Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something the characters do not. Because of this understanding, the words of the characters take on a different meaning. This can create intense suspense or humor.
Examples of Dramatic Irony
- Two people are engaged to be married but the audience knows that the man is planning to run away with another woman.
- In a scary movie, the character walks into a house and the audience knows the killer is in the house.
- Sometimes a person is in disguise and the other character talks with him as if he is someone else. Since this is known by the audience, it adds to the humor of the dialogue.
- In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo thinks Juliet is dead and the audience knows she is not.
- In A Doll’s House, the audience knows Nora borrowed money forging her father’s signature and her husband is unaware. We also know Nora’s husband thinks of her as a doll and Nora is unaware.
- In Hamlet, we are aware that Hamlet knows the truth about his father’s murder and that Hamlet is not mad.
- In King Lear, we know that Lear’s most loyal daughter is Corelia and he can’t see it.
- In Star Wars, Luke does not know Darth Vader is his father until Episode V, but the audience knows sooner.
- In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the audience knows that Macbeth acts loyal to Duncan while planning his murder.
- In Smallville, Clark comments that in the future he does not want to put on a suit and fly around and the audience knows he will.
- In There's Something About Mary, the audience knows that Ted is being interrogated about a murder and Ted thinks he is being arrested for picking up a hitchhiker. His words are funny because of his misunderstanding.
- In the Doctor Who 2012 Christmas Special, the audience immediately recognizes Clara but the Doctor does not.
- In Toy Story, the toys move when the people are not there. Also, Buzz thinks he is a real space ranger.
- InGroundhog Day, the audience and Phil know that Groundhog Day is repeating but the other people do not know this.
- Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad is a DEA agent looking for crystal-meth producer "Heisenberg”. We know that "Heisenberg" is Schrader’s brother-in-law, Walter White.
Dramatic Irony in Hitchcock Films
Alfred Hitchcock said of dramatic irony:
“The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!'"
- The shower scene in Psycho starts out with the character not hearing the killer because the water is running, but the audience knows he is there.
- In The Birds, Melanie is smoking and children are singing, but soon the number of birds increases dramatically.
- In Rebbecca, the character felt everyone was comparing her to her husband’s first wife, Rebbecca. The husband’s actions came from self-hatred because he killed her and not because he loved Rebbecca.
- In Rope, the audience sees the murder at the beginning of the movie. This fact adds to the humor in this movie in an ironic way.
For more examples of irony, check out Examples of Irony.
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Dramatic Irony Examples
By YourDictionaryDramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something the characters do not. Because of this understanding, the words of the characters take on a different meaning. This can create intense suspense or humor.
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Articulating a simple irony definition can be daunting. It’s a large concept, but irony can be broken down into three central categories. We’ll define each of these three main types of irony, and provide examples from plays, short stories, essays and poems.
Definition: There are three types of irony: verbal, situational and dramatic.
Verbal irony occurs when a speaker’s intention is the opposite of what he or she is saying. For example, a character stepping out into a hurricane and saying, “What nice weather we’re having!”
Situational irony occurs when the actual result of a situation is totally different from what you’d expect the result to be. Sitcoms often use situational irony. For example, a family spends a lot of time and money planning an elaborate surprise birthday party for their mother to show her how much they care. But it turns out, her birthday is next month, and none of them knew the correct date. She ends up fuming that no one cares enough to remember her birthday.
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows a key piece of information that a character in a play, movie or novel does not. This is the type of irony that makes us yell, “DON’T GO IN THERE!!” during a scary movie. Dramatic irony is huge in Shakespeare’s tragedies, most famously in Othello and Romeo and Juliet, both of which we’ll examine later.
Why Writers Use It: Irony inverts our expectations. It can create the unexpected twist at the end of a joke or a story that gets us laughing — or crying. Verbal irony tends to be funny; situational irony can be funny or tragic; and dramatic irony is often tragic.
Irony in Shakespeare and Literature
Dramatic Irony in Othello
Othello is one of the most heartrending tragedies ever written, and Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony is one of the reasons the play is so powerful to read and watch.
We know that the handkerchief used as proof of Desdemona’s infidelity was, in fact, stolen by Emilia at Iago’s behest. Desdemona was framed by Iago, and we know she is innocent. But we are powerless to stop Othello; he has resolved to murder his wife.
Iago, whom Othello considers a friend, has been plotting Othello’s demise for the duration of the play. Othello does not know that Iago is the one pulling the strings, but we do. We know he is the one who convinces Roderigo to kill Cassio, even as we watch him pretend to help Cassio after he is wounded. Only we see Iago kill Roderigo before he can reveal the truth. In this way, we are complicit with Iago’s misdeeds. We are the only witnesses, and yet we can do nothing.
Dramatic Irony in Romeo and Juliet
In the final act of this archetypal love story, Shakespeare employs dramatic irony to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
Friar Laurence sends a messenger to tell Romeo about Juliet’s plan to drug herself into deathlike coma. We watch in horror as the messenger fails to deliver this vital piece of information. And though we know that Juliet is not really dead, we see Romeo poison himself because he cannot live without her.
Verbal Irony in A Modest Proposal
Johnathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a classic example of verbal irony. He begins seemingly in earnest, discussing the sad state of destitute children:
[…] whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.
Seems reasonable enough. But things take a very ironic turn:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
Is Swift sincerely proposing that we eat children? No, but he has indeed inverted our expectations and written a wonderfully ironic essay.
Situational irony in The Gift of the Magi
In this short story by O. Henry, a wife sells her hair to buy her husband a watch chain, and her husband sells his watch to buy her combs for her hair. Both have made sacrifices in order to buy gifts for one another, but in the end, the gifts are useless. The real gift is how much they are willing to give up to show their love for one another.
Situational irony in “Messy Room” by Shel Silverstein
Whosever room this is should be ashamed!
His underwear is hanging on the lamp.
His raincoat is there in the overstuffed chair,
And the chair is becoming quite mucky and damp.
His workbook is wedged in the window,
His sweater’s been thrown on the floor.
His scarf and one ski are beneath the TV,
And his pants have been carelessly hung on the door.
His books are all jammed in the closet,
His vest has been left in the hall.
A lizard named Ed is asleep in his bed,
And his smelly old sock has been stuck to the wall.
Whosever room this is should be ashamed!
Donald or Robert or Willie or–
Huh? You say it’s mine? Oh, dear,
I knew it looked familiar!
The speaker criticizes the room’s owner at length, only to discover that the room is his own.
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