Dramatic Irony in Antigone

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

Do you ever feel the need to yell at your TV or the characters in a book because they are making all the wrong choices? If so, you may be experiencing dramatic irony. In this lesson, we will analyze the dramatic irony in the play ''Antigone''.

Isn't It Ironic? Wait, They Have No Idea...

It's hard to watch your friends or family make poor choices. It's even worse if you're the only person who sees the destruction that lies ahead. The literary device of dramatic irony aligns with the idea of the observer being able to see things that others can't.

Most people are familiar with the term irony, but the term dramatic irony takes the literary device a step further. Dramatic irony is when irony is present in a situation on stage, but the characters are unaware of the ironic moment; the audience knows something the characters don't. This disconnect between the audience's knowledge and the characters' lack of knowledge creates tension, suspense, and humor. Let's take a look at dramatic irony in the play Antigone by Sophocles, and see how this lack of knowledge shapes the work as a whole.

Antigone Background

In the city-state of Thebes, two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, fought to the death for the throne. Unfortunately, both brothers died, leaving their two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, to fend for themselves. Their uncle Creon took power, and declared Polyneices a traitor for fighting against Thebes. He ordered that Polyneices' body shall not have a proper burial, and anyone who buries the body will be punished by death. Antigone is furious when she hears this law and decides to bury the body anyway. This conflict is the foundation of dramatic irony in the play.

Let's take a look at the text to figure out what we, the audience, can see that the characters on stage cannot.

Dramatic Irony in Antigone

There are a few moments in this play that fall under the category of dramatic irony. The first stems from the fact that in Scene 1, Creon is decreeing that Polyneices' body shall not be buried as he addresses his people, but the audience already knows that Antigone has gone to bury her brother. This moment creates suspense and tension, leaving the audience left to wonder when the truth will come out.

The second moment of dramatic irony stems from the conversation between Creon and the Sentry. Creon assumes that the person who buried the body must have been paid to do so because he feels no one would welcome their death without a price, but the audience knows Antigone was the culprit. Antigone tells Ismene that burying Polyneices' body is an honorable way to die because she is staying true to her family and her culture. Creon is shocked to hear Antigone, a woman and a family member, has broken the law. This brings more tension to the play because Creon's pride is beginning to inflate, and it shows he does not know his city (or his family) as well as he thinks he does. This tension will build until Creon's flaw, his pride, brings him to his knees at the end.

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