Please do not read the following if you have never read Oedipus or are unfamiliar with the plot of the play, in case it spoils the reading for you:

In Sophocles' play Oedipus the King, the dramatic irony of much of Oedipus' earlier words is not revealed until we learn from Teiresias that Oedipus is the man responsible for killing King Laius and setting the plague upon Thebes. Early in the play, Oedipus says the following lines:

For whoso slew that king might have a mind

To strike me too with his assassin hand.

Therefore in righting him I serve myself

Here's the source for the edition I'm using, if you're wondering.

My question is the following: could the above lines be considered dramatic irony even though they occur before the scene in which the audience learns the truth from Teiresias? That is, upon reading Teiresias' revelation, could one consider the preceding material to be dramatically ironic, even though one was ignorant of the information at the time it was read?

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    Yes, indeed, that's (literally) classic dramatic irony. The characters (except Teiresias) are ignorant of the truth, but the audience were not. Jan 21, 2016 at 1:23
  • Awesome, I was worried that maybe I was misinterpreting dramatic irony. Thanks!
    – AleksandrH
    Jan 21, 2016 at 1:55
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    Now we have to give spoiler warnings for stories over 2000 years old? :) Remind me not to tell you what happened to the dinosaurs.
    – Barmar
    Jan 21, 2016 at 2:33
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    @StoneyB He says that it's not revealed to the audience until later, either. It seems like this may be foreshadowing in addition to irony.
    – Barmar
    Jan 21, 2016 at 2:36
  • @StoneyB, I agree with Barmar. I mentioned it in my answer, below.
    – DyingIsFun
    Jan 21, 2016 at 2:55

1 Answer 1


I think it depends on how narrowly you want to define dramatic irony. Conceptions of irony are notoriously slippery.

After defining dramatic irony here (p. 102) the author then defines retrospective irony, which seems to be the phenomenon you've isolated. The discussion is about opera, but it generalizes easily to all drama.

I disagree with the commenter @StoneyB who suggests that what you've isolated illustrates the classic definition of dramatic irony. You've pointed out a real, finer-grained phenomenon: a passage that becomes ironic or is recognized as ironic only after later information is revealed and is appreciated only after re-reading or on the basis of memory.

Retrospective irony seems the perfect term for this, and it might be classified as a subtype of the wider category of dramatic irony or not classified as a subtype, depending on how you want to define the latter.

  • I think you and @Barmar are overlooking the fact that the Oedipus tale was almost certainly known in broad outline to most of the original audience: Pindar mentions the curse and O's slaying of Laios some forty years before Sophocles' play, and Homer mentions the slaying, O's incest with his mother and her suicide probably 300 years earlier (though to be sure it is impossible to say when the reference found its way into the Odyssey), both in terms which suggest the authors were referring to well-known stories. Jan 21, 2016 at 3:59
  • @StoneyB, you're right of course. But I was thinking of the Oedipus passage only as an example of a greater phenomenon, one that can occur with works unlike Oedipus whose main narrative isn't known going in. Not sure if this was charitable to the OP or not. If they're asking specifically about Oedipus or just the phenomenon they've seemed to point to. Seems like the former, but the latter is interesting too.
    – DyingIsFun
    Jan 21, 2016 at 4:08
  • Hokey-dokey ... but then you also have to factor in matters of genre and the audience's generic sophistication. Just for instance, I betcha three quarters of the people who read Harry Potter as it came out "knew" by the end of book 2 that Snape was going to have a heroic role to play in the end. Jan 21, 2016 at 4:14
  • @Silenus: This is neither here nor there; however, back in Mozart's time the differences between opera and symphony didn't exist, and I cringe every time someone refers to Flute or Cosi as opera.
    – Ricky
    Jan 21, 2016 at 6:35
  • Hmm, so in the end I think it comes down to this: if the reader knew what the play is about before he/she read it, then it's obviously dramatically ironic. But if the reader is ignorant of the events and learns them only after the "instances of irony", then it's the phenomenon that @Silenus describes, retrospective irony. Thanks for your responses!
    – AleksandrH
    Jan 21, 2016 at 11:31

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