Irony in Macbeth

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  • 0:03 Irony in Literature
  • 0:45 Dramatic Irony
  • 3:19 Situational Irony
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Mallett Smith

Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.

This lesson shows examples of both situational and dramatic irony in William Shakespeare's 'Macbeth.' Readers tend to understand Lady Macbeth and Macbeth thanks to dramatic irony, and the suspense of the work is heightened by the use of situational irony.

Irony in Literature

We are all too familiar with the concept of irony; it is in many of our popular television shows. The television show Breaking Bad is full of irony. We know that Hank, a DEA agent, is actually looking for his brother-in-law when he tries to find the source of drugs; he has no idea that his brother-in-law, Walter White, is the brains of the whole operation.

The audience's knowledge of this, despite the ignorance of one of our main characters, draws us in and leaves us feeling anxious for a resolution. Similarly, William Shakespeare's Macbeth uses irony as a way to develop the characters' situations and add suspense to the plot. Let's take a look at how this is achieved.

Dramatic Irony

The example described in the introduction is an example of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a type of irony where the audience is aware of something that some of the characters in the story are unaware of. The situation surrounding Duncan's death, Lady Macbeth's guilt, and Macbeth's insanity are all examples of dramatic irony because we have witnessed Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plan out and commit the act of murder.

Duncan Thanks Lady Macbeth

After Macbeth and Banquo have visited the witches, Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth about the prophesy that he will be king one day. Lady Macbeth immediately starts plotting and tries to convince Macbeth that he needs to kill King Duncan so that Macbeth can be crowned king. Macbeth initially refuses and states that he will speak with her later.

We know that Lady Macbeth is motivated to murder the king. When King Duncan arrives, he says: 'See, see, our honoured hostess! The love that follows us sometime is our trouble, which still we thank as love. Herein I teach you how you shall bid God 'ield us for your pains, and thank us for your trouble.' This is ironic because King Duncan is apologizing for intruding on the home of his dear friends.

We know, however, that he is not intruding because if he had not come to stay at their home, Macbeth would not be able to murder him as easily; Lady Macbeth's plan would not work. In essence, Duncan is thanking Lady Macbeth for providing him a lovely place to be murdered in.

Lady Macbeth's Guilt

One of the most famous lines of the play is one of Lady Macbeth's lines: 'Out, damned spot; out, I say.' Lady Macbeth's doctor and a gentlewoman who waits on Lady Macbeth are watching her try to wash her hands. They dismiss this as madness because her husband has also been behaving erratically. We know, though, that she is trying to wash her hands of the crimes that she has been a part of, specifically the death of King Duncan.

Macbeth's Insanity

When Banquo's ghost comes to visit the dinner table at the Macbeth home, we are able to see him, but the other characters, besides Macbeth, cannot. We know that Macbeth has murdered his friend and that his friend is now haunting him. We understand why Macbeth is shouting at the chair at the dinner table because we can see Banquo sitting there.

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