There was no suspense in the Greek tragedies, because the stories on which the tragedies were built were known to the audience. For this reason the playwrights had to recourse to some other means to heighten the tragic effect. The most effective method for the intensification of the tragic atmosphere was to use the dramatic irony, a situation in which a character's words and actions are seen to be wholly contradictory to the actual situation known to some other characters or to the audience. The tragedy ' Oedipus Rex' pulsates with dramatic suspense and this is largely due to the effective use of dramatic irony by Sophocles.
Except Teiresias all the characters in the play such as Oedipus, Jocasta, Creon, Messenger and the chorus are supposed to know noting about the proceedings of the story, so their speeches contain the dramatic irony. But the most dramatic ironies are found in the speech of Oedipus. Almost every word uttered by Oedipus from the exposition of the play to the discovery is attributed with dramatic irony.
The play begins with the gathering of a group of suppliants before the palace of Thebes, who appeal to Oedipus to save then from the dreadful pestilence, as he once saved. And the dramatic irony begins with the first appearance of Oedipus in his kingly robes and with his first words,"
I, Oedipus, whose name is known afar.
Every word is charged with dramatic irony, as the very situation is charged with it. The pitiful townspeople have appealed for aid to the one who in reality is the cause of their woe, but both the people and Oedipus fail to understand it.
Dramatic irony is also found in Oedipus’ proclamation for finding out the killer of Lauis, when Creon brings the news from Delphi that the city's peril is due to the shedding of blood of the last king Lauis, and the pitiful condition requires the banishment of the killer or the payment of blood for blood, Oedipus at once takes steps to find the killer out and announces that of the killer makes confession of his guilt he will earn only banishment instead of capital punishment. The dramatic irony lies in the fact that the killer is searching for nobody but himself unknowingly. Thus the announcement greatly heightens the tragic effect of the discovery which comes towards the end of the play.
Another pitiable example of dramatic irony is found in the quarrel scene between Oedipus and Teiressias. Teiresias, knowing the truth, tells Oedipus that he himself is the killer of his father husband of his matter and father of his sisters and brothers. But Oedipus is quite ignorant about the true facts and mocks at Teiresias in a cruel way calling him...
Shameless and brainless, sightless, senseless sot.
Here every word of Oedipus is charged with dramatic irony. The dramatic irony lies in our knowledge that though Teiresias is physically a blind man, he knows the truth and Oedipus, in spite of having eyes, is sightless.
But the most suspenseful and tragic dramatic irony occurs in the scene between Oedipus and Jocasta and the Messenger. Each time Oedipus addresses Jocasta as ‘O wife’ or ‘My wife’, each time we shudder at the thought of the consequences that are to follow and feel great pity for Oedipus. Jocasta's words in which she tries to disprove the oracles are also full of dramatic irony. When the messenger arrives to inform Oedipus about the death of Polybus, Jocasta is overjoyed and cries triumphantly,
Where are you new, divine prognostications?
The man whom Oedipus has avoided all these years,
Lest he should kill him dead! By a natural death,
And by no act of his!
There is a palpable dramatic irony in Jocasta's unbelief in oracles and she provokes the prognostications of the oracles. All the remarks made by Corinthiar messenger are also full of dramatic ironies. The messenger tells Oedipus that he has brought the news that can please and may make grievous also. It is grievous because Oedipus has lost his father and it is pleasant because Oedipus is going to be crowned soon. But dramatic irony lies in the messenger's ignorance that by bringing the news he only complicates he whole situation. His news brings a reversal to the whole situation and after that there is no dramatic irony, as the truth is being gradually revealed to each of the characters. But the chorus is still in ignorance of the true implication of the messenger's news. The chorus visualizes Oedipus as the offspring of a union between some god and a mountain nymph which contrasts the actual situation. And the arrival of the Theban shepherd is the prelude to the final discovery, the point at which the climax of the tragedy is reached.
Concluding our discussion we can say that the dramatic irony is the most important element of the play which constitutes suspense and thus helps to bring the play to the climax, where the truth is revealed to everyone.