Irony, Arrogance, and Oedipus

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"Listen to me. You mock my blindness, do you?/ But I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind" (I, 195-196). With these memorable words, the sightless prophet Teiresias all but paints the entire tragic story of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, one of the most prominent pieces of Greek literary heritage. Greeks knew and loved the story of Oedipus from childhood, just as children today cherish the story of Cinderella. In his version of the beloved tale, Sophocles concentrates his attention on the events directly leading to Oedipus' destruction, portraying Oedipus as a helpless pawn of fate. The most prominent literary device is dramatic irony, primarily of the spoken word, through which--especially in the Prologue--Sophocles captures audience attention, illuminates Oedipus' arrogant personality, and foreshadows the events of the final scenes.

It is not difficult to understand why Sophocles resorts to dramatic irony in the construction of his play. He is working with much the same problem a modern-day playwright would face in fashioning a play around the Cinderella motif: audience familiarity, leading to a lack of suspense. It is difficult to maintain audience interest when the conclusion and the events leading up to it are obvious to everyone. To circumvent this difficulty, Sophocles saturates his play with dramatic irony, riveting the audience with the awareness that they know more than Oedipus, letting them cringe with the delicious knowledge of the misfortunes he will face. Sophocles employs the blindness of Oedipus to such advantage that he creates an atmosphere similar in many respects to that of a modern horror film. The audience knows the destination well and has probably been there before, but the journey is too pleasurable to forego.

Understandably, it is the Prologue that is richest in dramatic irony, because in that scene, everyone concerned is still in complete darkness to the truth and their ignorance therefore causes their words to carry far greater weight. Oedipus comes out to the people, moved with compassion at their suffering, and says to their spokesman the Priest: "Tell me, and never doubt that I will help you/In every way I can; I should be heartless/Were I not moved to find you suppliant here" (Prologue 12-14). He will help them in any way he can: an awesome promise, for he little knows what it will cost him. To help his beloved city he will eventually harm his family, his loved ones, and himself; even the city will be hurt as it loses its august hero and protector. As he presents his petition, the Priest describes Oedipus as "the man surest in mortal ways/And wisest in the ways of God. . . ." (Prologue 36-37). The contrast is striking: the very man considered the most righteous and wise of his age--the man to whom they turn for help--is the same man who has committed two of the most grievous possible sins in Greek culture, incest and parricide, and brought the plague upon the people.

The words of this opening dialogue reveal much about Oedipus' character. Everyone presented so far is blind to the truth; but the ignorance of the people is understandable: they adore him for freeing the city from the Sphinx, and for comporting himself with dignity and justice as their ruler; they have come to revere him as one directly inspired by the gods (Prologue 34-42). To imagine that he could be at fault in the present tribulation is simply unthinkable. Oedipus, however, cannot be excused so lightly. Even in the solicitous manner with which he addresses the people we see evidence of the arrogance and haughtiness that figure so prominently later: "Sick as you are, not one is as sick as I," he says (Prologue 62). There is no denying that he feels deeply for his people. The problem is that in his attempt to express his emotion and convey the image of an empathetic ruler, he takes too much credit to himself. To claim that he is suffering the most of anyone sounds noble, but it is unjustified;...
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