Dramatic Irony: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

Dramatic irony has the power to make us laugh, cry, or (sometimes) do both at the same time. In this lesson, we'll explore the comedic and tragic uses of dramatic irony, using examples from Shakespearean comedy and Ancient Greek tragedy.

Definition: What Is Dramatic Irony?

Imagine you're having lunch with a friend. After the meal, your friend stands up, and you notice that there's ketchup all over the front of his pants. Your friend doesn't notice the ketchup stain, and you don't say anything about it. You tell yourself he'll notice it eventually.

Now, imagine that you spend the rest of afternoon walking around town with your friend. He gets all kind of strange looks, but he doesn't understand why. At this point you're too embarrassed to tell him about the giant ketchup stain on his pants. You say goodbye to your friend a bit later, and he walks off, still oblivious to why people are looking at him in such a funny way.

Everyone has been in an awkward situation like this one. You know something that someone doesn't know and, for whatever reason, you're unable to tell them. You may not even be aware of it, but you've experienced one of the most powerful literary devices in existence.

This literary device is called dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the reader has (usually important) information that a character doesn't have.

Dramatic Irony in Comedy

Shakespeare's comedies are defined by dramatic irony. It's not unusual to find a wealth of clever disguises, cases of mistaken identity, and elaborate romantic 'switcheroos' all in the same play. One such play is A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is a chaotic story of love, deception, and magic that takes place in a mysterious forest.

One of the play's many plots deals with a pompous amateur actor named Bottom. A mischievous fairy named Puck casts a spell that gives Bottom the head of a donkey. Bottom, however, is completely unaware of his new head. As if that weren't bizarre enough, the fairy queen Titania is under a spell that makes her instantly fall in love with Bottom.

This plot is a fine example of dramatic irony because not one but two characters are oblivious to the strangeness of Bottom's appearance. The audience, however, is given plenty of chances to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. For example, when Titania asks Bottom what he'd like to eat, he delivers the following lines:

Truly, a peck of provender: I could munch your good
dry oats. Methinks I have a great desire to a bottle
of hay: good hay, sweet hay, hath no fellow.

Tragic Irony

Of course, dramatic irony doesn't always lead to silliness. In fact, one of the most famous examples of dramatic irony occurs in the Ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus the King. Because of the dark, serious nature of the play, this case of dramatic irony is often referred to as tragic irony.

Oedipus the King begins in media res (which literally means 'in the middle of things'). A plague has devastated the city of Thebes. King Oedipus waits for the return of his brother-in-law Creon, who was sent to ask the oracle at Delphi for advice. When Creon enters the scene, he explains that the plague will not be lifted until someone captures the murderer of Laius, the previous king. After hearing this, Oedipus vows to find the murderer, delivering the following speech:

Well, I will start afresh and once again
Make dark things clear. Right worthy the concern
Of Phoebus, worthy thine too, for the dead;
I also, as is meet, will lend my aid
To avenge this wrong to Thebes and to the god.
Not for some far-off kinsman, but myself,
Shall I expel this poison in the blood;
For whoso slew that king might have a mind
To strike me too with his assassin hand.
Therefore in righting him I serve myself.

So, where's the tragic irony in that? Don't worry - that will become clear in a few moments. First, we need a bit more background information. Since the play is based on a legend that would be familiar to Ancient Greeks, the original audience would already know about what happened before the play begins. For our purposes, let's summarize the play's backstory.

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