What is dramatic irony?

Dramatic irony is a device that was commonly used in Greek tragedy, by which the audience is struck by the significance of a character’s actions or words in a situation they know about but which the character does not. For example, a character in a film telling her parents that she knows she has got the job for which she has been interviewed when the audience knows that a letter is on the way informing her that she has been declined for the job.

How is dramatic irony different to irony?

As literary devices go ‘dramatic irony’ is a different thing to plain ‘irony.’ Irony is the expression of meaning using language that states the opposite of what one means to say. For example, if something goes disastrously and the assessment is, ‘Well that went well,’ that is irony. Or if a student arrives late for a morning lecture and the lecturer greets them with ‘good afternoon.’ that is ironic (and sarcastic, as the lecturer’s motive is to be a little mean to the student). This compares with dramatic irony where the audience knows something that the character does not.

How is dramatic irony used in literature?

Dramatic irony is one of the most effective items in a dramatist’s toolbox and is commonly found in films, novels and plays. Their authors use the device to create unusual meanings in the speeches of the characters. A situation in which the audience knows about causes and conflicts before the main characters do is a useful plot device. Writers use dramatic irony as a tool to create and sustain the audience’s interest. It generates curiosity. It also creates tension in that the audience is encouraged to fear the moment when a character would learn the truth that the audience already knows and how he or she will deal with it.

cartoon of dramatic irony, with grand piano falling on mans head, as he says he's getting into dramatic irony!

A wonderful take on dramatic irony from Jason Katzenstein

How did Shakespeare use dramatic irony?

Shakespeare used dramatic irony in a number of his plays. For example, in Othello, Iago hates Othello and is plotting to bring him down. Othello does not know that but the audience is well aware of it. Othello trusts Iago and has faith in him, believing him to be an honest man, while Iago is manipulating him. Iago tells Othello that his wife, Desdemona, is being unfaithful to him. He has gained the complete confidence of Othello and Othello says:

“I know thou’rt full of love and honesty
And weigh’st thy words before thou giv’st them breath.”

The audience is holding its breath because they know Desdemona is innocent and they are fearful of the consequences of Othello’s believing Iago.

One of the finest examples of dramatic irony in Shakespeare occurs in Macbeth. Macbeth has encountered three witches who tell him that he will be king someday. He believes them because they have told him other things that are, in fact, true. When he arrives at the king’s court he is already thinking that he will have to kill the king. The king, Duncan, regards Macbeth as his most loyal supporter and trusts him completely. After all, Macbeth has just been fighting valiantly for him, disregarding the danger to himself. Commenting on another thane who has proved to be a traitor, Duncan, while embracing Macbeth, says:

“There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face;
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.”

He doesn’t know what’s in Macbeth’s mind but the audience does, and as he expresses disappointment in someone he has trusted, the audience knows that he’s not long for this life – at the hands of his most loyal captain, someone he trusts even more. Duncan has no idea of that by just looking at him. And the audience is thrilled by it. It’s a beautiful example of dramatic irony.

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