Dramatic Irony in Macbeth
Dramatic irony projects a sharp contrast between appearance and reality which convey a situation more than readers know. Broadly there are two types of irony. There is ordinary irony i.e. intentional irony in speech, the speaker saying one thing to mean the reverse, using innocent language with an offensive motive. This is rhetorical irony. The example of this kind of irony is the speech of Lennox to another lord.
“The gracious Duncan was pitied of Macbeth”.
“The right-valiant Banquo walk’d too late, whom you may say, if ‘t please you. Fleance kill’d, for Fleance fled, men must not walk too late.”
Sophocles and Shakespeare are masters of dramatic 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 Peripeteia and Discovery (Anagnorosis) constitute what may be called tragic irony Aristotle thus lays emphasis on the basic principle – the juxtaposition of cross purposes in his elucidation of the tragic plot in which men act contrary to their intentions or attain results that are the opposite of what they expect to attain. The tragic irony 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. Dramatic irony also implies a contrast between the ignorance of the characters and the knowledge of the spectators. The spectators know that Duncan will be murdered in the castle but Duncan is blissfully ignorant. When Duncan says-
“O worthiest Cousin!
The sin of my ingratitude even now was heavy on me!”
he does not know that his cousin will commit the worst ingratitude to him.
Dramatic irony implies a contrast between appearance and reality. It is as Maulton says, “A sort of double dealing in Destiny itself.” The operation of Destiny as exhibited in the plot of Macbeth is throughout tinctured with irony. The element of mockery appearing always in this that apparent checks to Destiny turn out to be the very means Destiny chooses by which to fulfill itself. Macbeth tries to secure himself against the obstacles to the fulfillment of his ambition. He has Banquo killed for safety, but his sense of insecurity is increased, it contributes to the exactness with which the destiny is fulfilled.
The action taken by Macbeth in order to prevent Macduff’s being the instrument of retribution is brought by a mocking fate to impel Macduff to his task at the moment when he had resolved to abandon it out of despair for Malcolm’s alleged incompetence, Thus between Macbeth’s expectations and fulfillment, there always falls a shadow. This wide breach between what things seem to be and what they really are for Macbeth is the work of mocking fate. This is ironical.
In tragedy, dramatic irony in the use of words is adopted to create an atmosphere of omens and portents. The words are charged with a fatality. They have a deeper ominous significance for the audience of which the speaker is innocent. The speaker unconsciously predicts the future. Duncan places full trust in Macbeth, he calls Macbeth ‘noble’ Macbeth. His betrayal by the Thane of Cawdor anticipates his betrayal by Macbeth. The Cawdor episode is shot with dramatic irony.
Macbeth’s words “so foul and fair a day I have not seen” echo the words of the witches, “Fair is foul and foul is fair”. This suggests a spiritual kinship between Macbeth and witches Macbeth does not know it but the audience know.
There is indeed deep irony when Duncan invites himself to Macbeth’s Castle. He unconsciously chooses the path that leads to his disaster. The mocking fate plays an impish trick on man. Both Duncan and Banquo are attracted by the calm beauty of the castle, they are full of praise for it. They do not know that death lurks there. So the words of praise have one meaning for them, and another for the audience. The contrast between appearance and reality makes the situation grim and terrible.
The porter scene, the Banquet scene, the sleep-walking scene are shot with dramatic irony. 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”.
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’.