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Dramatic irony can be defined as a device, where the audience knows information to which at least one of the characters is not aware. Sophocles heavily employs dramatic irony throughout the course of the play. He did not create Oedipus' story, but presents an old and well known tale in a new and intriguing way. Dramatic irony is greatly felt in Oedipus' speech where he curses the murderer of Laius, frustrated at not having been able to find him.
"but - if you will not speak, and any man is found to be screening himself or another, in fear, I here pronounce my sentence upon his head: No matter who he may be â€¦ The unknown murderer, and his accomplices, if such there be, may wear the the brand of shame for their shameful act, unfriended, to their life's end. Nor do I exempt myself from the imprecation." Oedipus (p.32)
Dramatic irony is present in this speech as Oedipus is in fact placing the curse upon his own head. The audience is aware of this as they are also aware that it was Oedipus who killed Liaus; something that Oedipus is not conscious of . Sophocles' use of dramatic irony is of great importance in King Oedipus as it takes advantage of the audience's prior knowledge of the tale and incorporates it, in order to enhance the telling of the story.
Sophocles' use of dramatic irony involves the audience in the telling of the play by exploiting their prior knowledge of the story. Dramatic Irony creates a situation where the audience is compelled to see how Oedipus will react when he discovers the entirety of his situation, to which they are already mindful. The use of dramatic irony facilitates this through the insight it gives the audience.
"Have you eyes and do not see your own damnation? Eyes, and do not see what company you keep? Whose son are you? I tell you, you have sinned."
Teiresias, here, taunts Oedipus with that he does not know. Mocking his inability; to see that he is his wife's son; to see what atrocity he has committed. The audience, sensitive to the tragic situation of Oedipus, becomes intrigued and starts to anticipate what actions he will take, on becoming aware of his situation. This also helps create an environment where the audience can form a connection with Oedipus.
Dramatic irony alone is not enough to satisfy the audience. Dramatic irony needs support for it to achieve its complete impact. Symbolism is a literary device that has been subtly employed, by Sophocles. It supports dramatic irony all along the storyline. Wherever there is a point where dramatic irony is being employed heavily, there is a symbolic basis supporting it. Oedipus murders his father at the 'three-way crossroads'. This is one of the peaks of dramatic irony as it signifies the point where Oedipus beings to realise the events he was prophesied to fulfil. There is subtle symbolism underlying the obvious dramatic irony in this event. An important choice needs to be made at a crossroads, as it will decide in which direction your path leads. As Oedipus' actions are being guided by fate, the crossroads symbolises the ultimate power of prophecy and the gods; rather that Oedipus' free will.
The same pattern is present when Oedipus curses Teiresias.
"Living in perpetual night, you cannot harm me, nor any man else that sees the light."
The irony present here is obvious. Oedipus curses Teiresias, focusing on his blindness, which is a fate that he will eventually share. While the symbolism addresses the interpretations of sight and blindness. Oedipus, who can see physically, is blind to his own future. Whereas Teiresias, who lacks physical sight is unhindered spiritually and can see beyond his immediate surroundings. Symbolism allows relevant conceptual ideas to be addressed and depth in the story; by creating subtle layers that the audience can explore. Symbolism is an element of King Oedipus that is just as important as dramatic irony, as it creates a foundation on which the dramatic irony is laid.
Sophocles' use of dramatic irony in King Oedipus allows the audience's knowledge to take full advantage of its existing knowledge of Oedipus' story. The play intrigues the audience, making it want to see how Oedipus will eventually act, and allows it to make a connection with him. While dramatic irony is a very important element of Sophocles' King Oedipus, it is not the most important. It relies on symbolism for a foundation, which greatly enhances the play, by giving it depth and layers. Because of their relationship between each other, dramatic irony and symbolism - only while working together - can be defined as the two most important elements of the play.