Literary Devices in Oedipus Rex
Dramatic Irony: Dramatic irony arises when the audience knows more than a character does. There is a tremendous amount of dramatic irony in Oedipus Rex, particularly in the scenes leading up to Oedipus’s recognition of his own guilt. The mystery at the heart of the play concerns the murderer of the former king Laius. The gods send a plague to Thebes when they fail to bury the dead king. The play was based on a myth that was familiar to the audience. There is also a scene early in the play in which the prophet Tiresias tells Oedipus, “You yourself are the criminal you seek.” For much of the play, the audience either knows or correctly suspects that Oedipus is the murderer for whom he searches.
The Chorus: In Greek tragedies, the chorus is a group of bystanders who comment on and react to the events of the play, often providing crucial information when needed. Aristotle found Sophocles’s use of the chorus to be ideal, writing in Poetics that “The chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action, not in the manner of Euripides but of Sophocles.” The chorus often plays an interpretive role, providing keen insights into the emotional and thematic developments of the play.
Hamartia: First coined by Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics, the “hamartia” refers to a character’s fatal flaw. Over the course of a narrative, the hamartia unconsciously causes a series of increasingly unfortunate events to unfold. Thus, the interior flaw, the blind spot in the character’s psyche, is projected onto the outer world. One important aspect of the hamartia is that it is particular to the character, rather than a generalized human flaw.
Aristotelian Tragic Plot: In Poetics, Aristotle defined and laid out the archetypal plot of the tragedy. A great or important person experiences a reversal of fortune. Following a triggering event at the start, the plot develops until it reaches a turning point at the middle. This turning point is
Literary Devices Examples in Oedipus Rex:
It is ironic that after Oedipus learns of his true origins and is able to “see” the truth, he blinds himself, regressing into the “darkness” and “blindness” of ignorance again. His once symbolic blindness has now manifested into self-inflicted physical blindness.
Oedipus’s blindness to the truth has been lifted, as he now realizes that it was he who killed Laius, rendering the prophecy true. Light and dark are used as metaphors for the visibility of truth, where “darkness” refers to Oedipus’s ignorance of the truth, and “light” represents his newfound understanding of the situation.
Sophocles creates a chain of communication that Oedipus must go through to obtain information. This creates difficulties for Oedipus for two reasons. First, it makes the flow of information slower, and facts about Oedipus’ life do not reach him until after they would be of use to him. Second, Oedipus does not know whether he can trust the second-hand information he receives. He struggles with coming to terms with the truth, and his doubts about what others tell him are a main source of tension in the play.
Here begins the first kommos, a song of lament performed by the chorus and a character. The kommos generally occurs during the climax, the height of emotional tension. A play can have multiple kommos that occur at different points of tension. Here, Oedipus fears that Creon is plotting to overthrow him, but if Oedipus is incorrect and too callous, he will ruin an important relationship. He must be cautious, for his decisions may have dire consequences.
Sophocles’s stage directions for Oedipus Rex were minimal, so it is difficult to decipher the intention of the ellipses here. It could mean that Oedipus is talking over Creon, or that Oedipus waits for Creon to finish speaking but ignores him and continues his thought. Either way, this reinforces Oedipus’s hubris, as he is too prideful to accept help from others.
This is the second choral ode in the play and works differently than the first ode. The first strophe-antistrophe pair recounts everything that has happened in the plot since the last ode. The second strophe-antistrophe pair does the same, but it is from the first-person perspective of the lead chorus member. This recapping of events is helpful for audiences since it signals act or scene breaks.
Tiresias often speaks cryptically, but he seems to be saying that the truth about Oedipus’s long-debated parentage will finally be revealed on this day, which will create a sort of rebirth for Oedipus. “Rebirth” usually connotes positive change, but the use of “destroy” creates a more ominous tone.
Even though Oedipus will try to find the truth, an explanation for the plague, he will have a difficult time finding it because Tiresias is the only one who can access it. Oedipus is unable to access this truth to alter the course of events, allowing the prophecy to come true. His ignorance and the tone of inevitability are the main sources of drama and tension in the play.
As is the nature of Greek drama, audiences would’ve known why Tiresias’s information would not be helpful to Oedipus, making this statement a form of dramatic irony. To contemporary audiences unfamiliar with the story, however, Tiresias’s reluctance to reveal what he knows is suspicious, adding a level of mystery to the plot.
It is ironic that Oedipus says this since the plague upon their city is believed to be brought on by the gods’ wrath. Sophocles examines the dual nature of the greek gods, who would bring death and hardship on an entire city, but does so in the name of justice for a king’s wrongful murder. The gods should be trusted but also feared in cases of wrongdoing, which Oedipus doesn’t seem to be aware of yet.
This refers to the first strophe of this choral ode. A strophe is the first part of an choral ode, and it is followed by the metrically-identical antistrophe (“Ant”) and epode. These various parts of the ode are similar to poetic stanzas, characterized by alternating long and short syllables. The purpose of choral odes was varied, but they often revealed public opinion, as this one does. Each shift from strophe to antistrophe signals a shift in perspective, from one praying Theban to another. Each perspective is very similar, suggesting unity between the townspeople.
“Ancient” may refer to the fact that the crime in question was committed many years ago, and the perpetrator has been harboring guilt for a long time. However, “ancient” connotes a much greater passage of time. The ambiguity of this statement creates a suspenseful mood.
In some contexts, this refers to Sirius, the dog star, which ushers in the feverish times of August. Here, it is simply a metaphor comparing the plague to a wrathful god, emphasizing the severity of sickness and instilling the situation with urgency.