Irony on Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex: History of the term

Traditionally, the irony is linked with Socrates in philosophy and Sophocles in literature. It has long been used to convey a manner deliberately employed by the speaker to gain an advantage over his opponent. As a supposed characteristic of the debating method of Socrates, it was to a very favourable term. His cities rather liked to believe that Socrates deliberately assumed a pose of naivete and ignorance in a disingenuous for this whole purpose of putting his opponents on the defensive and ultimately putting them in the wrong. This is in spite of the fact that in Plato’s account Socrates denies that his ignorance was merely assumed. Many readers have used the word irony almost as a term of insult. But Aristotle and later writers have taken it to signify an effective and endearing trait in the Greek philosopher’s manner. (Irony on Oedipus Rex by Sophocles)

French View

Voltaire seems to have been the first to use the term in one of its modern senses – as words put into the mouth of an inferior being by a superior power. According to him those passages in the Gerek tragedy were ironic where the gods mock the fate of ignorant and helpless human beings by making them say things of which they do not understand the full significance and meaning till much later.

It was in France that the phrase iron of fate first became current. “It indicated the unsettling way in which life, or the powers that be, seem always to ridicule our best-laid plans by making us work strenuously for years on assumptions and with expectations that later prove to be astonishingly far from the truth. If a writer supposed that tragedy revealed a vision of this sort. Voltaire’s new use of irony recommended itself hitting the nail on the head.”

Later Notions

Another idea gained fresh currency in the last part of the eighteenth century, so far as the conception of irony is concerned. This is especially to be seen in the willingness of Schiller and Schlegel. According to this view, the dramatist stands in the same relationship with his characters as exists between God and he creates. As Schlegel said, it was not God but the poet who was the real “ironist”. He pointed out how in the best play, whether ancient or modern what we understand in the passage which we regard as ironic, is not the man being mocked by cruel gods or fate, but the expensive, godlike loving.

Socrates mockery o the dramatist who had created the characters. It was Bishop Thirwall who introduced this idea in English criticism and established it as being specially connected with Oedipus Rex. Schlegel’s use of irony became even more important in the nineteenth century though it took various forms. Sometimes the essence was thought to be found in the witty, puncturing of the dramatic illusion ( as in Don Quixote, Wilhelm Meister, and the works of wreck Byron, Thackeray, and Saw). Sometimes the most profound was thought to be quieter more melancholy, self-deprecatory with which an author could show his audience or reader a deeper, sadder truth than was comprehended by the unsuspecting characters in the story.


Gradually the term lost all precision of meaning and became just a vague word of praise. It became a synonym for whatever subtle virtue a particular generation of readers discerned in a writer. According to Cleans Brooks’s definition, the irony is the most general term that we have for the kind of qualification, which the various elements in a context receive from the context. This qualification is of tremendous importance in any poem. Moreover, the irony is our most general term for indicating the recognition of incongruities. Which again, pervades all poetry to a degree far beyond that our conventional criticism has been willing to allow. As a critic comments, this is a chameleon’s use of the term.

Yet it has been a favourite with many writers, particularly because of its rich past associations, as with Socrates and Sophocles, as well as because of the praise lavished on it by Romantic critics. All this has tended to give the term a disproportionate profundity. “Critics trying to give it a precise, technical meaning. Therefore, rarely resist the temptation to enrich the term which has a meaning quite different from that which they have stipulated. Thus, books, speaking of ‘irony’ in Pope’s Rape of the Lock, assumes that it can refer to the poet’s wise recognition of the total situation… in his wise and amused tolerance… his ability to set convention in its proper perspective. It is Socratic irony as that was understood by Schlegal and Thirwall.”

Blinding Reverence: Oedipus Rex

The result of all this is to make the modern reader approach the irony in Sophocles with a certain degree of superstitious reverence. “As long as he insists on using the world ‘irony’ he will almost certainly be unable to see the ancient text without strong influences from the world varied and confused history.” Thus Bernard knows, commenting on lines 924-26 of Oedipus Rex the King say, “to know where formed from the name of the hero who, as Teiresias told him, does not know where he is this is the ironic laughter of the god whom Oedipus Rex excludes in his search for the truth… Their presence is manifested in this intrusive ironic pattern in the language of the character, which is riddling reminder that there is a standard beyond man by which Oedipus Rex is measured.

The notion that was being reminded of a higher standard is surely correct, and the supposition that Oedipus Rex ‘excludes’ this standard is at least defensible; but where did the idea – so foreign to the rest of Knox’s interpretation – of the laughter of the gods come from? This is a combination of Voltaire and Byron”. There is a view that so many different ideas should not be included under a single term ‘irony’ and that a deeper meaning should not be sought to be given to its than it is desirable.


The search for a deep core of meaning that would explain why the same word should be used to describe that genius of two such different men as Socrates has commonly led to the conclusion that what is common to the two is an extraordinary tendency to awaken their heroes to an unsuspected gap between reality and that which most men take for reality. The mere use of the word ‘irony’ should not be regarded as the solution to all the complexities in Sophocles. In fact, it would be better to distinguish ideas that can be precisely stated under different terms so that what is consigned to ‘irony’ is something definite and finite.

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