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Dramatic Irony

From The tragedy of Macbeth. Ed. A. W. Verity.

One of the most effective of dramatic devices is the use of "irony." The essential idea of "irony" is double dealing, as when some speech has a double meaning -- the obvious one which all perceive -- and the cryptic which only certain of the hearers understand. And "irony" of fate or circumstances is a sort of double dealing by which Destiny substitutes for what we might expect just the opposite, the unexpected, thing.

This "irony" of the broader kind informs Macbeth's later relations (iv. i) with the Witches, in that through them revelations are made from which he anticipates certain results, whereas it happens that precisely the opposite results accrue to him.

But understood in the more limited sense in which "irony" is used as a dramatic term, it may be said, roughly, to lie in the difference between the facts as known to the audience and as imagined by the characters of the play or by some of them. Macbeth is remarkable beyond any other of Shakespeare's plays for the frequency and power of its tragic "irony."

Numerous instances, which it were needless to recapitulate, have been mentioned in the notes, and the reader will have observed others. "The entire atmosphere of Macbeth" (it has been well said), "as of no other tragedy, is oppressive with the sense of something subtly malignant as well as inexorably revengeful in the forces that rule the world; of a tragic irony in the ultimate scheme of things."

But leaving Macbeth we will illustrate Shakespearean "irony" from two or three of the most familiar plays. Thus in Henry V, II. 2. 12-69 the situation is pregnant with "irony" because the audience know (6, 7) that the conspiracy has been revealed to Henry, while the conspirators imagine that it is still a secret. Hence for the audience Henry's bearing, and many of his remarks, have a significance which is quite lost upon the conspirators themselves, who on their part are unconscious that their hollow protestations of loyalty are being estimated at their true value. The incident of the pardon (39 60) is introduced we may remember that it has no parallel in Holinshed's account -- entirely for the sake of the "irony."

The conspirators urge Henry to be stern, and the audience know how their pleading will recoil upon themselves (79-83). This is "irony" of situation. It often takes the form of attributing to a character a bold, self-confident tone just when he is, as the audience know, on the brink of some catastrophe, as the conspirators are. Thus in Richard II. The king, in spite of his reverses, gives vent (III. 2. 54-62) to triumphant confidence in his cause just when he is about to know what the audience know already, and feel that he must shortly know, viz. that the Welsh army on which his hope rests (cf. 76, 77) has dispersed. For similar "irony" of situation cf. Julius Caesar, III. i, where Caesar is made to use the most exalted language about himself when we know that he is on the very edge of destruction.

Often the "irony" is verbal, the dramatist putting into the mouth of a character remarks which the audience, with their fuller knowledge of the facts, can interpret in two ways, while the speaker himself (or his fellow-characters) is quite unconscious of any secondary point in his words. In a tragedy this verbal irony, which is specially associated with the Sophoclean drama, frequently takes the form of "innocent phrases covering sinister depths of meaning." In comedy it is effectively provocative of mirth. Thus in Twelfth Night the humour and interest of the scenes in which Viola is with Olivia and Orsino turn largely upon the fact that they do not know her to be a girl, while the audience do. Shakespeare purposely makes Olivia and Orsino say things which have for the audience a point whereof the speaker is quite unconscious. In the same way many of Viola's remarks (cf. in. i. 169 172) contain veiled allusions to her sex which the audience perceive at once, whereas Olivia or Orsino sees no allusion at all.

The same effect is gained in As You Like It through the same cause, viz. Rosalind's disguise. No more perfect specimen of verbal "irony" could be instanced than the dialogue at the end of the scene (iv. 3) where Rosalind, disguised as a youth, faints at the sight of the blood-stained handkerchief and Oliver lightly chides the "youth" for being so womanly:
"Oliver. Be of good cheer, youth: you a man! you lack a man's heart .
Rosalind. I do so. I confess it. Ah, sirrah, a body would think
this was well counterfeited! I pray you, tell your brother how well I counterfeited. Heigh-ho!

Oliver. This was not counterfeit: there is too great testimony in
your complexion, that it was a passion of earnest.
Rosalind. Counterfeit, I assure you.
Oliver. Well then, take a good heart, and counterfeit to be a man.
Rosalind. So I do: but, i' faith , I should have been a woman by right."
Often, of course, "irony" of situation and of remark are united. Greek tragedy is full of "irony," especially verbal "irony." Indeed, it compensated to some extent for the lack of freshness in the themes treated. The chief themes of Greek tragedy were drawn from those great cycles of Hellenic myth and story which were common property, so that the audience knew from the outset what would be the course and issue of a play 1. Verbal "irony," therefore, was made a partial substitute for the absence of the element of surprise and novelty. This is especially the case in the dramas of Sophocles 2. It is one of the classical features of the most perfect piece of classicism in the English language Milton's Samson Agonistes. As in Greek tragedy a character will let fall some seemingly casual remark which exactly describes (as the audience see) the doom that awaits him, so Samson foreshadows his own and his enemies' end literally when he says (1265-1267):
"Yet so it may fall out, because their end
Is hate, not help to me, it may with mine
Draw their own ruin who attempt the deed."
For the words draw and ruin (Lat. ruina, 'falling') literally describe the catastrophe which the audience know to be approaching (i.e. the fall of the roof). And other illustrations from Samson Agonistes might be given.


1. Shakespeare dramatising history was to some extent in the same position as Aeschylus or Sophocles dramatising well-known legends.

2. The locus classicus on "The Irony of Sophocles" is Bishop Thirlwall's essay, originally printed in the Philological Museum.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Ed. A. W. Verity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1901. Shakespeare Online. 23 Aug. 2013. < >.


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