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Free «The Use of Irony in the Theban Plays» Essay Sample

The Theban Plays include three main plays: “Oedipus Rex” (which is also called “Oedipus the King” or “Oedipus Tyrannus”), “Antigone” and “Oedipus at Colonus”. All of them were written by Sophocles. The plays depict the fate of Thebes during and after the reign of Oedipus. Sophocles wrote them with a big year gap for different festival competitions, however, they are usually published under one cover. Moreover, they were not written in a chronological order and do not make a real trilogy which presupposes that the plays are written together. The Theban plays belong to three different play groups of Sophocles.

Probably because of these reasons, there are a few inconsistencies, namely: Creon is the prominent king who decides single-handedly to expel Oedipus from the city of Thebes after he consults the god Apollo. At the end of the “Oedipus Rex” Creon is told to look after the daughters of Oedipus, Ismene and Antigone. Despite this in other plays we may observe struggles among him and Polynices and Eteocles who are the sons of Oedipus.



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In each of the plays we can observe a very overt irony which Sophocles applies to any death possible or to the actions taken by characters before the actual death. Sophocles shows us how short-sighted people can be when they do not want to take responsibility for their lives on themselves. For this reason, people prefer trusting more various prophets and oracles or rely on gods all the time to avoid the fact that they will have to pay for each wrong deed they have ever committed. But before making any conclusions, let us have a closer look at what the plays are all about and how exactly Sophocles applies irony and what he achieves with it.

In the play “Oedipus at Colonus”, the author tries to make these inconsistencies less evident: Ismene retells that due to their tainted lineage of the family, both of her brothers first have not minded to permit Creon to become the ruler of the area, however, they change their minds and try to continue the monarchy disputing each other’s rights to take over. In addition to it, we see in the “Oedipus at Colonus” that Polynices and Eteocles doom their father into exile, which is recognized to be their worst deed.

The main theme of each of the plays lies in the conflict of the mythological tale about Oedipus killing his father and after that marrying his mother not knowing that both of them were his true parents. Therefore, his whole family is doomed for a couple of generations, namely three (Mckay et al, 2012).

In each play the protagonist is a different person. In ‘Oedipus Rex” Oedipus is the main character. He is trying to rid himself of the prophecy but without knowledge that he has been adopted and that his true parents are not with him, he accidentally kills his father in a fight at the crossroads. No one knows that this was his father but gods which do not warn him about it. This is the first main influence of gods’ decisions on the human life in the play.

Having guessed the riddle of the Sphynx, he becomes the king of Thebes and marries the Queen who has recently become widowed. The Queen appears to be his mother. As usual, the truth comes out. In horror, Jocasta, the mother, commits suicide, and the King blinds himself and goes away from Thebes. Children are left alone to deal with the consequences.

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An interesting moment here is when Jocasta and Oedipus are getting closer to the truth. Jocasta reassures the King that Laius, the father, was killed by some strangers. However, Oedipus still feels uneasy as he understands very well that for some reason the circumstances look quite similar to the situation which happened to him when he killed the man at the crossroads. This moment is unique because it questions the whole truth-seeking process.

Neither Oedipus nor Jocasta want to believe the servant who told them the story of murder, however, both feel that there is some point which they are missing and which can change their whole lives. Maybe because of this, but Jocasta decides to tell Oedipus everything about the prophecy for her son killing his father and marrying his mother.

Oedipus is astonished and retells the Queen about similar prophecy that the oracle once revealed to him. Nonetheless the evident facts, both of them simply do not want to see that this coincidence can be a real truth.

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The irony of the situation is overwhelming: Looking at the details and circumstances of the daily life but still pretending not noticing them.

Prophecy is a key part of“Oedipus the King”.An important episode to note is the Creon’s return from the Delphi oracle, where he learns that the horrible plague will begin in the city if Thebes, and therefore he as the king, banishes one man who has killed Laius. The oracle prophesies the detention of one who will be both brother and father to his own children.

Despite this fact, as we have already seen, Oedipus and Jocasta do not mind the evident coincidence but they prefer to discuss the extent to which all the prophecies can be trusted in general, and when they come true. It turns out that one of the main Sophocles’ aims is to point out at the powers of the prophets and gods, which have recently faced the attack in Athens of the fifth-centuryb.c (Mckay et al, 2012).

Sophocles’ story of Oedipus only increases the feeling of complete inevitability about the end of the play. It is quite difficult to say how correct would it be to accuse Oedipus of such “blindness” or foolishness when he does not have choice but to fulfill the prophecy: the king is exiled from Thebes being just a baby and by a notable coincidence is saved and brought up as a prince in famous Corinth (Mckay et al, 2012).

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Learning that he is doomed to kill his own father, he runs away from Corinth and, by even more notable coincidence, comes back to Thebes, this time as a husband and king in his real father’s place. Oedipus behaves as if he only desires to run away from his fate, nevertheless, his fate constantly catches up with him.

A lot of people have tried to dispute that Oedipus makes his catastrophe come true because of the “tragic flaw,” however nobody has managed to make a persuasive argument about what this flaw actually is. Probably, Oedipus’ story is meant to point out at that error and the disaster which can happen to anyone. Sophocles proves that human beings are very powerless when the gods come to participate in their life stories, and that a full humility will always serve as the best attitude towards life (Mckay et al, 2012).

The protagonist in “Oedipus at Colonus” is not quite clear that is why is it is common to accept Oedipus’ family as the main whole character. He and his daughters, Ismene and Antigone, arrive to Colonus, small town, where they meet with Theseus who is a king of Athens. In the encounter, Oedipus dies, and the strife starts between his sons, Eteocles and Polyneices.

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In the final play “Antigone”, as we already see from its title, the main protagonist is the daughter of Oedipus, Antigone. The main conflict lies in her indecisiveness whether to face the death but bury her brother’s dead body properly or choose life and leave Polyneices to the wild animals. Such a situation occurs due to the ban by the king of that territory, Creon, to bury Polyneices as he considers him an evil traitor. The decision of Antigone is brave and impressive: She chooses the burial of her dear brother. The King sentences her to death. However, thinking the whole situation over, Creon finally comes with the order to free Antigone. Unfortunately, this order of him is too late and Antigone commits suicide.

The tragic events do not finish with her death. Haemon, the son of Creon, also commits suicide as he has been supposed to become married to Antigone. The death of the son leads to the death of his mother, Eurydice, who cannot bear the death of the sole surviving son.

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Another ironic point to notice in all of the Theban plays is that almost each character who dies, does so at her or his own hand or will. Jocasta, in“Oedipus Rex”, hangs herself and Antigone also hangs herself inthe play “Antigone”. Haemon and Eurydice stab themselves at the final scenes of“Antigone”.Oedipus causes to himself horrible violence at the end of the first play of the cycle, and willingly goes to meet his own odd death at the end of the second play. Eteocles and Polynices die in the battle with one another, however, it could be disputed that the death of Polynices, at least, can be self-inflicted as he has heard the curse of his father and, therefore, he knows that he is also doomed. Incest indirectly brings about or motivates all of the horrible deaths in these three plays.

The final effective application of irony by Sophocles which I would like to mention in this paper is through the vision and eyesight, both metaphorical and literal, which are very often seen in the Theban plays. Frequently, the description of clear vision is applied as a metaphor for insight and knowledge. In fact, such a metaphor is a very endemic part of the Greek understanding of things and even the way of thinking of the overpowering majority of people. That is why it actually stops being a metaphor at all. It can be compared to our modern English way of saying “I see the truth” which is literally impossible to see, when we mean “I understand the way things are”.

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However, the constant references to insight and eyesight in these three plays create a meaningful pattern being combined with the references to metaphorical and literal blindness. Oedipus is well-known for his quick comprehension and clear-sightedness, but despite this he gets to know that he has been utterly blind to the truth during a lot of years. Moreover, he also blinds himself in order not to see his own siblings-children.

Creon is inclined to similar blindness when the truth is at stake in the play “Antigone”.Despite being blind, Oedipus finally acquires (when gets much older) some limited prophetic vision. Oracle is blind, but it does not stop him from seeing much farther than all others (McKay et al, 2012).

Overall, the plays as if say that the overwhelming majority of human beings can demonstrate impressive powers of insight and intellectual penetration, and that people have a great capacity for attaining knowledge, however even the smartest of our kind are liable to making errors and that this human capability for attaining knowledge is eventually quite unreliable and limited.

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To conclude, I would like to add that nonetheless the fact that Sophocles’ irony is so evident and, therefore, can be considered not important enough, it still finds its parallels in the modern world when people make mistakes that turn their lives into tragedies only because they do not want to open their hearts and minds and look at the world with clear eyes of critical realism.


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