The Use of Dramatic Irony in Sophocle's Oedipus the King
Tragedy as an element of the human experience has been the subject of many of the great works of literature written in the Western tradition. For some, tragedy embodies the highest form of humanity. It is through suffering that we are able to reveal ourselves most completely. Others see tragedy as an element of morality where we are to learn well the lessons of those who tempt the gods. The Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, outlined a theory of tragedy as archetypal drama in his classic work, the Poetics. He uses the play by Sophocles, Oedipus the King (hereafter "Oedipus"), as the standard model by which all other tragedies are measured. In Aristotle's view, a perfect tragedy should not be simple, but rather complex in its action. It is the degree of complexity of the tragedy, the true increase in the amount of suffering that the heroic character has to go through, that intensifies the use of this device. The truly tragic figure will go through the play experiencing gradually increasing amounts of knowledge which reveal more horrible details. At each revelation, the audience has already been made aware of the tragic event so it is prepared and waiting for the hero's downfall.
To achieve true tragic circumstances, a clear reversal of fortune is required to occur to the main character. This reversal of fortune, above and beyond negative events, will then garner feelings of pity and fear in the hearts of the audience. As Aristotle states:
The change of fortunes should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come as a result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than worse. (Aristotle, Part XIII).
In Aristotle's analysis, the hero of the tragic drama should be both highly renowned and prosperous but must also be in possession of a "tragic flaw." This flaw presents itself in the form of either one who becomes inherently immoral or in the consequence of committing a tragic deed that would ultimately be the individual's downfall. The character of Oedipus exemplifies these elements of strong personality embodied by tragic action. Lastly, Aristotle thinks that the fate of the tragic character must be reconciled with the audience. The suffering has some specific cause and purpose to reach a resolution, or in direct terms a "catharsis." Without this resolution, the suffering would be for nothing and the tragedy has less meaning.
Sophocles was born a hundred years before Aristotle and perhaps was not aware that he wrote a near-perfect representation of the tragic form. Almost certainly, however, he was conscious of the dramatic irony he carefully intertwined throughout the plot. Dramatic irony was a tool for Sophocles to advance the notion of the tragic one step beyond the simple fate of the main character. Dramatic irony is a literary technique...