Dramatic Irony

Definition of Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony occurs in a piece of literature when the audience knows something that some characters in the narrative do not. The spectator of a play, or reader of a novel or poem, thus has information that at least some of the characters are unaware of, which affects the way the audience member reacts to the plot. For example, the reader might be aware that a certain trap has been set and feels suspense when an unknowing character is about to walk right into this trap. The tension of the piece therefore depends on the contrast between what the audience and characters know.

Note that in a case of dramatic irony it might be just one character “in the dark,” or indeed all of the characters might be unaware of what is to come. Sometimes an author might use foreshadowing so that he or she reveals the dramatic irony in a situation, such as with the phrases, “Little did I know then” or “If only I’d known.”

The word irony comes from the Greek word εἰρωνεία (eirōneía), which means “dissimulation or feigned ignorance.” The definition of dramatic irony developed to distinguish it from other forms of irony, such as situational irony and verbal irony. In each form of irony there is a difference between what seems to be true and what is actually true.

Difference Between Dramatic Irony, Situational Irony, and Verbal Irony

Though there are many different definitions of irony, the three main types of irony are dramatic, situational, and verbal. We will take a quick look at how they are distinguished from each other:

  • Dramatic: The audience knows something the characters do not. There is a special form of dramatic irony called tragic irony in which the audience knows the character is making a mistake as the character is doing something.
  • Situational: A difference between what is expected to happen in a certain situation and what actually occurs.
  • Verbal: A speaker says something that is opposite to the truth or how the speaker really feels. Note that of the three main types of irony, verbal irony is the only one that is done intentionally by a character.

Common Examples of Dramatic Irony

Examples of dramatic irony abound in movies, television, and popular fairy tales. Here are just a few examples:

  • The Truman Show: A man named Truman has been filmed for his entire life, as a kind of proto-reality television series. He only begins to become aware of this fact in adulthood, and thus there is dramatic irony both within the movie as other characters are aware of something Truman is not, and also for the film-going audience.
  • Titanic: At some point before the ship hits the fateful iceberg, a character in James Cameron’s film remarks, “It’s so beautiful, I could just die.” This is dramatic irony because the audience goes into the movie knowing that the ship will ultimately sink.
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: We know that Snow White’s stepmother is evil and has poisoned an apple with which to kill her. Thus, when Snow White’s stepmother disguises herself and gives Snow White the apple we try vainly to warn Snow White, knowing what will happen when she bites into the apple.
  • Friends: Just after Rachel gives birth to her daughter Emma, she accepts what she thinks is a proposal from Joey. Joey has actually found the ring in Ross’s pocket, who never intended to propose in the first place. Therefore, there are multiple humorous instances of dramatic irony in which the audience members are the only ones who have all the information until it is all finally sorted out.

Significance of Dramatic Irony in Literature

Authors have used examples of dramatic irony in their works of literature for many centuries. The Greek playwrights in particular were noted for their use of tragic irony, especially in Sophocles’s play Oedipus the King. William Shakespeare also used numerous dramatic irony examples in his plays, either for tragic effect (assumptions leading to murders or suicides) or comedic effect (cross-dressing and false identity). Indeed, dramatic irony can be used for many different purposes. Authors may want to increase suspense or tension to terrify the reader or make them feel the full weight of the tragedy that is about to occur. On the other hand, there can be much humor in dramatic irony if a character believes something to be true which isn’t, such as in the Friends example above.

Examples of Dramatic Irony in Literature

Example #1

OEDIPUS: And on the murderer this curse I lay
(On him and all the partners in his guilt):–
Wretch, may he pine in utter wretchedness!
And for myself, if with my privity
He gain admittance to my hearth, I pray
The curse I laid on others fall on me.
See that ye give effect to all my hest,
For my sake and the god’s and for our land,
A desert blasted by the wrath of heaven.

(Oedipus the King by Sophocles)

Sophocles’s play Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Rex) includes many examples of dramatic irony, as well as situational irony. The biggest example of dramatic irony is in this short speech from Oedipus, in which he curses the murderer of his father. This is dramatic irony because Oedipus does not realize who his father is; he is, in fact, his father’s murderer. Thus, Oedipus has actually cursed himself. The audience knows his parentage, but Oedipus is woefully unaware. This is one of the earliest examples of tragic irony.

Example #2

Fair sir, you are well o’erta’en.
My Lord Bassanio upon more advice
Hath sent you here this ring, and doth entreat
Your company at dinner.

PORTIA: That cannot be.
His ring I do accept most thankfully.
And so I pray you tell him.

(The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)

Portia is perhaps the cleverest character in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. She gives Bassanio a ring to represent their love and tells him not to lose it or give it away under any circumstances. Later, Portia dresses up as a lawyer and argues a case favorably for Bassanio’s friend Antonio. As payment, Portia (still in disguise) asks Bassanio for the ring. Bassanio gives it up. This is an example of dramatic irony because Portia knows what’s going on but Bassanio doesn’t; Portia later accuses him of not loving her enough.

Example #3

Out of spite, the human beings pretended not to believe that it was Snowball who had destroyed the windmill: they said that it had fallen down because the walls were too thin. The animals knew that this was not the case.

(Animal Farm by George Orwell)

George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm is akin to one long example of dramatic irony. The animals on the farm are unaware of the the pig Napoleon’s true motives. Therefore, when he runs another pig named Snowball off the farm he continues to blame everything that goes wrong on Snowball. The reader knows that Napoleon is behind all the problems on the farm, yet the farm animals remain stubbornly ignorant of this fact.

Test Your Knowledge of Dramatic Irony

1. Which of the following statements is the best dramatic irony definition?
A. Someone intentionally says something that is the opposite of the truth.
B. The audience knows something that a character doesn’t.
C. The opposite of what is expected to happen happens.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following situations is an example of dramatic irony?
A. Romeo kills himself thinking Juliet is dead, though the audience knows she has just taken a sleeping potion to feign death.
B. Oedipus blinds himself, but that leads to deeper wisdom even though he has lost his sense of sight.
C. Belle refuses Gaston’s marriage proposal in Beauty and the Beast, saying “I just don’t deserve you!”

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the following exchange between Othello and manipulative Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello:

IAGO: And did you see the handkerchief?
OTHELLO: Was that mine?
IAGO: Yours by this hand. And to see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! She gave it him, and he hath given it his whore.

Why is this a dramatic irony example?
A. The handkerchief was not actually Othello’s handkerchief.
B. Desdemona was indeed cheating on Othello, just as Iago alleges.
C. Iago conspired to give Desdemona’s handkerchief to Cassio and uses this as evidence that Desdemona is cheating on Othello with Cassio. The audience knows the truth, but Othello is blind to it and acts under false assumptions.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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