Dramatic Irony | Tragic Irony | Definition, Examples in Literature

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic Irony

Definition of Dramatic Irony

Dramatic Irony implies a contrast between appearance and reality. It is, as Moulton says, “A sort of double dealing in Destiny itself”. According to Warner

“Dramatic irony is when the audience seems to know more about an event, a situation, or a conversation than the characters do,”

What is Dramatic Irony?

When the readers or spectators are aware of information of which the characters are unaware.

Broadly, there are two types of irony. There is ordinary irony, that is, intentional irony in speech, the speaker saying one thing to mean its reverse, using innocent language with an offensive motive. This is rhetorical or oratorical irony as opposed to dramatic or tragic irony. The classic example of this kind of irony is Antony’s repeated assertion in Julius Cæsar that

“Brutus is an honourable man”.

Dramatic Irony Examples

Dramatic Irony in Oedipus the King

Dramatic irony lies in Oedipus’s curse towards himself, Blinded by ignorance Oedipus kills his blood father Laius and marries his blood mother Jocasta. Still Oedipus is looking for the killer of his father. Out of anger Oedipus started cursing “And this curse, too, against the one who did it, whether alone in secrecy, or with others: may he wear out his life unblest and evil! ”

The audience knows the real killer of his father but the character (Oedipus) does not.

Dramatic Irony in Macbeth

The porter scene, the Banquet scene, the sleep-walking scene are charged with irony. There is deep irony when Duncan invites himself to Macbeth‘s castle. Both Duncan and Banquo are attracted by the calm beauty of the castle. They do not know that death lurks there. The contrast between appearance and reality makes the situation grim and terrible. The drunken porter calls himself the porter of hell-gate, and the play is an ironical commentary on the porter’s unconscious description of himself.

Macbeth asks Banquo not to fail ‘our feast’. Banquo replies,

“My Lord, I will not”.

And Banquo keeps his word. Banquo’s ghost appears to the terror of his lord. Macbeth kills Banquo to get peace and security. But actually it gives him uneasiness that leads to the discovery of his guilt. The sleep walking scene is an ironical commentary on the heroic, resolute and ruthless Lady Macbeth of earlier scenes. She is continually rubbing the ‘damned spot’ which nothing can cleanse – all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten his little hand. But it was she who declared:

“A little water will clear us of this deed”.

Dramatic Irony in The Crucible

The illicit relationship between Abigail Williams and John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible serves a glaring example of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when Elizabeth is brought into trial of Witchcraft. Elizabeth, the wife of John Proctor did not know what John confessed about the relationship with Abigail. In reply of Danforth’s query Elizabeth gave a false statement in order to save his husband’s name from lechery.

Dramatic Irony in The Story of an Hour

In Kate Chopin’s short story The Story of an Hour, dramatic irony occurs towards the end of the story when Josephine begs for Mrs. Mallard to open up the door and let her in, as she is afraid her sister is making herself. But Josephine does not understand that her sister is not actually making herself ill, but is instead rejoicing in her husband’s death.

Dramatic Irony in Classical Tragedy

Aristotle never introduces the concept or the nature of tragic irony in his discussion of tragedy. But Sophocles and Shakespeare are masters of tragic irony. The change of fortune of the hero begins in ignorance, and the tragedy is completed when ignorance leads to knowledge, and these twin processes of Peripety and Discovery constitute what may be called tragic irony. Sophocles protagonists have well-defined personalities, but their tragedy is independent of their characters. The tragic catastrophe comes quite unexpectedly. Thus tragic irony is more than a mere trick of speech and is embedded in the plot. Man thinks that he is free and makes a right choice in his actions, but he acts in ignorance and not only his speeches but his deeds are double-edged.

Tragic irony also implies a contrast between the ignorance of the characters and knowledge of the spectators. Agamemnon treads along the purple carpet and gives ‘victory to Clytemnestra, but is ignorant of the victory that his wife has wangled from him. His ignorance is very different from that of Oedipus who did everything to avoid his doom.

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Euripides’s tragedy gives a new turn to tragic irony. In his Electra, Orestes does the horrible deed, but his doubts at the beginning and repentance at the end carry their own ironical commentary on Apollo’s directive. Euripides’s irony is best seen in his treatment of stories where the protagonists are avowedly guilty- Medea and Phaedra–for he presents them as both sinful and noble.

Dramatic Irony in Shakespearean Tragedy

Shakespeare allows his characters complete independence of thought and movement but at every step they find that their hopes were lies and their knowledge was ignorance. King Lear’s movement is from ignorance caused by his egoism to knowledge attained through sympathy with fellow beings and lower creatures. Othello’s tragedy may be described as a journey from ignorance about himself, his wife and Iago to a complete knowledge which brings about his ruin but also gives him illumination. Irony pervades Macbeth in which every act is followed by a consequence that is the opposite of what was intended or expected. Macbeth murders Duncan in order to get the throne and happiness. He gets the throne but he envies Duncan who sleeps in peace.

Importance of Dramatic Irony

The beauty of this tragic irony lies in its reminiscent pathos. It haunts the audience with retrospective pathos. It creates a pervasive atmosphere of omens and portents and keeps the mind of the audience constantly in a state of awed curiosity and suspense.


The theme of appearance and reality is indicated and illustrated through these dramatic ironies. It haunts the audience with retrospective pathos. Quiller Couch says:

“I know no other tragedy that teems with these peculiar whispers (as I will call them) of reminiscent irony”.

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