Irony in A Midsummer Night's Dream: Verbal, Dramatic & Situational

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

In William Shakespeare's play 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' the author tells a story of magic and love. We will explore how Shakespeare expressed his purpose through the use of irony: verbal, situational, and dramatic.

A Midsummer Night's Dream and Irony

Comedy is turned around in a delightful way only William Shakespeare could in his play A Midsummer Night's Dream. In this story, the author shows the marriage of Theseus to Hippolyta. There are many adventures involving love and intrigue complete with meddling fairies who stage their own play within the larger play.

Life doesn't always go as planned and sometimes the unexpected happens. When an author does the unexpected, they are using a specific literary device. This literary device is known as irony, when the opposite of what is expected happens. An author can use irony to shock or startle the reader, to bring the reader's focus to some important event, or to cause the reader to consider some accepted part of life differently. A master of the craft, Shakespeare weaves in irony to provide the reader with a much more rich and much more interesting story.We will now turn to the specific types of irony - verbal, situational, and dramatic - first creating a grounding with their meaning prior to reviewing examples from the play.

Verbal Irony

The first form of irony we will explore in A Midsummer Night's Dream is verbal irony, when the narrator or a character says one thing but means the opposite. Another name for verbal irony is sarcasm. For instance, if it is storming outside and a wet and uncomfortable person were to exclaim, 'what lovely weather we are having,' that person would be displaying verbal irony.

Turning to the book, Shakespeare provides many examples of irony, but we will only examine a few examples of verbal irony in Act I. 'Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword and won thy love doing thee injuries.' Usually giving someone an injury does not endure them to you, so we figure Theseus did not mean bodily harm. Also, there are also the innuendos implying a different sort of action, much more physical, that won her over.

In another example, Bottom says 'but I will aggravate my / voice so that I will roar you as gently as any / sucking dove' (I.ii.78-80). In this instance, the character says aggravate, but instead means to calm his voice so as to speak softly like a young dove.

Two lovers meet surrounded by fairies.

Situational Irony

Next, we have situational irony, or when events are opposite to how they were intended or supposed to be. There are certain expectations we have based on customs or culture. Other expectations are based on stories or story types, for instance a death in a tragedy and a marriage in a comedy. When these expectations are not followed, the reader and characters feel disjointed - all according to the author's plan.

In the play, Shakespeare creates several situationally ironic moments. 'The more I hate, the more he follows me.' This is ironic because usually hate pushes people away, not attract them. The play starts out with two men pursuing Hermia, so the audience would never expect both men to begin pursuing Helena, the exact opposite woman, by the end. Additionally, Titania gives Oberon the foundling Indian boy because she has fallen in love with Bottom, a man who has a donkey's head. This is ironic because she pursued the disfigured man instead of the beautiful boy.

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