the full implications of the various prophecies, while Oidipous is still ignorant until the only remaining eyewitness to his lineage arrives at the very end. The point of revelation is the point at which the dramatic irony vanishes, and both the audience and Oidipous are left to wonder what will happen next.

Because the audience is already well aware of what is going to occur from the beginning, at least in a general sense, much more attention can be paid to the technical aspects of the play: the language, the structure, the song and dance, the acting, and so forth. It is also worth noting that although the two plays are not meant to be read or viewed together, it is difficult to read King Oidipous without recalling Kreon’s fate in Antigone. Both made harsh pronouncements of punishment without considering who they might have to punish. Both internalized the problems of the city and believed that their personal success hinged on solving those problems. The two characters even reject Teiresias in the same way, by accusing him of taking bribes. Still, Oidipous is somewhat more sympathetic than Kreon in the sense that his ills seem to have been set in motion when he was a baby, long before any character flaw had time to manifest itself, while Kreon had a strong guiding hand in his own downfall.

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