Friday, 3 August 2012

Dramatic Irony

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Sophocles was born in 45 B.C about a mile northwest of Athens. He was to become one of the great playwrights of the golden age. Sophocles father, Sophilles, was a wealthy merchant. Sophocles father was a rich man through the efforts of his slaves who were employed in various sorts of manufacturing. Sophocles would enjoy all the comforts of a thriving Greek empire. Consequently, the boy was educated as was customary for youths of aristocratic family, in dancing and music, coupled with gymnastic instruction. In fact, he was so conspicuous for his beauty of form and for his skill in dancing and music that he was chosen to lead the chorus of boys in the public celebration of the defeat of the Persians at Salamis.

Sophocles made his first appearance as a contending dramatist at the City Dionysian in 486 B.C. when he was twenty-eight years old, winning the victory over Aeschylus. From that time on he generally exhibited every other year and won in all eighteen victories at the City Dionysian besides those won at Lenaea.

As one of the great innovators of the theatre, he was the first to add a third actor. He also abolished trilogic form. He used tragedies to tell a single story. Sophocles chose to make each tragedy a complete entity in itself. As a result, he had to pack all of his action into the shorter form, and thus clearly offered greater dramatic possibilities. Many authorities also credit him with the invention of scene-painting and painted prisms.

Of Sophocles’ more than 10 plays, only seven have survived their entirety. Of these, Oedipus Rex is a supreme example of unconscious dramatic irony and is regarded as he perfection of Greek tragedy irony. The tragedy of fate explores the depths of modern psychoanalysis as Oedipus unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother in an attempt to avoid the very prophecy he ultimately fulfills. As masterful work of plot and suspense, Oedipus Rex is often heralded as a perfectly structured play of dramatic irony.


Sophocles’ greatness as a dramatic writer consisted not so much in his inventiveness as in his development and rounding out of the dramatic form brought into being by Thespis and Aeschyles. He added the third actor and thus pronounced the doom of the chorus as an element of prime importance in Greek tragedy. Sophocles dramatic interest always hold first place. He plays are outstanding for their smoothness of plot, the nobility of the characters and the graceful charm of the lyrics. In a sense they might be said to mirror the serenity of the poems’ own life. He had a tranquil and contented temperament and a generous spirit free from petty jealousies. He was witty, agreeable, and fond of people and his mind was keen and active right up to the time of his death at the age of ninety-one.

Dramatic irony is a relationship of contrast between a character’s limited understandings of his or her situation. It is found in some particular moment of the unfolding action and what the audience, at the same instant, understands the character’s situation actually to be. Dramatic irony as such is not necessarily tragic. For example, in comedy, the change in circumstances dramatic irony portends can be for the better. Some of the most famous and powerful uses of dramatic irony are associated with the tragedy. There it serves it emphasize how limited human understanding can be when it is most plausible, and how painful the cost of the misunderstanding can be. In some instances, they are inevitable.

There are a few places where the audience’s prior knowledge of the full story enables dramatic irony. A character, in this case, Oedipus or Jocasta makes a remark that he or she understands to apply to the facts in a particular manner, but the audience understands that it applies as well. Instead the character is ignorant and eventually brought to light for them and will change their circumstances.

The particular flavor and thematic resonance of individual instances of dramatic irony in a given tragedy will depend on the particular circumstances of that individual work. The questions at the end are designed to prompt us to take stock of what may be special about what Sophocles wants to use dramatic irony to emphasize in this particular work.

The term “dramatic” as incorporated in the term dramatic irony has nothing to do with “dramatic” in the sense of sensational or even emphatic or obvious. Dramatic irony can be quite unassuming or subtle. It only needs to be interesting. Some, but not all cases of dramatic irony involve unconscious hypocrisy. In unconscious, the speaker intends to be understood as meaning what his utterance would ordinarily be understood to mean. The speaker in unaware that the situation is at odds with this meaning. It is noted that in conscious hypocrisy, the speaker is aware that the situation is at odds, with what he gives himself out to mean. Which means, he intends to deceive the hearer. A classic instance of dramatic irony that involves no hypocrisy, takes place in the scene in which Oedipus reproaches his brother-in law Creon. He then mistakenly but plausibly believes to have conspired to bring him under suspicion of having killed the former king of Thebes in order to have him expelled from the city. Therefore, he will be able to take over the kingship in his stead. He tells Creon that a man is a fool if he thinks he can sin against his kinfolk and escape the wrath of the gods.

Another classic instance of dramatic irony that involves no hypocrisy takes place in the scene in which Oedipus reproaches his brother-in-law Creon. He soon come to mistakenly but plausibly believe to have conspired to bring him under suspicion of having killed the former king of Thebes. This was done to have him expelled from the city so he would be able to take over the kingship in his stead. He tells Creon that a man is a fool if he thinks that he can sin against his kinfolk and escape the wrath of the gods. The warning is phrased as a universal it applies to every person. Oedipus is unaware that he has slain his own father and committed incest with his mother. However, the audience is aware of Oedipus’ incest. The audience is aware of the fact that the transgressions will eventually be revealed before all Thebes. The audience knows the fact that Oedipus will suffer terribly at the revelation, and the fact that the divine order is firmly implicated both in the commission and the discovery (hence “punishment”) of these crimes. It is this discrepancy between what Oedipus understands his words to apply to and what the audience understands their scope actually to be that constitutes the effect the dramatic irony.

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