The most well known and influential form of drama performed in theatres across ancient Greece is Greek tragedy. The play, Oedipus the King, includes a great deal of dramatic irony. The author, Sophocles, is a famous playwright in Greek tragedy.
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The play commences with the protagonist, Oedipus, unknowingly fulfilling his prophecy that he will marry his mother once he murders his father. Oedipus endeavors to discover the murderer of Laius however, he begins to search for himself. This is clear to the audience, as well as the character, the Herdsman. He was present when the primary action was taken that began Oedipus’ inevitable fate. Sophocles incorporates the minor character, the Herdsman, to reveal the truth of Oedipus’ life and to begin the cathartic falling action as the resolution of the play nears. Sophocles incorporates the backstory of Oedipus in a clever way.
The character who knows the whole truth about Oedipus, as well as his family, is the Herdsman. He explains throughout the story that Jocasta gave her baby to a Herdsman at Mount Cithaeron out of fear, in hopes of preventing the prophecy from occurring. The Herdsman knew Laius and Jocasta were the parents of the baby, therefore he decided to bound the child at the ankles out of pity, as an alternative to killing him. Later on, the messenger came along and freed the child from the ties, he states, “Finding thy feet transfixed and bound, I freed thee,”(Sophocles 84). The Herdsman’s decision is what allowed Oedipus to survive, and earn the classic Greek name, which stands for “swollen foot.” Polybus, the King of Corinth, later adopted Oedipus which made it difficult for the characters in the play to understand the truth of events. The Herdsman’s presence at Oedipus’ abandonment allows him to have an advantage in knowledge compared to other characters in the play. The first appearance of dramatic irony in the play occurs when Oedipus states, “But they, where hide they? where shall be descried/ The track inscrutable of bygone crime?” (Sophocles 8). He is determined, for the people of Thebes, to find who murdered Laius. Unlike the characters, the audience already knows the person Oedipus is searching for is himself. Dramatic irony is also used when the blind prophet, Tiresias, had a conflicting feud with Oedipus.
Oedipus states, “More shall I say then, to enhance thy wrath?” He believes that Tiresias is spiteful. (Sophocles 28). Tiresias explains wisdom profits not, and his knowledge will be useless in the end if Tiresias tells Oedipus the truth. Granted, the audience knows that Tiresias is truthful and that Oedipus will have to deal with the fate that he bestowed upon himself. Tiresias did not want to be the one who told Oedipus the truth which is why Oedipus receives nothing when he first asks. This builds suspense for the audience because it is unclear how Oedipus will react to his confrontation with Tiresias. Oedipus’ emotions became aggressive and reflect in his responses to Tiresias. For instance, Oedipus forcefully says, “In this who schooled thee? not thine art, I deem” (Sophocles 27). Oedipus denounces the conversation by accusing Tiresias and Creon for conspiring against him to take the throne. Towards the end of the play, Sophocles reveals the Herdsman’s knowledge to the other characters and ends the dramatic irony of the play.
Oedipus brought the Herdsman to Thebes to tell him information. This was critical for Oedipus because he is no longer ignorant to the situation. Jocasta knew what the Herdsman would say. She yelled, “Woe, woe, upon thee, wretched man! that word/ Is mine—the rest be silence evermore,” and she ran off in despair (Sophocles 88). Oedipus was unsure why Jocasta was upset, yet her reasoning was appropriate. She was aware of the knowledge the Herdsman held regarding Oedipus’ life, and she was concerned about the harm it would cause him. The Herdsman told Oedipus, “Know then, his own child it was said to be. Go, ask thy queen within: she best can say”(Sophocles 97). The queen gave him a child because of Laius’ fate. Although her actions were intended to save her king and may have been deemed appropriate, Jocasta is overcome with agony and kills herself when the news is divulged to Oedipus. This is significant because no other character in the play can leave such an impactful effect without being present.
The herdsman’s testimony was the deciding factor for the chorus; they turned against Oedipus and cursed him. When Oedipus puts all the pieces together, they reveal his prophecy. As a result, he blinds himself. Oedipus states, “Cursed in my birth, and in my marriage cursed,/ And cursed in blood-shedding I stand revealed!”(Sophocles 99). Sophocles’ skillful dramatic irony allowed the audience to know what would happen, but the Herdsman was the character to reveal the truth of the play. The suspense of this is what emphasizes the value truth contains. Catharsis is known as the process of releasing feelings, for example, fear and pity. Beginning in 384 B.C. this term was often used by the Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle. The audience is able to be fearful and have pity towards characters in a play when the tragedy is resolved.
The audience experienced this catharsis in Oedipus the King when Oedipus realizes his role in Thebes and in life. Since the Herdsman revealed the truth to Oedipus, he gives the audience a sense of relief knowing Oedipus learned about his cursed fate. The audience is able to relate to Oedipus and feel pity for his position, in the way that he was an innocent man with an unfortunate curse from birth. The audience has the ability to feel pitiful for Oedipus because his actions were not his fault however, he remains guilty for committing unforgivable acts. As a result, cathartic sacrifice is shown through the character Oedipus when he decides to face the punishment to his crime. The chorus explains, “Look upon him, O my Thebans, on your king, the/ child of fame!/ This mighty man, this Œdipus the lore far-famed/ could guess,/ And envy from each Theban won, so great his/ lordliness—” (Sophocles 123). The people of Thebes are relieved from the plague, and the characters experience catharsis because the murderer of Laius can now be punished and they are saved from the plague.
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