Sophocles' "Oedipus the King" is a tragic play that lays out the events that lead up to Oedipus's discovery of him murdering his own father and marrying his mother. Oedipus was the child of Jocasta and King Laius. When he was a young child, he was taken to a mountain by a shepherd to be killed. This was the only way the Omen of the god Apollo would not come true. The omen said that Laius' son would kill Laius and lay with Jocasta, his own mother. A shepherd saves Oedipus and passes him on to King Laius to raise him as his own son. When Oedipus is older, he meets up with a band of travelers and in a fury murders them. Unintentionally Oedipus has killed his own father. Oedipus believes that he is almighty and all knowing. He then begins a journey to become king of Thebes. The only way to do this is to correctly answer the Sphinx's riddle. Oedipus correctly answers the Sphinx's riddle with "Man" and becomes the king of Thebes. By becoming king of Thebes he marries Jocasta, the Queen, who is also his own mother. Thus begins Oedipus's journey to find out who has killed King Laius. "Oedipus the King" so proficiently incorporates symbolism, irony and paradox.
Sophocles uses symbolism throughout the play. Perhaps the most well-known symbolic act committed in the play is Oedipus murdering his own father. This is an act loaded with symbolic meaning. By doing away with his father, he is confidently setting up himself as the father figure to whom others look for guidance. Oedipus is the embodiment of the perfect Athenian. He is self-confident, intelligent, and strong willed. Ironically these are the traits that bring him closer to finding out his tragic past. He addresses his subject as his "children", and tells his people to lay all their worries upon him. "You pray to the gods?Â Let me grant your prayers" (Sophocles L.245). He wants so bad to be perfect and godlike, so it is really not surprising that he kills his own father, knowingly or unknowingly. He would do anything to become king. He does become king directly because he has killed the man who fathered him. Another symbolic act Oedipus commits is the marrying of his mother. The obvious symbolism here is that Oedipus will do anything to be that father figure. He is not aware that he is taking his own father's wife in marriage, but he is. There is a sense of wholeness here. After Oedipus kills his father he goes on to marry his mother. That last piece of the puzzle creates a complete circle; Oedipus is now on his way to entirely taking over his father's role, one that he has wanted for years.
Sophocles' use of irony totally affects how the reader feels about him. We are aware of the events that are going to happen. Instead of feeling angry towards this character we are more sympathetic and feel pity for him because we know that he is moving closer and closer to his answer, him. Dramatic irony is used throughout the play because we are aware and the characters are not. Sophocles also uses another type of irony. Oedipus states that whoever is found out to be the killer of Laios will be punished harshly. The irony here is that it is Oedipus himself who will be punished harshly.
Paradox is utilized to great effect in the play. There is Teiresisas, the literally blind man who sees clearly all that is going to happen to Oedipus and Thebes. There is no problem with his vision when it comes to things that are going to happen. This is set against Oedipus who can literally see, but who is blind to all the tragic fates awaiting him. Another paradox within the play is Oedipus striving so hard to be a man of independence. He knows the curse set upon him and tries to outwit the Gods by leaving home so he would not kill his father and marry his mother. When Oedipus is actually doing exactly what he should not be doing. He plays right into the hands of his destiny by leaving his adoptive mother and father behind and trying to escape the curse upon him. He unknowingly meets up directly with the curse laid upon his biological father, proving that he cannot escape his fate no matter how hard he tries to run away from it.
Sophocles utilizes symbolism, irony and paradox to give more importance to his play. Oedipus is a big headed man trying to outwit his fate. Unknowingly, he is going straight into his own trap. The irony in the play makes it more interesting for the audience more than the characters themselves. We know what is going to happen, and Oedipus does not. Without that awareness Oedipus as a character would be arrogant and haughty, but because we know what is coming we are more understanding to him.